Thursday, June 30, 2011

On the Superiority of the Fairer Sex

Daily Dose

From The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs


"So the books are waiting. Of this you may be confident: they'll be ready when the whim strikes you."

From Whim

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Author's Favorites

Not necessarily the author's favorite illustrations for his forthcoming book, so much as doodles of some of his favorite books. Mine too, a couple of 'em.

Also, a another little inside joke. The bottom book, under the Gide, is meant to be the back cover of the book in which these sketches should appear. (Anticipating a great review in the local paper.)

Daily Dose

From Dombey and Sons, by Charles Dickens

"'Good gracious me!' stammered Mr. Toots. 'What a complication of misery!"

From Chapter L, Mr. Toots's Complaint

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Couple More

Simple may be best, considering the size at which these will be when added to the final printed book.

Daily Dose

From The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa


"The beginning of the meal, as happens in the provinces, was quiet. The Archpriest made the sign of the Cross, and plunged in head-first without a word."

Dinner and various reactions, in Part 2

Monday, June 27, 2011

First Bookstore Illustrations

Here then the first couple of finished illustrations for my friend's novel about working in a bookstore. Fun to do, but now I'll need to see if these will register at all when reproduced in the prescribed size and format. Won't mind loosing detail, as the book titles are all just inside jokes, but remains to be seen if these doodles will come off when printed. For now though, enjoy the imaginary remainder titles. A number of coworkers at the information desk contributed.

This one, as it is meant to portray the Used Books Desk, is populated by my own favorites. Would that I had to buy (and sell) nothing else.

Daily Dose

From Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon, by Jane Austen


"The acquaintance, thus oddly begun, was neither short nor unimportant."

From Sanditon, Chapter 2

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Working Compromise

Couldn't draw a keyboard. Could draw hands at a keyboard. Here's the working rough of the illustration, just inked, pencil-lines not yet erased. Someone at work just looked at it today and said, "Pianist?"

Oh well. It will have to do.

A Most Gently Rejected Submission

So, I can't really draw a keyboard. Not so surprising really. Yes, it's a familiar object. Obviously I spend not just much of my working life but a good deal of my time at home sitting at a keyboard. But the damned things are so geometrically repetitive; lines bisecting lines and all of the straight-ish, and I just do not have an eye for such things. Above is my best attempt of many to suggest a computer. See it? Not really a keyboard, or even a monitor, so much as the tangle between. I don't draw things like this. As an exercise, it was interesting enough. As a potential illustration for my friend's forthcoming comic novel, this did not make it.

He was so sweet. He likes most of the little scribbles I've done for spot-illustrations at his chapter-headings. This? He couldn't see it. His email saying as much was just so darling. Here's the bit about the drawing:

"Another request, and I make it somewhat fearfully: would you mind terribly taking another run at the “computer” picture – maybe the back of a monitor with a gooseneck lamp beside it, or maybe a keyboard with a hand typing? I’d be so grateful if you wouldn’t mind."

Then he quickly reminds me how much he loved the rolled up newspaper I drew for him, and the picture of bare feet. He's such a dear man.

No hurt feelings. How could I feel anything but flattered to be asked in the first place? And his enthusiasm for the other things he's seen has been genuinely gratifying.

I decided to post my tangled sketch here first because waste not want not, and though it doesn't really work for the purpose of illustrating the novel, I'm actually kind of proud of it as an attempt to look at something I normally wouldn't. Beyond that however, I'm putting it up, with just that bit of the email, as an example of how the collaborative process on this project has just been the friendliest I could have imagined. Despite being lazy and distracted, I've done a few pictures that should work, if and when I finally get them inked and made into PDF files, etc., but I think some record of my failures is worth making. There has some interest, at least for me, in the attempt, no?

Besides, my only complete failure so far was trying to draw a telephone receiver -- they call them "handsets" at work for some reason, though I don't think that that is nearly such a good word. Imagine. Talk about a familiar object! The telephones we have now at work present almost exactly the same problem for me as the computer keyboards, but the receivers nowadays are actually rather elegantly designed things; curved and solid and simple, and yet nothing I sketched, with or without a hand to hold it, looked remotely like a telephone. Completely defeated, after probably a dozen sketches. So frustrating! I've just had to walk away from that idea. Can't do it. So sorry.

Meanwhile, on we go. It may not seem so, considering how long this project is taking me, but I'm enjoying it, though less because of anything I've done, than because what I've done, mostly, has seemed to bring such pleasure to my friend. Here's hoping he'll like the next one.

(Drawing a steering wheel, again, of all things, looks to be the next one I may have to just abandon. Who knew? Evidently, machanical objects of almost any description are just not in my range. Live and learn.)

Daily Dose

From Catherine and Other Writings, by Jane Austen


"Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor."

From Frederic & Elfrida, Chapter the Second

Saturday, June 25, 2011

How to Read a Paragraph for Morning Wood

I'd long since decided not to continue with book club, as I'd come to find the experience entirely too frustrating, and my own role in the discussion increasingly unpleasant. The determination of our moderator to read the best GLBTQ books and authors, while initially quite exciting, had proven in practice quite frustrating for me as a devoted reader of writers like Genet, Mishima and Gide, to name just three favorites all of whom flopped in book club. My fellow participants had proven to be uniformly intelligent, articulate and amusing folks, and of some I had become increasingly fond, even though our tastes had not always agreed. Moreover, I love our host, and consider him one of my dearest friends in Seattle, but even he and I do not always see eye to eye on these books. The discussions, which I had come in the past year to attend less frequently, had however taken on a certain pious acrimony, in my opinion, to which I most strenuously objected. It seemed to me that what was expected was that the authors would be nice guys, rather more like the book club members than not, and that while there were always participants in the conversation, including our host, willing to defend the artistic integrity of the book under discussion, the willingness of some of the members to judge the past as a thoroughly unpleasant, ugly and unrewarding place left me feeling outraged on behalf of the dead. My role in these evenings had already become less that of dramaturg; suggesting potential titles and authors and providing historical and biographical kibitzing, and more that of the old biddy librarian, tsking as much or more than I talked. By the time we'd got to Yukio Mishima, who not even my dear friend N. seemed to find anything but irredeemable, I'd had quite enough. The whole enterprise felt pointless to me, and even I didn't want to hear anything I had to say on the subject. Basically, while still supporting my friend in other ways, behind the scene as it were, I'd quit.

