Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monday, April 29, 2013

Three Limericks of Edward Lear

Daily Dose

From The Lives of the English Poets, by Samuel Johnson


"A little knowledge of the world is sufficient to discover that such weakness is very common, and that there are few who do not sometimes in the wantonness of thoughtless mirth, or the heat of transient resentment, speak of their friends and benefactors with levity and contempt, though in their cooler moments, they want neither sense of their kindness, nor reverence for their virtue."

From Life of Savage

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Quick Review

Been having some interesting conversations in the bookstore lately about genre.  One of the great benefits of working in a large store has always been the diversity of the staff; a lot of people means a lot of very different reading, among my younger coworkers specially.  There are unapologetic fans of everything from poetry to mysteries, and, as one might think in a bookstore with the best selection of Science Fiction in the region, more than a few enthusiasts and students of everything from classic space operas to the most cerebral of "speculative fiction."  Beyond the obvious retail utility of all these opinions mixing, it is refreshing to hear so many readers open to other people's recommendations, and recommendations from outside the membership, as it were.  As the traditional, now all too last-century, divisions of genre have been breaking down, and literary fiction becomes less and less a matter of critical and or academic canon,  it can be rather thrilling to hear, for example, from a fan of Aimee Bender why a fan of the weirder works of Joyce Carol Oates -- me -- might enjoy The Girl in the Flammable Skirt -- which I very much did.  Is there anyone still who would dismiss either writer as a "horror writer"?

I want to say a word though in defence of genre.  Even as contemporary, fine artists continue to explore and mix the pop and the respectable in ever new and interesting ways, there's something to be said for those who can craft a well-made, satisfying, entirely conventional object.  Not every chair needs less than four legs, not every thing needs to be new.

When I was a boy, my graduation, if you will, from little kids' comic books -- Little LuLu and Scrooge McDuck and the like -- wasn't so much to super hero books, which always rather bored me, though I read them, but rather to horror.  I loved horror movies.  I loved horror comics.  I'm just old enough to have caught the tail of the last silver age of horror comics.  The still shocking productions of the Fifties; full of the most graphic gore and violence, had already been suppressed,  but there were still amazingly clever artists and writers producing wonderfully twisted stuff.  I couldn't get enough of it, in part at least, I should think, because my mother, bless 'er, found the lot of it repugnant.  "What," she used demand with appropriately Victorian gestures of dismay, turning from Tales of the Crypt, "what appeals to you in that nasty stuff?!"  Exactly.

I won't review the whole history of the form.  Another day.  I will say that at nine, I did not really appreciate the more Hitchcockian stories of murderous infidelity and revenge.  I liked monsters: bloodthirsty, fiendish, deformed, and yes, now and then, misunderstood -- though I had yet to have much appreciation of satire, or comedy in general, so I did not like trick nightmare awakenings, joke endings and the like.  I liked monsters with consequences, and threatening mystery.  Still do.  (Though I like to think I've grown into a sense of humor.  Little boys can be so very serious.)

I very seldom read comic books as-such anymore, at least not by the issue, so I tend to only come across new things when published in book form.  Thus the new-ish book from Image Comics, Severed.  Everything about this one immediately appealed to my vestigial nine-year-old-boy: from the title to the design, even to the wonderfully familiar trick of the monster peeping through the shredded cover.  Yeah!

The book itself did not disappoint.  Written by two Scotts, Snyder & Tuft (sounds like a forgotten vaudeville "Dutch" act,) and handsomely drawn by one Attila Futaki, this is the best of what fidelity to form can do.  I was put in mind immediately of the best remembered monsters of my childhood.  What's different about this is the time clearly taken, and the care.  There is a visual lavishness, an attention to detail and pallet, and a more leisurely, or better, a more cinematic pace to the frights that tells of a labour undertaken from love, for the pure pleasure in making a thing well, rather than to a deadline or just as a job of work.

The monster here is likewise a familiar enough fellow; the friendly adult who actually means to eat you up -- think Hansel & Gretel, by way here of Hammer Studio.  There's a classic framing device and most of the story a remembered nightmare from childhood.  (I won't spoil the pleasure of the thing for anyone by noting too the absolutely correct and suggestively indefinite ending.)

A very professional job, this, and happily so, though improved, as I've said already by the entirely modern resources of enthusiastic young artists paying tribute to the horrors of a bygone time.  (Even the historical setting in a pre-electronic age, but in a time not so remote from modernity as to indicate the traditional, and safely remote fairytale was a perfect choice.)

I might cavil here or there with the unwelcome reminders of the original, serial  publication; the time taken by the monster with our protagonist feels a bit unjustified by his talents and charms, the necessity of stepping behind a curtain more than once to make what is pretty much the same shock as the last time, but this is quibbling  stuff.  The shocks are good ones and as satisfying as a familiar roller coaster.

What I like best here is the very avoidance of unnecessary and self-conscience explanation or fustian myth remaking, or sneaking parody.  (Fantasy as genre has much to answer for, and not the least of it, the grinding anthropology of begats and back-stories.)  I also hate winking.  This is the thing well done, and without irony, or embarrassment.

for all my enjoyment of variation and innovation, for genre-flipping and commentary, there is nothing better, when the night is coming on, and the window's open to let in the air and the dark, than a well-made monster before bedtime.

Daily Dose

From Never Trust a Man Who Doesn't Drink, by W. C. Fields


"My illness is due to my doctor's insistence that I drink milk, a whitish fluid they force down helpless babies."

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Another Left Behind

 Here's another little thing, no bigger than that, from the bottom of a box of books.  A tourist's souvenir, provided  by the hotel, as can be seen on the last page -- reproduced at the bottom of the post -- which advertises "Champlain steamers lade at the foot of the grounds four times daily."
 I haven't any connection I'm aware of with upstate NY, and no reason to think I'll ever be tempted to explore the natural beauties of the Ausable Chasm, chasms never having been much to my liking.  I assume that the scenes depicted are still there to be seen, though presumably not the hotel.  (A quick glance via the interwebs finds no such.)
 What I like about this little cardboard book, and what made me keep it out of the box of discards, is nothing really to do with the urge to visit natural wonders.  I'm not one for charming old inns for that matter.  I like that the object itself has survived.  I think it quite beautiful.  There's no date in it, no acknowledgement of a photographer, no suggestion even of a printer.  From the room-tates listed, starting at four dollars a night at the Inn, I have to assume this dates from some time at the turn of the last century or thereabouts.  Other than that, I don't really know, or need to know anything else about it.  It has survived and that alone is suggestive.
 Was it a memento of a long ago trip, perhaps a honeymoon?  Seems a beautiful spot.  Not my idea of a romantic vacation, paddling a rowboat between rock walls, but there are the falls to be seen, perhaps even at night, and a broad lawn for picnics at the hotel.  One could do worse.  Anyway, someone tucked this little book away for more years than I've been alive.  Someone attached some significance to these scenes.

