Sunday, August 28, 2022

A Gift

 This is a gift from my friend Henry Wallenfels, aged eight. 

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Cool T, Brah

This is Tim Miller. Tim Miller has a regular gig now on MSNBC. He’s written for Rolling Stone, and Playboy, and he’s a contributor to The Bulwark and The Ringer. He was just on NPR’s Fresh Air to promote his new book, Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. It came out, without intentional irony in June, Pride Month, from Harper Collins. It’s already on the NYT bestsellers list. He lives in Oakland now with his husband and their kid. He was raised a Catholic, went to a Jesuit high school and graduated from George Washington University.  Smart guy.

Tim Miller was a Republican political consultant and co-founder of America Rising, an opposition research group targeting Democrats. He worked for the campaigns of John McCain, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney. He worked for the Republican National Committee. He’s also been a loud Never Trumper who worked a little bit for Trump folk, but he wants us to know he’s really bummed about it now.

Tim Miller is part of a long history of gay white dudes who worked for the Republican Party (read James Kirchick’s Secret City: The History of Gay Washington.) Whitaker Chambers, Roy Cohn, that men’s room toe-tapper, they’ve always been there. Miller is also part of a long tradition of reformed quislings, Mel White, Andrew Sullivan, David Brock, who made their names working for conservative and neo-con causes. Some like Miller admit to promoting a specifically homophobic, misogynistic, racist, and violently anti-progressive agenda and then they saw the error of their ways, or just their mistakes, and wrote a book explaining how sorry they are now, or not. Some, like Mel White even seemed sincere.

One of the unique features of the LGBTQ+ community has always been the idea of Coming Out, and specifically that everyone does this at his, her, or their own pace and in their own way. Everybody has a past, a place we came from, an individual journey. We’re taught not to judge other people for not all getting to the same place at the same time or in the same way. It’s a good thing. (Forgiveness isn’t the same thing. That’s largely an individual choice and more of a religious concept.)

And now here’s Tim Miller. Another smug fuck who still can’t quite bring himself to denounce the conservatism that gave him his career and made him a minor celebrity in some of the creepiest, smarmiest political circles in America. Yeah, he hates Trump. Yeah, he admits to helping create the culture that resulted in Trump. His book might just as easily have been titled “My Bad.” But listening to him on the radio, it was pretty clear he still gets a little wood talking about the bad ol’ days when he was fucking over Democrats and writing copy on the sly for fascist websites. He clearly loved being considered a player, someone who “got it,” which was political consultant speak for effective chicanery and the excuse for ethical indifference. 

The thing that irritates me right now isn’t that Tim Miller is yet another gay man who’s career recklessly and genuinely hurt other gay people. It isn’t, or rather it isn’t just that he has never really come the whole way out of his conservatism (presumably because then he’d just be, I don’t know what, another anonymous Democrat?) What really puts my teeth on edge when I listen to Tim Miller is how representative he is as yet another white dude who mistakes his personal awakening for revelation. 

He’s decided, has our Tim, not to be a completely reprehensible, amoral piece of shit anymore. Good for you, Tim. I mean that. The world’s a better place for it, in a very small but very real way. But when the interviewer asks him, what should we all do now? Poor Tim. Not a clue. All this time to work something up, put something together if just for the book tour, but Tim’s got nothing. He readily admits to having been caught a bit short trying to come up with the uplift for that last chapter. Haven’t given it much thought since either, have we, Tim? Not quite the mystery you’ve made it out to be, Mr. Miller. 

Seems he thought he’d done quite enough, thank you. Look it, he kind of apologized, he talks trash now about the Orange Dumpster Fire instead of, you know, Democrats. The man wrote a book, for God’s sake! What more can he possibly do?! 

And there’s the problem, isn’t it? Tim Miller hasn’t said anything, has he? Did he really tell us anything we did not already know years ago? Do we really learn anything from his book or his interviews with his old friends, or from his new haircut? What we learn is that Tim Miller hasn’t anything much to say. What Tim Miller did for a living is still what Tim Miller does for a living. He hasn’t changed, he’s just changed his aim. And yes, at least now he’s firing at the right target, but are we meant to congratulate him for this? Are we meant to admire that the man who “got it” all those years in Washington seems to finally get that he was wrong? That’s great, but is that it? As Peggy Lee famously sang, “Is That All There Is?”

It seems he was so busy learning to drive, he never bothered to look where he was going. That grinding noise you hear is poor Tim trying to find a new gear and failing. 

Do I think he should be working in a soup kitchen instead of chatting on MSNBC? Wouldn’t do him any harm. Me either. What I think he might have done before he wrote a book and took it on tour was think. Okay, you regret this, and you decided that was wrong, and you talked to other people who hate paper straws. Maybe read a book without checking the index for your name? Maybe consider what else might be bullshit besides Trump? Any other powerful institutions besides the Republican Party that might not be good for gay people? Maybe talk to someone who doesn’t get the nails done once a week, or earn consulting fees, or go on tv, or have the option to stop cutting their hair and keep their job. Maybe explore how other people aren’t trying to reclaim conservatism but fight it? Maybe go to a Pride parade without expecting to be grand marshal that first year.  Maybe ask people who still believe in the future what they’re doing to bring it about. Maybe work on that, and then get back to us.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022



"'The illiteracy of the future,' someone has said, 'will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.' But shouldn't a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less accounted an illiterate? Won't inscription become the most important part of the photograph?" -- Walter Benjamin

