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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Seeing the Year Out with Old Friends


Is it possible for anyone with a heart to remain unmoved by the lyrics put to paper by the incomparable Robert Burns, sung to the yearning traditional Scottish melody?
  
The first book in my Books Read list for 2016 was Jim Harrison’s latest – and last, as it turned out -- book of poetry, Dead Man’s Float. For months after the release of The Ancient Minstrel, a volume of novellas that came out in time to be reviewed shortly before his death, I put off opening that book at all. Then sometime in the summer it occurred to me that I should save it for the end of the year, thus bookending the year with Harrison. And so I did, and so now, for the first time, I am reading Jim’s last book of very autobiographical fiction and missing him and Linda (as I often do, truth be told) all over again.




The title novella in The Ancient Minstrel took me by surprise. It took my breath away and made my heart ache. I hadn’t known it would be so personal! And I can picture so many of the scenes, too – in Lake Leelanau, up in the U.P., down in Patagonia, Arizona. (The Montana settings are the only ones I don’t know firsthand, only from movies and previous books of Jim’s.) And the voice, of course, is pure Jim.

Linda was not a letter-writer, but I used to write to her once in a while, and once in a while she would call me on the phone. I will always be grateful to the Fates for bringing the four of us together again for an evening in Arizona in the spring of 2015, going on two years ago now. Now there will be no more letters or postcards or phone calls, no more wine poured or bread broken together.

But I have – we all have – Jim’s books, and I cannot express the depth of my gratitude for that. He got his work done. He left us poems and stories, himself and his life distilled on pages, and because of that, and for old times’ sake, I am able to close out this year with my old friends. Ah, yes, we will, in our house tonight: We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne!

Travel safely, if you travel.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Year’s-End Thoughts


My year’s-end reading can get a little frantic, as I’m trying to finish one book and squeeze in another, but I found time this morning to go through some articles I’d missed in the November 24 New York Review of Books. One was a review of a new intellectual biography of Alexander Herzen, who had been little more than a name to me up to now, and from that review I see Herzen as a fascinating, congenial writer and quite possibly (I need to learn more) a kindred spirit.

According to Gary Saul Morson, reviewer of The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen, and quotations he gives from  Aileen M. Kelly’s book in support, Herzen was, throughout his life, tugged in two directions, “inclined in turn to romantic utopianism and ironic realism.” As a self-described romantic pragmatist, I was instantly sympathetic.

Herzen did not buy general formulae -- big slogans, principles, goals, abstractions, e.g., the idea of ‘progress.’ A thinker ahead of his time, he denied teleology to nature before such a view became the norm. Nineteenth-century determinism saw the future unrolling necessarily from the present, such that if we could but identify all contributing factors we would have complete foreknowledge. Herzen, like Henri Bergson, denied the sweeping claims of determinism, then so firmly held across disciplines and political views. In his essays, he saw the determinist view as one of many absolutes people used as substitutes for God, “the mysticism of science.” As Morson puts it, “[L]aws and chance interact. Repeat a situation, and it might develop differently.” Evolution without a predetermined endpoint. Darwinian.

Here is a line, quoted in the reviewed book from Herzen’s own book, From the Other Shore:
The future does not exist.
It is not necessary, according to research paper guidelines, to set apart and center such a brief quotation as that, but I do it intentionally, as it is the crucial kernel of any denial of determinism.

To his Bergsonian denial (I cannot help seeing it as Bergonian) of determinism, Herzen joined a Wittgensteinian propensity to question himself as rigorously as he questioned others. It is a rare philosopher -- a rare human being -- who can say of a view he held formerly with great conviction and passion, “I was wrong,” so I very much want to explore the thought of Alexander Herzen in 2017. For now, for this week, I am delighted to have stumbled on an introduction to his work.

Denying determinism, Herzen went on to say of the future,
It is created by the combination of a thousand causes, some necessary, some accidental, plus human will....
And so, from what little I have read in a single book review, I’m pretty sure Herzen would not have seen moral progress as inevitable. He would not have seen the “long arc of the universe” bending necessarily toward justice or any predetermined end. He would have seen that as simply one more silly myth, a comforting but basically irrational belief.