And it is, or was, at least in these beautiful photographs, all rather dreamy and sunlit; there's a shine to even the most placid waters, and a grandeur to this place I'll never go.   These a suggestion to my eye of lost time, even a timelessness in which to lose oneself, if only for the few minutes it takes to study the few pages here.

I've resisted the urge to look up these same scenes now.  Easy enough to do, I should think, if I wanted to.  I can't help picturing parking-lots now, and motor-coaches disgorging people who only look at it all later, on their phones.  If the place is now unrecognizable, that would be a pity, but not a surprise.  Instead, I think I prefer to just look at this discarded little book, and explore the photographs rather than the place itself.

There is something genuinely beautiful in this for being lost.  That's enough, of itself, to find something lovely and mysterious at the bottom of a dusty box of books.

Daily Dose

From Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems, by Tess Gallagher


behind the cottage, stealing in daylight
from the bird feeder.  Josie
is not amused.  Soon I don't
see them anymore.
Months later I come across
rat poison under
a flower pot and learn
their fate.  From bonanza
to the last gate.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Final Harvest, by Emily Dickinson


To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it --
Block it up
With Other -- and t'will yawn the more --
You cannot solder an Abyss
With Air.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Rambler, by Samuel Johnson


"Men seldom give pleasure where they are not pleased themselves."

From Miseries of Old Age, #69

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Good Life

The distance between the good life and a good life may be no more more than a change of article.  The good life is the preoccupation of moral philosophers and the people who advertise beer.  The latter is a phrase usually reserved to obsequies.  I've neither the qualifications nor the occasion to review or dispute the philosophers, and now is not the moment to critique the vulgar usage of the advertisers.  I  would however argue, if just from instinct, that as near as we can come to the good, most of us, myself included, is by example.  Bryan Pearce was a good man.  He died Friday.   

He was my boss at the University Book Store.  He was also of course a husband and a father, the CEO of the company, a force in both the business of independent and college bookstores, a devoted graduate and supporter of the University of Washington.  I'll let other speak to all that.  Bryan's was a life and a career that effected more people, I suspect, than he knew.  I came to know him at work.

Even that seems to imply a greater intimacy to our relationship than there may actually have been, for which I'm afraid I'd have to blame Bryan.  He was a gentleman.  He invariably said, even of someone as remote from his position in the company as me, that we "worked together."  He also used the word "team" in contexts outside of organized sports. When we met and for some time thereafter I was, I confess, suspicious of such inclusive language, which to my old ears, tuned to the somewhat cynical sounds of socialism and class-divisions, smacked of the School of Business and an MBA.  Likewise "family," another word of which Bryan was fond, when used in reference to employer and employees, in my previous experience was more usually deployed as a rhetorical device preceding the announcement of some unpleasant or exploitative change in either benefits or hours or both.  Bryan's sincerity was new to me in a man in his position, at least when addressing a man in mine.

Our very first conversation of more than a few words was indicative of this misunderstanding.  I hadn't been working for him very long when the decision was taken somewhere well off the sales floor to stop calling people like me "clerks."  I learned about this from a recorded message on the store's phones -- we used to have advertisements and announce forthcoming events intermittently while the "hold" music played.  Calling back and forth every day between the branches of the bookstore to arrange book transfers and the like, I heard those messages a lot.  (Selfishly then, I am not sorry they're gone.)  One day the message included the injunction to, "just ask one of our sales associates if you have any questions!"  (All those messages came with exclamation marks.)  In my opinion, there have been few developments in contemporary management culture more tin-eared than this practice of calling clerks, "sales associates."  "Clerk" is a word nearly as venerable as the language.  "Bookseller" is a good one too, even better as it more exactly describes what it is I do (hopefully) every working day.  I do not, even on my worst day, "associate" with sales.  The idea is to make sales, not sidle up to them at a party.  I understand the urge to flatter relatively low paid workers by giving us airs rather than raises, but I've neither a law degree nor any need of being made to feel better in this way about selling books.  I like what I do.

All of which arguments I eventually made to my immediate supervisor after listening to that damned phone-message for the hundredth time.  She, quite rightly if discouragingly suggested I take the matter up with the boss.  Now, as I've said, heretofore we had exchanged no more than an introduction and the usual morning pleasantries.  Still, I had what someone's grandmother would probably have described as "a bee in my bonnet," so off I went to the third floor offices.  Bryan's door was always open.  (It really nearly always was.)  In I went.

Looking back, I imagine myself intruding into Bryan's office for the first time in something like the character of Pappy Yokum.  For any not old enough to remember the comic strip Lil' Abner, Pappy was his short and short-tempered father, notorious for jumping up and down in a state usually described as being "hoppin' mad." I'm sure I looked a little mad indeed.  Bryan smiled.  He did that nearly all the time.  Without much more than a by-your-leave, I'm pretty sure I launched into the same arguments against the phrase "sales associates" made above, though not so concisely as this and with, I do not doubt, an unseemly passion for an unscheduled business meeting.  Bryan listened.  He did that.  On and on I went.  I remember describing that idiotic phrase, "sales associate" as both meaningless and "an abuse of the language."  I specifically remember that rather windy pomposity as something like my last word on the subject.  As I've said, I talked, Bryan listened.  He did that.  He may have asked me a question or two.  He did that too.  I can't remember.  I do remember that at some point he stopped smiling.  Instead, he leaned in.  His expression quickly changed to one of calm concern.  His interest I eventually came to recognize as genuine, though at the time I remember something like panic coming over me at the intensity of his gaze.  I may have mistaken his sympathy for something else.  He proved to be a most sympathetic character over the years.  I hadn't the experience yet or the simple common sense to see this at the time.  When I finally ran out of gas, he acknowledged my obvious discomposure and thanked me for bringing my concerns to his attention.  (He may have used the word "feedback."  The man did talk that way.)  I left feeling I'd done nothing much but proved myself a perfect ass.