What you want in a social media type for a bookstore is evidently --  me. That's right, a fairly stationary man in his late fifties who reads, among other things, cookbooks, old novels, and out of print essayists. Feels a bit counter-intuitive, don't it? I get that a lot. The fact is that no one in their right mind would look at me objectively and think, "influencer." I can't even influence my elderly husband to try new dumplings. But as a bookseller, I do think I'm rather "on brand." Retail thrives on strict management of brands and images, down to the bodies on the floor: shirtless models at the door of Abercrombie & Flitch, creamed and softly coiffured clerks at The Body Shop, walking wire-hangers in the exclusive shops on Rodeo Drive. (Note that when the big national peddlers get in trouble for reasons other than irrelevance or maleficence, often as not in recent years it has been for exclusion and or exploitation of "the look" of their staff. Wonder why that is?) Admittedly, anyone coming into the bookstore where I work would not be wrong to look at me and my fellow employees and think, "bookish," but then people not coming into the bookstore as they once did is the reason for my lateral and unlikely move into virtual content. Who better, in a way?

You should know that my assignment is entirely a subsidiary effort meant to augment our existing social media presence. I ain't in charge of nothing, which is very much as it should be. My employers have not lost their entire minds. The primary responsibility for this sort of thing still rest in younger, more computer-savvy, and flexible hands. (You know, people not so old as to use "savvy" when talking about computers.)  All that I'm doing now is adding in more books, or rather pictures of books with appropriately bookish captions, hashtags and the like. Basically my new online role is analog-me but with a better camera. 

The first thing that was required of me for this task was an Instagram account. Actually, I had already been bullied into getting one of these some time ago. I will admit to not quite seeing the point of this platform at the time. Didn't initially see much bookstore content on there. Seemed to be mostly product endorsements, beauty tips, posed vacation photos and even more posed "candid" shots. Lots of impossibly pretty people doing impossibly silly things like drinking Bombay Sapphire Gin while floating semi-nude in a suspended glass pool. (You spill that gin, sweetheart, and it's a long paddle back to the bar.) Who does this and why am I looking at someone doing this? Still, it was evidently the thing now, Instagram, at least for those of us entirely too old for TikTok, not so suburban as Pinterest, or so mentally and politically unstable as Reddit. For a number of years I'd done something similar to this new account for the bookstore on Tumblr. When that account drew to an ignominious end at the start of the pandemic (not the only reason) we had over 10,000 followers. For pictures mostly of books, and no porn, that was impressive if I do say so myself. That platform and format seemed to allow for longer and more detailed text as well. I started that account for the bookstore and over the years there were at least half a dozen other contributors, the last being my final partner at the Used Books Desk, dear D. Now I was asked to do something similar, again just for the trade books department, on Instagram.

As recent innovations in both our timekeeping and inventory systems at work have shown, given an embarrassingly lengthy period of time -- say, three years? -- and much patience on the part of whichever poor soul is sent to train me, I can eventually learn new ways to do things. Does not mean I like it. Pretty sure I will always be the guy who doesn't see the point of change, at least when coping with new technologies and systems. Musically, I made it as far as CDs. Not so much generational as it is dispositional. My husband is fifteen years my senior. He downloads new music all the time, and yes I mean popular new songs from young new artists. Same man is happiest watching television westerns so old there were still television westerns on primetime -- and there was still something called "primetime." No accounting for taste. At least I am more consistently fuddy duddy, not that that's a virtue. I read old books and generally listen to jazz vocalists who took their last bows well before jazz became an esoteric curiosity practiced only by competitive high school swing bands and Wynton Marsalis. I never understood why my husband even wanted a iPod back in the day. Never took my earbuds out of the phone box. I am that guy.

"But wait," I hear my imaginary reader sensibly interject, "you've been writing a blog here, and before that for the bookstore for the better part of twenty years." At this point that only contributes to my status as a counter-revolutionary, but yes, I did adopt certain aspects of the modern world willingly enough. I was happy with my flip-phone for years until my husband finally made up a story about the manufacturer discontinuing them a decade ago. I take pictures and post them online. I play childish word games every day on my phone. We now stream movies at home, if still on a nice, big tv screen. I am not insensible of the advantages I now have as a result of technology that did not exist before I'd already met and moved in with my husband, and more I could not have imagined even so recently as twenty-five years ago -- who knew blenders could be made so small and font-size adjusted for failing eyes and that people I do not know would one day be willing to drive cake to my house within an hour of ordering cake?!

Again, I am not so much a luddite as I am lazy and set in my ways. What benefits me materially without inconveniencing me personally is just delightful, or would be if I could afford more of it, or if the planet could -- which it largely and obviously can't. That has become something that needs keeping an eye on, the planet. Probably didn't take everyone quite as long as it did me to see the consequences every-fucking-where. Not something I get to feel smug about now that I know the depth of my carbon footprint and such, even sitting in my decrepit armchair, reading my out-of-print books, because who knows just how much damage I've already done with all the single-use plastics and the rest. You're right, young persons, we aren't part of the problem, my generation, we are the problem. Go ahead and burn us all down -- though considering all the micro-plastics we must already have in us that can't be a workable resolution to the problem.

And now what am I doing but adding in a not unlike way to the general heap of visual ephemera? Does the internet, does the world really need yet another regular notice of the new books out every Tuesday? Daily posts about new releases? More photographs, let alone more photographs of books? 