Where does that leave us? Well, please note, if there is no predetermined end, no “necessary” direction that will manifest in one future rather than another, the possibility of moral progress cannot be ruled out, either. (“He loved italics,” the reviewer notes of Herzen, listing some of his other writing excesses. Sigh! We have that in common, too!) And note also Herzen’s inclusion of “human will” in the myriad of causes that will bring about whatever future comes about. I think it leaves us with a lot of possible outcomes, some of them desirable.

Now if someone says, “I don’t believe in x” but engages in x on a consistent basis, does that person really hold the stated belief? I don’t see it. On the other hand, I see other people all the time, in my own life and in the public arena, who act on and live their beliefs. This is what I was struggling, probably very awkwardly, to say in my previous post about faith as practicecreating a future of justice.

The future is in our hands. The world will be what we make of it. What shall it be, my friends? What will we make of this year so soon to begin?


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

They Light Our Way Along the Arc


Photograph by Marjorie Farrell


An essay's conclusion, writes William Dereshewicz, is not something we refer to as a fact but rather as wisdom. He allows that the ideas in an essay are “often openly impressionistic and provisional, colored by feeling, memory and mood,” going on to say,
But the essay draws its strength not from separating reason and imagination but from putting them in conversation. A good essay moves fluidly between thought and feeling. It subjects the personal to the rigors of the intellect and the discipline of external reality. The truths it finds are more than just emotional. – William Dereshewicz, “In Defense of Facts,” The Atlantic, January-February 2017
Not every reader is as fascinated by the essay form and its history as I am, but anyone who has been awake this past year realizes that there have been bloody assaults on truth and facts, and many of us find that cause for concern.

Although my new Atlantic arrived last Friday, it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that I got around to Dereshewicz. I’d started the morning with the longest piece in the issue, “My President Was Black,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Mine, too, I want to tell Coates, and I have a lot more to say about that, but I’ll save it for another time. For now let me just say that all my readers who don’t subscribe to The Atlantic should go right out and buy the current issue, because the Coates article alone is worth the cover price. After you read the whole issue, you’ll probably want to subscribe. I hope so.

Here are a few lines from the editorial in the current issue:
Obama is not an unalloyed idealist. He has complicated feelings about the nature of humanity, and harbors few illusions, in particular, about the moral systems that govern many other countries. But he has always seemed sincere in his belief that America is a place that possesses a unique capacity to become better, and then better again. “The arc of the moral universe is long [my emphasis added], but it bends toward justice,” he often said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., but he really meant that America’s arc bends toward justice.
That stopped me in my tracks. Light dawned, belatedly, in one bookseller’s brain! The title of Kathleen Stocking’s book: The Long Arc of the Universe – that was her reference!

Originally I didn’t cared for the title. It seemed vague and having little to do with the content of the essays – but only because I had completely missed the allusion! When I’d shared my initial misgivings about the title with the author, she kindly refrained from pointing out my ignorance. I wish now she had not been so careful of my feelings!

Because now it makes perfect sense. It captures perfectly Stocking’s optimism in the future, a clear-eyed optimism she shares with President Obama, despite hard truths both have faced in this world.

Neither Obama nor Stocking is optimistic because they live in ivory tower isolation. Both have served – Obama in Chicago activism, the Illinois Senate, and the White House; Stocking in country schools, California prisons, and in the Peace Corps – in ways and places demanding a pragmatic, hands-on, the-buck-stops-here approach to problem-solving. Neither can say that the problems they tackled are now only historical footnotes. That should go without saying. Problems persist. The world is hard on people, and it’s harder on some than on others. But, like President Obama, Kathleen Stocking continues to have faith in the human capacity to become better and to make the world better. And both can say they put themselves on the line, personally, to do something toward that end.

