Thursday, March 31, 2011

Illustrating the Point, Badly

I keep telling myself, say what you will about me, at least I'm not really a book collector. I realize how laughable that would sound to my husband, or to anyone who might ever have seen the fire-hazard that is my library. I own a lot of books. Not the same thing though, I would insist, as collecting. To begin with, there's very little sense to the way I buy books, let alone a plan. I simply buy what I want to read. That is not the behavior of a true collector, who may or may not ever read the books they collect. Some people collect books for their market value, as an investment -- though it's hardly a wise one, considering the instability of literary reputations, the most infamous example being Galsworthy. Quite a market for Galsworthy first editions at one time, and then there wasn't. But even if one were to collect just what has proven to be rare and consistently valued, the pleasure of books, most books for most readers, is in the reading, and I for one would be terrified to handle anything too valuable as I might my own books, for fear of sneezing into it, or dropping hot chocolate on it, or going to sleep on top of my First Folio Shakespeare one night and waking up the next morning with the ruins under my pillow. While I care for my books and dislike anyone who doesn't, I can not imagine curating my library, or having a library that requires curation, anymore than a liking for flowers is the same thing as raising orchids.

Take Shakespeare then as my first example. To get to my very good if by no means terribly attractive set of the individual Shakespeare plays, just now, I would not only have to squeeze between two very full bookcases, but also climb across a whole collection of Modern Library books and the overflow from the biography case that litters the floor. "It is no act of common passage, but a strain," worth doing I might add, if I want to read Cymbeline, but not if I just want to find that quote (Act III, Scene IV.) Which is why I keep my one volume Oxford edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare -- very nice and easier to consult -- right on my desk. Problem solved. This, I will insist, does not make me a collector of Shakespeare, just lazy. So while I own more than one edition of Shakespeare, for reasons I hope I've just explained, I am not interested in collecting Shakespeare in multiple editions. Likewise, while I may own a certain novel by Defoe in a Modern Library edition, and a a little Konemann hardcover, and a lovely old illustrated copy, that isn't the same thing as collecting Defoe. I like the sturdy Modern Library books, in the versions they published with the uniform design and dustjackets until just a few years ago, because the books are handsome as a set, and because they were inexpensive but well made; suited to bus travel and easy to read in even weak light. The now sadly discontinued Konemann classics are equally attractive, and tough, but also small enough to fit in a pocket, and hence best suited to a walkabout. I love legible hardcover books small enough to fit in one's pocket for just that reason. That, and little books are adorable, like small children and dogs. As for the illustrated copy from the 1930s, well, that one was just too pretty, and cheap, not to buy. Illustration and book design have a charm of their own, to which I am not immune. That's the difference, between a dissolute reader and buyer of cheap books like me and a real collector, see? I don't actually own
many valuable books. Couldn't afford to if I wanted to. I may like a particular title or author enough to own more than one book in more than one edition, in different sizes and so on, but I feel no obligation to specialize, nor do I value a book more, in most cases, for being "a first." (The few that I do, like my Beerbohms, I treasure more because there usually wasn't a second edition.) A genuine collector is a specialist, usually, in either a period or an author or a subject. A real collector of modern literature collects, if he or she can afford to, only true, modern firsts. A real collector of Shakespeare, or less grandly of Dickens, or Trollope for that matter, lives for variant and rare editions beyond first printings of first editions; fine bindings, autographed and or presentation copies, books that were owned by other famous writers, variant texts, editions illustrated by various hands. I simply own a lot of books. Perfectly clear, no?

The nearest I come to real collecting, I suppose, is with Dickens. I do own no less than three sets, as well as a few stray volumes. I've reviewed the virtues of these here before. But even with Dickens, I can be tempted still. When I recently reread Hard Times for the first time since I was a kid, I took the stout, if ugly little Oxford with me to lunch, and read the big handsome Nonesuch each night in bed. Before I'd even finished reading that novel though, I saw a rather anonymous brown volume, of The Old Curiosity Shop, another of Dickens' books I'd never reread, saw it in the used bookstore I frequent most often, and opening the book for no good reason, discovered that it contained the truly superior illustrations of Charles Green.

The original illustrations for this book were drawn by Dickens' most frequent collaborator, Hablot Knight Browne, or "Phiz," with the assistance of George Cattermole, who specialized in architecture and interiors, but also drew the characters. Anyone who loves Dickens, must also love Phiz, a name Browne adopted to compliment "Boz," the name Dickens adopted for his early sketches. Theirs was a happy meeting, and a most successful partnership for ten books and the better part of a quarter of a century. Much that one thinks of as being most Dickensian in the books, might just as rightly be described as being Phizical, to coin a word, as the equally detailed drawings are full of sly jokes and brilliant comment on character and setting, not always described in the text; portraits tend to peer or purse their lips, spiders work their webs in the corner of a lawyer's office, the barrels behind the barkeep share his exact proportions, etc. Boz & Phiz parted ways when Dickens did not approve of the work the illustrator did for Dombey & Son. Thereafter, I believe, Dickens hired by the story or the book. None of the work of Dickens' other illustrators, not even that of the great George Cruikshank, fit quite so perfectly into Dickens' books.

But these pictures by Charles Green, who worked on Chapman and Hall's Gadshill Edition of the works, published in 1898, long after Dickens' death in 1870, are simply beautiful. So beautiful in fact, as reproduced in this inexpensive edition of The Old Curiosity Shop, in America, as part of "The Rittenhouse Classics," that I simply had to spend the eight dollars it cost me to buy the book. Now I'm rereading this book, in this edition, in part at least to appreciate these masterful illustrations. The Mr. Quilp by Phiz that glowers at the top of this, like the Cattermole illustrations throughout the original, shows the perfect little demon as he appears in the text; malevolent, impish, almost animal. The character as drawn by Charles Green, I think, in making him no less violent or ugly, but more recognizably human, does better justice to Dickens' villain, who after all, like Shakespeare's Richard III, may be presumed to reflect in his hatred of the world something of the cruelty occasioned by his deformity. Green's is the more subtle reading, and better for it.

And then there is just the richness of Charles Green's deep black, the grain in the wood, the shadows in the folds, the animation in every scene. Even Nell, remembered as more doll than child by generations of later readers, however beloved by the Victorians, may owe something of her reputation for dumb prettiness to Cattermole's stiff little Miss, whereas by Green's pen she has a full range of expression, just as, rather surprisingly, she does in the text of the novel, which I suspect very few people may have read recently, for fear of of just that sentimental rigidity suspected from the original pictures.

Just to prove that I am not a true collector of Dickens and his illustrators though, I would also mention the Heritage Press editions of Dickens that we've had across the Buying Desk with some regularity. These are handsome big books, all in slipcases, and attractively made according to the standard set by George Macy, the founder of the Press. The idea of The Heritage Press was to offer attractive editions of the classics, with new illustration, at a more affordable price than those produced for his higher end Limited Editions Club. Sadly though, as with many if not most of the books produced by Mr. Macy's enterprise from the nineteen-thirties until their end in the seventies and eighties, the selection of illustrators is often unhappy, and never more so than with the Heritage Dickens.

Little Dorrit, for example, in the Heritage from 1956, was illustrated by Mimi Korach, known now if at all for her work otherwise exclusively on children's books. Her illustrations of Dickens dark later novel are all done in an insipid style, more appropriate to children's picture books, and made even less attractive by the repetition of a sickly pink wash, popular at the time, and the exact color of Beeman's gum.

Better by far are the pictures from the Heritage edition of 1957 of Dombey and Son, by Henry C. Pitz, though again, the insistence on color, in this case some quite muddy greens and browns on nearly every plate, makes the whole rather more murky than needs be. Pitz did better with the black and white spot illustrations, clearly influenced, as are the plates for that matter, by Rackham, but with little or none of that masterful artist's whimsicality or restraint. What's worse, for reasons that must remain inexplicable to any regular reader of Dickens, Pitz chooses to never draw either the most famous scenes in the book, or it's most pictorial characters, including not even one drawing of Captain Edward Cuttle, among the most beloved of Dickens' grand grotesques! Taken as independent of the text, Pitz's work might just as easily fit into a novel by Wharton, or far worse and more likely, by John P. Marquand.

