Friday, January 31, 2014

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands, by Frederick Schiller


"These imaginations, therefore, I felt a wish to fix, to multiply, and to strengthen; these exalted sentiments I was anxious to extend by communicating them to others."

From The Author's Preface

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Notes from an Illtwitterate

Other than haiku, if there ever was a format to which it would seem I am uniquely unsuited, surely Twitter's "140 characters" rule would be it, no?  (I have no idea how many "characters" there might be for example in that last sentence.  Even if I wanted to count them -- and I don't -- experience tells me that even so simple a calculation may well be beyond my innumerate little brain.  Can't count my fingers and toes without using my fingers and toes, as it were.)  More to the point, however, is the obvious fact that I'm not the most succinct communicator.

When I first started this enterprise five years ago, a journalist friend of mine offered two well-meant suggestions.  First, I should abandon the Oxford comma, and secondly, I should stop writing about how badly I write.  Well, here we are.  Still not confident that the way I go about this rises to the level of an actual style, let alone a good one, and still using what are probably too many commas, semicolons, etc.

Word, as the young people say -- supposedly.

I have made my piece with running on.

More?  I've never, to my knowledge followed a Twitterer (Tweeter?  Twitt?) or even read a tweet not imbedded in an article, or posted on facebook.  No reason, other than not being on Twitter, I suppose.

I don't text.  I have a cellphone.  Unless I'm back in Pennsylvania visiting the old people, I don't use my cellphone, except maybe to call home to see if we need milk.  I still call it a "cellphone," for heaven's sake!

Finally, I do this.  Everyday, or thereabouts.  And I do a bit of the ol' Tumblr now for work, as well as contributing again to the bookstore's blog.  Periodically I contribute to NWBooklovers. That's about enough, wouldn't you say?  For a man who'd rather be in his armchair, reading Willa Cather's letters?

Given all that, why then, just today, launch myself into yet another online undertaking by creating my very own Twitter account, @UsedbuyerBrad?

It isn't as if my experience doing this blog has led me to have expectations.  For the most part, my original estimation of my audience was about right; friends and acquaintances,mostly in the book business, a few chance bibliophiles who happen by, and the occasional post that gets passed around a bit more than usual.  That's just as it should be.  (Besides, just today someone told me that "blogs are considered kind of old fashioned now," which may explain why I've gotten so comfortable with doing one.)  Likewise, I don't see myself lighting up the Twittersphere.  So, having resisted every encouragement to do so before today, and my own admittedly mild curiosity, why tweet today?

It's to do with work, honestly.  The bookstore's blog was finally revived -- at last -- though, without me.  Only really in the last couple of months have I yielded to the blandishments of my betters on the job and begun to contribute again.  Now the bookstore has an active Tumblr account as well.  The bookstore's events staff tweets, and others in the organization, including other departments and a number of coworkers and friends, tweet.  Publishers, authors I like, industry types all tweet.  I experimented with a Tumblr of my own, a couple of years ago.  I enjoyed that, as an experiment, for roughly a year, but I'd always intended that to be a finite undertaking; roughly one year recorded in books and snapshots of the empty bookstore, my own books, and the like.  More recently, helping to launch the Tumblr  for the New & Used Books Department has been very interesting for me, and frankly, exciting.  Talking with my boss this afternoon about a podcast she wants to do around kids' books.  It's all good.

I mean that.  I really think it is.  (Okay, maybe not Reddit.  The youngsters will be pleased to know the ol' man still hasn't figured out quite what is going on there.  Can't say I care for it, whatever it is.)

However late I am getting to the party -- and still no interest in Pinterest -- I am increasingly convinced, this stuff matters.  Seriously.  Not me doing it necessarily, you understand, but participating in it.  As a bookseller, as someone interested in literary culture and the future of print, among other things, and as confusing as that might be, I think it behooves me, the bookstore where I work, and booksellers in general to become engaged in every way possible with social media.  Doesn't mean we all need do it all the time, or do everything.  It certainly isn't something I see replacing, or even crowding what I actually do for a living, which is buying and selling books.  I want to be part of the conversation; with my customers, with vendors, with authors and publishers and my fellow booksellers, readers, critics and enthusiasts.  Social media is where that conversation is now happening.