Obama is quoted in the Coates article as saying, elaborating on the statement of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
To be optimistic about the long-term trends ... doesn’t mean everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line....
Well, if optimism had to mean that, there couldn’t be an optimist anywhere in the world, could there? Kathleen Stocking wrote me in an e-mail, following the November election:
Ruth Gruber died today. She was 105. She was in Germany hearing Hitler's rants in 1932 and sounded the alarm, but no one heard. She photographed the people in the camps, the boats of refugees turned away by the British warships from Palestine, and so on. It can happen again. And it can happen here. There's no doubt at all in my mind about that. But I also believe, with Obama (that whippersnapper, that youngster) that history is not a straight line. Our species is evolving toward greater and greater consciousness, but there is backsliding, detours, and the process is slow, in any event. Julian of Norwich had to pretend she couldn't read and write and that everything was coming from heaven and had to be translated. Because any woman who could read or write was in league with the devil. As we all know.
But as she writes in her most recent book of personal essays, The Long Arc of the Universe: Travels Beyond the Pale:
The hard thing about living anywhere, I decide, and traveling in general, is that one can never live long enough or see enough of the world to fully understand the long arc of the universe and make sense of it. Little bits are all we get, and it’s never enough to see the big picture.

Holiday decorations by Kathleen Stocking

I do not call myself a pessimist. At the same time, I often find it hard to be optimistic about “the big picture.” Little corners, yes. Pockets. Certain stretches of time here and there. But it’s true that none of us gets to see “the big picture,” the “long arc.” Kathleen Stocking and President Obama, however, remain optimistic in their long views, and they have seen much more than I can claim to have seen, so I’m taking their words seriously.

The philosopher of my heart is Henri Bergson, who lived in France from 1859 to 1941. In his heyday, he had been the equivalent of a rock star. The public swarmed his lecture hall at the Sorbonne – it was the place to be! – and finally a section of seats had to be cordoned off and reserved for students, because socialites had started coming in to the lecture preceding Bergson’s to assure themselves seats for the star.

Never a novelist, always a philosopher and teacher, he was nevertheless awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, but by 1940 his star had faded, and he lived quietly, out of the limelight. Then came the Occupation. Bergson’s earlier glory was not forgotten by those who had assumed power. Eager to piggy-back on his reputation, they offered him blandishments, their recognition – which apparently they thought would be an irresistible inducement. Bergson said no.

The immediate cause of his death during the Nazi occupation of Paris was bronchitis, but I have always suspected heartbreak. Ill for many years with crippling arthritis, on the arm of a caregiver he left his sickbed to register as a Jew, despite Nazi assurances that he was “exempt” from the new, odious racial laws. Again, he could have sold out, but he didn’t.

Bergson died on the fourth of January, 1941, and I have always imagined him on a cold winter day, in the city he loved, arriving home exhausted to die of a broken heart – in part because he had been a most optimistic philosopher, sure that the human spirit was evolving in something higher and finer -- and whenever I have told the life story of Bergson to someone unfamiliar with his name, it has been hard for me to keep tears from my eyes at the end. But the truth is that I wasn’t there. I did not know him. And the day he died was probably not, as it has always been in my imagination, the same day he stood in line to register for his yellow star.

Undoubtedly he felt deep, wrenching sorrow for what had come to Europe in his own last days, and I cannot imagine that his heart did not ache, terribly -- for the Jews, for France, and for the world. But that he chose to show solidarity with the persecuted, though he had never practiced the religion, was a choice entirely in line with his philosophy and his entire life. By his own definition of freedom, that is, arrived at as early as his 1889 doctoral dissertation (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience), his was a free act in 1941, neither mechanical reflex nor directed from anything exterior to his own soul. It came out of everything he was, out of his entire life leading up to that moment.

And exercising his freedom would have been, necessarily, for him, an affirmation and demonstration of the possibility of freedom. Would he also have been able to maintain, amidst the horrors of that time in history, his faith in the evolution of the spirit?


Ready now for holidays
Richard Leakey of Kenya, when entering political life, was asked by an interviewer, “Are you willing to give your life for this country?” Leakey is a white man whose home is a black African country, and the subtext of the question was that in running for office he might risk death. His answer, however, spoke not to the risk of death but to commitment: “What else does any of us have to give?”

It is not for us to question life, Viktor Frankl wrote. Life questions us. How will we answer? An amazing, inspiring person! He saw the absolute worst of the twentieth century and somehow kept faith in humanity.