Only the earliest of the Heritage Press Dickens that I've seen, the 1940 Nicholas Nickleby, with illustrations by Steven Spurrier, comes close to the satisfactions of Phiz. Spurrier's "Mr. Mantalini," loosely crosshatched, spotted with pastels, looks the proper entertainer, and Spurrier is even better with the crowded groups in the theater and elsewhere. His drawings are packed with wild activity, loosely and happily drawn, and with a background of wonderfully fast faces, all round and pink, the features often no more than a dot a dash and a line, but quite expressive. Still, much of the individual character of the characters in the more detailed drawings is lost under such a rapid, cartoonish hand.

What should be the worst of the Heritage books though, when judged just as illustration to Dickens, is done by John Austen. His thin style might best be suited to lighter fair, though one might assume he saw himself drawing for that other Austen rather than Dickens. But John Austen is too slapdash altogether for such perfectly constructed prose as Jane's. That this artist should have been assigned David Copperfield, of all things! Here are some of Dickens best known and most beloved characters as drawn by someone who would seem never to have read a word of the book, given so much as a thought to the costume of the period, or felt the slightest need of anatomy. Take Austen's picture of Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick, stiff as tombstones, she in an Empire shift, and he in an indistinctly drawn cutaway, the weirdly penitent little David, out of all proportion, bowed down before them -- and this, as in every scene pictured -- all done in light pastel colors and thin, spidery lines! Worst of all, Wilkins Micawber in unforgivably loose trousers, his dear, round head, and proud, silly, sentimental, face, here reduced to an expressionless newel, a mere nob on a badly dressed dummy! Just awful.

Finally, what is actually worse in a way, is very bad work from a much more talented artist, Lynd Ward. Recently, the Library of America reprinted in two volumes, to considerable fanfare, the pictorial, wordless novels of this artist. The case was made, in more reviews than one, that with these Ward anticipated what is now known as the "graphic novel" by decades. Those books are startlingly inventive and complex works. All the more reason to be shocked by the complete failure of his illustrations for the one work by Charles Dickens to which Ward's unique gifts might have been thought best suited, Our Mutual Friend. Perhaps the darkest of Dickens' books, other than the unfinished Drood, the opportunity for an artist of Ward's caliber, known for his imaginative use of thick blacks, and startling whites, for grotesque distortions and asymmetries within the frame, working with this material, Ward's illustration might have been exceptional. And yet, the result is more than disappointing. The plates are rigidly framed and badly drawn, rather than intentionally distorted in any way. Like some amateurish imitation of the most monumental, overblown work of Käthe Kollwitz, wholly inappropriate to the text, Ward plants each characterless character like a dock post in a field of motionless green mud. In a novel that moves on water, Ward never shows so much as a trickle of movement. The final effect is to suggest a book so dull as to be dead, when in truth this is true only of the pictures. A Complete failure.

As I've already wandered so far from my point, perhaps I'd better just restate it. I am not a collector. The Heritage Press Dickens, I feel, proves this. At least I don't feel the need to own books with ugly pictures. See?

Daily Dose

From The Satyricon, by Petronius, translated by William Arrowsmith


"There is little point in expecting much of your own projects, when Fate has projects of her own."

From VI Giton, Ascyltus, and I Again

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Clerihew of Late Works


The late, great Saul Bellow
Did not so much mellow
As gradually reduce
As he stewed in his own juice.

Daily Dose

From The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler


"Perhaps it would have been nice to allow him another shot or two, just like a gentleman of the old school. But his gun was still up and I couldn't wait any longer."

From Chapter 29

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Defense of the Lay

Bought this book off the remainders table today. I'd walked past it for days. That first word in the title,Essays, naturally caught my eye every time I passed, but the rest of it, in Context let me know I probably wouldn't like it, as did the size of the thing, as did the double editors. Two editors, for a book of essays? That suggests a survey rather than a selection. I'd never heard of either, Sandra Fehl Tropp or Ann Pierson D'Angelo, but those tripled monikers also gave off the distinct odor of stacked erasers, as did the weight of the book and the minimal design. Before I'd turned the thing over to see that both editors teach at Boston University, or did at least when the book was published ten years ago, or even opened the thing, everything about its exterior told me that this was a textbook. I don't much like textbooks. But, once I did open the book so far as the table of contents, there were things in it that I rather wanted to read, and as the price was ridiculously small for so big a book, I bought it.

Already in my library there are a few such books, though all of them are considerably older and slimmer than this new one. There are at least a of couple books, including an edition of Addison & Steele, in "student editions" from roughly the turn of the last Century. These tend to have scholarly introductions of some length, notes, and even a few questions for the reader's consideration at the back. The format of Essays in Context is like this, only more so. After a "Thematic Table of Contents," there follows, a Preface, Credits, an Introduction, another piece called "How to Read These Essays", and a "Contextual Timeline", and all of that before the biographical essays that introduce each of the selected essays, each of which is then followed by "Understanding and Analysis," and "Comparison." The Great English Essayists, from 1909, also edited by two scholars I do not know, is part of something called, "The Reader's Library," and it probably comes the closest to being what this new book intends, though at only some 350 smallish pages with a large, clear print, the older book can not be said to cover anywhere near the ground of the new textbook of twice that size, in a much smaller and more difficult type, at least for my aging eyes.

Guess which book I liked better?

I don't intend to bore the reader with point by point comparisons of the two books. The great virtue of the new textbook is obviously its inclusiveness, the older title being limited to just the English, without a woman or a person of color to be found in it. I'm glad I bought the new textbook and had the opportunity to read some essays I might never have found otherwise. The older book, I will be keeping in my library. I only bring either book up to suggest the difference in the style of pedagogy, from the turn of one Century to the next, and to provide, as it were, a context for what follows.

I was excited to see Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer reviewed in The New York Review of Books recently (though sadly, I can't find a link to the review itself, so must refer any interested readers to the print edition, March 24, 2011/Volume LVIII, Number 5.) The review was written by Mark Lilla, a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. Bakewell's book is one of my recent favorites. I've recommended it to friends and to customers at the bookstore, and to my knowledge, to date, it has already sent at least half a dozen readers with whom I am acquainted either back or to Montaigne for the first time. Of this, Professor Lilla would approve. Like Bakewell, Professor Lilla wants more of us reading Montaigne. For the Professor though, how one reads Montaigne would seem to be every bit as important as the doing of it, and his review suggests that Bakewell has not done this properly, at least in so far as she has failed to insist, as the Professor does, that in order to do so one must first read Montaigne's Essays "slowly and straight through". The Professor does not suggest that Sarah Bakewell hasn't done this, only that she hasn't done so correctly. If she had, just by way of one example, she would obviously have reached the Professor's own conclusion as to the vital importance of the Christian context of everything Montaigne wrote, and Montaigne's subtle avoidance of addressing the Gospels directly, presumably to avoid being swept up in the deadly religious controversy of his day. Likewise, had Bakewell done her job as the Professor would have had her do it, she would have sent her readers not just to read Montaigne properly, "slowly and straight through," but on to read Pascal, naturally, as Pascal, according to the Professor, whom I have no reason to disbelieve, was "Montaigne's greatest reader and most formidable critic." So why didn't she?