Then the phone-message changed.  it wasn't immediate, but it did change.  That it changed was not due to my ranting, but was instead entirely the result of the management of Bryan Pearce.  He listened.  Even to me he listened.  More importantly, he actually sought out the opinions of the people most immediately effected by this and nearly every other decision, major or minor that he made, invariably in the hope of making the bookstore a better place.

It's a trivial anecdote, hardly worth recording.  It does however suggest something not only of our relationship but of the man's remarkable patience and complete sincerity.  I can not emphasize how much I came to rely on the first and trust the second.  Bryan invariably meant what he said.  That is a rare thing in my experience of bosses, and of men, come to that.  When he asked for my opinion, he meant it. Though I can't but think he must have regretted the question more than once, he never stopped asking.  When he said he shared my concerns, he did.  When he said he would follow up on something, he did.

If that had proved to be the whole of my experience with him, he would still have had my respect and I would still have cause to regret his untimely retirement, and now his passing.  He proved to be a most unlikely and powerful ally in every small effort or initiative I made to improve either my job or the bookstore.  His backing of the idea, and management of the practicalities involved, is the reason we sell used trade books.  He was a very real collaborator, not just another man at a meeting.  He made a point of introducing me at the used books desk to nearly every visitor he ever brought to the sales floor.  He asked me to appear on a panel on selling used books at a conference of college bookstores.  He encouraged me to write about my love of old books as well as new.  He laughed at the affectionate caricature I drew of him as a gift, and touchingly, asked if he could keep it.  He came to hear the very first reading I ever gave in the bookstore.  I'll always be grateful to him as much for his enthusiasm as his patience.

His enthusiasm for the bookstore, and his genuine belief in the company's mission; to serve the students, faculty and staff of the University, was truly a wonderful thing to see.  The was no better advocate for the bookstore to the campus and no one more devoted to meeting the needs of the University's students.  It was quite obvious he loved his job.  He loved the place.  He loved the school.  Even in difficult times for college bookstores, he loved coming to work and believed in what we do.

When a friend and coworker died some years ago, we had a memorial service after hours at the bookstore.  Bryan of course spoke.  I did too.  I'd never seen the man cry before.  I was moved to see him so moved.

When we started having our annual employee banquet at the bookstore a few years ago, somebody -- it may have been Bryan for all I know -- decided to hire a DJ for the party.  Bryan loved that event, and clearly looked forward to it every year.  He handed out awards and door prizes.  He worked the room and talked to everybody.  He was clearly very much in his element;  telling everyone how wonderful we all were, what wonderful work we all did together, what a special place we were privileged to occupy in service to a great University.  He meant every word.  The first year we had the DJ at the party, it seemed as though no one was going to dance.  Everyone sat at the tables and smiled as awkwardly as teenagers at their first formal.  Finally a coworker claimed the floor with a rather freely interpreted twist.  I joined her. Eventually a lot more people turned out.  At some point I spotted Bryan, grinning at the information desk, not dancing.  We dragged him onto the floor.  He was a very good sport indeed.

At last year's banquet, which sadly proved to be his last, he was already quit ill.  He had to sit on the grand staircase and let others distribute the prizes after awhile.  Nothing, however, would have kept him from at least sitting there, smiling.

I've worked for a lot of men.  There haven't been too many of them who danced with me.

In just the last year or so, when it became increasingly obvious that he was ill, I would watch him in the mornings when he would come down to the sales floor alone.  He would often just walk about the place, smiling.  The last time I saw him, it was quite early one morning after he'd already announced his early retirement.  I don't know that he saw me at my desk.  Traffic had been unexpectedly light that morning.  I'd gotten in very early.  I sat and watched him for some minutes.  He simply stood in the middle of the lobby, looking.  It was inexpressibly sad.  The place was his life's work.  He'd done well. Clearly, he was saying goodbye.  I didn't want to intrude.

Later that same morning, I saw him briefly once more, on his way out.  This time I caught his eye.  We smiled.  Neither of us spoke.  Neither of us waved.

When I learned of his death, I immediately regretted that last, lost opportunity to say goodbye.  Now I don't.  I will remember him, always, smiling.

He was a good man.  He was an excellent boss.  I'm flattered when I remember that he introduced me to strangers more than once as his friend.  I know he was one to me, as unlikely as that may have seemed when we met.  I respected and admired him.  He was universally acknowledged to have been a leader in his field.  He was a lovely man.  He was clearly loved.  I will miss him.

What is the good life then?  What does it mean to say, as we so often do at funerals that a person had a good life?  All I know is that we have lost a good man, an example of what it means to be decent, honest, kind.  We need such people.  They make us better for having known them.  They make us smile.

I'll always remember him, dancing.

Rest in peace, boss.  You did good.

Daily Dose

From The Rambler, by Samuel Johnson


"That there is a middle path which it is every man's duty to find and to keep is unanimously confessed.  But it is likewise acknowledged that this is so narrow that it cannot easily be discovered, and so little beaten that there is no certain marks by which it can be followed."

From Folly of Cowardice and Inactivity, #129

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Poor Recompense

"With regard to the sharpest and most melting sorrow, that which arises from the loss of those whom we have loved with tenderness, it may be observed, that friendship between mortals can be contracted on no other terms than that one must some time mourn for the other's death: and this grief will always yield to the survivor one consolation proportionate to his affliction; for the pain, whatever it be, the he himself feels, his friend has escaped."
Johnson: Rambler #17 (May 15, 1750)

It's not such a strange thing, is it, that even in our grief that those of us that live and work in books should turn to books for comfort?  Where better?  At such times, friends and family know only what we know of our losses, more or less, if that and we can not ask them to say what we can not, not yet, anyway.  Those conversations, however necessary to us, we have just among ourselves.  If the loss is not so much a private grief as a more general misfortune there is all the more reason to turn for the articulation of it to those whose griefs have been memorialized in language which has survived both the loss and the speaker, no?