Dear N. finally lured me back with the promise of his favorite Andre Gide novel, The Counterfeiters, also a favorite of mine, and a pork dinner. It seems a very thoughtful member had offered a full meal, complete with pigeon peas and rice and what my grandma called a "white cake" for desert. As for the Gide, it had been one of the first titles we had discussed reading in the book club, and agreed on, back in the first days of planning. Subsequently, dear N. had decided to read Gide's The Immoralist instead, thinking the comparative length and complexity of our first choice would be perhaps a bit daunting for some, and the latter book more directly concerned with the specific issues addressed by the book club. Well, as I've said, The Immoralist did not play well. Many if not most members were impatient not only with the rather formal prose, but with the narrative and the what they saw as the central character's lack of character, and by extension, to a degree with which my own narrative of Gide's biography in no way helped, Gide's. With frankly decreasing participation from the established membership, and fewer new members coming, our host, it seemed, had determined to read his favorite Gide again, whether anyone came or not, or liked the book or not. Would I come again, at least this once, to support him in this? And if slow roasted pork was included in the offer? How could I not?

So, I went. The meal was as promised. The cake, in particular, a wonderful and comforting surprise. My friend was still quite giddy with the joy of Gide, and while he had failed to entirely communicate his enthusiasm to the club, the promise of a good meal and good company had brought a number of us back, temporarily at least, to the fold. It was nice.

Perhaps I was just feeling less sour, sated with beans and rice maybe, but for the most part I enjoyed myself. It's true, I gabbed like a gassy old fishwife again; telling tales on Gide and Wilde and who knows what all, and for the most part, my friend and I just gushed back and forth for the better part of an hour about the book, all while trying not to spoil anything for those who had never read the novel before and had yet to finish it, which was not all that surprising as the meeting was just the second of the month and it is a long book.

At some point in the midst of our happy gabble, my friend threw the discussion back to the floor, and while I don't remember the actual question he proposed, one of the participants I did not know went on to ask his own question of us, a question I did not at first follow, and which dear N. then had to explain to me, as I remember it. Basically, by way of example, this guy challenged the group to explain just what the hell the novelist was up to, writing around things, as he seemed to do, and never quite saying what he meant. Asked for an example, the frustrated reader was more than prepared with an example, from early on in the book, specifically the following, which is the first paragraph of only the sixth chapter, titled "Bernard Awakens":

"Bernard has had an absurd dream. He doesn't remember his dream. he doesn't try to remember his dream, but to get out of it. He returns to the world of reality to feel Olivier's body pressing heavily against him. Whilst they were asleep (or at any rate while Bernard was asleep) his friend had come close up to him -- and for that matter, the bed was too narrow to allow of much distance; he had turned over; he is sleeping on his side now and Bernard feels Olivier's warm breath tickling his neck. Bernard has nothing on but his short day-shirt; one of Olivier's arms is flung across him, weighing oppressively and indiscreetly on his flesh. For a moment Bernard is not sure that Olivier is really asleep. He frees himself gently. he gets up without waking Olivier, dresses and then lies down again on the bed. It is still too early to be going. For o'clock. the night is only just beginning to dwindle. One more hour of rest, one more hour for gathering strength to start the coming day valiantly. But there is no more sleep for him. Bernard stares at the glimmering window pane, at the grey walls of the little room, at the iron bedstead where George is tossing in his dreams."

Our host assured me later that the young man asking about this paragraph has become a regular and always otherwise keen participant; that he reads everything asked of him, has never really complained of an previous difficulty, and is generally a perfectly amiable fellow. For some reason though, the evening I attended, clearly he was not best pleased with Olivier & Bernard, and most specially with Monsieur Gide. (Of poor, sleeping brother George, we none of us took any notice.) Having read the paragraph quickly over, I sill did not entirely understand the character of the young man's question. What was wrong with it? Seemed perfectly clear to me.

Just here I pause in my own little story to take note of just what a thorough old bore I must be, not only to my many friends who would seem to have decided collectively, from simple kindness, to overlook the pedantry and pompousness with which I seem to answer even the simplest questions about books, but to the unsuspecting stranger who may have asked my opinion of something like Gide's style in complete innocence of intending any offense to either the memory of the Nobel Laureate or this strange, bewhiskered little book-troll, suddenly set off lecturing in the midst of an otherwise friendly gathering. Unlike the book club's amiable host, who has a positive gift for turning even the most seemingly hostile question into a proper, Democratic discussion, I can never talk about books but I argue. Don't really know why, though were I to hazard a guess, I should have to say I assume hostility to my opinions because, like a spoiled child, I am not much used to having my opinions -- at least of old books -- challenged. This is nobody's fault but my own. Had I, for example, pursued some sort of academic career in literature, based on my understanding at second hand of such, I would doubtless long since have had the stuffing knocked out of my understanding of these things by experts and proper pedagogues. As it is, my pathetically brief time in college taught me only to distrust not so much my own reading of great books as the professionals who would tell me how, and how not to do so. In a way, I've rather kept my innocence. I still assume that any failure to understand a great writer is my own rather than his or hers, and that my own temperament, taste, education or lack thereof, and or plain thick-headedness is all that may prevent me from making a perfectly reasonable estimation of the worth of a particular piece of writing. I never quite saw the point in challenging the established opinion that this or that writer, or that this or that "classic" book was not deserving of inclusion in the canon, based on nothing more than my dislike or failure to fully appreciate the felicities, for example of Joyce and Finnegan's Wake. Awfully intelligent, well educated people seem to agree that that book is a bloody masterpiece. Who am I to disagree? Masterpiece it is then. Nothing to do with me. I needn't read it. Of the books I have read, and more than once for no other or better reason than because I wanted to, I am confident in my opinion, and childishly assume not only that I am right, but that others ought to and will agree with me. Henry James is a great writer. The Golden Bowl is a masterpiece of startling psychological depth and near perfect English prose. Statements like that, I've found, tend not to find echoes everywhere. Why should I still be surprised to find this so? I suppose because most of my friends through the years, in the business of selling books or out of it, tend either to not have read The Golden Bowl, or Henry James, or if they have, even at my insistence, they have been generally far to polite to tell me what they might actually think. The few that do, if their opinion of that novel has not been mine, have generally kept this fact to themselves, or failing that, possibly to spare themselves further blather and bullying from me on the subject of its perfection, they've just assumed the burden of their displeasure and insisted sweetly that the fault must have been entirely theirs. With that attitude I have complete sympathy. Not for everyone, Henry James.

So a more direct challenge, as that made at book club regarding what that fellow next me me saw as the unnecessary obscurity of the passage from Gide's novel quoted above, as I've said, I find first mystifying and then, once it has been explained to me, maddening. What's not to understand? Has the fellow, in his youth, never spent a sleepless night next to the object of his adolescent desire, calculating the allowable pressure to be applied to the small of a handsome boy's back? the potentially telling weight of an arm gently lowered, as if in restless sleep, but actually by painstaking, agonizingly careful degree across the senseless chest of his friend?

There's the first mistake. What Gide so masterfully describes in that vignette is an experience that may not be shared by every gay boy anymore. If everyone in the room older than forty seemed to smile in recognition at this, it may not be a bad thing that that kind of breathless pantomime of young, unrequited love is no longer automatically understood as an experience common to us all.