Well, if I may presume, probably for the same reason that I never went on to read much of Pascal, despite having read Montaigne both incorrectly, essay by essay as my fancy took me, and even correctly, at least once, "slowly and straight through." Truth be told, I found very little sympathy with the little I read of Pascal. But then, I'm not a professor, or even a student of the esteemed Professor, but rather just a reader, a bookseller, and a life-long reader of Montaigne, and a fan of Bakewell's book. I have some excuse, I suppose. But then, by the good Professor's lights, as he is at pains to point out, so does Sarah Bakewell. Despite having authored two previous books of well reviewed history, she is only a "journalist." (Isn't it curious that the Professor, himself a regular contributor to the NYRB, should feel the need to label Bakewell in this way?)

Here then I think we have a representative example of what may have been my problem with reading that new textbook on the essay. I enjoyed reading nearly all that Professor Lilla had to say in his review, about Montaigne. I didn't necessarily agree with his conclusions, but I appreciated his perspective. I did not, as it turns out, need to know what he felt I should in order to read, and reread, and reread, Montaigne. That would be, among other things, for me at least, rather the point of Sarah Bakewell's excellent and amusing book. I don't mean to suggest that Professor Lilla does not understand or appreciate this, but it does seem to me at least that he does not approve of such doin's. What's needed, I would hazard from the Professor's review, in order to read Montaigne correctly, as he is meant to be read, and as Montaigne intended us to read the Essays, -- as the Professor seems to know since he does not hesitate to describe Montaigne's intentions as being other than what Montaigne actually wrote -- is the context the Professor provides and that the mere "journalist", Sarah Bakewell, not only did not, but denies the necessity of, as might Montaigne himself, were I to be so presumptuous as to speak for Montaigne. The argument then would seem to be less about how one reads Montaigne, or any book, any essay, or even why, than it is about in what context Montaigne, or any book, anything, is read. For the Professor, both Montaigne's and the reader's context is all. What Montaigne wrote may never be enough, of itself. The reader likewise. Both require more in the way of contextual grounding, by someone presumably as academically qualified as the Professor, if either is to be thought of as anything more than embarrassingly frivolous. Only a proper exegesis, from a proper source, can justify reading the text. Bakewell's book denies this. So do I.

In their introduction to the chapter called "The Classic Essay" in The Great English Essayists, the editors describe the "aim" of Frances Bacon as being "akin to that of the preacher, only he selects lay topics" -- the italics are theirs -- and they go on to state that the essays by "the inheritors" of this tradition "vary little from sermons save in this, that they lack scriptural texts." The editors go on to say "The intention of Bacon's essays is to instruct; to this end they are made solemn with larges displays of scholarship, and have for theme some abstract subject (...) How much more generous was Montaigne's method, who took himself for the groundwork of his book -- himself, if need be, in his nakedness!" The Professor denies Montaigne his nakedness, insisting that this is but a literary affectation, a sly strategy to avoid the stake. Sarah Bakewell celebrates what the Professor would deny. To my reading of his review, Professor Lilla would have Montaigne be more Bacon than Bakewell, or Montaigne himself, would have him be. The Professor makes an excellent, if for me unconvincing case for Montaigne's Essays as lay sermons. I would be interested to read anything else Professor Lilla may have to write on Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell, on the other hand, makes me want to read Montaigne again.

Who then is the better introduction to Montaigne? Who do you think Montaigne might have liked better?

As for the brick I picked up from the remainder table, I can not imagine a second edition, or any student forced to read it, ever willingly reading another essay, let alone the whole of Montaigne, "slowly and straight through." Teachers, even the esteemed professors at Boston University, to say nothing of their tenured colleague at Columbia, would do well, I think, to remember the warning of the supreme essayist, and amateur scholar, Michel de Montaigne:

"In the education of children there is nothing like alluring the interest and affection; otherwise you only make so many asses laden with books."

Daily Dose

From The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene


"He whispered wearily, 'Drink is only the beginning...'"

From Part 3, Chapter 1

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cozy Clerihew


It isn't hard
For Catherine Aird
To see the murderous rage that resides
In even the hearts of truest Girl Guides.

Daily Dose

From The Making of a Marchioness, by Frances Hodgson Burnett


"'She's the kind of woman ideas sink into if they are well put,' she had remarked in times gone by. 'She's not sharp enough to see that things are being suggested to her, but a suggestion acts upon her delightfully.'"

From Chapter Nine

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Collected Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley


"For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also in the end of it."

From Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Shining Hour

When I was still writing elsewhere, at work and as, I tried to be mindful of keeping to some point, usually to do with some occasion to be marked in the bookstore, even if it was just the usual holidays, or some new promotion in which I may have had a hand. I reviewed a book or two, new or not, and talked up old favorites now and then, and while books were my topic, I allowed for the unexpected incident or alteration of the weather, if need be, to start me off, but always with the thought that somehow, in a very brief space, I might find my way back to books and try to sell a few more by way of talking them up a bit online. I had a purpose then, you see, that I haven't here. Books are still the stuff from which my modest living is made, and the central concern of this modest enterprise, but as there's no one here to mind me and keep me on my subject -- whatever I happen to think that may be when I drop down each night at my desk -- as Montaigne said, "there is no mad or idle fancy" that I might not "bring forth in the agitation." Here, there's no one to please but me, and that can be a dangerous goal, as, often as not, having made a start at an entry or two of just a few stray notes, I may be best pleased on any given evening by retiring early to watch television next to my dozing husband. Nothing wrong with that, save that when I next stumble down to my desk, I may have no memory of what it was I had been meaning to write about the night before. The bit of this blog that no one sees but me is littered with incomplete thoughts, some of them now quite mystifying. These notes and squibs -- for most are no more than that, and seldom are they even in complete sentences -- are here dignified, one and all, as "drafts." Too kind. Just by way of example, what to make of this, from January of this year?

"smoking in the alley -- 'There is no darkness but ignorance' -- look up Bessie Smith song"

Well now. That first item was no doubt meant to provide the setting for some anecdote now lost to memory. Happening as it does, to my shame, every day, if no more than once an hour -- I'm cutting back, I swear -- so common an occurrence, in such naked absence of detail, can hardly be counted on to trigger any telling incident now. Who knows what may have happened that day in the alley, or what I meant to make of it later but failed to? As for the quote from Twelfth Night that came next, it's applications are too many to offer so much as clue. And dear ol' Bessie? What song was I humming in the alley, as I puffed away, and posited an essay on... no idea.

In my last entry here, even as I was on about what constitutes a happy hour at the buying desk, I see by the bits I'd originally entered under that heading in an earlier "draft," that what I'd intended was to contrast a good hour buying books for the bookstore with a good hour selling books on the sales-floor -- or so I must surmise from the collection of stray titles and one brief description of a charming customer that survived. As I have no more pressing business tonight, let me then pick up this lost thread and do what I can with it now. (There's no one to say but that I mightn't do better to go back and start again, but any fool can see how likely I am to carry through, considering how long it took me last night to say even the little I did on what was after all but half of my subject, so best leave that as it is and just get on with this. Consider the dithering tonight just to get me to this point!)