And crusty as I am, I'm happy to say that social media has been a boon to me, personally.  It has allowed me to reconnect with old friends and widen my acquaintance and extended my sympathies.  While we still take two newspapers in my house, and read at least three, the Internet has made me better informed and given me access to information, news and literature I might never otherwise have found.  In terms of what I've been able to do with it, tangibly, this new technology has made it possible for me produce an annual calendar for four years and two modest books.  Most significantly, doing Usedbuyer2.0 for the past five years has taught me the value of the essay, the attempt, and, in a small way, made me a platform and given me some public identity beyond my job description.

So why not?  What does it cost me to extend the experiment?  If in so doing I have the opportunity to do something that may help me to do the thing I love doing best, buying and selling books, better, why not have a go at even this?

And maybe I'll learn something finally about the value of brevity.  Soul of wit, so they say.

Daily Dose

From Malone Dies, by Samuel Beckett


"All this by the way."

From page 227, this edition.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Ian Fleming, by Andrew Lycett


"As Ian discovered on the morning of their departure, they were scheduled to share a sleeper and a picnic dinner consisting of a partridge and half a bottle of vin de pays.  Not having the tenacity Rupert Hart-Davis had shown during his train journey with Eve in 1929, he arranged the wagon-lits equivalent of an upgrade.  But he had to carry her jewel case and gall-bladder X-rays, while arranging porters for her fourteen cabin trunks."

From Chapter 14, Kent and Wiltshire

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Remembering the Smile of Julie Roth

Dickens says somewhere, "I feel an earnest and humble desire, and shall do till I die, to increase the stock of harmless cheerfulness."  What a very old fashioned, very Victorian notion and -- to our modern ears -- a suspiciously modest ambition to have been expressed by so great a novelist.  Dickens' was not a modest talent and he was not averse to celebrity -- it might be said, as Jane Smiley did in her brief biography of the novelist, that he invented it in the modern, literary sense.  Humility then might seem more a matter of convention than conviction from such a source.  Moreover, in our own day, when any pop-rhymester may proclaim his own "genius" as a matter seemingly of course and celebrity and even notoriety would seem to be the standard by which we judge the value of any individual achievement, to say nothing of art or artist, "to increase the stock of harmless cheerfulness" might seem a mystifying ambition, little worthy of note in such an established genius as Dickens save as an example of what we might now call the "humble-brag."

I don't think so, in this case.  Even the darkest novels of Charles Dickens brim with an elemental pleasure in recording every instance of good humor, marking every kindness and occasion of optimism, any small happiness that might arise realistically even in the midst of the most despairing narrative.  It is indicative of the novelist's own enjoyment in life that he could rarely deny even his most disagreeable characters a smile, if only at the expense of their humorlessness, but more to the point, in portraying, for example the very real indignities of poverty and injustice, in even the most debased and intractable circumstances, he allows for unexpected happiness; for the joy in a meal, the loyalty of a friend, the love of a mother, the memory of a lost love, a dance, a joke, a drink, a smile.

For all his talk of Heaven, Dickens was careful to note the rewards in this life to be had from decency, kindness, cheerfulness, harmlessness.  As a satirist and sermonizer, he was particularly ruthless with hypocrites and gave us, in characters like Uriah Heep and Mr. Pecksniff among the most devastating, and funny portraits of the type in all of western literature.  It is worth noting though that all such satires in Dickens are balanced by the good; for the awfulness of the "'umble person" of Uriah Heep, there is the genuinely humble virtues of Ham Peggotty, and Mr. Mell, for every Pecksniff, a Tom Pinch.  (These latter examples are of course the very characters dismissed by some critics as "sentimental" and unrealistic; a charge that to my mind always suggests the narrowness of the critic's acquaintance more than the shallowness of Dickens' observation or emotion.  Anyone who hasn't met a Tom Pinch can't, I think really appreciate the satire in a Pecksniff, suggesting further that the critic may be nearer the Pecksniff himself than not.)  If the poor schoolmaster, Mr. Mells, is made to suffer by public disclosure of  supporting his old mother in the workhouse, and then rescued by Dickens and sent to become a headmaster, "Dr. Mells", in Australia, this seems to me a forgivable example of Dickens affection for his characters rather than any failure to draw them.

Indeed, if Dickens, as every comic novelist before him, did believe himself in part at least obliged to instruct his reader in the rewards of virtue as well as to punish vice, he had no illusion as to the unequal fate of the individual in even his creation.  The blameless sometime die too soon, the good may go unrewarded, or unnoticed, the narrow and the ignorant might avoid enlightenment, let alone their just desserts and die in their beds.