Then there's poor Bernard and his confusing dream. That made me smile. There's Gide being funny in a way that need not, I suppose, be entirely appreciated now that sex has largely ceased to be such a prolonged negotiation between the willing and the potential of confusion, disgust and even complete, if not violent rejection. Gide has Bernard's dream speak to possibilities he may never have considered, or even be able to name, though he has the frustrating good grace to treat the matter as more innocent than he suspects it is, and to take on the responsibility to see to it that nothing comes of this dreamy, distracting body-heat, and so gets gently up and dresses before coming back to bed! Bernard has more important things on his mind, you see, things not really relevant to just that paragraph.

Poor Olivier!

I wish I'd been able to talk about what that paragraph was intended to tell without getting all fussed and then hectoring our interlocutor as if he'd suggested that Gide was a bad writer, and we were fools to find him funny or wise. Hardly the poor young man's fault if he hadn't the same experience as me for context, or the habit of reading this kind of coded narrative. Unfortunately, his impatience with the passage set me off not only trying to explain what I'd read in Gide's description of that night in the narrow bed, but from that to a wider argument, hardly justified by the man's honest question, in defense of the subtlety of the novelist's art, the insensitivity of the new, "post-literate" world to appreciate the finesse with which such matters as an unwelcome boner pressed against another boy's back back at four AM might be described, and the generally coarsening of our reading of such things in a time when we have grown accustomed to the explicit. Blah, blah, blah. So sorry, friend.

What Howard Gardner, writing for The Washington Post some years back, called "an ensemble of literacies" -- a phrase that still chills me -- was what I ended up going on about, really. I do think there's an increasing credence given to the idea that an understanding, however crude, of the mechanisms of any kind of narrative communication, from cartoons to video games, and the to me disturbing academic and or philosophic consensus that all and any communication is either equally valid or equally pointless in the attempt, has succeeded mostly in making us insensible to many of the wonders of really good writing. (Of which the preceding sentence is obviously not an example.) That's the argument I started anyway, if nowhere but in my own head.

(Robert Darnton, in his wonderful book, collecting up his essays on Google and the like, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, makes any point I might have been trying to make just now or at book club that night, far better than I might manage. I recommend it.)

What I was trying to do, in addition to making that paragraph make sense for someone for whom it did not, was defend the necessity, as I see it, of what the gentleman next to me at some point called, "writing around" rather than "just saying" a thing, as he seemed to be insisting Gide should have done. My frustration in book club generally, other than my impatience with people present insisting that people in the past ought always to have known better, behaved differently, and been nicer, has I think all to do with my anxiety that even nice people are now impatient with writing, and literature as such. I begin to suspect that we expect to be told not what to think, which would be considered rude by most Americans nowadays, even or specially when we are inclined not to think much at all, but told what everyone else, past and present, was thinking and feeling without the confusing subtleties that make literature superior to any artistic communication other than serious music. Television, film, and the kind of quick content favored on the Internet so often summarize and direct emotions, and fail to even suggest the complexities of actual human interactions, that I begin to worry that much of the best of western literature might someday seem as arcane to future readers as Sanskrit, despite the fact that everyone in the world, it seems, will be speaking some kind of English.

But that's just me making mountains of molehills again, most likely, and talking above my education. Comes of too much time spent reading alone, I suppose. I must try to get out more.

Daily Dose

From Edmund Wilson: Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912 - 1972, selected and edited by Elena Wilson


"I have some respect for Mr. Ray on account of his edition of Thackeray's letters -- though I was slightly annoyed by his following Thackeray's epistolary shorthand so pedantically as to print all his and's as ampersands and his contractions of such common words as should and which, when a note of explanation or the facsimile of the page of a letter would have been enough to indicate this practice and leave the editor free to present a more readable text."

From a letter to The New York Review of Books, dated June 5, 1969

Friday, June 24, 2011

Accepted Illustration

The first illustration accepted for my friend's forthcoming novel. Made me giggle, and he smiled, so that's good.

Daily Dose

From The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, edited by Jay Tolson

"Well, I ain't doing much, and that's a fact. Enjoy yourself while you can, while you're doing a great work about a great thing that already happened. Because it's a different cup of tea when you get back to making up stories."

From a letter of Walker Percy to Shelby Foote, dated October 19, 1973, when Foote was writing his history of the American Civil War.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summer Overreaching

So the summer spree has been flung and another employee shopping day is past. My own discretionary spending has been somewhat curtailed of late by medical bills, so there wasn't quite the personal exuberance of shopping days past. I bought a ream of white paper, a fine-point marker, and four new books. (Took the husband to the hat store next door as well, so that he could finally use the gift certificate he got for Christmas. He bought some new caps to wear on his trip back home to Pennsylvania this summer. His only indulgence at the bookstore this time was fancy chocolate. We did buy some fancy chocolate.) All in all, for us, it was a pretty restrained outing.

Such are the times in which we live, no? Still, the opportunity to buy new books at a higher discount twice a year -- the other shopping day is just before Christmas -- is not something that could be allowed to pass without taking some notice. It is one of the finer things about working in the bookstore, not just having access to new books, but the opportunity to buy them as well. It isn't as if I do not buy new books throughout the year, and usually at a discount, but twice a year the discount is increased enough that I can get books nearly at cost, and that means I may buy new books I might not otherwise, and that I can count on buying certain books, like the latest titles from the Library of America, which I have collected from the inception of the press, at a higher discount, twice a year. In consequence, I save up and set aside these titles, knowing I'll buy them when I can, mostly. (For some authors, I have been unable to wait, but mostly, I've been good.) It isn't just about saving a few extra dollars though, for me at least, it is also about taking advantage of an opportunity to own the kind of books most booksellers, myself included, would have to admit we can not actually afford; in my case, the kind of important, enduringly and attractively made hardcover reissues, mostly, which constitute the core of my personal library.

At least twice a year then, I have to tout the Library of America. In case there is anyone left who has not heard me talk about this wonderful books, or read me raving about them here, let me just say that this nonprofit project, long the dream of many American critics and writers, including our greatest literary critic to date, Edmund Wilson, started publication in 1982. Sadly, Wilson did not live to see what has become the American "La Pléiade", the closest thing we are ever likely to come in this country to having an established canon, published beautifully, in well made books, on acid free paper that will certainly outlive me, if not all of us.