Should anyone be curious still, last night I explained, if that's the word for it, the fun, if indeed that is the right word come to that, to be had from keeping behind the counter and letting the books come to the buyer. The other aspect of my employment, the thing that we booksellers actually do with most of our day, if we are lucky enough nowadays to actually see customers coming through the door and up to us looking for assistance or suggestions, is hunt. Wouldn't think it, to look at most of us. Booksellers, taken in as a body, tend to be a rather physically unprepossessing species: sedentary creatures, most of us, myself being a most representative and stable example of the type, and while there are of course among us any number of healthier, outdoorsy sorts who bicycle to work and or take vacation in godly spots full of nature and majesty, more often we are somewhat pale, bespectacled, inactive folk. Encountered by new customers at the information counter in most bookstores, there would be little or nothing about the average clerk in a bookstore that might suggest an eagerness to be up and stirring. Perhaps it is a symptom of the decline in bookselling generally, or the wider economic malaise just now, but appearances to the contrary, anyone stepping into a bookstore these days should be prepared to be met with what must seem an uncharacteristic, even undignified eagerness to be of assistance. (We are just waiting for you, people. Come on in.) Actually, after more than a quarter of a century of clerking in the book business, I must defend the profession and say that this is not something new. True, there have always been and possibly will always be the bored, benighted jobbers to be found in any bookstore, for whom the customer is an unwelcome interruption of their reading. In my experience, the more famous and even venerable the shop, the worse the service traditionally was -- just here my memory drifts back to San Francisco and the hopelessly cool and unhelpful poet manqué inevitably throwing shade behind the high desk at one of the more frequently noted poetry shops on every tourist map. Can't imagine how such places survive, or such people continue employed. By and large, booksellers are chatty. Too polite to disturb the reader standing between the shelves, working his or her way through Ulysses for free, and disinclined to jump anyone as they come through the door, we booksellers will none the less respond with all the enthusiasm of an auctioneer to even the slightest nod or glance, if we think there may be a chance of a sale. An actual smile may bring as many as two or three clerks out of their conversation at the counter and tumbling out to help. Such, I admit, has not always been the experience of every customer. Sensitive souls, nearly one and all, the bookstore clerks I've known in my time, we will, it's true, fly from confrontation if given the opportunity. A wrathful countenance, a raised hand clutching an old receipt, the company of wailing infants, a loud and demanding voice raised from across the floor, and booksellers will scatter like so many rabbits in a thunderstorm. Experience also teaches that anyone in a wig not quite centered properly, anyone not altogether clean or quite right in their person, anyone familiar to staff as either a problem or a bore, as the approach is made to the information desk, and in all likelihood, though a moment ago there might have been as many as half a dozen people about wearing name-tags, said difficult individual will find on arrival only the youngest, most inexperienced clerk still standing, or perhaps the oldest, slowest of us, poor soul, left as a sacrifice for the survival of the herd. A cheery greeting though, and any hint of good manners, and booksellers will probably rush you.

What I'd intended to write about originally was a particularly pleasant hour, I now remember, spent at the Information Desk recently, an hour during which we were not only busy, but in which I had not a single phone-call demanding explanation of the failure of a five dollar signing ticket to guarantee "one on one time" with a visiting financial expert and television personality. In that shining hour I likewise was spared contact with even so much as one of our regular company of bums, bullies, duffers and nuts. That, let me just say, is unheard of in any urban retail establishment with central heating, an extensive collection of browsable magazines and clean toilets. But what made the hour truly special was not so much the absence of such obvious negatives, as the presence of so many delightful customers and the surprising ease with which, despite an ever increasingly more "selective" stock, shall we say, I was able to find just the books wanted, and to recommend a few besides. It was heaven.

One customer in particular, to whom I have already briefly alluded as being mentioned in my original notes, was an elderly gent with a list. This is not always a bad thing. Indeed, this fine fellow was very much a man after my own heart, as the very first book he asked for was James Thurber's The Years with Ross, a book I know well and which we happened to have in a nice, cheap used paperback that seemed to delight my new friend in every way. As if sent from above, just to make me happy and restore my full faith in the reading public, the very next item on his list, for which he hoped I wouldn't mind making some recommendation, was something he had been looking for in vain elsewhere, namely "a good life of Thomas Hardy." Comrade! We found three, all beautiful, used hardcover books. I recommended the admittedly rather daunting, if definitive, Martin Seymour-Smith. From my daily sales report of the next day, I saw that the gentleman eventually chose the less cumbersome, but no less respectable book by Claire Tomalin, also quite good. Finally he asked if we might have the new book by Susan Jacoby, author of an excellent earlier title on American anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason. Not only did we have her new book, Never Say Die, we had multiple autographed copies, as a result of a recent appearance, sponsored by the bookstore, of the author here in the city. The gentleman was impressed.

What made the hour shine though was not just this one delightful fellow, though he might have been enough to see me through an average day, or even a week, bless 'im. Miraculously, he was but the first in a long line of good people who came to the desk while I was there, all of them friendly, all of them looking for books, all of them only too happy to loose the pack and send us panting through thicket and plains, the scent of sales in our noses, the titles of books we knew to be in stock on the tips of our tongues. It was glorious!

If, as I said last night, the joy of buying used books is at least in large part in the anticipation of sales, it is when working out on the floor, and actually making sales, that the bookseller will find the greatest happiness, or so at least I've always found. It isn't just a matter of the prospect of money being made, though in these increasingly difficult economics times that is something always very much in mind, but to be able to make a sale and know that the books that are being sold are the books one hopes rather desperately to sell, because one knows them to be excellent of their kind, because a title is familiar, but not much sought anymore, because there is no happier moment than meeting a fellow enthusiast for Austen, or Hardy, or Christie, or Susan Jacoby, come to that, that is the best.

I will mention just one other transaction, and then I will let the subject rest for tonight. There was nothing so very wonderful about the book in this case, but the customers were jolly people, a couple, and delightfully happy to be helped not just by one, but by no less than four of us, as it took that many of us to piece together from the amusingly little information that our customers came in with, just what the book was called, who it was by, and if indeed we still had it. One clerk asked questions of the customers, another searched the computer, a third interjected the name of a fourth who might know and the last in fact did! All this baying and bouncing and barking back and forth, up and down stairs, and 'round and 'round, the blessed people who'd come up so shyly to ask us if we might remember what they couldn't quite, found as fun as we all did. When the book was finally treed and bagged, there was something like general jubilation. What's more, they actually bought the book!

If in my last I sounded rather more stiffly dignified than I actually am in even my most studied pose, I hope tonight I might have at last conveyed something of the pleasurable chaos that makes for the happiest hours working in a bookstore. Its really why we do it -- that and our general incapacity for other useful employment, though just here I may perhaps best speak for myself. As this will doubtless prove, I haven't a head for any more sustained intellectual effort. Most days, I can not even remember what I was saying, or why. At this one task though, selling books, I can now and then, shine.

Nothing better.

I think that's what I meant to say. If not, it will have to do.

Daily Dose

From The Storyteller, by Mario Vargas Llosa


"That's how after began, it seems."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Happy Hour

A good day, a good hour, at the Used Books Buying Desk? It's all about the books. In an hour's time, a lot of good books can come in, a whole lot, whole lots, come to that. For the buyer, a day's worth of good books can all come in in an hour, good used books. That means sound, clean copies of titles we may need, first and foremost: popular, new titles, also not quite new books with established followings in book clubs, and or solid critical reputations and sales, and new, full review copies -- meaning the finished book sold to us by reviewers, not "advanced readers copies" which we can't really sell and probably wouldn't if we could. Not only because these tend to be ugly, unfinished paperbacks, usually printed from uncorrected galleys, but as a bookstore that still sees publishers' reps, who give the frontlist buyers ARCs for the whole staff to read, not to sell, ethically, we won't go there. Besides, in my experience, other than a very few truly devoted collectors, nobody likes to pay for a book clearly never intended to be sold. Not worth the shelf-space. In a good hour's buying, hopefully, we may also see not a few interesting titles we may not have suspected needing until they come across the desk. Nothing too whimsical, nothing too hopelessly obscure or eccentrically bound, nothing so rare as to require gloves and a temperature-controlled-environment, as that sort of thing, however thrilling it may be to handle such books and look at them, that is not the business we are in, or that most used booksellers, most bookstores, are really meant to be doing. Sixteenth Century maps in Latin, rare early books, the private correspondence between geniuses, first editions of anything before, say, 1850, these are not the stuff of bookselling, but of specialists; antiquaries, auctioneers, the kind of dealer who sits behind Louis Quatorzième bureau, with nothing on it but a paperweight and a lamp, and waits. Bless them, but I do not have either the knowledge or the front for that business.