And yet, "to increase the stock of harmless cheerfulness" seems to me admirable on still other grounds than in observing the conventions of the English comic novel and satisfying the reader's sentimental hope of a happy ending.  Dickens believed absolutely in the contribution of "harmless cheerfulness" to the common good.  He believed in the good that might come from a small kindness, from honesty and honest work, from sociability, from laughter.  He believed in the nobility of spirit that might be exampled by the humblest souls, in the most modest way, no matter their circumstances.  He saw this everywhere around him, just as he saw the desperation, injustice and dirt.  He listened for it as closely and reproduced it as faithfully as he did the odd or amusing expression or the characteristic phrase.  He had an ear for kindness.

It is in this notice taken that I am reminded of Dickens today, and feel some obligation to do likewise.  

Montaigne writes:

“To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.” 

Again, someone's said it better than I can.  If Dickens has taught me the importance of making note, Montaigne explains the example.

A former coworker of mine, Julie Roth, died on January 6th of this year.  She retired in 2010, after working twenty three years in Payroll and Accounts Payable at the bookstore.  I did not know her well or work with her in the office.  Nevertheless, to me she was a glad presence; I never passed her in a hallway that she didn't give me a smile, never spoke to her that I wasn't made to feel the better for her time.  She laughed easily and often.  She preferred pretty colors and dressed, often as not in light violets and greens, in bright blues, and in sunny shades that matched her beaming grin.  From those who knew her better and worked more closely with her, I know that she did her work well and faithfully and without fuss.  Shy she might have been, but she was a friend to everyone who knew her, and a help to any that asked.  From the official notice of her passing, I learn that she travelled extensively and that she sang enthusiastically with the Sweet Adelines.  Just today, from the younger woman who worked at the desk next to hers until Julie retired, I had the following description,

"She sparkled."

So she did. 

She came with a friend to hear me read more than once and to catch sight of her smile or hear her light laugh among others gave me courage and the deepest satisfaction.  Even after she had retired and faced the sad recurrence of the grave illness she'd survived at least once before, I never saw her but she laughed and smiled and said not one word to me of her struggles.

Anyone who has ever worked in a big bookstore like the one where I work now, or anywhere requiring the kind of work she did, will have met someone like her; some quiet soul, hard working and honest, with none but good intentions and the natural disposition to enjoy the world, whatever, good and bad might be in it.  On such bright spirits and humble people does the work of the world, and the pleasure we might take in the doing of it, depend.

Obviously, others knew her better: the women she worked with, the ones with whom she sang and travelled, but I may presume to remember her here, and to mark her untimely passing at least insofar as to note that with her has passed out of this world some measure of the "harmless cheerfulness" the world will always need.

Think for just a minute then about the first of those two words, "harmless" and what that means.  Her cheerfulness is easy enough to see in just the photograph above, but that other word is too often and exclusively assumed to be a term of condescension.  I mean it in no such sense, but rather as Dickens employed it, I think.  Imagine what it might mean to have actually done no harm, to be remembered, when we die, as having never given an intentional hurt, to be remembered, so far as I can tell, with a universal affection and respect and to have made people happier for having had, however briefly your acquaintance.  Think of that!

Think what it might mean to be remembered for the "order and tranquility" of one's character, for the constancy of one's friendship, for the respect and affection of even the people one may have known only in passing.  Think of that.

There will be other, better tributes yet to come from those who, as I say, knew her longer and better.  For me, I can think of nothing more to say than that I will miss her smile.  Would that I might be remembered so well and with so happy a thought.

Daily Dose

From Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov


"Ideas in modern Russia are machine-cut blocks coming in solid colors; the nuance is outlawed, the interval walled up, the curve grossly stepped."

From Commentary Line 681: gloomy Russians spied

Monday, January 27, 2014

Self Help Doodle

Self Help Doodle

Daily Dose

From Don't Never Forget:Collected Views and Reviews, by Brigid Brophy


'Miss J. Austen is the opposite of the cult-figure.  She would have made a lamentable schoolmistress.  For one thing, and not such a tiny one as it seems because it may well be a symptom of anarchic forces in her temperament, she couldn't spell."