 "When a friend is carried to his grave, we at once find excuses for every weakness, and palliations of every fault; we recollect a thousand endearments which before glided off our minds without impression, a thousand favors unrepaid, a thousand duties unperformed, and wish, vainly wish for his return, not so much that we may receive, as that we may bestow happiness, and recompense that kindness which before we never understood."
Johnson: Rambler #54 (September 22, 1750)

We count too many losses lately, or so at least it seems tonight.  The truth is of course that death is ever present.  We can not allow for that fact without contemplation of the corollary; that life goes on even in the midst of seemingly irreparable loss.  Again, as Johnson said to Boswell, "If one was to think constantly of death, the business of life would stand still."  We go on.

 "To be always afraid of losing life is, indeed, scarcely to enjoy a life that can deserve the care of preservation. He that once indulges idle fears will never be at rest. Our present state admits only of a kind of negative security; we must conclude ourselves safe when we see no danger, or none inadequate to our powers of opposition. Death, indeed, continually hovers about us, but hovers commonly unseen, unless we sharpen our sight by useless curiosity."
Johnson: Rambler #126 (June 1, 1751)

Johnson addressed the subject regularly, both publicly and privately.  In his essays, in his poetry, his conversation, his letters, his prayers.  We are uniquely fortunate in having so much still to hand of what the great man said, on every occasion and condition of a man's life, from birth to death.  If generally the reader turns to him more often to be entertained by his conversation and charmed by his company, and to be educated as much in morals as in literature, the Doctor is nonetheless, I find, a great guide and solace in his more somber reflections.

 "We, to whom the shortness of life has given frequent occasions of contemplating mortality, can, without emotion, see generations of men pass away, and are at leisure to establish modes of sorrow and adjust the ceremonial of death. We can look upon funeral pomp as a common spectacle, in which we have no concern, and turn away from it to trifles and amusements, without dejection of look or inquietude of heart."
Johnson: Rambler #78 (December 15, 1750)

He knew whereof he spoke.  When his mother died, he hadn't the money to bury her.  (He wrote his one novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, originally titled, 'The Choice of Life", in a week, to pay for her funeral.)  His beloved wife, Tetty, died without seeing his success and the fame his Dictionary brought him.  Johnson told many friends, including his greatest biographer -- the greatest who ever lived -- James Boswell, that after her death "I have ever since seemed to myself broken off from mankind; a solitary wander in the wild of life, without any direction, or fixed point of view: a gloomy gazer on the world to which I have little relation."  Every year, for the rest of his life, on her birthday, on their anniversary and the anniversary of her death, he would mark the day with prayers of gratitude and overwhelming sadness. This, briefly, from 1782:

 "This is the day on which in 1752 dear Tetty died. I have now uttered a prayer of repentance and c.; perhaps Tetty knows that I prayed for her. Perhaps Tetty is now praying for me. God help me. Thou, God, art merciful, hear my prayers, and enable me to trust in Thee.
We were married almost seventeen years, and have now been parted thirty."

 When I learned of the untimely death of a coworker today, it seemed to me that everything I was already reading lost it's savour.  Without even thinking what I was doing or why, I wandered my shelves looking, although I did not know it, for the consolation of an old friend, and found Samuel Johnson.  I picked up his essays from The Idler, and read:

"The loss of a friend upon whom the heart was fixed, to whom every wish and endeavour was tended, is a state of dreary desolation, in which the mind looks abroad impatient of itself, and finds nothing but emptiness and horror. The blameless life, the artless tenderness, the pious simplicity, the modest resignation, the patient sickness, and the quiet death, are remembered only to add value to the loss, to aggravate regret for what cannot be amended, to deepen sorrow for what cannot be recalled."
Johnson: Idler #41 (January 27, 1759)

I kept reading well into the night.  When Johnson neared the end of his own life, Boswell tells us, his deepest regret came when he could himself no longer read "during his hours of restlessness.  'I used formerly, (he added,) when sleepless in bed, to read like a Turk.'"

 Among the last prayers he offered at the end, were the words, "Bless my friends, have mercy upon all men."

I offer the simple words here, as a first memorial to my friend, comfort to his family and a most fervent blessing on Johnson's memory and a hope for us all.

*I am grateful for most of these quotes to the rather appallingly named, but extremely good site, The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page.

Daily Dose

From The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell


"... the truth is, that by much the greatest part of his time he was civil, obliging, nay, polite in the true sense of the word; so much so, that many gentlemen who were long acquainted with him never received, or even heard a strong expression from him."

From A. D. 1776 AETAT 67

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Rhyme of Rock

Daily Dose

From Pieces of the Frame, by John McPhee


"Beside the cage, the plump, impervious woman, red-faced, red-nosed, kept shouting to the crowds, but she said to me, leaning down, her eyes blodshot, 'Why don't you move on, sonny, if you ain't going to buy a ticket?  Beat it.  Come on now.  Move on.'"

From Pieces of the Frame

Sunday, April 21, 2013


There's a category of small books: guide books, museum souvenirs, show catalogues, commercial, promotional materials, like little Crisco cookbooks, that have no value now, even as "ephemera" -- though that's exactly what that word might properly mean in a used bookstore.  Postcards, old snapshots, loose plates and prints, old maps, color inserts, even things like theater programs and event tickets, it all gets stuffed into mylar folders, tagged and sold under that heading.  Done it myself.  I love all that stuff.  The one thing that always sells?  Pictures of food & plants.   People love that stuff.  What never sells?  The actual little books I first mentioned.  I love them.  Nobody buys them.  I could mark them "free" and no one would take them.

I've always found this inexplicable.  I'm forever saving these things from the bottom of discarded boxes, though I know these little books will never sell.  The very thing that makes them irrelevant as utilitarian objects; their age, the dated, black and white reproduction of art, the squarish formatting, the stuffy fonts, the four by six of them, I find most attractive, even beautiful.  (I know at least that other used books dealers must feel something similar, 'cause I see this stuff in the shops all the time -- but always the same ones as the last time I was there only more.)  

The dealers' assumption, I'm pretty sure, is that someone might want these even if just to tear them apart and use the pictures in some art project.  Doesn't happen.  I know.  I've told myself for years that that was what I wanted them for.  Not true.  I just wanted them, as books.