In a good hour at the Used Books Desk, we will pay a fair price for just the books that we think we can sell -- if only to me. The sellers will leave contented with either their cash or their credit, and credit is always better, and with all the books we did not buy, promising to return with more good books to sell us soon. As a used books buyer, it is not my responsibility to make the sellers, be they scouts, reviewers, reps, heirs or readers, happy. Experience in this, or any other kind of retail teaches one quickly enough that there are some sad, sorry souls who can never be made happy. My job is to buy books at a fair price. If I've offered to do that, and the offer failed to meet the seller's expectations, or was insufficient to pay the light bill, or was not worth the drive in from Issaquah, or took too long, in the seller's opinion, or not long enough, I'm genuinely sorry, but I've done my job. There is no haggling. There is no appeal to a higher authority. There is nothing for it, as a used books buyer, but to thank them for their time, and to wish them well. No one is required to sell their books to us, and we are not obligated to buy anyone's books, anymore then we are obligated to pay anyone what they feel the books to be worth, or anymore than they are obligated to accept our offer. So long as I know the bid was fair, I've done my job. We will explain the offer, to an extent, but our time is valuable as well, and if the explanation, or the bid is not enough, then we are done. There will be other books. There are other bookstores and other buyers. Godspeed. This, if the buyer is honorable, and most are, this is the best anyone should hope. Most of the time, nearly all the time in fact, this is enough. In a good hour, none of this will even factor. (It is hard not to remember the disputatious, the rudeness, the suspicion, but so long as we've been courteous and fair, while any such disagreement can spoil an otherwise satisfactory day, not even the worst interaction can really ruin the good hours, as there just is not time to dwell.)

In a good hour at the Used Books Buying Desk, we may have time, between buys, to actually clean and price some of the books we've just bought, if they are special somehow, but generally the books we will process first, good times and bad, are the books we bought longest ago. When we do clean and price books, in a timely fashion, and get them out to the floor so that they can be bought, that can be a good hour's work as well. Not quite as interesting as buying good books, but satisfying. In fact, when everybody working at the desk has the opportunity to really get going, to concentrate on processing books, specially as now when the bookstore's physical inventory is fast approaching, the more usual, commonplace kind of buying that happens every day, day in and day out, can actually feel like something of a distraction! We do tag a lot of books every day, where I work, and while the vast majority of the books we handle may not be, of themselves all that interesting, and while the processing of books is not an inherently interesting task, the data-entry alone being, at best, meditatively same, the business of the thing has its own fascination, for me at least, and for the people with whom I work almost every day. The books that we sell, even the books we hope to sell, when taken en masse, or when tracked by category, quantity, price, provide in a way, for the bookseller, unless he or she is just living off of an allowance or the family's investments, or unless the bookseller is a fool, far greater interest even than any individual title that may come across the desk. Oddly enough, for a business that seldom seems to attract individuals of a mathematical or a business cast of mind, it is the business of selling books, and not just the books themselves, that must ultimately provide the most consistent excitement. Otherwise, one is not a bookseller, but rather just a hobbyist willing to go broke, or at least face unemployment, with a really impressive collection of whatever it is one most covets in the way of books, waiting to be sold again, at no profit, when knocked down to some anonymous third party at an auction at the storage facility for which the rent has not been paid on time. Bookselling, new and used, is a mug's game for the true bibliophile, unless and until the day he or she learns to calculate percentages and read a sales report.

But the good hour at the desk, I'll say it just the once more, is really the hour spent buying good books. Without the confidence that that is what we are doing every day, and the numbers to back that confidence up, none of the rest matters at all. Do that, I still believe, and you're in business. Buy good books, as many as there are coming in, do it carefully, and to the satisfaction of one's employers, customers and sellers, and that's a good hour at the desk -- and hopefully, get at least some of what's already been bought processed and out onto the shelves, 'cause that's where the money is, remember, and everybody likes money. Doesn't have to be complicated. True, some good buys require more thought than others; more research, more money and risk, more time, but the hour spent with more interesting books, whether the books are bought or not, can still be an hour well spent. Keeps it entertaining. As do the conversations and the kibitzing and the emails and the hunting and, yes, even the arithmetic.

Truth be told, despite all that business about the occasional haggler or huffiness at the desk, most hours at the Used Books Desk, for me at least, are still happy hours. True, I don't really know at this point how to do much of anything else, so I may not be the best judge of just how much fun might be had in an hour's time in a law office or as a dental hygienist, or make it more glamorous and say an hour on the set of a major motion picture, or in the Oval Office, but none of that can I quite imagine. Used books I know. Used books I like. Some of the happiest hours of my life -- though not all, I hasten to interject, lest the reader think the rest of my life utterly devoid of interest -- I spend buying books for the bookstore where I'm privileged to work.

(The rest of the time, I read, mostly, just in case you were picturing something really enviable.)

Daily Dose

From The Spider's Web and Zipper and His Father, by Joseph Roth


"It was his ambition to have 'contacts.' On the whole, he succeeded in winning the favour of those people whom one generally needs least in life."

From Zipper and His Father, Chapter 4

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What Can I Give Thee Back

Daily Dose

From The Complete Works of Saki, by H. H. Munro


"'Waldo is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death,' said Clovis..."

From The Feast of Nemesis

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Letters! All Dead Paper

Daily Dose

From The Complete Works of Saki, by H. H. Munro


"Whenever I feel in the least tempted to be business-like or methodical or even decently industrious I go to Kensal Green and look at the graves of those who died in business."

From Clovis on the Alleged Romance of Business

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Daily Dose

From The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James


"The sooner he should get back into right relations with things the better."

From Chapter XLIII

Monday, March 21, 2011

Magazine Fan

There are a few surviving monthly magazines to which I remain devoted. None, I must admit, are terribly serious. I will still read a long piece in one of the more earnest periodicals, specially if it is by a journalist, economist or popular academic whose work I already know and respect, but I no longer feel quite the responsibility to keep up that I once did. I confess to having come by now to certain conclusions about the way the world works, and my place in it, and like most people similarly situated squarely in the middle of the actuarial tables, I tend more often now to read in anticipation of having my beliefs confirmed rather than challenged. The passionate engagement with new ideas that was so much a feature of the way I read in my youth, and the way I argued with my friends and acquaintance, has lost much of its excitement, as has, no doubt, my conversation, and my thinking. Oh well. The newness of things is now more something to be overcome rather than an attraction. Doesn't make me immune to other people's opinions, just increasingly skeptical, even of my own. What do I know? Show me I'm wrong, if you insist, but do it gently, please, as it's nearly time for dinner, isn't it? My enthusiasm for confrontation and disagreement, and the chances, increasingly remote, of being pursued to change my mind as a result of such a discussion, are not what they once were. In other words, I've gotten a little older, that's all. I'm not up for every argument anymore. Nothing to be smug about. Nowadays? I would rather be home, in my nightshirt, eating homemade chicken and noodles with the husband, and reading about rich people gone bad in Vanity Fair Magazine.

An argument could be made for why this is a bad thing, but not by me anymore, at least not tonight. Certainly, I'm at least a little ashamed of myself. There's a piece in The New York Review of Books on what constitutes the good life, by Ronald Dworkin, that I've been meaning to read for some time now. Instead, I'm eating noodles and reading glossy pulp, so yes, I've fallen off, intellectually, quite a bit lately. Oh well.

I like the pretty movie stars on the cover, though I can't really read the interviews any more -- Sharon Stone getting in touch with her "Irishness" by reading Dylan Thomas (!) rather cured me of those. But I still enjoy the monthly snark of the columnists. I like the ridiculously improbable fashion advertisements; good to know what purse would look best with which shoes should I ever find myself wearing a Burberry tartan at three AM, high, bored and obviously hungry, on a scooter in the alley behind a Greek taverna. Hell, in my house, we even like rubbing those stinky perfume ads on each other. Really though, what I count on every month is the true crime story. Not the corporate malfeasance, or the biggest bad deal in the history of big, bad, boring business, but rather the heirs gone wild, the deadly third wives, Mrs. Astor's ashtrays going missing, the murderous plastic surgeon on the lam in the Alps, that sort of thing. For me, one of the happiest features of an informed democracy is the knowledge that somewhere, even as I write, someone is investigating the circumstances of a Rockefeller overdose for Vanity Fair. Yeah!

