The first time I read an excellent book, it is to me just as if I had gained a new friend. When I read a book over I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one.
-- Oliver Goldsmith
New books come out on Tuesdays. I'm not sure when this happened, or why, but they nearly all do now. I don't work at the bookstore Tuesday/Wednesday. That's my weekend. I don't mind at all. Easier to to navigate the grocery stores. Come Monday I try to make sure to review the carts that won't go down to the sales floor until the following day. Have to love a sneak-peek at Coming Attractions. There's always something: a long awaited theatrical memoir, a new book of essays, a handsome reissue. But it's winter. These last days before the arrival of Spring are a notoriously lean time, in publishing as elsewhere. The real holidays are long gone. Valentine's Day doesn't offer much book-wise but bromide. President's Day is mattress sales -- another retail mystery I accept without curiosity. St. Patrick's Day never sold a single copy of Seamus Heaney so far as I ever saw, or brought an actual Irishman into the bookstore. So not the most auspicious moment for the new. And this Monday? This Monday I saw bupkis on them carts.
Honestly though, how hard was I looking? I probably ought not to say so, but I may not care so terribly much anymore, at least on a personal level. War, pandemic, end of the world -- there's been a lot to worry about lately. Potential bestsellers ain't it. Nonetheless new books coming in constitutes the life's blood of the bookstore, any bookstore, so even if I am unlikely to read them, I am always glad to see new books -- as surety of my continued employment. If I am not much exercised to see the latest car added to the ongoing apology train from the last administration, or yet another novel of Iowa Conference angst arriving in a brightly colored, geometrically challenging dustjacket, that doesn't mean I've given up. I'm distracted by reality right now, and I may just be a bit tired of the latest publishing trends. (Florals!) Much as I may sigh at seeing so much that is familiar without being welcome, I am more concerned here with what I don't see.
Time was when book sales were driven by what we call "the backlist" -- or so at least old booksellers tell ourselves. This would be the largely mythical and much lamented depth of representation on bookstore shelves of previously published books: the complete oeuvres of established authors, all the available titles on chicken farming, or C++ computer language, dog books by breed, and the like. When I started working in bookstores thirty five years ago coworkers and publishers' reps were already in sackcloth and ashes at the decline of the backlist. Heretical as it is, I'm not now convinced that we were ever right about the centrality of backlist to our business. Custom more than custom, so to say. I begin to think our shoppers didn't care all that much, or not nearly so much as we did. Meanwhile we counted those same copies of persistent, unsold backlist, physical inventory after physical inventory -- usually until they yellowed and died on the shelf of old age. Nothing so sad as a dead Penguin. Our business model then was predicated on what you might call "the off chance": the off chance that someone might yet want this one's early short stories or that one's first novel, or not one but three books on cooking pasta. We liked to think we could answer nearly any enquiry with an assured, "Indeed we do," but honestly? Never true. Even when we seemed to have everything, some mean little man would find a reason to smirk at our lack of something else. Citrus you say? Yes, but do you have bergamot? It was never a perfect world. Also, everything, or almost everything we did then took more time: ordering books, getting books, selling books, returning books. We just didn't care so much about time and neither did our customers. Much as I miss it, I think the function of backlist even in those much misremembered glory days may have been primarily decorative; meant to comfort the literate and humble the proud. Nowadays the very idea has the musty smell of an abandoned barrel; so big, so broad, so useless, and so quaint.
I am not yet a complete convert to the new business model of "just in time" ordering and "lean" inventory management. Too many gaps to mind, too few of most things to make much of a display. It can all feel as thin as a model's wrist. Different standard of beauty I guess. Still, all the better for the bottom line, though I never was much good with numbers so I take that on trust. Even I can see that this new model works well enough once you get the hang of it, certainly no worse than the old way, but rather the way a stationary bike does: stable base, quantifiable results, and healthier in the end, but a bit sweaty and grim to witness in practice and not going anywhere interesting.
One of the seemingly unintended consequences of making bookstores grind and gear-change this way just to keep up has been the inevitable regret for what gets left behind. True, bookstores look different and not always in a good way, but it all works much the same way for our customers. It can be a shock to find our computer books all on just the one shelf for example. But no one walking into a bookstore today would be struck by any obvious increase in pace. Still pretty chill on the sales-floor, brah. If anything the offices off the sales-floor have gone quiet in a way no one could have foreseen twenty years ago when there were easily twice, or three times as many people working there. Hard to muster much esprit de corps when the espit is willing but the de corps are few. Still, we manage. Retail is hope or it's nothing. What's most conspicuous, at least to me, are not the books we don't have anymore but the books we aren't likely to see again.