One of the things working in the book business that has interested me down the years has been the amazing progress made in color reproduction in art and travel books.  One has only to look at a travel guide from twenty five years ago and compare it one of the DK Eyewitness Travel books to see the extraordinary technical advances at play across every page of the most exquisite, and accurate color, the dynamic layouts, the richness of the design, and at completely affordable prices yet.  Or Again, compare any art book of the past 100 years, however lavish in it's day to even the least expensive brick from Taschen, and the fidelity of the later puts nearly all those older efforts to shame.  (Now if Taschen could be induced to not just glue square pages in cardboard and call it a book, but that's a complaint for another day.)  

The two little Fernand Hazan guides to Rodin pictured, both from 1964, represent the old style; classical, clean, austere, and yes a bit bland.  Each numbered picture has a page to itself.  This was a choice frankly made because of the very real chance of one image bleeding through the inexpensive paper into the next as much or more than any formal presentation, though that's obviously there too. The plane white pages and the brief blocks of uninteresting print are likewise signs of economy, but also preserve the dull seriousness of the undertaking.  This was Art.  Even in small, that "A" says it all.  And the covers!  Could there have been less inspired choices to introduce Rodin's sculptures?  But these were tourist books, browsers' introductions, not scholarly publications.  Everybody knows "The Thinker."

These books were discards.  I brought them home because there's been the annual cleaning up at the desk in preparation for our upcoming inventory.  Even though I'll be the one doing the counting, and frankly I could care, there's been some serious dusting and straightening going on.  What to do with these things, though?

I've been scanning in images and using them here because I not only appreciate the art depicted, but photographs themselves, taken by who knows who as no one is acknowledged but the author of the text, "Cecile Goldscheider, Conservateur du Musee Rodin."  I could care, but the pictures!  I think the mellowed ivory of the paper, the careful, flatly representative compositions, the reduction of these amazing works to just a uniform four inches by six inches, all of that makes these images even more beautiful, even more interesting as a record not just of major works of Rodin, but of yet another layer of taste in the vanished values of this style and kind of book.

The losses to the culture as society moves from print to digital are already getting to be a rather tired subject.  I won't rehearse the established arguments here.  I will say that on a very personal level, there is a history not so much of art, but of commercial book-craft, that stands in serious danger not of going away, as I said above, it has already been superseded, but of being unremembered in the excitement of this brave new world made of ones and zeros.  Yes, there are better guides to help the viewer become passingly familiar with Rodin's still shockingly modern Saint Jean-Baptiste, and all the spotty information on that and all the rest but a click away on the unreliable narrative that is the Internet,  but these little books are a glimpse also into "35 - 37, Rue de Seine, Paris VI", and the offices of Fernand Hazen which I do not doubt was a charming place.  Here are all sorts of interesting aesthetic choices being made, probably lost values framing this immortal art in a way meant to please, I should think, as much as anyone the American in Paris, circa 1964.  That's the year after I was born but now far enough away to nearly be history, surely?  There must be some interest still in not just this immortal artist but also in how we looked at art a brief age ago, in how that art was reproduced, how it was inexpensively marketed and sold?

I won't bother speculating about how, in turn these reproductions may be changed by being digitized here.  I'll leave that to anyone who's interested.

I brought home a handful of these little things.  I'm inclined to use them here if to no other or better purpose to at least record something of my satisfaction in them -- though I do still wish someone could be induced to buy them from me.  No?  No takers?

C'est la vie.  

Daily Dose

From Biographical and Critical Miscellanies, by William Prescott


"He must be -- in short, there is no end to what a perfect historian must be and do.  It is hardly necessary to add that such a monster never did and never will exist."

From Irving's Conquest of Granada

Saturday, April 20, 2013


And another: another evening together, another reading, another poem, another song, and... another.

Someone suggested to me that I might try giving a talk about doing this, a talk for other independent booksellers, to encourage more people to try.  I like the idea.  In fact, there may be an opportunity to do just that.  We'll see.  The suggestion however was that any such class shouldn't be "limited to just reading aloud."  The idea being that bookstores might welcome advice on creating events independent of author's tours and the more usual things that come our way like professional seminars, and school book fairs and the like.  That's a marvelous idea!  Someone should do just that, someone who understands, for example, organizing crafting classes, or fan gatherings, someone who has the patience, creativity and connections necessary for doing locally the kind of inspired community outreach perfectly represented by that extraordinary event, World Book Night.  As booksellers, we need to have all sorts of engagement with our customers, and we specifically need to cultivate these connections in ways that do not depend exclusively on the talents we are lucky enough, some of us, to have come our way from publishers large and small, and authors, local and national.

If bookstores, and specifically independent bookstores are to survive in an era of seemingly constant changes in both publishing and reading, we must be not only flexible enough to adapt ourselves and the way we do business to new models and means, but also be willing to experiment, and, yes, possibly fail, but at the very least not to waste the new opportunities that this new era provides us; from self publishing services and design, to utilizing social media, partnering with small presses and existing community organizations, and expanding the scope of what we may do collectively to include more than what we have traditionally done; at trade shows and the like.  The possibilities are, or ought to be, at least as exciting as the change that can often seem more than a little bewildering, else what's a bookstore for?

I would happily participate in any such discussion.  I do dearly like to talk.  I might, indeed, have something useful to contribute.  Form a panel.  I'll show up.

As for the possibility of me doing something of my own, well, here it is.  This is what I do.  I don't really ever do it alone.  Even when I'm the only one up there at the front, I do not, could not do it without the help and support of coworkers, management, friends, to say nothing here of local media, or the wonderful people who force their children, parents and or spouses to attend one of our admittedly rather respectable shindies.  (Though I do endorse any excuse for the introduction of spirits.  Booze and nibbles make it a party.)  That said, what I do, the thing about which I am myself most passionate is this, exactly the thing, it seems, most people, even most booksellers tell me they neither could nor would want ever to do, read aloud.