From Jane Austen

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Self Help Doodles

Daily Dose

From Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews, by Brigid Brophy


"That Shaw, like most of his compatriots, had no visual sensibility whatever is demonstrated to the eyes of anyone who has seen from photographs the way he furnished his house and the still more unfeeling way he furnished his body -- with tweed apparently woven from the clippings of his beard."

From Shaw

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Self Help Doodle

Self Help Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle


"So tell me, friends: why do storytellers use that phrase 'before I knew it'?  In my experience you only use that phrase when in fact you did know it.  It's like signing cordially at the end of a note: that's the word you employ when you hate the person's guts."

From The Professor

Friday, January 24, 2014

Another Day at the Doodle Factory: Sales Division.

Please note, I did not write the staff recommendations.  (True, a friend did, but I didn't and that's what matters.)

Daily Dose

From Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Theophile Gautier


"To-day is followed by to-morrow, just as yesterday was followed by to-day; and without being so conceited as to play the prophet, I can in the morning boldly predict what will befall me in the evening."

From Chapter One

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Happy Fifth Birthday, Usedbuyer 2.0!

Daily Dose

From The Prefaces to the New York Edition, by Henry James


"The thing has doubtless, as a whole, the advantage that each piece is true to its pattern, and that while it pretends to make no simple statement it yet never lets go its scheme of clearness."

From Preface to The Wings of the Dove

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Grammar-Land, or, Grammar in Fun for the Children of Schoolroomshire, by M. L. Nesbitt


"'Mr. Pronoun, you hear that!' exclaimed Mr. Noun.  'This little Preposition is said to govern us, you and me, in the Objective Case.  Very impertinent, on my word!'"

From Chapter XIV, Prepositions Govern the Objective Case

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach


"Practitioners of Fletcher's hyperefficient chewing regimen, he wrote, should produce one-tenth the bodily waste considered normal in the health and hygiene texts of his day.  And of a superior guality -- as demonstrated by an unnamed 'literary test subject' who, in July 1903, while living in a hotel in Washington, D. C., subsisted on a glass of milk and four Fletcherized corn muffins a day.  It was a maximally efficient scenario.  At the end of eight days, he produced sixty-four thousand words, and just one BM."

From Chapter 4, The Longest Meal

Monday, January 20, 2014

Into the Light

There's a story about Dietrich that I've encountered so many times, in so many variations that I suspect it has to be true.  The aging star walks onstage before a concert.  Doesn't matter where.  Her hair's in a kerchief probably, just wearing slacks, flats.  She surveys the stage, and if the house is unfamiliar she probably does the old actor's trick of testing the floor; a tap, a stomp, maybe she sings a note, listening for where the sound goes, checking for unexpected echos or silence.  Then comes the moment that defines Dietrich.  She checks the light.  She knows every light, every cue and transition, every level.  She talks to the technicians.  She jokes, chats, tells them exactly what she wants.  She likes them, remembers them if she's played the place before.  She's played everywhere.  They love her, just as they did back in the studios, when she was making movies.  She likes anyone who knows their job, respects them, earns their respect by knowing her job and theirs, and how to ask for what she needs to do her job well.  Her job now is being Dietrich.  She is exacting, but not difficult.  The only thing she can't tolerate is incompetence.  She needs everything to be just so, she knows what's required to make it work, to make it magical. That's how it works, that's what will make her Dietrich again; the light just so, the gown, the hair, the music, the smile, the humor, the pathos, the sex.  Above all, I suspect, there is the light.  She knows it, understands it technically, she's as much an expert by now as any of the guys up there on the cat-walks or in the booth, at least when it comes to lighting Dietrich.  She's studied with masters.  She also understands the emotion of it as well, it's power to transform and elevate, to communicate her moods and preserve her beauty.  It's where she lives, in the light, this extraordinary creation of hers, Marlene Dietrich, what Louis Brooks famously and with malice called a "contraption."  So if a light is off by an inch, or a shutter's too low, she tells them and they fix it.

The reason I love that story, however many times I've heard or read it, the reason I think it has to be true, is because whatever she did to make that Marlene Dietrich, that Marlene Dietrich still works.  She's been dead now for a long time.  When her film career faded in the 1950s, she reinvented herself as a cabaret act.  She gave concerts, the concerts that blessedly were filmed, some of them, the concerts that gave rise to the anecdotes about her always finding her light, for roughly two decades.  Ill health and injuries, frankly old age, ended it all in 1975.  By then, it wasn't glamorous any more, not for her.  It was just impossibly hard work.  She retired, disappeared into that apartment in Paris.  She became a voice at the end of a telephone.  She saw no one, even old friends, former lovers, no one.  By the time she died in 1992, aged ninety, no one had seen her in years.  No photographs for years.  No job anymore, not even being Dietrich.