No need to worry about Agatha Christie or Oliver Sacks. If all of their titles are unlikely now to be on the shelf at once, you may trust that none are forgotten. Still money to be made by the estates of both and by the publishers who hold the rights. Dead long or just a little while, copyright keeps the flowers fresh on either's grave. The shades of Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rest easy too. Even out of copyright they may safely be said to be as immortal as the language. But immortality is rare. Perhaps that's as it has always been and ought to be. I wonder though that there isn't more of it to go around.
"O memory! Thou fond deceiver."
-- Goldsmith, The Captivity, an Oratorio
Memory seems not now to be what it once was. Mine certainly isn't but that's not what I mean. What the word memory means has changed in my lifetime. As a culture we are increasingly okay with memory as capacity rather than practice, storage rather than retention, units not sonnets. What's wanted isn't remembrance but mindfulness. (A friend who has practiced yoga seriously for years once rather irreverently defined the latter for me as "a finely tuned sensitivity to just who farted in class.") I have lived long enough to see time measured in TikToks, reputations made and unmade with Tweets, and influence to be had by opening a box "in real time." If I am in my times but not much of them anymore, that too is as inevitable as it is unsurprising. Doesn't make the moment, or my mindfulness of it particularly pleasant.
So it is that I worry about Goldsmith.
"I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old books, old wines."
-- Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer
Years ago I was standing at a cash register reading The Vicar of Wakefield again. An acquaintance, an otherwise amiable professor of something or other -- possibly world literature though I wouldn't swear to it now -- casually asked in the course of friendly chat what I was reading. I told him. I was not prepared for the vehemence of his response. Why, he asked me sharply was I wasting my time reading such a bad book? Nobody, he insisted, still read that book, despite the evidence of his own eyes as I was standing right there with the Vicar when he said this. Oliver Goldsmith was a Fleet Street hack, a Protestant apologist, long forgotten and justly so, and so on. This professor had just written a book, I think with his wife, "proving" by something called "intertextual analysis" I believe it was that the writer known as William Shakespeare was really either the 1st Viscount St. Albans or a barmaid named Moll or something of the sort. I didn't read it. When his tirade against Goldsmith sputtered to an end I unkindly said that if the professor's book stayed in print for better than two and a half centuries I should think he might still have readers too. (Sassy. I doubt I said this quite so calmly or so well, but you get the idea. Pretty sure he did.) I believe the professor's wife and or coauthor it was that dragged the angry little man away.
My confidence in that confrontation came not from my own taste or even from the admirable talent of Oliver Goldsmith but rather from the fact that in those days, to read The Vicar of Wakefield (or She Stoops to Conquer, or Citizen of the World,) I had only to walk to the right shelf in the bookstore and take a copy down. May have been a Penguin paperback, or just as likely Oxford University Press, a Dover Thrift Edition, or a Wordsworth Classic. Whatever it was that put me in mind, the point is that the book required was likely on the shelf. No chance then as now that there was a stack anywhere but a warehouse, but a single copy there would always have been to find in the bookstore or easily reordered if not. So at least is how I remember it. Now? No. That worries me.
If indeed it was so and not just my memory playing tricks, the reason was that Oliver Goldsmith used to be immortal. Maybe his good Vicar wasn't Sherlock Holmes or Shylock immortal, but never out of print and if out of stock but temporarily. Goldsmith was still read and not just by me. I can think of at least four publishers, all still in business, whose business it was to see to this sort of thing. If the reader will allow an older man his moment of irascibility: I never thought I'd see the day when the backlist-catalogs of the most venerable, professional purveyors of English literature would lose so much weight as to look less lean than unhealthy. See? Catalogs. Old.
There are however a depressingly large number of shitty, public domain reprints of the classics available from questionable online retailers. Trust me when I tell you that the quality of the printing is inferior only to the carelessness of the binding and the uniform ugliness of the covers. The idea that these shabby things exist to preserve the heritage of English Letters, or to fill the void left when traditional publishers decided to abandon two thirds of their lists, is laughable. Instead, think the guy who used to set up a card-table by the bodega to sell VHS videos of "the latest releases" in Xeroxed boxes. This, unlike that, isn't piracy, just plunder. The public domain once allowed for competition among publishers looking to maintain or establish their respectability as vendors of serious books. Everybody and their esteemed cousins had a classics-line: Bantam, Signet, etc. Now it is a free for all for the fly by night. For every thoughtful independent and gifted designer -- like my friends at VertVolta Design + Press -- there are a couple dozen ne'er-do-well copy shop crap factories online pumping out expensive paperbacks into which they can barely be bothered to glue the pages. It does not compensate for the missing Penguins.