It's genius, really. Any tabloid, digital or print, can tell me more than I need to know about starlets caught with coke in their cars, or action stars with a taste for dick on the down-low, but only the good people of VF will have the skinny on the oligarchs who drug their horses, buy their chambermaids from child-stealers, and bury their schizophrenics in padded estates in Connecticut. Ah, the American Dream! As an increasingly complacent pleb with a taste for the better things in life, it is not enough for me to know that the rich have nicer lawns and better views out their windows -- though that may explain why Architectural Digest is still going I suppose -- I want to know how the mistress came to raise llamas on what used to be the polo field, and why the paranoid billionaire died of smoke-inhalation after setting fire to the bathroom trash basket in his condo in Monaco. Call it the tragedy of wealth, the fall of the pointlessly overprivileged, the Dominick-Who-Dunne-It. Bless the man's memory. What the editors of VF understand is that I, their devoted reader, do not so much want to see how the other half lives, as how the other half collapses with an aneurysm while being spanked by underaged hookers in Indonesia. It's a brilliant strategy for keeping the service industry population -- all of the rest of us, in other words -- contentedly in our place, covetous, but but not so discourteous as to actually rebel. It works, too. Why should we envy the rich, when their children are all hooked on heroin or unhappily remarried to murderous Russian prostitutes and their grandchildren are being kidnapped in Sicily? Who could really begrudge the upper upper their "cottages" on the Vineyard, when the gardener's daughter will inevitably require a not so quiet abortion, or a nephew will marry a leftist intellectual from Ecuador, or a daughter in law will want to be in the movies, and that sort of thing will just as inevitably "get in the papers," and all but ruin grand-mère's nerves, send daddy to the bottle and embarrass the cousins at their fundraiser for the new wing at the MoMA?

Poor bastards. Just goes to show...

In the theology of American capitalism, there is no more reassuring corollary to the articles -- hard work will always be rewarded, property is a right but healthcare isn't, taxes impede investment, the rich are always with us, etc., -- than the sure knowledge that within a generation, unless they are made to earn an allowance imitating the servants, and taught to invest more than they spend on cocaine and false SAT scores, the rich will ruin themselves, and the really rich will do so in even more entertaining and imaginative ways than the rest of us might ever have dreamed of doing. Such fun! There is no Old Money in America, not really. We do not have the habit of inheritance and leisure. Or rather, while a still frightfully small number of us have acquired the means, we have never quite mastered the methods of aristocracy. Money inspires no loyalty here, except to money itself. Unlike the Europeans, here, you look too close at any billionaire's family tree and you'll still find, if not a barefoot Baptist grandma, then some other embarrassment, like a son with an unhealthy interest in ballet. Here, the rich need criminal attorneys, not faithful retainers. Those of us unlikely to ever earn more than we already owe, may admire the moneyed, but we usually get to pity their children. Keeps everything from feeling quite so... obviously unfair.

Now I know that this is simply not true. I know that, if anything, the shoe salesman who votes Republican and takes his family every Sunday to hear the hillbilly preach "prosperity" in the mega-church is a bigger fool than the peasant who dropped his plow to follow his Master on Crusade. The plowman had never otherwise seen past his fence. He'd never heard anyone disagree with a priest, met anyone who'd read a book, heard another language but the one he barely spoke, seen anyone who didn't look just like him, or imagined a world larger than what he could cross on foot. Most likely, he'd never met a Muslim until one or the other of them was hoist on the end of a pike. The modern world requires a more willful ignorance. I know that for every hilariously improbable true story of pyramid investors ruined, or infighting among the undeserving heirs of a baby-powder fortune, the truth of economic inequality in this country grows more embarrassingly blatant every hour that the current congress sits in session. Rapacity is rewarded, corporate crime goes unpunished, incompetence above a certain pay-grade is without consequence, etc., etc., etc.

But just for tonight, I want the odd villain punished by the Fates, the great house to fall, unmourned, and the princess to run mad with grief. Why not? Why not indulge, for just a little, in the willing suspension of disbelief, and watch the show? It's a sop. Doesn't matter. Some people, adults mind you, spend all their leisure hours imagining a world populated by magical elves and evil wizards. It's childish, but where's the harm, really? Me, I want to read something with cursed gold, protracted lawsuits and suicides in penthouses.

So for dessert tonight, I think I'll have... scandal. Aids the digestion after a long day's work in retail. We can argue about the existence of a just or any other kind of God another time. I promise. With my Pinwheel cookies and skim milk, I think tonight I'll just read about bad people, in good shoes, coming to bad ends, and then I'll brush my teeth.

(Isn't that Robert Pattinson a pretty child?)

Daily Dose

From Anecdotes of Destiny, by Isak Dinesen


"But it was not barren; it was the mighty night of northern lights, and in it things lived: heavy, shaggy bears padded and puffed, wolves whirled in long trails through the blizzard over the plains, ancient Finns, who knew witchcraft, chuckled while selling fair winds to the seamen."

From Tempests, XIV, Old Folks and Old Tales

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Golden Bowl, by Henry James


"His inward assurance, his general plan, had at moments, where she was concerned, its drops of continuity, and nothing would less have pleased him than that she should suspect in him, however tempted, any element of conscious 'cheek.'"

From Chapter XXI

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Goldstein


"It had been given him to experience the profounder intimations of food since his earliest childhood. At three years of age, he had devised his two fork method, one in each hand, so that he would not have to wait between mouthfuls. Sometimes his mother made a dish -- her Friday-night chicken fricassee with dumplings, her brisket braised with potatoes, her calf liver fried with onions -- that moved him to a hedonic delirium far beyond the carnal."

From Chapter XXI, The Argument from the Remains

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James


"A crude, cold rain fell heavily the spring-time was indeed an appeal -- and it seemed a cynical unsincere appeal -- to patience."

From Chapter III

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Handbag Doodles

Daily Dose

From History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Volume One, by William Prescott


"The Spanish Universities were the theatre, on which this classical erudition was especially displayed."

From Chapter XIX, Castilian Literature, etc.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Clerihew of Self Rebuke


In my last, I rather cheated,
Thus, my clerihew defeated.
So as not to be thought too obtuse,
Let me be clear, the man's name's Dubus.

Clerihew of the Second (or third) Generation


Andre Dubus the Third,
In case you hadn't heard,
Is actually the son
Of the other famous one.

Daily Dose

From Dorothy Parker Stories


"Dearest friends. A sweet lot of dearest friends I've got. All of them lying about in swinish stupors, while I'm practically up and about."

From The Little Hours

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Sequel of my Resolution

Well now. Tonight, I made my one hundredth posting, give or take, of me reading aloud on Another little milestone passed. Pray, do not be too much impressed. When that number is reduced to something like its component parts, what sounds a considerable undertaking may be seen for what its been. Consider, just to start somewhere, that after now more than two years, the sum total in viewing time is 261.56 minutes, or roughly four and a half hours, but of this, two and a half hours come from public readings I did at the bookstore, and that, of the four public readings I've posted, only about an hour and a quarter are just me. The others involved others reading as well. In fact, my part in the two longest readings that I've posted was smaller than anyone else's. I was responsible for handing out the parts there. Clever me. Anyway, the public readings, because of my limited technical skills and understanding of these things, required from two to seven separate posts apiece, each less than ten minutes long, because I couldn't figure out any other way to post the damned things, at least not without being instructed that I had exceeded the time allowed. Don't know who or what decides such things, but who am I to question?