But the "contraption" still works.  Last night I watched the film of her concert in London, 1972.  It's well past the point of her triumphs of the Sixties.  A decade or more since her last decent film role.  They filmed her performance that night with a heavier filter than astronomers use for studying the surface of the sun.  The patter is as familiar as a Jimmy Durante punch-line, and frankly a little stale.  The voice, never much, is by now more whisper and growl than singing.  She barely moves, once she's swept to the microphone in that impossible white fur coat.  We now know she's stitched into that impossible shimmer of a gown, stitched into that wig, and that under the gown, there's a wound on her leg that, despite skin-grafts, has never properly healed.  Of course knowing all that matters not at all.  She's gorgeous.  She's funny.  She's touchingly honest, or at least so practiced as to never fail in her connection with her audience, with the viewer, even now, some forty years later.  It's an alchemical magic, as much hard work, I know, as actual talent.  Still.

Act One is fifteen minutes: it's the story of her life in film, of her songs.  It's all pink, impossibly pretty, light and cheerful, and little abrupt, frankly; the songs seem short, as does her breathing.  She closes with "The Laziest Gal in Town," and it's fun.  Then she walks off, trailing that impossibly white fur.  The lights dim, the stage goes black and she's back for Act Two.  She's abandoned the coat.  She looks naked now, in just that sheer, glittering dress.  It's still a startling effect.  She opens with "When the World Was Young."  There's a increasingly tight spot on that tight, painted face.  That's actually when it happens, with that sentimental ballad.  She acts it rather beautifully; weary, wistful, something like her age.  "Only last July, when the world was young."  She lets her jaw hang open a little, let's the mask just hang there in space for a few seconds as the music ends, the very symbol of tragedy.  Yes, it's a little mannered, choreographed, but she means it, nearly every word.  Maybe she doesn't, but we do and that's what matters.  Then it's all pink again.  She sings her first song in German, her first record, "Johnny," a song "about a girl, on the telephone, calling her man..." and this is Dietrich, the Dietrich of every drag show; the chewed up vowels, the nasal, buzzing growl of sexual energy, the serpentine gestures where there might once have been at least a step or two.  This is the caricaturist's meat.  Doesn't matter a bit.  It's too late by now.  The spell is cast.

Folk songs?  Sure.  Why not?  By now she could be singing nursery rhymes, or "Darktown Strutters' Ball."  She's pulled us into the magic circle.  Everything hereafter feels astonishingly intimate, almost a private conversation.  (The applause feels shocking when it comes, an unwelcome reminder that there were other people there.)

I won't run down the whole program.  Anyone who wants to can go and watch it on You Tube.  Here's the link.

Yes, it's all a little absurd I suppose: the melodramatic antiwar songs, the corseted waist and the tight face, the pop tunes and orchestrations from a very different era to ours -- "boom, boom. boom boomerang baby" -- the septuagenarian sexiness, the mulled lyrics and the humming.  It is camp by now, but I suppose she knew that.  She does the only sensible thing and embraces it when she needs to.  But then, she sing's her pal Piaf's "la Vie en Rose," and, well, I cry.  Not the way Piaf makes me cry.  No one needs to cry for Dietrich.  I cry because I'm watching a very great artist, an artist making something nearly from nothing, from memory, hers and ours, with just a small but practiced voice, a talent, a will, and.. what?  Light?

Yes, I think, just that.  The light.  Perfect.

Daily Dose

From The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett


"Having lost one leg, what indeed more likely than that I should mislay the other?"

From page 377, this edition

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Is Sherlock Holmes Dead?