How do these people do it? How do they maintain faith and optimism, despite all they see first-hand that could drive them to despair?

There will always be those in the moral universe who blatantly steal and rob from others, as there will always be the less obvious free riders, who simply manage not to pay their legitimate dues. But at the same time there will also be, besides the mass of responsible dues-payers, those who not only pay their own dues but who move mankind forward (or at least keep us from being forever lost in the abyss) by being extraordinary, by doing more than their share, by achieving wisdom and by serving as models for the rest of us.

Moral progress, if there is such a thing, is not a smooth, direct line. Okay. There will be backsliding. All right. But does it exist at all, this moral progress? Is the human spirit evolving into something better? Was Henri Bergson able to believe that still as he closed his eyes for the last time?

Martin Luther -- not my favorite guy! -- thought faith a matter of grace: You are given the gift, or you’re not. But what if faith, like any virtue in the Aristotelian sense, is a matter of practice? You get up every day, regardless of circumstances, despite difficulties, and you do what you can. You’re as frightened as the next person, but you choose not to let fear paralyze you. And doing what you can, one day at a time, despite fear, strengthens your faith in the future and in your fellow human beings. Do you think it might work that way?

It’s the only way I can make sense of it – moral progress not as a matter of inevitability, not operating blind like the evolution of the physical universe, but as something created by human choices and actions. Because if the long arc of the universe is to bend toward justice, is it not up to each of us to do our part, though all we can see is our little bit of here and now?

Warmest holiday wishes, my friends. Keep the faith! And thank you for being in my life!

P.S. 12/23/2016 - Here is a very inspiring essay. My sister Bettie sent me the link. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, all!


Photograph by Marjorie Farrell

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Do I Really Need an Excuse?


I don’t have an important theme today and really not much at all to report. Because we have different plow arrangements this year, we’re not quite able yet to predict with confidence what time the accumulated snow and drifts will be cleared away, but we were able to get out of our driveway this morning by ten o’clock, an acceptable winter day departure hour.

So, la-di-da, now I’m here in Northport, here in my bookstore, la-di-da, nothing much to say on the blog, though I’ve had lively conversations already today with customers. All I really want to do is show my Christmas tree and flowers again! Even though my tree never looks as good in pictures as it feels to me when I’m in the same room with it. String of cool LED lights and silver ball ornaments were loaned to me this year by Pat Scott. Marjorie Farrell made the pretty paper star ornaments.

Clare Gengarelly brought me the bright, happy poinsettia plant (how many of us can spell that word without looking it up?), and Kathleen Stocking brought and arranged the beautiful roses and lilies and their companions.



(Later insert: Coming back to add a closeup of this cute little holiday mouse,sent to me by my sister, Deborah.)




So really, I just wanted to share these beautiful things with readers of Books in Northport. It’s okay for us, some days, for a few minutes, just to relax and smile. We don’t need any excuse to appreciate beauty, do we? 

The snow softly falling outside is beautiful, too.




Thursday, December 15, 2016

If It Quacks Like a Duck, Who Is It?


Jingle-decorated safety pin from Romania

You know, I’m sure, the old saw that starts out, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...” Well, I want to tell you that that would not be your local philosopher-bookseller! You’d know that, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you be able to tell the difference after over nine years of Books in Northport? If you’re a friend and/or a customer or even if we’ve never met but you follow Books in Northport from afar, don’t you recognize my voice in these lines? And if a strange voice were to break in and take over Books in Northport, wouldn’t you know something was wrong? Wouldn’t your suspicions be aroused?

What the -- ?! Why on earth do I pose these silly rhetorical questions? If curious, please read on.

Insisting on holiday cheer
As a general rule, I am not one for compulsively checking blog stats. While now and then a post getting more than the usual daily attention can boost my spirits, seeing low numbers on things written from my heart can be discouraging, so why give myself the grief? Instead, for the most part, I just say what I have to say, post a link on Facebook, and the pay is the same (zilch!), whether no one reads or hundreds do. Once in a while, though, I get curious. I was curious the other day, and what I found on the stats report was, as Lewis Carroll had Alice say, “curiouser and curiouser,” to say the least. While stats for individual posts were unsurprising – pretty much as usual – total number of blog views had spiked. The spike was sharp and not explainable by a large number of views of any particular post or posts. What was going on?