Nonsense.  The thing I am passionate about -- appearances to the contrary -- is not the sound of my own rather reedy and unmusical voice.  Years ago, when I was still in drama school and thinking I would one day be an admittedly rather diminutive, gap-toothed Hamlet, I had a voice class specifically to learn the proper way of speaking verse.  That meant Shakespeare.  I had a marvelous teacher.  He was no Romeo himself, by the look of him, by the way.  What he did have was a marvelous, musical baritone that made everything he said, from Othello's asides to ordering lunch, sound like a hot bath feels.  It was magical.  I worked very hard in that class.  I learned how to scan a line, to mark a speech, how to listen.  It was marvelous.  I loved it.  It wasn't very long after I'd been up on my hind legs doing, I believe, Richard the Third's first great speech, "Now is the winter of our discontent..." before my teacher gave me the critique that still stings to this day.

"Brad," he said, rather gently, in that deep, rich, Shakespearean voice of his, "you make everything sound as reasonable as an annual report to stockholders."

And, scene.

When I abandoned the theater shortly thereafter, it was no fault of his.  I saw how professional actors, most of 'em, lived.  Sobering.  Not all that long after that, I became a Rhetoric major, then met my beloved and left school altogether to pursue opportunities in fast food, banquet service, video rental and eventually bookselling.  I like to think that I finally found my métier.

All this autobiography is offered just to show that whatever talent I bring to this business of reading aloud may best be described as more the result of practice and an almost missionary enthusiasm for the sound of the language, than any particular gift for spellbinding.  I have to work at it, still.  

I do believe however not only in the importance of reading aloud for the full appreciation of literature, but also in the very real possibility that while not everyone can do it in public, more can do it than will probably ever try.  My experience of organizing and creating readings at the bookstore has shown conclusively that while there are people who will never read a word when anyone else other than their own small children will hear, there are in fact more potential readers for such events than anyone, including myself might ever have imagined had we not tried.

It's true that I have not just invited, but also cajoled, begged, bullied, and frankly blackmailed not a few people into reading aloud with me.  I've been lucky enough to work with more than a few people with more natural talent than I ever possessed, which has been thrilling.  Actors, musicians, comedians, singers, public performers of every stripe, I've found will often end up, if temporarily working in a bookstore.  Great good luck, that, for the kind of thing I try to do.  There have also been just as many people without any such inclinations or experience, with natural voices no better than mine, and personalities considerably more retiring who have been surprised to find that with the right material and in the friendly and supportive setting of the bookstore,  the experience was not only educational but even fun.  

(If you're one of the people reading this who might be shaking your head in disdainful disbelief, I might collect the necessary affidavits from the now scattered readers who have come and gone; from booksellers and students, and members even of the general public who have surprised us all with a poem, a story, even a song, but I doubt even that would convince you.  I leave you in peace, though I'd be willing to work on you.)

This latest reading presented new challenges to both of my fellow readers, neither of whom was comfortable reading verse.  One of the greatest pleasures for me in doing these readings has been working with forms that might challenge us in new ways.  The rehearsal process, however abbreviated by scheduling difficulties and or other commitments has actually proved to be one of the real joys of doing this.  I am an enthusiast of poetry, but neither a practitioner myself, nor, as my teacher pointed out long ago, a very musical sort of guy.  I haven't, as I've already suggested, a gift.  What I do have is a dogmatic conviction as to the best way to read and hear poetry and that is frankly to speak it.  I'm not saying that it mightn't be better for everyone concerned to hear the poet him or herself reading the stuff they wrote themselves, but then that is not always true, as anyone who has ever attended more than one poetry reading can doubtless attest.  Some great poets were pretty miserable readers.  (My theory being that too many poets, even good poets, either read too little themselves or listen too little to anyone else.)  

I've been nattering on for years to anyone who will listen, to anyone specifically who claims to neither read nor understand poetry to try putting voice to the words, even if it is just in the snug seclusion of some safe corner of their own homes, or alone in the woods.  Doesn't matter where or when or even to whom one reads poetry aloud so much as it matters to say the words and hear them said.  There's pleasure, and meaning in that, and more to follow the more that's done.  Part of the pleasure specific to poetry, but common to all great literature, is in the sound.  Literature is meant to make a noise, and not just in one's head, if for no other reason than to make better sense.

And so I'm back to what it is I would do and would like to do for other people perhaps similarly situated in independent bookstores, in need of some occasion to share with the communities, large and small in which they happen to be and which they mean to serve.  This business of making an event from the very stuff we love, from the books we sell and the people who like us love them, is as simple as starting with the sound, however tentative, however unfamiliar, of one voice raised.  There are children's booksellers doing "storytime" all over the map, you know there are.  Is it such a leap then to start from there, from reading as nearly every mother, every parent or grandparent already does to our children to reading to our friends and patrons and peers?  Is there any reason to think that reading one poem and inviting others to read one as well, and then another read another, and so on, might not easily enough become something other, something more, something new, for being nevertheless as old as the sound of human stories as far back as humans go?  We have the stories already, all around us!  We already love them, our poets, our writers, living and dead.  

All the words need is breath.

It's worth mentioning again just here that these readings are popular, in their modest way, with a minimum of notice and with as little by way of requirements as a chair, a book and someone willing to read it out loud. 

I'd be happy to help anyone who's interested.  I can.  I've done it before.  I mean it when I tell you that if I can, so can anyone else.  If you don't believe me still, I'm willing to work on you.   

Just ask.

Daily Dose

From The Complete Works, by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Donald Frame


"In nothing does man know how to stop at the limit of his need; of pleasure, riches, power, he embraces more than he can hold; his greed is incapable of moderation."

From Of Physiognomy

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Complete Works, by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Donald Frame


"In fine, all this fricassee that I am scribbling here is nothing but a record of the essays of my life, which, for spiritual health, is exemplary enough if you take its instruction in reverse."

From Of Experience

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Complete Works, by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Donald Frame


"To learn three lines of poetry I need three hours."

From Of Presumption

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Complete Works, by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Donald Frame


"And if by chance you fix your thought on trying to grasp its essence, it will be neither more nor less than if someone tried to grasp water: for the more he squeezes and presses what by its nature flows all over, the more he will lose what he was trying to hold and grasp."

From Apology for Raymond Sebond, (Man Can Have No Knowledge)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Light Ladies

Daily Dose

From The Last September, by Elizabeth Bowen


"Persistently charmless, untiring in her attempts not to please, she had still to retreat, resentful, upon a female wariness, guardedness, cicumspection she always despised."