I am not in the habit of quoting Walter Benjamin. Can't say I find him a very rewarding read. Brilliant mind obviously, very quotable and far more influential than he ever knew, but a bit recherché and weirdly theosophical in that modernist cult style. Come for the Marxism, stay for the mystical. Sometimes? Straight-up nonsense, like this one I just found online, "I would like to metamorphose into a mouse-mountain." I cannot begin to be bothered to to trace that image to its source, but I will treasure it always as perfect example of why philosophers make shitty poets (and Marxists indifferent mystics?)  Doesn't mean he didn't say smart and useful things, as in the quote with which I kicked this off. Thinking about the pictures I'm posting, I was reminded of Benjamin's essay, A Short History of Photography (it isn't by the way. Typical. Won't try to reproduce it here. Read it yourself if you're young and of a mind. Otherwise you're stuck with just that quote and what I remember.) In Benjamin's reading, as photography became ubiquitous it ceased to be art and became a commodity; more sausage than Cezanne. More, photographs would become the lingua franca of the modern world. Prescient idea, the triumph of the image in both the marketplace and the way we read reality. Wrong of course about photography ceasing to be art, but he did anticipate everything from those film studies courses that let Football players graduate, to Instagram. Not sure about that word, "inscription." Surely not? Do we really scratch meaning into photos? Weird. Translation maybe? Whatever the case, he did love a bit repurposing. I seem to remember "auras" coming into it too. As I said, I'm not reading that again.

 The creator of Humans of New York, street photographer Brandon Stanton, said in the introduction to his first book, "Whenever possible, I started pairing my photos with a story or quotation." That was when his remarkable project really took off; when he added stories, context, words. Perhaps that's the "inscription" Benjamin was on about? (I'm sure it's not, but it works for me.) What I do with the camera on my phone hardly constitutes art, though it has become something of a project, and the words to my mind are just as important as the pictures. I am not making a record, at least intentionally. Nothing so grand. My purpose is to draw attention, just not to myself in this case, but to the bookstore, and specifically the books in it, 'cause we sell a lot of other stuff. After a bit of hemming and hawing and some awkward experiments with formatting, etc., (Instagram only likes square pictures that fit on a phone,) I decided that immediacy mattered more than perfection of form. Like a drunk uncle at a wedding, I wanted to convey more enthusiasm than grace. I do try to make the pictures pretty and the words interesting, but I don't mind that neither is professional in the sense of ad copy. This account is meant to be a bookseller's recommendations, not publishers' promotion.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger mentions that an oil painting was painted "in the present tense." That's exactly the sense of the thing I am doing. This book, right now, looks special. Look. Frankly there is a constant cavalcade of new books and most of these will not necessarily see either the bestseller lists or the front page of the NYT Book Review. Good books come from all sorts. Maybe you missed one? There are then lots of books from which to choose and hopefully ours will not be all the same ones on all the other bookstores' social media. If they occasionally are, then hopefully we may say something different about the ones picked. Not looking to reinvent the wheel here, just trying to make sure we get noticed in the parade. 

And by whom we get noticed is really the point of the enterprise. We want authors and publishers, customers local and distant, readers, reviewers, other booksellers and yes in short, other book people to eventually find and follow us. Why? Obviously because this is our tribe. Less obviously because we want the people who make books to be reminded of our name just as we want people who buy books to come to us. Part of being a bookstore in the actual world these days requires a presence in the virtual. It isn't just a matter of having a proper, working, searchable website, hosting book-signings and events, being part of the wider community. More than ever a bookstore must be seen to be selling books. 

I am so old in this business that I remember doing inventory on index cards and calling in orders on the telephone, etc. Not so long ago as all that, I was one of the dear old parties absolutely mystified by the idea that bookstores actually needed computers at all. Having been persuaded of the practical benefits, I was still skeptical of things like email advertisement and extensive customer records. Slow learner, me. I don't miss those earlier bookstore days. Fundamentally the business hasn't changed. We still order in books we hope will sell and return the ones that don't. We still do display work and set up lecterns for readings and tables for signings. We still try to find a book recommendation for someone vacationing in Croatia. (Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia if it's a long trip, Dubravka Ugrešić if one's feeling intellectually adventurous.) What has changed besides my bad attitude is the increasingly performative nature of doing anything involving other people; being seen to be alive, as it were. With that I came very late to the game.

I won't rehearse all the pearl-clutching done about this, even just among my fellow print-addicts and pushers. I will admit to my own confusion when I read something in the newspapers (!) about "reading cafes" where people congregated in hotel lobbies and coffee shops just to read silently but in a group. What now? Why? And yes, back in the day I was one of the sniggering cretins who scoffed at the idea of Oprah Winfrey hosting a book club. (!!!) I know. Covered in shame. (Hey, if I was going to go back and change anything about my time in the book business, I would probably time-travel to the basement of Stacey's Bookstore in the eighties when we were hosting informal groups of computer programmers who chatted about COBAL. I'd ask them for stock tips though, not why BASIC was cool.) For all the very real and lasting damage done to the business of books by the internet and the great merchant barons who exploited its commercial potential, I despise nostalgia and the regressive wish to return to imaginary golden ages. That shop Orwell clerked in was a filthy hole, remember. Worked in a couple of those myself.

Whatever the wider cultural implications of the Information Revolution, it has already happened. The tumbrils rolled, the mighty fell, and many a great bookshop went down to dusty death. Kim Kardashian is already a published author. I'm allowed to still miss video stores and record shops, but that's that. Like everyone else in what some still persist in describing as the Western World, I have benefited at least as much as the next person from the innovations I did not recognize as they came along. I can write essays on my telephone. I can show the guy in the hardware store a picture of the required curtain rod. If I have absolutely no other option, I can read a poem by Andrew Marvel off a screen. For two hours I can host a monthly book club from a comfortable chair and chat with people in ten different cities and at least two other countries to date.