Just to keep on for the moment crunching the numbers, of the remaining two hours worth of reading aloud, by my calculations I've read selections now from six letters, three selections from Dickens, and maybe twice that number from Lamb, though not so long, a few other bits of prose, and something like fifty seven poems. Now, that last sounds rather substantial, don't it? Consider though, many if not most of the poems I've read have run less than a minute each, even at my sometimes sluggish pace, and any number are no better than limericks, clerihews and the like. Hardly the stuff of sonorous beauties, much of it, but, to give the minors their due, much of it fun, for me anyway.

All of which adds up, in the end, to less than a major contribution to the preservation of the spoken text -- cluck, cluck -- but I, for one, am glad of the effort, nonetheless. My reasons for posting these readings, much like my reasons for making the selections I did to read, are not altogether admirable. Frankly, too many nights together, whatever deep thoughts I was dreaming, and whatever working-drafts I may have had in the hopper, I've found Thalia & her sisters otherwise engaged, and could not write a line I'd want even my dearest friends to read. Some of these blanks I've taken to filling with various doodles and like thoughtless little sketches. I've also produced enough doggerel now to consider making a small book of clerihews. (A project that may or may not ever happen, but that will doubtless look increasingly attractive when the holidays roll back around and produce the annual anxiety to get something, anything, into the mail by way of gifts, even if only such nonsense as a collection of my little puffs. You're welcome, friends and family. Be polite, now.) Other nights, the only thing I could think to do was read something aloud. I do this anyway, often as not, just to hear the words, amuse myself and pass the night. I believe very much in the value of this for any reader, as there is writing, and not just poesy, that really ought to be heard to be appreciated, even if all one does is read it aloud, alone, in the privacy of the wee hours. Some of the things I've read aloud and posted online, I put up with this idea in mind, honest, and thought, in this way, to share my enthusiasm for the language, and the authors I love best. I've also found myself reading short poems and other brief bits, all the while thinking, right, that would work for a quick video. Not proud of that, but it seems to work. (A small irony: some of the more popular postings I've done have been selections made without much thought beyond the utility of a quick, uncomplicated reading. Some of my more labored efforts, as might be easily guessed, considering the obscurity of some of the sources and my failure to always do these neglected voices proper justice, have not proved quite so wildly popular. Imagine that. Not many people searching out videotaped readings of Arthur Hugh Clough. Keep in mind, if anyone other than me looks at the things I've posted, I'm thrilled, so some perspective is required as to just what makes something I've done a success. Pretty much anyone watches, anyone who I've neither shamed nor bullied into looking at me, and that is very big deal.)

As to the quality of my performance, I have tried the best I can. The production of even the public videos does not rise much above a recording of a birthday party, though I'm still impressed when I don't kick the camera over or waste a full hour trying to get through a three minute long poem. My reading voice is more practiced now than it has ever been, but that isn't the same thing as saying that the quality of my voice, or of my reading, is anything better than anyone else might do in an easy chair, after ten at night, with a little camera on a tripod two feet away. I'm not looking to be contradicted here; I honestly believe that the best that might come of doing this kind of thing, and from posting my efforts online, would be to encourage other people, specially young people, to give reading aloud a try. Seriously, if I can do it, anyone can.

And it is worth doing. I am resolved. When I look at the number of videos posted online by students, booksellers, bloggers and readers, reviewing the books they've read, liked or disliked, I wonder that so few people seem to think it worthwhile to actually read even so much as a line of what they've read. Lots of people willing to express an opinion. Nothing wrong with that. Some of what I've seen has been surprisingly thoughtful, and encouraging. Often the only thing other than opinion that seems to be posted -- when there hasn't been an adaptation of the book for BBC television -- are the same poems, by the usual poets, read over and over again, or animated with Star Wars action-fugures, or in disturbingly ugly animation of the poet's portrait with only the mouth moving. Creepy. Of the vast resources of English and American literature, there would seem to be very little of it making it onto the web in any recognizable form, the actual writing intact, so that someone might actually be led or directed back to the source, to reading the books. Too much that gets put up, too much of the little that has anything to do with books, would seem to be produced with the idea that the books themselves matter less than the ten minutes or less of whatever it is from the books that can be made to fit in a video posting. I would hope that my fuzzy mug, not being much of an attraction as such, might, with the right words coming out of it, make the occasional viewer think to go and find Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia, or The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, of The Best Letters of William Cowper, or The Poetical Works of Walter Savage Landor. The idea that I might, in this way still very new to me, encourage anyone to read David Copperfield, is far and away my fondest hope.

As a reader, and a bookseller, I'm persuaded that we do indeed need new ways to bring people to the best books. Why not this? I'll give it a go. Try it.

In all the time that I've now been doing this: writing here, posting my literary caricatures and my little clerihews, putting up videos, the single best response that I've had to date, better than all the kind words and encouragement I've had from friends, and the notice taken by authors and journalists and my few, dear regular readers, the best compliment I've ever had was a comment left by "Juan," on It reads as follows:

"I am a 19 year old college student, and because of advanced programs I took in high school, I don't have to take any literature classes, but watching and listening to your videos today has made me consider taking some classes just to experience the written word in a way not taught in high schools. So, in a word, thank you for opening my eyes."

Now that makes me proud.


Daily Dose

From The Gentlest Art: A Choice of Letters by Entertaining Hands, edited by E. V. Lucas


"The English do not generally love Letter writing: and very few of us like the more the older we get."

-- Edward Fitzgerald

From More Epistolary Sentiae

Sunday, March 13, 2011


A short selection of the seemingly endless supply I've accumulated of otherwise unusable footage of my gaffs, goofs, rising and setting, cursing and gurgling and just generally getting things wrong. Shared, just here, with my friends. Enjoy.

Daily Dose

From David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens


"My Dear Copperfield,
-- You may possibly not be unprepared to receive the intimation that something has turned up."

From Chapter 36, a letter from Mr. Wilkins Micawber

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk, by William Cowper

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick


"Wantons we are; and though our words be such,
Our Lives do differ from our Lines by much."

From Hesperides

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fitzgeral Letter

Daily Dose

From The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain, edited by Alex Ayres


"Often, in matters concerning religion and politics, a man's reasoning powers are not above the monkey's."

From "Last Visit to England, Bernard DeVoto, "Mark Twain in Eruption"

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Clerihew of Completely Devalued Craftsmanship


If you find Elbert Hubbard
In your great grandma's cupboard,
The case may be genuine Roycroft,
But just leave the books in the hayloft.

Charles Lamb loses an old friend

Daily Dose

From Lectures on the English Poets, by William Hazlitt


"Each individual is a world to himself, governed by a thousand contradictory and wayward impulses."

From On Thomson and Cowper

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Table Talk, by Leigh Hunt


"If you are ever at a loss to support a flagging conversation, introduce the subject of eating."

From Eating

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Beginnings of New England or The Puritan Theocracy in its Relation to Civil and Religious Liberty, by John Fiske


"With great political systems, as with typical forms of organic life, the processes of development and of extinction are exceedingly slow, and it is seldom that the stages can be sharply marked by dates."

From Chapter 1, The Roman Idea and the English Idea

Monday, March 7, 2011


So, this one time, Nancy Pearl and Helene Hanff were examining a first edition of Michel de Montaigne's Essays with a bunch of independent booksellers from the Pacific Northwest, and the staff of The Slog, at a used books shop in Seattle that was about to close, while all around them an increasingly heated debate had begun about spiritualism and dogs, when who should come in with Josh Kilmer-Purcell on his arm, but the star of the 1955 television western, Cheyenne, Clint Walker, shirtless.

I know that that sentence doesn't make sense, at least without some kind of a punchline, and no, I don't have one. This is something I've only recently learned, that that sentence does not have to make sense, anymore than I need a good reason to post that beefcake picture at the top of this entry.

It's all about the numbers, baby. Or rather, it isn't, for me at least. Okay. I will explain.