There's a new-ish feature on what is. increasingly it seems, the favorite social media of the middle aged, i.e. facebook.  Presumably in response to the rise (and for some of us, the fall) of Goodreads, one is now encouraged to list favorite movies and music, sports teams and, yes, books in a new and more visually satisfying way.  Rather than the old, print lists of "favorites" on one's profile, each cultural category now has a distinct, featured position, mit picture, yet.  There is an option to mark each selection, of the movies for instance, as "watched" by adding it to one's list, but also to add titles one "want(s) to watch" and a review system of one to five stars with which to "rate" the movies.  Like similar social media posting, these facebook options can be a surprisingly useful aide-memoire, a delightful waste of time, and no doubt yet another means of collecting data for our Internet overlords.  (What for me makes such potential commercial exploitation still more amusing than disturbing is made hilariously clear by the use to which my profile-information has been put to date, by facebook.  I'm fifty years old.  Let the words, "enhanced male virility" stand for the whole.  So much for the sophistication of the new algorithms.)

Another reassuringly clumsy and democratic detail of all of this new cultural record-keeping on facebook is something I remember from my time as a contributor to... that book-site I still regret.  With a really quite shocking regularity, these facebook-lists may have quite the wrong picture associated with a title.  Again an example from their available film titles, and a personal favorite, from 1961, A Majority of One, starring Rosalind Russell and Alec Guinness.  (Allowing for the very Hollywood casting of Russell as a Jewish mama and Guinness as a Japanese gentleman, it's a charmingly sentimental little romance and very funny.) The facebook listing features not the movie poster, but a production still from the original Broadway play, starring Gertrude Berg and Sir Cedric Hardwicke!  (So, on Broadway at least, ethnic-sensitivity-wise, they got it half right.)  This kind of regular confusion and misidentification reminds us that the Internet can still be quite hit-or-miss when it comes to the available facts. It seems the only picture of the movie poster is not of sufficiently high "resolution" for inclusion on the website, whereas, inexplicably, the photo from the Broadway show is.  That's my best detective work, anyway.  This also reminds us that to contribute "content" to even the most sophisticated commercial enterprises online may not require much actual expertise, and that, often as not, even the most scrupulously honest contributor may not have all the options we now assume with the Internet actually available when needed.  This would just be one more very small example of how things in the digital age are indeed not always what they seem.

A more disturbing tendency with the listing of books on facebook is the complete absence of loads of standard books from any listing at all -- particularly true of contemporary poetry, I've found, but just as likely with minor English and American classics.  can there really be no one else who's recently read the latest book from Mark Strand?  No available picture of a late Saul Bellow title?  Worse in a way though, is something that seems to me indicative of a wider trend of the digital age -- and which brings us finally to the topic at hand.

Among the titles listed as "books" on facebook, are a number of things that simply aren't.  I suppose a case might be made, in some cases, for using the word in an older sense, as when "The Book of Job" or "The Book of Revelations" are listed as titles in their own right, rather than just assumed as chapters in the Bible.  (Anyone not actually in adult Sunday School who can get through that last, for instance, in my opinion deserves to mark the accomplishment somehow, if only by marking it as "read" on facebook.)  What strikes me as far more pernicious are the listing of titles like The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, and The Adventure of the Red Circle, as books.  This is ridiculous.  The first is a short story from the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the latter, of course, also a short story from the book, His Last Bow.  Naturally, there have been collections of Holmes short stories published under titles other than the original.  That's clearly not what's happening here.  No.  Instead, individual short stories are being listed as if each story somehow constituted a book; a discrete work of art, yes, but also by suggestion here at least, an extant object published and sold as a book.

Why?  There might be a case made for the innocence and presumed youth of some of the facebook contributors, and the obvious absence of editorial control.  Some kid reads The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, and adds it, with a sometimes random Holmes illustration.  Possible, but not very likely, I should think, considering that the illustrations used rather than book covers, at least so far as I can judge, would seem to correspond to the titles.  But, even if this is the work of younger readers, that makes the phenomenon no less unsettling.  So, maybe with the online generation used to buying recorded music by the song, the distinction between having read a short story and having read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is being lost on newer readers?  How is that not a horrible thing?

But then, I don't believe that that is actually what's happened here, or at least not the only explanation.  I think I can be forgiven for seeing a more cynical, if not actually sinister effort here; a way of inflating the stats, as it were, by and for adults who see some exaggerated value in the number rather than the quality or interest of the books listed as read.  This is the same impulse, presumably, that leads to posted resolutions "to read 100 books this year," as if that was a meaningful measure of either literacy or character for anyone after the sixth grade.  (This sort of thing always strikes me as every bit as banal and embarrassing in adults as posts announcing a walk, or having eaten a healthy breakfast, or getting to work on time.  Good for you, fellow grown up.)