Part of the change has been to recognize that it is not enough to talk with just the customers who've come in. It is not something upon which one can count anymore. Honestly, it never was, at least in my time. Special orders, international shipping, book fairs and conventions and off-site sales, we've all been doing this stuff for decades. The idea that a bookshop is a quaint little corner where browsers contentedly roam the silent aisles? I've worked in seven bookstores, new and used, in independents and at least one chain store. None of them were that, or not for long. None. Bookstores are hives of often unseen or never noticed activity. Bookstores are work. To create the tranquility readers seek, to keep the books people want and need requires constant renewal; rolling carts, busy shelvers, returns and reorders and attention everywhere to what is and isn't seen. Bookstores are theater or they are dead. Bookstores are also interactions with not just our regular customers and the new ones we always hope to attract, but also with authors and literature and the wider world. 

In her new book, Reading Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times (a picture of which I posted to Instagram this morning,) Iranian American author Azar Nafisi writes admiringly of James Baldwin. Rather than "shunning Western culture and the traditions associated with whiteness, he appropriated them," and more, he "took from it what he needed, and then changed and redefined it by making it his own. That is literature at its best: a creative and empowering exchange with the other. With others." And that is what bookstore do, must do. That kind of engagement not just with the books and people we love, but "with the other" and with others is the way we survive. 

What could be more "other" to dusty old booksellers like me than a whole generation who spend their waking lives looking at screens? Posting to Instagram, and Twitter, and Facebook for the old folks, all of this is not actually so different from what we booksellers have always done. We're peddlers, putting the goods out for passersby, trying to draw the eye, to sell the stock. It's better to be honest than not. We needn't agree with every choice a reader may make, anymore than we need promote books we don't think are good. We must be open to the reality that we cannot read everything, know everything, be everything to everyone. We serve the reader. Not the same thing as endorsing their tastes or catering to  prejudices we do not share. Part of our contribution is to represent and recommend what we think are better books. We can't make people read them. We can only suggest that they should. 

A bookseller without opinions is just another warehouse worker, stuffing "items" into bags. There's already a business model for that. Quite successful. Not our thing. A bookstore that offers its customers nothing but pictures of visiting dogs and stacks of new Tuesday releases isn't doing a bit of harm to anyone. Everybody, well nearly everybody likes dogs, and bookstore cats, and stacks of bright new bestsellers. I certainly like some of those things. Neutrality is dangerous though, in retail as in life. I would never intentionally offend our customers, even by omission. Doesn't mean I'm going to feature that-book-no-one-asked-for-that-grandpa-gave-everyone last Christmas, or avoid a post about current affairs. There has to be a point of view. If a bookseller's only point of view is a passion for pretty things and bright colors, that is still a point of view. Doesn't make it inferior to or better than mine, just not mine. 

I remember the days when our biggest competition, the biggest threat to independent bookstores came from huge chain-stores, when we all spent years fighting for competitive discounts and protesting when corporations opened their bookstore across the street from established bookstores. (Bastards.) One of the consistent responses to the pretty new Borders stores -- and yes, they were all consistently pretty -- was to try to reproduce that shiny new uniformity of shelves and signage and promotion in every belovedly ramshackle, rabbit warren independent. No hand-lettered signs! No weird display windows! No eccentric costumes or odd clerks! Professionalism was the new watchword, which translated into Barnes & Noble without the budget. It was sad, child, sad. And we were wrong. Did no good. Individuality was the one thing we had and we junked it for new carpeting and clean aprons. Didn't save a single independent shop. Ultimately it didn't save Borders either, or Crown, or Waldenbooks, or B. Dalton either. The internet marketplace was no respecter of the tidy shelf or the sleek flyer. 

The independents that survived did so by embracing their brass, taking up their old chalkboards, redeploying their weird. Can't discount the importance of the practical, like efficiency and geography, but the face of a good bookstore can't be just stock-photo browsers and visiting dogs. Bookstores need booksellers, not "sales associates." Our individuality is part of the stock. 

So making a show of what we like, on the sales floor and the internet and whenever and wherever we may is all part of being in business now. The pictures I post may not be part of carefully calibrated campaigns, and the accompanying text may not be always approved copy, but that is very much as it should be. In the end we are all amateurs, we booksellers or we are nothing. If not for the love of books we would not be in business, nor should we be. 

So let me show you a new book about the history of the Cuban sandwich. Here's a debut novel that's exactly what you need to be reading. Just look at this pretty thing, it's a new children's book about the migratory route of the Arctic Tern! Have I mentioned our book of the month? And this one's a poetry collection inspired by the Ramayan. Oh. Yes, you're right. That is a picture of the cutest puppy that came in to check out our display of classic dog books. We're not monsters, you know.