"A book may be very amusing with numerous errors, or it may be dull without a single absurdity."
-- Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield.
Just here I feel the need to say something that may not appeal to many of my more conservative friends in the book business, certainly not to most readers of my own generation. Maybe it's time to let The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird go. Calm down. I ain't banning -- let alone burning -- anything. I love both books. Both books are easily defined as American classics. Neither should ever be allowed to go out of print. Mark Twain and Harper Lee deserve their millions of devoted readers and the thanks of a grateful nation. It is time however to stop putting these books on middle school reading lists. Neither offers either an entirely honest nor adequate exposition of racism, in part at least because neither author intended to, but more because that actual history has a literature of it's own. It's time to stop endorsing the white narratives of black lives as canonical while offering black authors as supplemental to their own stories. If the assumption is still that no author of color is the equal of Twain, or that "average student" would only be able to understand racism if explained in the innocent voice of a little white girl named Scout-- well there's the problem right there, isn't it?
Let's be honest, the very folks already agitating to prevent the honest presentation of American history in public schools -- for fear it will hurt the feelings of, well, little white girls again --are such sensitive souls that they will doubtlessly be the first to rush to defend both Huck and Harper Lee -- without necessarily having read or understood either. (Curious, ain't it? The people least familiar with and most afraid of books always think they should be in charge of what the rest of us read.) Now, Just because I don't think Jr. High kids should be required to read something I love doesn't mean I ought not to recommend that something to Jr. High kids or anyone else (meaning you, dear reader.)
Not up to me of course, but then so few things are. I can really only suggest. And maybe don't tell people they need to read A Dissertation on Roast Pork, while I'm at it. That's one of the most frequently reproduced works of English essayist Charles Lamb, one of my own household gods. Is it funny? It is. Is it a classic? It is. Is it harmless fun? Well, generations seem to have thought so. Is it racist? Hard not to read it that way now and I've tried. Lamb has already faded from the memory of most readers, alas, and I will always do my level best to keep that little flame alight, but not everything that is old is good and not everything that is good is worthy of recommendation -- at least not without a trigger warning. Read Charles Lamb, I say. He is a superb writer, a great if eccentric stylist. He was a genuinely good, ethical and loveable person. Just know that not everything he ever wrote two hundred years ago still smells as sweet or is quite so harmless as was assumed.
And Goldsmith? Dear Goldsmith.
"Our attachment to every object around us increases, in general, from the length of our acquaintance with it. 'I would not choose,' says a French philosopher, 'to see an old post pulled up with which I had been long acquainted.'"
-- Goldsmith, Citizen of the World, Letter LXXIII
Just a year or two ago the world was much agitated by statues. People were pulling them down. Other, evil-minded people, ostensibly in defense of a statue, were prepared to riot and kill and run innocents down in the street with a car. Art is never politically neutral. Any that strives or claims to be tends to be both banal and bad or at the least a lie, which is just another way of saying the same thing. Why the fuss then when some memorial to mendacity comes crashing down? History is littered with broken statues. The Romans knocked the heads off of theirs as a matter of course. Worth reminding Americans that pulling down a statue or two was how we got started in the nation-building business. Then came the reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and suddenly there wasn't a hamlet south of Gettysburg that didn't think the picnic area really needed its own concrete Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Bloody Jackson, real pieces of work the pair o' them. Why? Seems the confederacy never died, it just fell. Hegemony falls hard. It's not the stone or brass that is regretted -- it's the loss of the lie.
And so it must be with books. Some books deserve -- at least metaphorically -- to be torn to pieces. Don't burn grandad's old copy of The Bell Curve, just be sure to note the curs its primary author lay down with and pay special attention to the fleas. Some books cease to be useful or true. No, sir, your textbooks from the eighteen seventies will not be of help to the deserving poor, and that medical reference work from before penicillin is actually quite dangerous. But some books disappear not because they are bad, or dangerous in the wrong way, or even problematic in the contemporary sense, but because nobody happened to be paying attention. One day I walk to the shelf in the bookstore where I work and I do not find Oliver Goldsmith. I check our recorded inventory and find not a whisper of his name. Ghosted. I check with distributors and I look online and I find nothing but the dreary dross of unreturnable fourth-rate reprints. It is in many ways, in a most important way, as though he never existed. When did that happen?! How had I not noticed before now?