Why is this important? Well, Wilson, among other before and since, including H. L. Mencken, long argued for American literature as a new and important contribution to our literary heritage, championing not just individual American novelists and historians, but the language and experience unique to the American experience. In the age of American cultural hegemony subsequent to the Second World War, an unthinkable development for many before the war and something of a disaster according to many of the major European and even American intellectuals of the postwar scene, American cultural critics argued persuasively for the ascending influence of American artists, composers and filmmakers in the 20th Century. American Literature took considerably longer to find full respectability, at least in part because the relative immaturity of American letters, but also because of a now inexplicable reluctance, perhaps born of academic insecurity, at least before the First World War, to treat American literature as anything other than a largely inferior branch of English. It was the influence of independent American critics, first novelists and critics like Howells and James, and later Mencken and Wilson, professional journalists rather academics, that finally established our place in literature. What we had never had however, until the establishment of the Library of America in 1979, was anything like a representative collection of American classics in a uniform and affordable edition, selected and edited according to the highest academic standard, and published for an American readership. For better than twenty five years, that is exactly what the Library of America has been doing, and doing superbly well.

As a common reader, I have personally benefited from the unique opportunity the Library of America has offered me; there are dozens of American writers in my personal library, thanks to the LIAM editions, I might never have known or read otherwise: writers like Muir and Charles Chesnutt and Sara Orne Jewett, to name just the first few that come to mind. In addition, because of this standard edition of American classics, I now have a library of better known names, like Faulkner and London and Twain, in handsome, lasting hardcover books.

I have not always agreed with every selection made for the Library of America. Heaven knows, there have been writers, like Alcott and Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth, for whom I feel no personal affection even now, but I respect the process that selected these writers for inclusion with old favorites of mine, like James Baldwin, Elizabeth Bishop, and yes, my God, ol' HJ.

Slowly over the years, thanks to the Library of America, my library of Henry James has been building toward a complete edition of the works. It had been awhile since the last volume, and I have often been impatient to see this part of my library finished, but I quite understand the necessity of keeping the larger project going with a full range of American writers; novelists and playwright, historians and historical figures like Washington and Sherman and the rest, but I want my HJ! Imagine my excitement then when I discovered the latest volume of James includes my favorite novel, The Golden Bowl, as well as The Ambassadors, and -- and -- a book I'd never heard of, The Outcry, a novel adapted by James from one of his unsuccessful stage plays! Terribly exciting.

For every volume of the Library of America I've had to look forward to in the past quarter of a century, I've probably bought a dozen other classics, for more than a decade now, in older, used hardcovers. Trusting to the Library of America to eventually produce most of the American classics I will want, I've had to look elsewhere for the English, French and Russian writers I've most wanted to read. A number of these I've been able to acquire in handsome old sets from bookshops and online. I've also counted on the Modern Library and Everyman reissues to fill many of the gaps in my library. After a few disastrous years when the Everyman produced handsome hardcovers without proper dustjackets -- books all but guaranteed to look worn and shabby almost as soon as they were take, new from the shipping boxes -- I assumed a lesson had been learned. Perhaps, but not by Penguin. A wonderful designer was hired to produce wonderful new covers for lots of Penguin paperback classics. The results have been spectacular: vibrant, clever design, resulting in renewed interest in a number of otherwise largely neglected books from the Penguin back catalogue. Why not then have this brilliant young woman design a new series for Penguin, of inexpensive classics, but this time in hardcover? And here you have why this is a bad idea. The titles published in this series to date had all been books I already owned in other attractive editions. I did not, however, have a good hardcover of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Finally there was a new Penguin hardcover I wanted. So I bought it on Employee Shopping Day. I plan to reread the book as soon as I've finished with a few more pressing projects. Well, soon as the price-tag comes off, so does the paint. (See the picture above.) In trying to imitate the more ornate covers of an earlier age, Penguin and their clever designer failed to appreciate that the effects they were after were dependent on considerably higher production values and things like embossing. The result? Painted cloth covers from which the lovely designs will wear away as soon as the books are handled, even lightly. It's rather depressing. (It might be argued that this cheap effect was intentional, and that the expected wear will add to the suggestion of more antique editions. This argument was actually made to me, with a straight face by a publisher's rep, years ago, with reference to the shabby Everyman books similarly published without a thought to anyone ever actually holding, let alone reading the books as printed and bound. Ridiculous. No one, specially the serious reader with a limited budget, buys a new book hoping to make the thing look old within days of its purchase. One buys a hardcover classic to have and to keep, and a new copy rather than a used to have the special pleasure of being that copy's first reader and sole owner, temporarily anyway. No one, I repeat, buys a handsome new book with the idea of owning a shabby new book.)

My purchase at Employee Shopping Day then is an object lesson in how to make, and how not to make, books that will last. I'm confident in the pleasure to be had from all my purchases. I am also reminded of just how badly the need to make a profit, even what I do not doubt will probably only be a slim profit, can undo the best intentions of publishers.

My thanks then again, and always, to the brilliant, subsidized efforts of the Library of America.

Daily Dose

From Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell Perkins, edited by John Hall Wheelock


"Learn about writing from reading. That is the right way to do it. But then it can only be done by those who have eyes and ears, by seeing and listening. Very few great writers had that formal education, and many of them never mastered spelling or grammar. They got their vocabulary by reading and hearing."

From a letter to John H. Mulliken, Jr., dated May 17, 1945

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

All Haggled O'er

For a country boy like my Dad, the auctioneer's job had a certain glamor. Auctioneers stood up out of the mud and the manure. Auctioneers, like as not, wore suits, or at least clean clothes. Dad was dazzled by their spieling; that rapid patter, somewhere between a stutter and a yodel, with which the auctioneer kept the bids going and the excitement up. Dad can still do it himself. Been to a lot of auctions since the heart-attacks retired him, bought "a lot of junk" and sold it on, and he has been known, now and again, to even step up and sell a thing or two at the mic, though he's shy of trying this too often, as his eyesight is not what it was. Also, just the fun of doing the call, once he gets going, tends to end up in an undignified chortle that is not altogether in keeping with the serious business of the platform.

I've been to the auction barns with the folks a few times, and to a farm sale or two. Even went into a book auction once. I found the whole process confusing. Never could quite keep up with either the auctioneer or the bidding. Had no idea, even at the rare book sale, just who was after what or what anything was worth. In fact, the book sale was funny, in a terribly serious way. Never had I seen so many grim faced collectors and or dealers, eyeing each lot and each other as if the last oxygen tank was being offered for bid on the Nautilus, and she was goin' down. In my ignorance of such things, I might add, I saw nothing much come up in the way of antiquarian treasures that seemed all that worthy of such stern concentration. Just books, people.

My father is a salesman, whatever else he's done for a living. He's good at selling anything. He'll talk as long as you want. He may make a deal. I sell books for a living, largely because books are the only thing I know a damned thing about, but I do not make deals. I'll tell you what I know, answer any question I can, but the price is as marked, thank you very much. Likewise, buying used books for the bookstore, I'll make you a bid, which you may take or leave. My feelings won't be hurt if you say no, but I won't haggle. Yes or no, cash or credit, them's your options, friend.