Either way, as an indication of the disappearance of distinction between literary forms for young readers on the Internet, or as a way for what my beloved husband, A. would call "a grown-ass-man" -- or woman -- to feel better about how little they actually read, this business of conflating a short story into a book  seems to me a disastrous concession to the culture of self-esteem, disrespectful to the reader and to the integrity of the books exploited and exploded into their component parts.

Now, on a related topic, what with all the all the publicity surrounding the return of the BBC's  Sherlock to American television, the other day in the bookstore, I thought it might be the moment to make a display of Conan Doyle's books.  Not a very original idea, I know.  Still, worth doing I thought.  There are new promotional titles just out on the TV show, and as there are now not one, but two successful modern television adaptations running, in addition of course to the Guy Ritchie film franchise, this would seem to be a moment, no?

Up to the Mystery section then I went, to find... two mass market paperbacks of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a couple of Dover collections of some of the short stories, and maybe five used books of various titles, including of course a couple of copies of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  There was one recent and rather pretty Penguin hardcover  (of guess which novel?!) but no Modern Library, no Everyman's.  Evidently, the recently revised Annotated Sherlock Holmes has been allowed to go out of print.  I could find no available, American edition of the novels or the stories online from Penguin, or Oxford, and nothing from Harper's, etc.  I ordered back in the Signet Classic edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes in two, mass market paperback volumes.  I put the other Dover books in print on order as well.  (I had a rather ugly, but complete one volume, hardcover edition of Sherlock Holmes come across the desk used, just the other day, and I bought it for stock before I realized it was water-damaged and had to toss it.)  Not much of a display.

And not, I hasten to add, any fault of the section's buyer.  Can't stock what isn't available. 

I don't want to be mistaken here as a serious Sherlockian.  I don't belong to any society, or know the names of minor villains.  I can't tell you off the top of my head the name of the martial art practised by the great detective, or remember if it was a real thing or an invention.  I have read all three novels, and all of the stories, many of them more than once.  I've read some, though by no means a representative selection of the "tribute" fiction written by various hands, and at least one, full biography of Conan Doyle, as well as some serious criticism. I've read more than a few of the entertaining proceedings and papers of the aforementioned learned, and sometimes delightfully silly Societies.  (A recent purchase being Laurie R. King's book of just such papers and introductions, etc., printed on the bookstore's EBM machine.  Published this way, as I understand it, with the approval and good wishes of the novelist herself.  Delightful stuff, by the way.  It is from thence that I am reminded that American fans are Sherlockians while their British cousins are called Holmesians, for example.)

I mention all this so as not to seem to be about the business of any special pleading as a member of "the cult" of Sherlock Holmes.  Just a fan, and a bookseller.  It is as the latter that I take this opportunity to decry the sorry state of affairs when something as reliable as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books are not to be found in anything like a representative selection in even a great independent bookstore, through no fault of the bookseller.

How is such a thing even possible?!

That question is not offered rhetorically.  I don't begin to understand the situation, or have any serviceable explanation for why there would not still be every possibility of buying Sherlock Holmes in every conceivable variation of edition, design and style.  Perhaps it is something to do with the recent expiration of the original copyright at last, and the passage of the books into public domain.  (A ridiculous, and perfectly typical example of the all but endless extension of copyright into the remotest generation.  Did the ol' boy himself really expect his posterity to benefit exclusively from his labors down so far as to this day?  Was he really writing to provide an income to the great grandchildren's children, if any?  Or is it by now a matter of estate lawyers, whoever now owns some interest via the original publishers, and the remotest of third cousins and or benefiting dog hospitals, or theosophical societies and the like?)  Maybe there's nothing now to prevent almost anyone from printing and distributing these titles, but I can see no evidence to date of anyone much gathering the windfall. 

What to my mind makes all this so lamentable is that even as these wonderful stories reach new generations in new ways and in new formats and variations, I as a bookseller have so few options for putting these delightful books into the hands of readers, new and old alike.

Should it really be easier to find fan-fiction and television scripts than the books as written by their true author?

I have no doubt there will always be readers of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.  I should hate to think that the day is coming when it will only be possible to do so in used bookstores and in the higgledy-piggledy of Internet access; without the organizing influence of the author's intention, where a "book" might mean anything from an actual novel to a single story in isolation, out of order and subject to any damned arrangement and available, digital format.

Sherlock Lives.  Always will, one way and another.  But what way, if not as books?  And how is anyone to find him?