Friday, August 19, 2022


                                                         "These be the great Twin Brethren
                                                         To whom the Dorians pray.
"                                                                                                                         -
- Thomas Babbington Macaulay, The Lays of Ancient Rome

On his second trip to England in 1861 Tolstoy did not meet Dickens. He might have done, but he didn't. Though he'd only published a handful of novellas at that point, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy at thirty-three was already becoming an important contributor to the rising Russian literature. He was also a world traveler by the standard of the day and a genuine aristocrat. This meant rather more then than now, and more to other people than it ever did to Tolstoy. Still, entrée. For example, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who happened to also be Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools, wrote the master of Yasnaya Polyana a letter of introduction to study English educational methods. (It pays to know people who know people and or to be of noble birth.) Tolstoy is on record as having a great admiration of the English novel, and of Dickens in particular. Big fan. Given the opportunity to see Dickens perform one of his famous public readings, Tolstoy jumped at the chance. It might have been an even more memorable night had anyone offered the Russian a chance to go backstage and meet the great man, but it seems no one did. At 49, Dickens was still in full flush, but already tearing himself to tatters on the podium, so he was not always eager for company after anyway. And then there was what might have been a language barrier. Of course Tolstoy read English, but wrote and spoke it less well. Presumably on his grand European tours, he spoke mostly French, just as his whole class did at home. Charles Dickens taught himself what might charitably be described as tourist French and Italian. Can't imagine that the shy Count and the cockney wizard could have had much of a chat. Doesn't matter. Much as we might like the idea, whatever might have been wasn't. They never met.*

It is perfectly natural that we might wish they had. It's an irresistible impulse to speculate what brilliant folk might have said to one another at a dinner party, etc. Knowing that in 1891 Conrad took Henry James out to a long lunch conjures all sorts of fascinating possibilities. But experience tells us they probably just complained about royalties and the fish being cold. The idea of such meetings is almost always better than the reality, it seems. So why do we wish otherwise? Maybe it's a Hope and Crosby thing. Yeah, we love them both, but together? That's gotta be good, right? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Yes: Road to Morocco, no: golf.

There is a recording online of something called "Dickens vs Tolstoy" which is an opportunity to hear actors reading work from both writers. It is also an entirely pointless debate as to which of the great novelists is somehow greater than the other. I know of this event only because one the actors hired to participate was the dreamy Tom Hiddleston, a man I would watch pick his teeth and think myself lucky. The premise of the event offends me, but I watched it anyway (oh, Tom.) I can't now tell you much of anything else about it. Tom looked terribly good. Watch it if you want. Childish nonsense, this business of ranking art and treating novelists like contestants on a talent show. Is anyone in the audience going to be persuaded? Presumably if they were present they were already fans of either or both writers -- or they just came to creep on Tom Hiddleston because that's a thing perfectly respectable people do. Was anyone taking sides before that evening? Was anyone persuaded to switch? Did anyone show up waiting to see who won in order to decide which to read?! It's moronic, but all too human. Tell me what to read. Tell me why. Tell me which one's better. Should I never eat prime-rib again because I like lamb better? What's good here? How's the coffee?

The only reason any of this can be made to matter, this imaginary handshake between titans, speculating about what one might have thought of or said to the other, who one should read in preference to the other, or read next, is because reading one is actually quite unlike reading the other and yet one rather hopes for a similar experience from both. Real readers chase that high, am I right? Can't read books again for the first time. How to keep it fresh then? Personally, I like all the incidentals; biographies, letters, anecdotes, gossip. And for the big fat ones, it turns out I like company and chat far more than I ever thought I would. So, moving the chat along...

Hard to remember, but they were contemporaries. That must mean something, surely? Quite the time it was! Giants roamed the earth, etc. Setting them side by side, or end to end come to that, means thinking about them together as well as apart. That's where we are and I think that that's the place to start. If it's silly to say which one is better, and it is, and pointless to wonder what they might have had to say if they'd met, which they didn't, I don't think it is quite such a waste of time to think about them in their own time and in the vanished world in which, for a time they both lived.

Obviously Dickens was the elder man. He was also perhaps the world's first international celebrity, in that he neither founded a religion, conquered territory, nor killed any but imaginary people who probably deserved it. (And no, I don't mean Little Nell, you big meanie.) Tolstoy loved Dickens. It's hardly an exaggeration to say again that everybody did. Like most people and certainly most writers then, Tolstoy read and reread Dickens' novels throughout his long life. As a reward for having finally finished the very long struggle that constituted the writing of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy reread Dickens. Even the writers who saw Dickens as a rival, or an upstart, or a clown, read Dickens. All the Russians then busily making Russian literature from scratch, read Dickens, and so did their sisters, and their cousins, and their aunts. On the other hand, there's no evidence that Dickens had heard of let alone read anything of Tolstoy. Perhaps had Dickens not died so young? Again, opportunity never arose. Shame. Also? Dickens was not a man of much leisure. His fortune was earned by almost endless toil. Not a Count, don't you know, nor did he ever own anything so grand as four thousand acres. He read enormously, but really this was more a part of his professional life as the editor of more than one magazine. Tolstoy read fiction in multiple languages for pleasure, yes, but also as a student of literature. Both of these were then, and sadly seem again to be, activities for the leisured classes. In short, Tolstoy had the time for that sort of thing -- you know, when he wasn't trying to teach peasants the Russian alphabet, write a new fiction, reform education, found hospitals, and rewrite Orthodox Christianity. (Being a certain sort of reform-minded aristocrat, or at least being Leo Tolstoy turns out to be nearly as labor-intensive as making a fortune in England by the pen. Still, the A for effort I think has to go to the most famous Englishman of the 19th Century. Still not a contest.)

Dickens was a direct and acknowledged influence on Tolstoy the novelist. And unlike his opinion of even his nearest and dearest contemporaries, Tolstoy's admiration of the English novelist seems never to have wavered. Tolstoy was notorious for walking out on meetings with other writers, bluntly rejecting books and authors he might once have admired, being more than once unkind even to the writers who sought to help and promote him, like Turgenev. Dickens the great editor was not above a rejection or an unsolicited rewrite, but there is little evidence of any grudge other than a personal one involving Thackeray, and they made up before Dickens died. He seems always to have been in the business of bringing as many good writers as he could find up the ladder after him. Wilkie Collins and Mrs. Gaskell come first to mind. This encouragement and enthusiasm was a practical matter; the editor of Household Words, etc. needed good copy. Had they met, I like to think Dickens would have been as encouraging to the young Tolstoy. (See? Hard not to.)