The husband took me to a fancy carpet place one time, and enjoyed a lengthy negotiation over a rug he had no real intention of buying. I had to leave. The rug was beautiful, and I don't doubt dear A. would very much have liked to own it, and as he was then still fully employed and known to occasionally let the piastres ring, he might even have been persuaded to buy the thing, in time, at the "right" price. My good man, however, is a deliberative soul and will not be rushed, mostly. He will take a business card from well nigh anyone offering, but he will usually think better of whatever caught his eye, given time. (Shopping in his retirement, on the Internet, has undone him a bit. You should see all the shoes this man now owns.)

Even had we gone into see the rug merchant with every intention of leaving with a rug, I would not have been able to stand for the haggling. I hate haggling. Whatever other traditions may see in the operation, to my cold, beady, blue eye, such negotiations always have the look of sharp practice. I do not like deals. I do not like the people who offer or make them. I always feel a fool, or worse, suspect I will be taken as such, should anyone suggest that numbers need not be what they seem.

I have a hard enough time with numbers as written.

When we bought my one and only car a dozen years ago, I did research for three months. I read up on mileage, reliability, the lot. I consulted my father long distance. And when the time came, and I knew exactly what I wanted, and what I could afford to pay, I took the husband with me. He has had considerably more experience in this kind of thing. He is a big black man, knows how to wear a tie, and tolerates no nonsense. (As a couple, he has had to talk to every repairman, plumber and rental agent with whom we have ever had any dealing. I don't even like picking out upholstery in public. Give me a catalogue, go away, and I'll send him for you once we've decided.) We got to the lot, I saw my car, checked everything of my list down to the color (blue -- blue cars get fewer speeding tickets) and only then let the husband bring a dealer into it. And when the dealer went "to talk to the boss", before he came back, as agreed, if the price had changed by so much as nickel, we would walk. It did. We did. Dealer pursued, the price went back to his original quote -- about which he then moaned as if he was about to be beaten -- and the contracts were signed. Good car. Keep it 'til the wheels fall off. To be honest though, this is true at least in part because I never want to have to talk to another car salesman.

Every now and again we get someone selling used books who wants to haggle a bit, either for the sport of it, because they think it is expected, or because they suspect the books are worth more than is being offered and they hope to persuade me to reconsider the bid. Never going to happen. Sorry. Thank you for bringing them in, I enjoyed seeing the books. Have a nice day. I don't haggle. I will explain, and answer any question, up to a point, but the bid is what it is.

Now and again, after the bid has been made, a seller might bring to my attention what may indeed have been an oversight. Perhaps I missed something? If so, I'm happy to adjust the totals, if I still want the book. Doesn't happen often, but it has happened. I make no special claim as to any expertise beyond what I should know, but I usually know enough, and I may know something you don't. When I make an offer, I make it in good faith, so if you think you know better, tell me. You just might. If you do, why then, I'm glad of the information. Pipe up. No one is trying to cheat anyone at the desk where I work. (If I pass on what is indeed a most valuable book, I almost always say why, and suggest other dealers who might pay more to have it. Seems only fair.)

A gentleman not so long ago declined the bid I made. Happens. He wanted to review the bid, book by book. I declined. There are always other books to buy, books to be priced, books to be sold, to say nothing here of phones to be answered and my duties elsewhere on the sales floor, to say nothing of my lunch. I wished him well, quite sincerely, and said that I hoped he found another buyer. I even suggested a couple of places he might try. So far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. Had he brought me other books, I would have been happy to look at those, and possibly make an offer on any I thought we might sell. The gentleman was not not happy, I thought. But the gentleman would not take yes for an answer. The gentleman would not leave. The gentleman wanted to haggle, wanted to insist on it, and I would not. The gentleman, frankly, was not very nice.

A week or so ago, the gentleman came back, not with the same books, or with other books, but with just a note. When he came up to the desk, on a Saturday, my busiest day and the only day now when I work the desk alone, the gentleman insisted that he had to speak to me, despite the fact that I was in the middle of no less than three buys, and already in conversation with one of the sellers present. The gentleman was so insistent, and frankly so loud, that having apologized to the other fellow, I stopped what I was doing and took and quickly read the note being thrust under my nose. On the note, in pencil, was a list of roughly half a dozen local used bookshops, in no particular order, and next to the name of each was a number in no particular order either. Took me a minute to remember the gentleman and took me another few seconds to recognize what it was I was meant to glean from the note. "Just FYI," the gentleman kept saying, "just FYI."

What the gentleman's note was meant to show me was the variety of bids he had received from bookstore to bookstore, across the city and elsewhere for the books he'd tried to sell me some time before. The bids varied from as little as sixty dollars, to as much as three hundred dollars for the same books. According to the note, my offer had been one hundred bucks. Truth be told, I could not have said what books these were by then. I barely remembered the gentleman, let alone the amount of the rejected bid. Taking the document on face value, and assuming that the gentleman had indeed carried the same books hither and yon and been offered in each place exactly the amount listed -- facts I saw no point in questioning -- and knowing every shop on the list intimately as a customer and by reputation in the business, my only response was, "And?"

"I just thought I should give you this," the gentleman insisted, "just for your own information. Thought you should see this."

I thanked him, somewhat curtly, and went back to my work, but he would not let the silly business go.

"I though you might appreciate an opportunity to educate yourself," he said.

Had I not been so busy already with business that might actually make the business some money, and had he not been grinning at me quite so smugly, and in so doing had he not reminded me of just how unpleasant he had already been when last we met, I might have stopped to talk. I might have reviewed the gentleman's little list, dealer by dealer, offer by offer, and offered some suggestion, based on my experience, of why each offer might have been what it was. I might have explained how different bookstores have different expectations of the used books they buy; that some sell books at higher prices than others because of different clientele, and so may offer sellers higher bids for the books they buy, that some dealers are willing to sit on their stock, at whatever price is assigned, for as long as it takes to sell the book. I might have explained that the kind of business we are in at the bookstore where I work demands a higher turn-over of stock than many smaller shops require, that our prices tend to be, in many instances, lower, and in consequences our bids as well, because we intend to sell most of our used books in roughly a year's time, if not sooner. I might have offered my personal opinion of some of the dealers on the gentleman's little list, and pointed out those I thought either inconsistent because of their staffing, or suspiciously eager to spend their employer's money on books that may end up being sold individually by third parties, shall we say, in venues other than the bookstore to which they were sold. I might have said a great deal. We might, in other circumstances, have had an interesting, and possibly enlightening conversation. I might have learned something, and so might he, though honestly, I doubt it.

I let him talk. "Did you see that offer of three hundred dollars?" he asked me. I told him I had, and trying to be friendly, said I sure hoped he'd taken the three hundred dollars. I went on with my work. "You don't seem to understand how this works," he said, clearly disappointed that I neither blushed nor barked, "you need to learn how to haggle."