Had I a mind to, I might make a serviceable display of books from members of Samuel Johnson's famous Club, or at least of many of the leading intellectual lights of Johnson's day. Boswell's great biography of course would sit at the center. Next to this the huge new hardcover from Yale of Johnson's selected works. Edmund Burke presents no problem. Hume, Adam Smith, come to that Voltaire and Rousseau, a new biography of Johnson's sovereign, George the Third, I could this minute lay hands on them all. Even if I saw any point in doing any such thing, I wouldn't frankly have the heart. Absent Oliver Goldsmith there would be no heart to be had.
If all one knew of Goldsmith was the "Goldy" encountered in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, one could be forgiven for thinking the man a fool, despite Dr. Johnson's persistent defense of Dr. Goldsmith's genius as a writer. I shouldn't say Boswell disliked the man, but he hardly did him justice. Poor, ugly, Irish, awkward, socially pretentious, and conversationally clumsy, I just think Goldsmith was hard for a gentleman of Boswell's background and experience to take altogether seriously. That said, my curiosity about Goldsmith is directly traceable to my interest in and affection for Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson.
My Goldsmith is secure. In addition to a couple of beautifully illustrated copies of his novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, I have four fat volumes of James Prior's The Works of Oliver Goldsmith. Originally published in 1837, my edition is from fifty years later. Not pretty in plain, brown boards, my Goldsmith is a sturdy friend that lives on the shelf next to other complete and much-loved if rather shabby sets of Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt. I have no confidence that the contents of that bookcase will win many friends when I am gone. I certainly am glad of having found those books, for which in the case of the Goldsmith it seems I paid twenty bucks. Money very well spent indeed.
If Goldsmith's little novel is the best loved and easiest of his works to recommend, I think I am fondest of his Letters from a Citizen of the World to His Friend in the East, better known as simply Citizen of the World. Essays originally published in a newspaper and modeled on Montesquieu's Persian Letters, Goldsmith's 1760 book pretends to be a series of letters from a Chinese diplomat traveling in England and therefore free to comment on the eccentricities and barbarities of the West and the English specifically from an outsider's perspective. Problem right there for 21st century readers, not dissimilar to the fate of Lamb's essay on roast pork, although Goldsmith was certainly a more serious student of the information available on China and the Chinese to a British writer of his day, and far more concerned than Lamb to sound convincing. It's true that Goldsmith's is also a pantomime Chinese, but not I would argue intentionally disrespectful nor meant to be taken seriously as an impersonation -- no more than Montesquieu's Persian. Can I still in good conscience recommend both? I can and do -- conceding that I am neither Chinese nor Persian myself and can't speak for others.
Why should I though? With all the books in the world, why should I so regret the unavailability of this one? In Letter LXXIII, titled Life Endeared by Age, Goldsmith offers one of his innumerable little fables, this of an elderly man released from prison after fifty years only to petition the Emperor to be returned to his cell. Everyone he knew is dead. He himself is very near the end of his days. He wishes only to go back to the only home he knows. Goldsmith continues:
"The old man's passion for confinement is similar to that we all have for life. We are habituated to the prison, we look round with discontent, are displeased with the abode, and yet the length of our captivity only increases our fondness for the cell. The trees we have planted, the houses we have built, or the posterity we have begotten, all serve to bind us closer to the earth, and embitter our parting. Life sues the young like a new acquaintance; the companion, as yet unexhausted, is at once instructive and amusing; its company pleases; yet, for all this, it is but little regarded. To us who are declined in years, life appears like an old friend; its jests have been anticipated in former conversation; it has no new story to make us smile, no new improvement with which to surprise; yet still we love it; destitute of every enjoyment still we love it; husband the wasting treasure with increasing frugality, and feel all the poignancy of anguish in the final separation."