Obviously there are things they had in common despite their very different styles, ages and biographies. Indignation comes first to mind, and a fervor for reform. Neither thought much of the established religions of their respective countries. Both could be quite funny and are often remembered laughing. (The requirements of early photography  prevent us seeing either  smile much, but they did, just not when sitting for photographers and painters.) Both Dickens and Tolstoy were impatient and ambitious men. As they got older, neither was very nice to their respective, long-suffering wives. Most obviously, both were great novelists, geniuses, but very different writers.

Reading them out of chronological order as it were will I think make for an interesting point of comparison for our book club. We just finished Anna Karenina, published in 1877. War and Peace was published a decade before that, and Little Dorrit, our next book for the club, 1857. (Dickens died, aged only 58, in 1870, roughly fifteen years before Tolstoy's first great masterpiece ever saw its way into English.) In one way, Tolstoy was not just of a new generation, but of an entirely different era. Both might fairly be described as Victorians, but besides being Russian rather than English, that designation rests even less comfortably on Tolstoy than it does Dickens. How to put this delicately? Tolstoy had a wider experience, shall we say, but interestingly, was I think more of a prude than Dickens. Dickens was tortured by many things, but not I think by either sexual incontinence or religious guilt. There is that. But Tolstoy was very much the new man and even as his politics and ideas went well beyond anything Dickens might have espoused or possibly even understood, so too Tolstoy all but invented a new way to write in his language; embracing both a distinctly accessible and un-decorated style, and a new psychology of character. For Tolstoy, the novel was a way to explore his conscience and question his ideas. There had frankly never been anything quite like him before, in oh, so many ways. Dickens knew what he believed from an early age and found a way to say it, a way that captivated, entertained, delighted, inspired, and shamed his readers. If Dickens chafed at the restrictions of that famous Victorian decorousness, and had to find inventive ways to write around the rules of what then could and could not be discussed in polite society and popular fiction, Tolstoy simply ignored many of the social and literary conventions** of his time and place. For example he made of the already rather exhausted historical novel something new; a novel of ideas. He might deny it later when he was the sage courted by actual revolutionaries, but Tolstoy was something of bomb-thrower in his way, even as he became the wise old pacifist of Yasnaya Polyana. Dickens did not reinvent the English comic novel. It was a tradition he loved, understood and studied. In his troubled childhood, it was where he went for wonder and magic. Instead of reinventing it he gave it new purpose, redirecting its humor and anger and energy at contemporary targets. He gave it new and dynamic life and drove it into the crowded streets and down dark alleys. He rode it roughshod over the enemies of progress and humility. He invested it with  his own manic energy, and with his conscience. He gave it a greater heart, a wider sympathy, and more readers than any English novelist before or since, save possibly dear old Dame Agatha Christie. (If you can't see the humor in the old girl's deviously overcomplicated cases, you may be missing the point.)

Tolstoy's protagonists all tend to work out on his behalf aspects of his own personality and opinions. Pierre, Levin, even Anna, think aloud Tolstoy's thoughts. He thinks through them. Their questions are his, or rather they were created to think things through at the author's behest. This is what makes him modern, not his answers but his questions, how he asked them, and the need to keep asking. Tolstoy pursues philosophical ends by means of brilliant fictions. At times Tolstoy does not seem to remember why he's asking the question he is, let alone what the answer might be. If he is occasionally boring it is because he was more than occasionally bored, because life can be boring, because boredom might interest him, because frankly the man himself could be didactic and even a bit tedious. Tolstoy created characters to see what would happen to them. I don't know that Dickens was bored a day in his life. In Dickens, character is visible: kindness shines, greed hardens, joy laughs and dances, cruelty grins, and envy twitches and fawns. In Dickens, character tells. As in almost everything the man ever did or wrote or said aloud, Dickens knows just what he means to say and says it, often as not in his own voice, in case we missed the point in a story. Tolstoy notoriously paused the action of War and Peace to teach history or give sermons (good history and great sermons.) Everything Dickens wrote was a sermon, if miraculously the funniest and most touching sermons in English.  He is regularly distracted by the fun he is obviously having, and by his dizzying capacity for invention. Dickens revels in all the conventions of melodrama and comedy -- and sets himself traps out of which he does not always get gracefully. No matter. Point invariably taken and a (mostly) good time had by all.

While both writers were masterful technicians, nobody before or since wrote better scenes than these two, or used language more individually and well, both men were ruled by emotion. It's all very well to talk or write about injustice or poverty, love and death, but can we the readers be made to feel the effects of these things on other, imaginary people? Will we be put in mind of our own lives? More importantly, can we be made to look beyond ourselves to the world and humanity around us? Whatever one may think of Tolstoy's grinding philosophical journey or Dickens' increasingly threadbare optimism, we do not now read them for their ideas anymore than one reads Immanuel Kant for love or Arthur Schopenhauer for joy. Nowhere is the novel's capacity to convey emotion in a way usually reserved for poetry better represented than in these two whiskered old parties. Yes, they wrote wonderful weather and remarkable rooms, thrilling rides and wars, revolutions, deaths sentimental and real. Both watched and listened and studied humanity with the intense concentration usually reserved for the entomologist, and named the people all around them like giddy botanists. Beyond all their other dazzling gifts, Tolstoy and Dickens felt passionately and could not understand the world but in terms of that fervor. They might admire reserve, Victorians after all, but were devoted, addicted to feeling. Its absence was a kind of death for both of them, and its dangers they found exhilarating. Neither ever really understood tranquility nor put much stock in relaxation. For two such famously Christian gentlemen, to be in the world but not of it was unthinkable, impossible, wrong.