"No," I said, "I don't."

And there, ended. Eventually, the gentleman drifted stormily away. "What an asshole," said the seller at the desk, waiting so patiently for the most instructive gentleman to finish talking, and thus becoming, in that moment, a favorite of mine.

I do not begin to understand what satisfaction the gentleman hoped to have of me, or why he might have thought I would give it. Who throws gauntlets, nowadays -- and at busy little book clerks, at that? (Like Shakespeare's warrior king, as Hazlitt said of horrible old Henry V, his "will is only then triumphant when it is opposed to the will of others," I suppose. What a terrible combat the gentleman must wage, it seems, how many miles he must travel, just to sell a bag of old books. The maintenance of such raw dignity must pinch dreadfully, to say nothing of the cost.)

It is true, I am disinclined by disposition and principle to see any point in haggling, ever. To my mind, such behavior is a relic of market day and the souk, of the primitive business of doing business without access to paper and pen, when prices of necessity were set as they were spoken, to buyers who may or may not have been able to read them had they been written down. Honest or dishonest, fair or not, the merchant who had to negotiate with every customer did only what he had to at the time, and it came to expected, I suppose, perhaps even enjoyed as part of the day's conversation between the fishmonger and the Mam', the jeweler and the jade, etc. I count myself lucky then to not be pushing a cart, or spreading books on a blanket, as happens still, in some unhappy corners of the world, indeed, even on the sidewalks of our greatest cities. I work in a bookstore, with calculators and computers and ready cash. I have bought and sold books now, new and used, for a quarter of a century. I am myself honest and am lucky enough to work with and for honest people. (It was not always so.) I am lucky also to deal almost exclusively with the same, every day at the buyer's desk. I like to think that by now I may know, without the gentleman's tutoring, roughly what I am doing. It is not then just my personal dislike of such petty negotiations, but the absence of any need to haggle that makes the gentleman's behavior so... embarrassing.

Godspeed, Sir. I hope you spare the ox a little, for mercy's sake, when next you go to market, elsewhere.

(You never did tell me, did you accept the three hundred dollars bid?)

Daily Dose

From The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell


"All that he had ever wanted, he had now. All that was lost had come back to him, just because he had been patient."

From Chapter 41

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, by Jose Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero


"We all make the best of our life and prepare for death, and what a lot of work that gives us."

From Pg. 220

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Selected Letters of Dawn Powell: 1913 - 1965, edited by Tim Page


"The dowdy and soppy aspects of Dickens have been drummed into us for so long that the sheer wit and brilliance of many passages have been neglected. (...) The reason for the durability of these bubbles is that they are actually not superficial or mere smart fizz but are genuine champagne from the very best grapes and the very best-manured soil."

From a letter to editor, Monroe Stearns, dated July 21, 1959

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bounded in by Experience

Here's where the Victorians had it all over the likes of me. In the first place, they believed, as perhaps no one had since Milton went blind, or ever will again, and it was the fervor with which the Victorians believed, in everything from the steam-engine to Empire, God's grace to good beef, offspring to the education thereof, that made them the greatest believers in books in the history of the Western world. The idea not just that everyone should be able to read, but that everyone ought to, was perhaps the most natural and most lasting manifestation of the the great Victorian expansion of intellectual possibility. They believed that the heathen might be brought to the light not just by the missionary, but the Bible, that the sinner might be redeemed by a tract, that sermons should be read, that poetry could be popular in a poor school, that Shakespeare should be packed with a soldier's provisions, that the novel should teach, that books could build roads, and agriculture made a science, and science diagrammed, the truth printed, and the world made, if not one, then better yet, and better still, and better by books. In the whole history of the written word, there is nothing like the faith invested by the Victorians in their books. It's an irony, if not a damned shame, that the generations that made the book into the birthright of every English speaking person, male and female, born in a cottage in the Cotswolds, or a cabin in Knob Creek, Kentucky, that such an extraordinarily generous, optimistic, enthusiastic, revolutionary age should be remembered as a watchword for narrowness; priggish, censorious and stiff. However comic we may now rightly find the Victorian proprieties that supposedly insisted that even a table-leg might cause a blush unless it was covered with a cloth and called a "limb," it should be remembered that Victorian fathers taught their daughters to read, when their grandmothers may not have known how, that the first serious adult education of working men and women was undertaken by Victorians, that those who might not afford the pennies that each number of the new Dickens' novel cost, would pool their money so that they might read it together.

That was the audience that went to hear Thackeray lecture on "The English Humorists", and there's where I feel most bitterly the inferiority of my position in planning an evening devoted to reading Thackeray aloud, to mark the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. Forget for the moment my own inadequacies as a reader and performer. Thackeray himself, though obviously a great writer and a master of comic prose, may not have been so very impressive at the lectern. Trollope, himself never having heard Thackeray read, in his brief biography of the elder novelist, has this to say about that:

"'He pounded along,--very clearly,' I have been told; from which I surmise that there was no special grace of eloquence, but that he was always audible. I cannot imagine that he should have been ever eloquent. He could not have taken the trouble necessary with his voice, with his cadences, or with his outward appearance. I imagine that they who seem so naturally to fall into the proprieties of elocution have generally taken a great deal of trouble beyond that which the mere finding of their words has cost them. It is clearly to the matter of what he then gave the world, and not to the manner, that we must look for what interest is to be found in the lectures."

And yet, the people came out to hear the great novelist, all over Great Britain, and in America too. Why? With Dickens it is easier to understand. Dickens was an actor of genius, by all reports, and to see him perform all the parts in the famous courtroom scene from The Pickwick Papers; changing first from round little Pickwick into loud Mr Serjeant Buzfuz, and then to the judge and then "the injured party," etc., must have been a treat. Dickens' audiences roared with laughter, and wept, Dickens broke and died in the doing of it. But Thackeray? He was no actor. His voice was, at best, "pleasant", his lectures, while funny -- really, genuinely funny still -- were, after all, just that, lectures.

His audiences though were of his own time and his was an age eager for lectures; for education, for history, for books, for authors, for novels and novelists, for words, large and small, and for ideas likewise. It would seem extraordinary, unbelievable if it were not true, but in the glory days of Victoria's reign, and even after, down at least until The Great War blew that world to bits, one might fill a hall with working men and women who would pay to sit and listen to anything from a description of a trip down the Nile to a lecture on Browning's poetry.

It was all to do with books, you see, with the centrality of books, and their faith in the power of books to raise up anyone with access to what might be best in them, that made the Victorians so uniquely susceptible to being read at, to reading to one another, to not just reading, but listening to books being read aloud.