From Part Two, The Visit of Miss Norton, Chapter Six

Monday, April 15, 2013

Letting in a Little Light

An awful day.  No way to make it otherwise.  Once again, the irrational violence of some self-righteous villain has marred an otherwise lovely Spring afternoon, a harmless and happy celebration ruined, innocent people wrecked and maimed and killed, presumably in retaliation for other people, innocent and otherwise but elsewhere wrecked and maimed and killed.  Whatever and whoever's and wherever, violence begetting violence, war, cultural or real, and religious and or political fanaticism, I do not not for a moment doubt, justifying the horror to someone, somewhere.

I can not think but that the urge to such resort bespeaks neither conviction nor desperation so much as a deliberate evil; not just to take the lives of strangers but to deny life itself, not just to disorder or undo or shock, not even just to be somehow revenged, but to negate the very light of such a day, to blot out the sky, sew the air with metal and scatter the ground with blood.  Whatever this is, this is not war, but deliberate murder.  No one in Boston was standing by a murderer when this happened, except those who might unknowingly have stood next to the man or men who did this.  No one was there to celebrate any victory but the personal, or to support any effort but that of the runners, or to prove anything but to themselves.  No one responsible will apologize for the violence done today.  There was no miscalculation, no mistake.  There is no policy in this act to be criticized, no evident agenda but terror.  No one can justify it, at least to me, with any history, statistic or statement of faith.  If and when we ever know who did this or why, let them say whatever they like and be damned.  Let better people than me forgive them.  Let anyone who already thinks to excuse or explain the perpetrator's or perpetrators' actions do so to someone else.  I'll have none of it. I don't believe in gods or monsters and neither did this today.  Someone did this horrible thing, some one man or men did this outrageous, senseless violence today, and what he or they did was evil, inexcusable, stupid.  Damn it.

It is too horrible.  I've nothing to say in the face of it but to mourn with the victims, wish the survivors a quick recovery, support those who would fight against such barbarities, and wish those who even now are mobilizing to understand and apprehend the person or persons responsible, good speed.

 All I can do otherwise is keep as close as I can tonight to the light, concentrate for my own sanity on just that small measure of joy that I hope, with the help of my friends to add tomorrow to glorious conflagration of the season's renewal; so let us have flowers from the gardens of our friends!  Let us go on and read poetry aloud as we planned, sing songs and tell jokes, drink wine and yes, laugh.  No disrespect to the tragedy today, quite the opposite, I feel.  Today was taken from all of us by some enemy or enemies of joy, of drunkenness and guitars, food, conviviality, wit and pleasure.  Someone, alone or in conspiracy darkened today for all of us.  So tomorrow, in our admittedly insignificant way, we still plan to let in a little more light.  If that's all we can manage, so be it.  A little light is better than none.

The darkness be damned.

Daily Dose

From The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton


"Like drift on a swollen river, all sorts of unrelated thoughts and images jostled each other in his brain."

From Chapter XXV

Sunday, April 14, 2013


I grew up with a grandmother who baked bread.  I watched my mother roll out enough pie-crust to cover us all twice over.  Now I live with a man who has really only the one rule: no box cake.  I know from scratch.  It's always better, always.  (Though I will say, having once made an angel-food-cake from the jump, it ended up tasting just like I'd made it from the mix, so there's my one exception.)

I am not one of those who find turnips the sweeter for having weeded the patch.  I don't believe in painting my own house, or paving my own drive, or plumbing my own pipes.  There are good reasons to pay people to do what's disagreeable and hard.  But then I dislike chores, and yard-work -- or gardening as my earthier, Zen friends call it.  And no one should assume from anything I say here that I'm ever going to craft an "artisan" pizza or fold my own dumplings.  I live in a city.  Cities exist to provide their citizens with a good and affordable slice and access to professionally prepared dim sum at reasonable prices.  Taxis, dim sum, and a decent French bakery and as far as I'm concerned you've got the building blocks of urban living.

What scratch means to me is making something from love.  I know that has the ring of a spiral-bound cookbook on a butcher's block table, and I apologize for the homey truism, but only love is worth the working of something from naught for no better reason than the joy of the doing and the sharing of it when it's done.  People get paid to paint and pave and plumb, and yes, people get paid to grow and weed and bake, and well they should when they do it well.  But what I do from scratch, I do for love.

It is the very definition of the amateur, and I embrace it.  I am an amateur in most everything I do but what I do for a living, and even that -- even for the little enough I make doing it  -- I can safely say I do without much hope of worldly reward.  I sell books.  They have to pay me to do a lot of what it means to do that, but I keep doing it despite all that because I love working in a bookstore, putting books into customers' hands, recommending books, writing about books, buying and selling and reading books.  All for love, nearly.  No lie.

And so to reading aloud.  It seems I've made a mission of this.  I do it now, in the bookstore and out, all the time.  I read into an inexpensive and now already out of date little camera nearly every other week and post the results, unless they are truly not good, here and elsewhere on the Internet.  No one pays me to do this.  Few enough people ever look at these things or listen to so much as a single poem, but some do.  That matters.  I organize and participate in readings at the bookstore, celebrating everything from William Blake's birthday to Christmas.   I've now read hundreds of poems aloud, short stories by the dozens, essays, letters, excerpts from novels.  I've lectured and hectored more now than a little bit to get other people, other readers to do likewise, with me or on their own.

I believe that literature when read aloud is changed in a fundamental way from what it is on the page; the mystical and largely solitary communion between author and reader, to something larger and yes, communal when words come off the page and go out into the world in all their music and noise.  Someone said once that language is thought with breath.  Well our common literature is the sound of our best minds, alive and breathing again when we read it aloud.

It takes, frankly, some seriously hard work to make a reading for the bookstore from scratch.  Even so light a thing as the reading we will be doing come Tuesday -- a celebration of light verse and song -- requires ten times the reading of what will eventually be in it.  To make such an event from scratch, as it were, needs careful selection, editing, training, rehearsal, conversation and thought.  When it works, such an event should seem as effortless as a well made cake; nothing too fancy, mind, but a good, simple and sweet thing that satisfies without exhausting anyone's appetite for the thing being read.  A good reading should make the listener hungry.