Tolstoy had to know how everything felt in order to understand whatever it was he described. He understood better than any of his contemporaries how we might best be drawn into whatever problem he was parsing. One had to feel one's foot in the wet boot, the suicide's despair, the love of a plain woman. For Dickens, emotion allows for and sometimes betrays but does not dictate intension; to kill for example in a rage like Bill Sykes excuses nothing, people do as their natures direct. Tolstoy wished to understand everything; people, war, agriculture, politics, infidelity. Dickens wanted change. We must see the good to want it ourselves. We must know evil and see it vanquished, or failing that, comfort and raise up it's casualties. Whatever his distaste for religion and orthodoxy, Dickens maintains a fundamental faith in Grace and the gifts of redemption. Tolstoy doubts. Dickens believes.

Maybe that's the real point of connection. Both writers were fundamentally conservatives with a little "c." For all their pursuit of progress and philanthropy, neither really trusted the political abstractions in which the 20th Century was to mire itself. For example neither had much truck with "the people." Anyone claiming to act on behalf of, or claiming to derive their power from such a theoretical population was to be distrusted. Neither writer thought much of a mob -- that lingering bugaboo from the days at least of the French Revolution. The single thing that tethers both gents to the 19th Century is their faith not in God, but in humanity. That is what dates them. That is also why we return to them after more than a century with the anticipation of comfort. We may not believe as they did, or put the stock they did in what they believed, but we want to return and linger there, in that last, great gasp of the enlightenment, if just for the length of a long novel.

People who read epic fantasy, or cozy mysteries, or Bridgerton books are all of them indulging in nostalgia; the longing for what never was: heroes vanquishing villains, romance in bright brocades, history as puppet theater. Are we any better, reading 19th Century novels chockablock with noble virgins and ignoble schemers? No, not better, but perhaps knowing better. It takes an act of will nowadays to see humanity's biggest problem as dragons. Much was made in the last mid-century of Dickens caricatures, his sentimentalism, his lack of psychological depth. Faddish as yesterdays critical norms come all too quickly to be (Freud?! Please, might as well be phrenology,) even the worst of yesterday's academic bullies had to concede that whatever Dickens wasn't according to their bone-dry notions of seriousness, he was more than a popular entertainer. Dickens never wrote down to his audience. His language is rich as Lamb's with the antique and the odd. His ear is as good as Faulkner or Lawrence. His powers of physical description are the equal of Hardy, and funny. Much of what makes Dickens funny is commentary, not comedy. (This is the irreparable loss in film and tv adaptation. The comedy can actually be improved by great actors, but the voice of Dickens is missing and that is everything.) He is a writer of verbal flights and prose fancies. He decorates and dresses up and he dances on the page. He does everything that genre storytellers do badly or without. He glories in his English, and the English, and in Dickens we get the best of both. 

Tolstoy was no fool. He might have been reading Thackeray, or Trollope -- pretty sure he did -- but Dickens stirred his soul and his imagination and it was to Dickens he looked for a model and a guide. If the only Dickens we knew was Dickens as Tolstoy read him, we would not be much off the mark. Tolstoy didn't need to meet the man. He knew him. Brother novelists in the struggle, as it were, connected at the soul, very different men, and Christians, but of the same communion, no? And that is why we read them still, is it not? Genius, yes, but also great heart. I can't think of a better reason to pick up Dickens having just put down Tolstoy. 

*A charming tale describing a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky turns out to have been cut from whole cloth, sadly. Also? When the Englishman returned to America on his last tour, Mark Twain  went to see Dickens read. Mr. Clemens was not impressed. Maybe it was a bad night, or maybe the American expected too much. Twain loved Dickens just as Tolstoy did, just as most people did and many people still do. For Tolstoy's and Twain's generation, he was an idol. Sadly, Twain was disappointed by his idol's reading that night. He wrote to more than one friend describing Dickens' performance as a poor job; sometime inaudible, weary to look at, and yet cheered to the rafters by Twain's fellow citizens. Just as well then that they didn't meet that night or thereafter. I don't hold with the old saw of "never meet your idols." Some of mine have been lovely. Some of them, including some truly great writers gave truly terrible readings. It happens.

** Keeping in mind, there was nearly no such thing as Russian literature before Pushkin. Tolstoy was one of the people who invented it, using Western European forms to arrive at a very modern, and Russian, result.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

A Wholly Secular Person

"Man is the Storytelling Animal" -- Salman Rushdie, from Luka and the Fire of Life

 A seventy-five year old man is attacked, beaten and stabbed by a twenty-four year old man from New Jersey. Even now, just a day later, there is a narrative being shaped by people other than either of these men. One is in the hospital on a ventilator and can't speak. The other is in police custody and presumably being advised by an attorney not to. For now, this is news and that means almost any detail is part of the story in a way that may or may not matter much later on. Does the fact that the assailant is from Fairview, New Jersey matter? Well, it's something. That's how news works. A fact is a fact to be reported. As I write, Salman Rushdie is alive. That matters. 