This may sound like pleading for a larger audience than our little anniversary reading is likely to get, or whining in anticipation of an inattentive audience. Nothing of the kind. In my experience to date, the audiences for this sort of thing at the bookstore have been marvelous, if small, it's true. I have nothing to complain of on this score. Even those hearty souls not present expressly as personal friends, have, in my mind at least, been uniformly attentive, friendly and unaccountably generous to our every effort. Bless them.

My difficulty, the problem I have that makes me envy Thackeray his crowds, is all to do with the trying to shape what we will read to these good people into something that might please and surprise them, something that while still recognizably Thackeray's, might require no more explanation than I might offer were we to read Twain, or something as familiar as Dickens, and finish in something less than an hour! Bloody Victorians, it seems, would willingly sit in an inadequately heated hall, on hard benches no doubt, for no less than three hours, to hear what Mr. William Makepeace Thackeray might have to say about English kings named George, etc. I have to cut down a story running to roughly thirty pages, a story with much that while it might have been perfectly familiar to its original readers will be unknown to a contemporary audience -- things like "broughams" and "nibs" and whatnots -- and in so doing keep not only the plot and the sense of the thing, but the humor of it, as that's the main business of the evening, as planned. It's me, and the hard business of editing and practice, that has me worried.

What I want is for anyone who might happen in that evening is that they should laugh with us, enjoy themselves generally, and leave with some new or renewed curiosity about the author of Vanity Fair. What I hope for and am working toward is that our small efforts might rekindle something of the magic of the shared Victorian experience of being read to, and of hearing a little something of one of the greatest comic novelists of his or any age.

And so I white-out and edit, highlight and hurry the thing along, trying always to keep everything that I can of what makes the thing good, without making the thing incomprehensible to anyone without an open copy of the story in his or her lap. Great as Thackeray is, good as the short story I've selected still seems to me, I can't help but worry that I do the great man and his stuff justice, else why undertake the thing in the first place?

And in answer to that, and in justification of reviving the tradition of reading aloud in even so small a way as I might hope to do, I might offer the following from Sir Francis Bacon's essay, "On Studies":

“Natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience.”

I can only hope that my experience, my little talent, such as it is, my niggling and jiggering and pasting and pruning, my reading and rereading, will be enough not only to amuse for forty minutes a sympathetic audience on a Thursday night in a bookstore, but in taking this time to try to get the thing right, I might, for an hour or so, make proper Victorians of us all, and send us all back to our books, and Thackeray's, specially.

Why not?

One must have faith, I find. I'm a believer.

Daily Dose

From In the South Seas, by Robert Louis Stevenson


"He went to his post and did no good. He returned home again, having done no harm. O si sic omnes!"

From Chapter V, King and Commons, The Gilberts

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions, by Kingsley Amis


"1847, which saw the appearance of Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, must have been an annus horriblis for Dickens."

From The Cockney Homer

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mrs. Humphry Ward on Sensational Fiction, Sufferage, and the Servant Problem

Special to The Wall Street Journal, June 4th, 1911. (Reprinted with the kind permission of the authoress and the Quarterly Review of the Anti-Suffrage League)

Contemporary fiction for domestics & humble persons is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

Mrs. Albert Bunthorn-Pandowdy, wife and mother of thirteen, recently stood amidst the cheap paper novel section of her local commercial library, in Minge Lane, Worcestershire, feeling thwarted and disheartened.

She had popped into the shop to pick up something edifying as a present for an elderly housekeeper, long attached to the family, who had been unwell with an attack of dropsy. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving a servant. It was all vampires and suicide and white slavery, these dark, dark stuffs." She left the store empty-handed.

How dark is contemporary fiction for the lower classes? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at menials from the ages of 12 to 80.

Depravities that were unmentionable in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get the lowest musical hall turn banned from the stage, in these new sensational novels, is so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show one the world, yellow fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but the careless humble person —or one who seeks out depravity—will find herself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

Now, whether you care if servants spend their half-day immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn't turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won't make a schoolboy break the honor code. But the calculus that many respectable persons make is less crude than that: It has to do with a dependent's happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.

If you think it matters what is inside a servant's mind, surely it is of consequence what he or she reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for respectable families with children and help living-in, it is also everlastingly new. Innocence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn't, on a personal level, really signify.

As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with vulgar literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to working persons and some not. As elsewhere in civilized life, the 1860s and 1870s changed everything. In 1861, Mrs. Henry Wood published "East Lynne," a raw and striking novel that dealt directly with class tensions, family dysfunction and violent, disaffected youth. It launched an industry.

Mirroring the tumultuous times, dark topics began surging on to common people's bookshelves. A purported diary published anonymously in 1871, the title of which I will not name, recounts a girl's spiral into drug addiction, rape, prostitution and a fatal overdose. Shockingly, more than one stage adaptation brought this horrible fiction to the attention of still more vulnerable persons. The writer Mr. Wilkie Collins is generally credited with having introduced utter hopelessness to sensational narratives. His 1866 novel, "Armadale," relates the delirium of a traumatized youth who learns of his fathers' murder by his uncle, and it does not (to say the least) have a happy ending.

Grim though these novels are, they seem positively tame in comparison with what's on shelves now. In one of these so-called "Shilling Shockers," "The Wolves of Peking," for example, young Dora is drugged, abducted and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, she encounters a sinister Chinese who transports her into an alternate world of almost unimaginable depravity and cruelty. Moments after arriving she finds herself facing a great heap of horrors, "covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, unimaginable horrors. "'Where, oh where have you brought me, you Yellow Demon?!' cried Dora." No happy ending to this one, either.

The argument in favor of such novels is that they describe the uglier aspects of real life, giving voice to tortured souls who would otherwise be voiceless. If an unfortunate has been abused, the logic follows, reading about other unfortunates in the similar straits will be comforting and instructive. If a girl has been threatened by a cad, and forced to defend herself, she will find succor in reading about another girl whose virtue has been likewise compromised, eventually learning to manage her emotional turbulence without resort to the opium and the like.

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on such horrors help normalize them and, in the case of corruption, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme misbehavior. Self-destructive associations are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.

It is just subversive nonsense to talk this way. A dreadfully vulgar book by one "King Brady, Detective", the Reformatory School for Wayward Girls Library Journal inexplicably called "one heck of a good book." This American "Dime Novel" ran into difficulties earlier this year at the Boone County Library in Kentucky, but not just because of its contents. A patron complained that the book's illustrated jacket, which depicts a distressed woman swooning into the arms of a sinister dark man, might trigger a sufferer's relapse. That the protagonist's guardian has been cruelly misusing her since she was a babe and is trying to engineer her suicide would seem not to have been an issue for the committee of librarians re-evaluating the book.

"Books like these, made of such questionable material, provide teachable moments for the family," say the presumably socialist librarians, the suffragettes usually adding: "We like to have the more traditional perspective, but we do try to target the masses because it is they who're reading the stuff, and that's who, we feel, most need the Vote!" The book stayed on the shelves.