When I started writing regularly, if not quite daily for another blog a couple of years ago, my reasons for doing so where pretty self-evident. It was an interesting new challenge for me, though I hate being challenged nearly as much as I hate using that word to describe any undertaking that doesn't involve pistols at ten paces or putting a man on the moon. Nevertheless, that was what it felt like at the time. I hadn't done any sustained writing, other than correspondence, in the better part of a decade. I'd kept diaries and notebooks, and written all sorts of forgivably bad poetry and fiction in my youth. I'd done a book review, here and there, and a few pieces for zines when that was the fashionable thing to do. Fifteen years ago, I'd even taken a few months off from working full time, for the first and only time in my adult life, to write an unpublishable novel. All of that was well behind me by the time I started contributing to this other blog. I have never not written, it's safe to say, from the time I first learned how to read, but I don't know that I ever did it seriously enough, or produced anything good enough, to fancy myself a writer. I still don't know that I ever will. Nevertheless, to use yet another word I dislike abusing in this way, I came to see the brief entries I was eventually contributing every day as an opportunity to write and, at the same time, make some small contribution to a worthy undertaking, all to do with reading, recommending and selling books, which is, after all, what I do most, and how I earn my living, such as it is. To use one last word I simply detest, blogging seemed a surprisingly natural extension of my job and a way to practice one of my only two remaining vices, gabbing about books, in something like a productive way. Writing to this end quickly became a habit. Yes, obviously I came to enjoy the occasional notice something I may have written brought me, but I also came to enjoy the exercise of writing again, the act of it, for want of any better or less embarrassing way to say that.

Well, inevitably, I fucked that up. Despite my resolve to not abuse the privilege, and keep within the bounds of decorum, I eventually wrote one or two things in which I allowed my own opinion to possibly be misinterpreted as representative of the enterprise for which I was writing. I didn't use the kind of language with which I started this paragraph, or anything like that. When I wrote the bits that would eventually result in a policy change, and the end of my participation in that other blog, a policy change that would have required some more responsible party to have oversight of everything I wrote thereafter, I was sufficiently humiliated and hurt that I came home that very night, started writing here, and resolved never do such a thing anywhere else.

The platform I have here, by its very nature, is quite small, certainly smaller potentially than the one I all but undid for everyone, myself included, before I slipped so ignominiously away in the night. (I would note, happily, that that other blog has since recovered and is now thriving again.) That I expected here to address only the few friends and such of my coworkers as might find me, and if I was very lucky, the occasional stranger who happened by, was a fact with which I was not only perfectly comfortable, but something I frankly welcomed after the debacle I'd made of my last effort. When this new thing of mine acquired my first few "followers," I was touched by the loyalty of my friends. When the first person unknown to me joined, I was thrilled! I never knew, for most of the more than two years that I've been doing this, just who or how many people might be reading what I've written, or even looking at whatever nonsense I happened to post. When anything I've done here receives a "comment," from friend or foe, from anyone other than a spammer, I still get so childishly excited I can barely keep from bursting. (I will always treasure specially, the very first anonymous, semi-literate comment I ever got, attached to my review of a Michael Mann movie, in which I referred to my beloved, Johnny Depp, as "the greatest actress of his generation." The comment, I quote now from memory, in full, reads as follows: "You a fucking moron." How very gratifying, honestly. Can't ask for a more visceral reaction, really. I was as surprised as anyone might be, who isn't John Simon or Lars von Triers say, to find that even a negative response can feel like an acknowledgement.)

I'd never really appreciated just how accessible what I do here might be, until recently a friend showed me how I might look at the "traffic" at this site. By simply clicking on a tab marked "Stats," I can at any time of the night or day not only see if anyone other than myself is looking at what I do here, I might also see just what might be my most popular entries of the past year, the month and the week. Only when something I'd written was picked up by others, and a link was made to this or that piece by real online journalists, through social media, or more recently, by way of the still mystifying business to me of "tweeting," did I begin to see numbers that genuinely astonished me. For a day or two, I felt an unexpected pride in having reached an audience that I never anticipated and to which, briefly, I felt a new obligation to be considerably mindful. I was ever so full of myself, for a little while there.

After all, from the look of things, there were actually people from as far as Korea and India who had found me here! Imagine that. What was more, there were as many as a hundred or more people looking in at this or that entry, over the course of many months, and some of the most frequently visited had not even had the benefit of a link from The Slog, or The Northwest Book Lovers site, had not been "shared" from my facebook page with librarians, or "tweeted" by actual, professional book reviewers.

Then, unfortunately enough, I happened to notice how very popular something I'd posted on Michel de Montaigne had proved to be. Montaigne is among the most powerful of my household gods, so the very idea that anything I might have to say about him here might have drawn the attention of even a small battalion of online readers was about the most flattering thing that might ever have happened to me. I don't generally revisit anything I've posted here after I been back a few times to recheck the spelling and correct any howling errors of either fact or form that anyone might have been kind enough to bring to my attention. After seeing so much activity resulting from this one entry on Montaigne though, I naturally had to go back and look.

I was baffled. When I took a vacation to go back and see the old folks in Pennsylvania a couple of summers ago, I'd posted short essays here from some of the greatest essayists who ever wrote, billing each, rather cleverly I thought at the time, as a "guest blogger." This had proved, as even I could appreciate from the few reactions I had to the experiment, an all but total flop. Nearly no one had read the essays I had so painstakingly copied out -- at the time, I did not yet know that most of these were already available online and that I might have simply used the less arduous technique of "cut and paste" to post them here. Live and learn. Anyway, I'd posted an essay by Montaigne among these. My only real contribution to this series had been some very brief introductions, the least of these, titled "Why Michel de Montaigne?" as you might see for yourself at the link, consisted of only the following text:

"Might as well ask, 'why Shakespeare?'"

That's a sentiment with which I am still in complete agreement, but it hardly rises to even a sentence, now does it? So why then should this be among the most popular postings I've ever made? I figured it out. It was the picture. By way of illustration to many of the entries I make here, including most of the daily quotes I post, I have found pictures online that I thought interesting and appropriate and used these, with only a watchful eye as to copyright, as I have no interest in abusing the wonderful resources made available to me by the great folks who bring us, free of charge mostly, the Internet. To illustrate my lame introduction to Montaigne, I had selected a lovely image of the first edition of Montaigne's great Essays. it was that, that rare image, gathered from I no longer remember where, and not anything I did that drew so many curious eyes to this blog. Once I'd finally tripped over this obvious fact, I went back and began to look seriously at all the other entries that consistently drew visitors to this little chop-shop of mine. Turns out, people really like looking at pictures.

Also turns out, among the most frequently used words in Internet image searches is "shirtless," thus the enormous popularity of another, considerably longer if no more memorable of my entries, all to do with my husband watching old black and white westerns every Saturday morning on his new computer. For that, appropriately enough, I'd found a particularly comely snap of Clint Walker -- you guessed it -- shirtless.

So, for this, my first truly shameless and self-conscious bid for real popularity and big numbers, I have included an anonymous bit of beefy titillation from my private collection, in addition to using every truly popular tag from any post I've ever written, and supplied an opening paragraph of unadulterated nonsense using the same in something like a sentence, just to see if I might really push this thing over the top.

The reality is that this effort is unlikely to produce anything like the desired result. Even if by some truly strange chance it should, what then will I have proved? Nothing really, except that I should never have let myself get carried quite so far beyond the statistical probabilities for this kind of thing, and or my own quite reasonable and contented expectations of what I meant to do by doing this.

To anyone then who clicked through hoping to find either Clint Walker in a posing-strap, or anything equally satisfactory, only to find a thoroughly silly bit of chastened navel-gazing, I offer sincere apologies. It was a dirty trick. That's what it was. To anyone who has, for whatever reason, read the whole way to the end of this, or anything else I've written here, I'm still awfully flattered and glad of the company. Thanks again. I'll try to keep things from degenerating to quite such a low again any time soon.

Meanwhile, enjoy the all-but-naked guy. He's pretty special, I think.