Goldsmith was all of thirty when he wrote that. I offer it as better evidence of his mellifluous and clear prose, his astonishing maturity of mind, and his deep and abiding humanity. Dead at only 45, the author left behind him a rich and varied work in essays, natural history, biography, history ancient and modern, plays, poetry and fiction. Two of his plays are still performed, I would stubbornly argue that his novel is still read, his essays and poetry still well worth pursuing. He was as well travelled as Boswell, as generous as Johnson, as articulate at least on the page as Burke. Oliver Goldsmith was what he might himself have laughingly called "a little great man," and as dear to generations of readers, and to me, as any of his friends and contemporaries.
When Goldsmith died, Johnson was outraged by the suggestion that his epitaph should be in English, himself writing the inscription for Goldsmith's stone in the more traditional and dignified Latin. With apologies then to Johnson's shade, I offer the reader a translation as a kindness:
"Oliver Goldsmith: poet, natural scientist, and historian, who left untouched almost no kind of writing and touched nothing which he did not enhance. Whether smiles were to be raised or tears, a powerful yet gentle master of the emotions; in inspiration lofty, lively, and versatile; in style, exalted, elegant, and graceful. With this monument the love of his companions, the loyalty of his friends, the veneration of his readers has honored his memory. Born in Ireland at Forney in the county of Longford, in a place called Pallas, on Nov. 29, 1731, he was educated in Dublin and died in London on April 4, 1774."
In another essay Goldsmith says, "As writers become more numerous, it is natural for readers to become more indolent," and that seems to me all too sadly true. There are so many more books and readers now than a writer of Johnson's day might ever have imagined. If it is not so easy as it was then to earn a living illiterately, it is certainly easier now to to never open an unwelcome book after school. And of new books, as I may have mentioned, there is now no end. A grown person could, if he, she, or they so choose, spend the full length of his, her, or their days reading nothing but new novels, one after the next, and presumably never see the end of 'em. There is also now a dominant school of thought among educators, librarians, and booksellers to which I can neither wholly subscribe nor entirely discount asserting that all books are basically equal, and that at least in the western democracies readers of all ages are free to read whatever they like, even to exclusion of whatever may once have constituted the canon of established classics. I get it. If all art is indeed political, there is something to be said for not insisting that anyone read books once popular at least in part for their conformity to established political and cultural narratives. Leibniz's assertion that this is indeed "the best of all possible worlds" is seemingly refuted every Tuesday by the carts full of speculative fiction, fantasy, and an unprecedented selection of serious literature with animal narrators, ghosts, faeries, aliens, and talking trees, to name just a few of the resurgent supernatural elements more popular now in print than I might ever have imagined possible thirty years ago. Ours would seem to be the age of the triumphantly specific, the influencer in the otherwise empty room, and the canon crowd-sourced online.
Indolence may be an unfamiliar word to many of us now. I tend to read the word as "lazy" but in tailored clothes. I looked it up just to get a sense of its etymology and was struck that the Latin is a darker mix than I anticipated: "in" for without, plus "dolentem (nominative dolens)" which meant not interest but grieving, so in the absence of grief, if I'm reading that right. (Not for the first time I am reminded that, damn, ancient Rome was a brutal scene.) Readers are not then now without a care in the world and neither are they lazy so much as they are free from the burden, if I may say it so, of the dead. That can't be an altogether bad thing, can it? Presumably I am myself just as free to grieve the absence of Goldsmith from the shelves of the bookstore where I work and no one to judge me a dusty old darling that I should -- judgment being a word now more usually used as a cudgel than a compliment.
Goldsmith in his wisdom counseled against making imaginary evils, "when we have so many real ones to encounter." Indeed we do. I shouldn't like to pick fights with my friends when real battles are at this moment being waged so brutally against sense, sovereignty, and innocents. I won't try to argue the merits of a Goldsmith's Vicar, or the charms of his Chinese imposture against for example a new novel told in the voice of an ass, a pig, and a horse, etc. I haven't read the latter. I understand it's superb. no one is waiting to hear just where I happen to stand on the quality of the quantity of new fiction I've been shelving. I'm sure if you like it it's good. All I argue is that it's a shame to miss so good a writer, and so good a soul as Goldsmith just because I can't at this time put a copy of his book in your hand.
“As the reputation of books is raised not by their freedom from defect, but the greatness of their beauties, so should that of men be prized not for their exemption from fault, but the size of those virtues they are possessed of.”
-- Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield.
I offer here some very brief examples of Goldsmith's virtues not to dissuade anyone from shopping the carts of new books brought down Tuesday, but rather in the hope seeing him some day if not again in the bookstore's inventory then hopefully on the bookshelves of new friends -- to me, to him, and to English literature.