Perhaps the quickest way to grasp how much more lurid these revolting books have become is to compare two authors: the original, and now sadly neglected Mrs. Gaskell and a younger writer recently hailed by The Bookman's Companion as "this generation's Gaskell."

The real Mrs. Gaskell won millions of readers (and the disapprobation of some) with then-daring novels such as 1848's "Mary Barton," which dealt with a girl from a factory town, and 1853's "Ruth," which addresses a sweatshop girl's loss of self respect in scenes of earnest practicality. Objectionable the material may be for some readers, but it's not grotesque.

By contrast, the latest novel by "this generation's Gaskell," otherwise unknown to me, save as a notorious associate of the Pankhursts, takes place in a women's prison in the aftermath of an riot. The girl has been savagely beaten and left tied up with a so-called forced feeding nozzle shoved down her throat, and she may not live. The protagonist, a 16-year-old girl and once a close friend of the victim, is herself yet to recover from a vile slum upbringing; assorted locals, meanwhile, reveal themselves to be in the grip of radical ideas, booze and dope. Determined in the face of supposed police indifference to investigate the attack on her friend, the girl relives her own assault (thus taking readers through it, too) and acquaints us with the concept of "bad girls," fallen young women who engage in unspeakable acts for drugs. The author makes free with language that can't be reprinted in a newspaper.

In the book business, none of this is controversial, and, to be fair, the suffragette's work is not unusually profane. Foul language is widely regarded among librarians, reviewers and booksellers as perfectly unexceptionable, provided that it emerges organically from the characters and the setting rather than being tacked on for sensation. In any case, with her depiction of ruffians, radicals and immigrants with opium-addled sensibilities, the language is probably apt.

But whether it's language that responsible persons want their servants reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to decent people of whatever station who object either to the words or stories in cheap books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Book Peddler's Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into respectable shops, to strip blasphemies from a sensational novel, "The Inexcusable Mr. Potter," which revolves around a thuggish schoolboy and the destruction of school property he commits. "I don't, as a rule, like to do this with popular titles," the editor grumbled, "I don't want to compromise on free speech. I don't want to acknowledge those d____ed gatekeepers."

By d____ed gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), he meant those who think it's appropriate to guide what simpler persons read. In the book trade, this is known as "banning." In society, however, we call this "judgment" or "taste." It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of one's employee's life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!"

It is of course understood to be an act of literary heroism to stand against any constraints, no matter the position of one's readers; Some otherwise undistinguished editor told Ladies Weekly that the "new" author "has been on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression."

An American novelist of savage ancestry was recently quoted saying; "There's nothing in my book that even compares to what folks can find on the street corner in the Bowery."

Oh, well, that's all right then. Except that it isn't. It is no comment on the red gentleman's work to say that one depravity does not justify another. If humble people are encountering ghastly things on the street, that's a failure of their betters to protect them, not an excuse for more license of wickedness.

A lady of my acquaintance who's husband is a respected publisher, traces part of the problem to aesthetic coarseness in some younger publishers, editors and writers who, she says, "are used to the vulgar music halls and violent stage melodramas and they love that stuff. So they think that one's maid should love that stuff and not be affected by it. And I don't think that's possible."

In an effort to keep the most grueling material out of the hands of impressionable readers, Mrs. Grundy and her colleagues at The London Lending Library for Those In Genteel Service, an independent charity shop, created a special "For the Gentlemen Only" nook for senior male staff in the better homes. With some unease, she admits that creating a separate section may inadvertently lure the attention of younger footmen and the like, keen to seem older than they are.

At the same time, she notes that many working people, including the majority of junior servants, may not read at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby charity school, only three of the visiting waifs said that they could read. Just as well, perhaps?

So it may be that the book industry's ever-more-appalling offerings for humble readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books interesting to the younger sort of workers. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; respectable homeowners and the better sort of person, ought not be daunted by cries of censorship. No lady or gentleman is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness, suffrage or misery into their servant's and dependent's lives.

Daily Dose

From Bernard Shaw's Letters to Siegfried Trebitsch, edited by Samuel A. Weiss


"Now the value of a steel helmet depends on whether there are any brains inside it; and people with brains are usually sensible enough to prefer a more conventional headgear."

From a letter dated, "Whitehall Court SW, 29 November 1929"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Friar's Song, a poem by William Makepeace Thackeray


Daily Dose

From An Autobiography, by Anthony Trollope


"This, however, I think may be said to you, without doubt as to the wisdom of the counsel given, that if it be necessary for you to live by your work, do not begin by trusting to literature."

From Chapter XI, (Absolute Advice is Impossible)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Age of Wisdom

Daily Dose

From The Counterfeiters, by Andre Gide, translated by Dorothy Bussy


"When a big, strong, matter-of-fact man, who has made his way through life and is firmly established in his career, suddenly throws aside all decorum and pours out his heart before a stranger, he affords him (in this case it was I) a most singular spectacle."

From Chapter XIII, Edouard's Journal: Douviers' Profitendieu

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Sorrows of Werther, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Daily Dose

From Christmas Books & Ballads, by William Makepeace Thackeray


"The reader is worthless for liking a book of which all the characters are worthless, except two, which are offered to his respectful admiration; and of these two the author does not respect one, but struggles not to laugh in his face; whilst he apparently speaks of another in a tone of religious reverence because the lady is a countess, and because he (the author) is a sneak."

From The Preface to the Second Edition, Being an Essay on Thunder and Small Beer, fromThe Kikleburys on the Rhine

Monday, June 13, 2011

More Big Heads

After yet another staff meeting, there was quite a crop of melons. I recommended doodling big heads a few days ago, to pass the time in meetings. As can be seen here, I've been doing just that this past week. I don't say that these have any special artistic value. I don't generally go in for this sort of caricature, though I appreciate it's masters, such as the late David Levine, of the NYRB. Obviously, a better grasp of anatomy, among other things, would be a prerequisite, as well as more recognizable subjects, or at least historically consistent costumes, etc. When I do my literary caricatures, I tend to get a little too involved in my subjects' faces to leave much room for the rest of them. Now and again, a hand pops up, once in a great while, I'll attempt a full figure. Takes more time than it sometimes seem worth doing, mostly, considering the audience for my more concentrated efforts, namely folks at the bookstore and my few visitors here. Unlike my more usual doodles, these were not taken from life, but wholly imagined. I find it best not to draw coworkers very often, specially when crowded 'round a conference table. I will do, but there's too great a chance of displeasing people sitting right there, which can be embarrassing for all parties, so I tend to keep such doodles from life, at least those taken at meetings, to myself. Safer just to invent grotesques, I find, than to suggest that any might be participating in team building, not that any do, of course, in so bucolic a setting as a bookstore staff meeting. Other than me, I mean.