Daily Dose

From The English in Ireland, Volume One, by James Anthony Froude


"The imagination of ordinary men is unequal to the reproduction of circumstances other than those by which they are themselves surrounded; and, when the political or moral mischiefs of particular opinions seem to have disappeared, they condemn measures as bigoted and tyrannical which, had their lot been cast in other times, they would themselves been the loudest in applauding."

From The Opening of the Penal Era, Section VI

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Reality" Doodles: The Reality

Daily Dose

From Sleepless Nights, by Elizabeth Hardwick


"Somehow she retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style.  That was it.  Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life."

From Part Three

Friday, January 17, 2014

"Reality" Doodles: The Drean

Daily Dose

From Occupation: Writer, by Robert Graves


"He is not insane in the usual sense, merely magnificently ill-tempered.  The doctors can do nothing with him.  He wants shooting, really."

From The Shout

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame


"Home!  That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging all one way!"

From Chapter V, Dulce Domum

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Forthcoming Doodle

Daily Dose

From Occupation: Writer, by Robert Graves


"Observe, please, with what delicacy I have avoided and still avoid writing the words f---- and c---, and how I dance around a great many others of equal popularity."

From 'Lars Porsena'

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Looking Up

Alone at the Buying Desk again this week.  The other buyer, dear D., is off in the desert working a film festival, as he does this time every year.  (He is a cineaste of considerable knowledge and experience in matters film-festive.  Can't quite call it a "vacation" then when he flies off to ticket and herd, etc.  Still, he seems to enjoy it.  Anyway, he's off the Desk.)  For me, this means trying to keep up until he returns.  Not a bad time of year for this, as January-retail tends to go a bit slack anyway. Does not mean we don't still have books coming in; used books that need buying, priced, cleaned, tagged and sent out to the sales floor to have another fling at it.  That is, blessedly, a constant.  It can however be a bit overwhelming, going it alone for two weeks.

Not that I'm not happy just beavering away most days, by myself.  True, I miss the company, and the support, but a good deal of what one does at this job, one can do alone as easily as not.  Getting things done -- meaning mostly getting through a shelf or two of stock a day so as not to have to start piling things up on the floor -- isn't such an onerous task as all that.  In fact, I've always rather liked the somewhat mindless activity of it all; cleaning, pricing, data-entry, at least on all but the busiest of buying days.  It's just that now there is the added impetus not to fall too far behind, as one wouldn't like to have too much mess about when dear D. returns, tan, fit and frisking, no doubt, to be back at it; tucking into bins of sticky cookbooks, sorting through bag after bag of mangled chapter-books, treasure-hunting amongst the drift and dross of other people's used books.

There is a perfectly justifiable pleasure, while tagging, in building book-forts of the kind pictured here, and never more so than when left on one's own all day.  There is a sense in which one's isolation behind even a temporary wall of books is strangely satisfying.  I know it's childish, hiding in plain sight, as it were, and not actually very effective, but still.  Sometimes though, like today, it feels very much like creating some fantastic monk's cell in which the full resources of the great, Borgesian library stretch infinitely up and around, and wherein might be found all the time in the world to read.  Call it, the bibliophile's castle in the air.

The feeling of fantasy only grows as the stacks teeter higher and multiply across the desk.  One forgets, most times, that childhood wonder at the seemingly insignificant stacking of like things, made magically huge just by laying one's face on a table and forcing a perspective fit for canyons, castles and giants somewhere in the clouds above.  I confess, I did just that today; put my head on the desk and let my gaze go up and up, until the top-most books looked to be off at some dizzying height.  There was no one today to observe this behavior, or to wonder if I was taken suddenly ill, or sleepy. Own little world, I was in, for a minute or two there.

I admit, I'd built the books around me into the most impractical arrangement, but then none got knocked over, and I roughly knew what order I'd entered them in, and as there was no one, as I say, to say me nay, I admit, I drifted a bit.

What would actually be in by perfect bunker of books?  Well, many if not most that I already own or to which I already have access.  Certainly, there were probably few enough of the books I entered today I might feel the need of, come eternity.  I do like the idea though of titles unseen, waiting exploration and a wanderer's leisure.  That's rather the definition of the perfect bookstore, come to that.

It seems even my day-dreams tend to books in stacks, no? "In dreams begin responsibilities," Yeats said, I think.