The simplest rule for such a reading is to begin it with what one loves and go from there.  I love the poets we'll be reading come Tuesday night, I genuinely do.  I love Dorothy Parker, and Phyllis McGinley, and Stevie Smith.  I love the lyrics of the great Dorothy Fields, who will hopefully feature in two songs that night as well -- performed by two accomplished musicians from the bookstore staff, not sung, mind you, by the likes of me.  (No one needs to hear that.)

It isn't enough that I love what I mean us to read though.  Even if I was the only one reading, and I'm glad to say I won't be, that would not be enough.  Unlike the readings I do for the Internet from my battered old armchair here in my office at home, the readings I do at the bookstore depend very much on the support and participation of all the wonderful people who read with me, who introduce us and make the promotional materials, who send our listings to the newspapers and promote us via social media.  To make an actual public performance of anything, even something so seemingly simple as an evening's reading of light verse, means dozens of people, not just me working away to make a proper evening of it, and all of us one way and another working from scratch.

What makes such evenings matter, and in their way matter more, at least to me than the evenings of visiting writers reading -- as grand as such events are -- is just that special magic that comes from people, ordinary readers, coming together with whatever talents, large and small that we all may bring to such a foolhardy undertaking and making, as it were something from nothing; nothing but books, and the reading of them, from perhaps a little screw-top wine and some snacks, from a few chairs in a line and a table down front, from work, and enthusiasm and effort and yes, from love.

Scratch.  Nothing better, I think.

Daily Dose

From The Reef, by Edith Wharton


"She could not remember that he had ever found anything to straighten or alter in his own studied attire, but she had never known him to omit the inspection when he passed that particular mirror."

From Chapter XI

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Deadlier Than the Male

Betty Friedan killed Phyllis McGinley.  Back when the Second Wave was just coming ashore and the Women's Movement barely was, Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.   It was 1963.  In that landmark book, Friedan brilliantly critiqued what she saw as the deadly complacency of the suburban housewife.  Most prominent among the "housewife writers" Friedan made the special target of her righteous scorn?  Phyllis McGinley.  It is entirely possible that if younger readers encounter McGinley at all now, it is only in Friedan's book, and that is a damned shame.

Already a bestselling writer and regular contributor to magazines from the Ladies Home Journal to the New Yorker, by 1961 McGinley had already won the Pulitzer Prize for for poetry for her book, Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades, published with an introduction from no less a light than W. H. Auden.  In 1965 she was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, the last female poet to have appeared there probably having been Gertrude Stein in 1933.  In 1964, McGinley had published her bemused answer to her critics, A Sixpence in Her Shoe, a book of essays on her "domestic profession."  It was likewise a bestseller.  She had by then become what Ginia Bellafante in The New York Times called a "reluctant polemicist."  And that, so far as subsequent critical opinion has been concerned, was largely the end of her.  McGinley died in 1978.

Time rolls on and over the controversies of yesteryear.  Perhaps now we're far enough out from the sort of either/or feminism that made McGinley anathema to women like Friedan.  (And hopefully we have likewise gone beyond the critical insistence that the only women worth championing are just the suicides; the Plaths, and Sextons, and poor ol' Virginia Woolf, the invalids like Alice James, and the shuttered eccentrics like Dickinson.  From the Brits at least, there would seem to be a growing critical interest in popular women writers with major biographies of Mrs. Gaskell and Aphra Behn, for instance, and more recently, even Georgette Heyer!  Now for the American academy to do more of the same.)

Because Phyllis McGinley is delightful.  No other word for it (as Auden himself found when he wrote his introduction.) There are the now almost antique charms of her suburban pleasures, in poems like her "Lady Selecting her Christmas Cards," or "Man with Pruning Shears," or "The 5:32," or "June in the Suburbs," with it's "rose-red golfers" and "pilgrims, touring gardens," all of which bespeak the qualities of un sourire désinvolte -- or the lazy smile --- of the contented housewife.  But she is also, for contrast, as sharp-toothed as any better-remembered satirist, as in:

The Demagogue

That trumpet tongue which taught a nation
Loud lessons in vituperation
Teaches it yet another, viz.:
How sweet the noise of silence is.


The Old Philanthropist

His millions make museums bright;
Harvard anticipates his will;
While his young typist weeps at night
Over a druggist's bill.

The qualities of her best barbs, and much of her best verse, is exactly that of Herrick and like wits, in the canon as much for their seemingly easy way with rhyme as for the gentle cynicism of their sentiments.  No easy thing, that species of ease.

Ultimately though it is as a poet at ease in her time and happy in her circumstances that she is now both dismissed and neglected by the very critics who might otherwise long-since have made note of her as a sister to Dorothy Parker, if no one else -- herself only lightly taken up as unavoidable by students of American poetry in the 20th Century.  The reputations of both women suffer as a result, I think, of being gifted, in their different ways, with an arched eyebrow where a scowl has become the expected thing.  (Neither, it might be said as well, were much exercised by modernity or innovation in form.  If anything, Parker now seems to me the more doggedly old-fashioned in this way than McGinley; it's Dorothy Parker after all who can't resist a sonnet or avoid L'Envoi by way of farewell.  But not every artist has to reinvent the means to make good ends, does she?  And again, that may have been a symptom of a fevered self-importance finally passing out of literary criticism now that theory has contracted to the common-room parlour-game it always rather was.)

It's now more than one hundred years since McGinley's birth, and thirty-five since she died.  A woman raised in difficult economic circumstances, who lived through the Great Depression largely by her own wits and a poet who not only earned more by her poetry than her husband did from his Madison Ave. job -- it was Phyllis' money that put her daughters through college -- but who also saw all her books bestsellers, deserves, I think, more respect than she's been shown.  It's time to remember that popularity need no longer be a bar to appreciation by new audiences well past the day of judging our mothers for staying at home.

It's also time to remember that poetry can be light without being either trivial or trite.

Phyllis loved a party, hers are remembered fondly by any number of the literary lights she once entertained in her lovely suburban Connecticut home.  She poured, I'll bet, a generous scotch.  Time to return the favor to her sparkling shade and lift a glass to one of our best again.