The way we tell this story will matter. How we tell stories, particularly stories that are not our own, discloses why we are telling them. Frankly I am not much interested in the story of the young man with a knife. I have read his story before, too often. Maybe I'm wrong and this time his story will matter in ways I cannot foresee. As of now, he is in my mind just that legalistic necessity, "the alleged assailant." It will be some time before the modifier is removed. The noun may change. Motives are already being assigned and assumptions are being made. Can't be helped. Most of us are not lawyers so we are free for now to dismiss the presumption of innocence, at least in the story we are already telling ourselves and each other about what has happened, what this young man presumably did. (It won't be easy to remember that presumption when we may need it again. Never is. Why they had to make it part of the Law.) All I can say at this point is that he is not the point of the story I am following. He seems so young! Then I remember, "Children are the vessels into which adults pour their poison." He is obviously the reason this is a story, but beyond that he is for me just a locus of anger, the point that shapes and warps the story that matters to me, the life with which I am personally concerned, even though I am not part of it. It is the author of books I am thinking of, an artist whose work and life matter to me and about whom I am worried in a way I frankly thought I need not be by now.

I describe the man who has been assaulted as an author, an artist, because that is how I know him, why I love him; because I love his books, if not all of them equally. We all make favorites. I might just as easily call him an important public intellectual, a thinker, an activist in the cause of freedom of speech, an advocate for the displaced and the exile, a champion of the victims of intolerance, ignorance, violence, religion. Heroes tend to be personal, however publicly they perform. We adopt them as our own. We think that they belong to us -- though obviously this is not true. Even if it is, it is usually no fault of theirs. They just do what they do and get on with their lives. We make them into the stories we need. In this case, this man has written stories I needed, wonderful, funny, important stories for which I am grateful. He didn't choose to become the story we all know even if we may never have read a word he's written. He's told his own story too -- and made a great book of it -- which is the best proof of why this new story is so important to me; I need him to tell me more, to tell me this. I fervently, selfishly  hope he will.

"Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination of the heart."

In an interview he has described himself as, "a wholly secular person." I am with him there. At fifteen, like many of us -- not altogether coincidently like me -- he found he had no need of religion. A more profound conclusion on his part, at least in its effect and consequences. Like most of us, he has retained the use of the metaphor and may still talk about God and even capitalize the "G" the way one does, but from well before he first wrote the novels that have made him justly famous, he was already at odds with much of what Carl Sagan called, "the demon-haunted world." As I see it, this put him firmly on the side of the angels. (See? Can't be helped. Not like we've gone to live on another planet and forgotten from whence we came. Quite the opposite really. We are if anything all the more committed to the place we actually are and just as curious as to how we got here and what we are meant to do while we are.) This fact does not define the man as an artist. If it did he'd just be another Richard Dawkins, bless 'im, and we already have one of those. Atheism isn't what drew me to Salman Rushdie. It was art, and India, pickles and Bombay then Mumbai and Kashmir and comedy. He is the greatest living comic novelist in English. You may disagree. You will probably not persuade me otherwise. For me he is the direct descendent of Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett, of Dickens and Thackeray, of R. K. Narayan, he is a son of Vanity Fair and Mulgudi, an important New Yorker and one of the only people whose company I might want in LA. It is for all these reasons, and those books that I love him.

“The only people who see the whole picture,' he murmured, 'are the ones who step out of the frame.”     -- from The Ground Beneath Her Feet

What has happened to him is not the consequence of what he has written. "The responsibility for violence lies with those who perpetrate it." Just so. This story, his story is rife with villains not of his creation. (Anyone reading his books will recognize that he hasn't much patience for either villainy or characters without dimension, appetites, doubts, humanity.) It is important at this moment to remember that the only violence this man has ever done has been to the assumptions of narrow minds and cruel men. Other than his physical bravery in participating publicly in the world, his only heroics have been performed with words. “A poet's work . . . is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” That's from the one book of his of which most people have heard but too few people have read, by the way. Those are brave words because he said them aloud as it were, but he is brave in saying them because they are true and the truth is dangerous in a world still ruled by superstition and the men who use the name of God as a scourge and a bludgeon.

The violence yesterday was done to a man. It was presumably also aimed at his ideas, at the very concept of having ideas of one's own. It is still shocking to me that it happened here, in the United States, and at "the Chautauqua." If you don't know the significance of that name, it is a place that has hosted some of the greatest voices in the American experience; iconoclasts, atheists, preachers, writers, politicians, saints, and cranks. Audiences gathered there to hear the likes of Mark Twain, Robert G. Ingersoll, and Jane Addams. The place matters because the history matters, and because the idea of it matters more. It is a site sacred to our secular tradition. Few places in America better represent who we are and what we hope to be. That young man with the knife may not have known any of this, but then madness and fanaticism don't much concern themselves with history, facts, or tradition. Hate requires excuses, not reasons. The knife may be sharp, but hate is a blunt weapon. We need to remember not just what has happened and where, but why Rushdie was there. He was there to talk about asylum and exile, about finding sanctuary. Irony is beyond the scope of bigots, assassins, and fools.

I will hope if not for a happy ending as that does not now seem possible then at least that Salman Rushdie lives. Again, this hope is a selfish one. It is what I want for him, and his family, and for his readers, and for us all. How this story goes on is of course not up to me. I only know that whatever happens, this story will not end. Salman Rushdie taught me that. Stories, our stories do not end unless we forget them. No one will forget the stories Salman Rushdie has already told. No one. Let this not be the last we remember. "The world, somebody wrote, is the place we prove real by dying in it."

Not yet, poet, please. Not yet. Let me stay in the story you are telling. I am listening.

You were saying?