A look at ‘traffic sources’ did nothing to dispel the mystery, largest numbers of visitors coming from Google or Facebook, as is usually the case. ‘Audience,’ however, showed a different story. There on the world map, with shades of green showing where viewers are located when they visit, the darkest green covered the area of the former USSR. The rest of the world paled in comparison. 

I shared the surprising result with David, who asked why Russians would be reading my blog. Well, I don’t think they are. Ten times as many Russians as Americans? Why would Russians feel a sudden hunger for a northern Michigan bookseller’s take on Hermann Hesse or scenes of our village in winter? I doubt there is anything in my content or CV fascinating to these new “viewers,” but in light of current events their presence is alarming, even if, as seems likely, "they" are machines rather than people.

Think about it. Blogger is a big deal world-wide. As the anniversary of Tienanmen Square approached, the Chinese government blocked Blogger, making it inaccessible to Internet users in China unless they were able to cobble together a circuitous alternate route to the blogs, and the same was true of Google and Tumblr.

(Do a search and read about it if you don’t believe me, but bear in mind that searches are tailored to individual searchers, and your results would not necessarily match mine. In that way, creators of algorithms need to take their share of the blame for Americans reading only news sources with views matching those they already had.)

Moreover, with the new Google Plus service (which I do not use), blogs can be automatically connected to Twitter, Facebook, Facebook Pages, LinkedIn, Tumblr, WordPress, Gmail, DO Note, Weebly and other sites and services. And now, think of all the bloggers who update using their mobile phones. “We’re all connected” means, among other more positive things, that we are all that much more vulnerable.

For over nine years, I have loved writing Books in Northport and connecting with people around the world -- those who actually connect, that is, not hostile, anonymous individuals, groups, or worms that only hover and stalk, with no interest in what I write, not even anything personal against me as a person or bookseller. Now I wonder how long I and other blogger friends will be able to maintain this precious outlet that has been for so long, for us and our readers, literary as well as social. I don’t know what might happen or when anything at all might come down on us.

“The personal is political.” Do you resist that idea? I’ll tell you, I’m really feeling it today.

Repressive governments are not interested in our fates as individuals, but they are very interested in restricting, in the most general, sweeping sense, our freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement, and the free exchange of ideas. It’s unlikely that darkness and silence will fall on us tomorrow – more likely we will be overwhelmed, day by day, by blinding metaphorical searchlights and fake news and enemies masquerading as friends.

If another voice breaks in here one day, though – or if your access is mysteriously denied – I'm telling you now, ahead of time, not to take it lying down. In fact, start now to do what you can. Think about it. What can you do? Now do it!

Flowers for freedom!



Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Open Wide! Just a Couple Spoonsful!


(Nothing to do with text below)


Last year I read Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), a book I picked up because our reading circle had not read any works of German literature and I wondered if this one might fill the bill. In the end, although I was glad to have read it, I felt the heavy weight of philosophy and relative paucity of plot would not be welcome to the group as a whole. We may take the Thomas Mann route, but if anyone has other suggestions, send them my way.

More recently there came into my hands (due to a friend’s downsizing her library for a move to smaller living quarters) a volume of Hesse’s entitled Reflections, an expanded version, first published in Germany in 1971, of a smaller book of brief passages the author had had privately printed from his novels, letters and other writings. “Aphorisms are something like jewels;” he notes in the book’s epigraph, “rarity increases their value, and they are enjoyable only in small doses.” He is probably right about the small doses -- I seldom read more than two or three pages at a time from Reflections -- but it is rewarding to dip at random into this box of jewels and pull out a treasure to admire and pass along. One of the first I wanted to share with friends was this:
If here and now, in the face of today’s difficulties and requirements, we behave with a certain amount of human decency, it is possible that the future, too, will be human.
Many friends approved and liked this quotation, but my friend Helen pointed out, quite rightly, that everything hangs on the big “If.” Hesse wrote the lines in 1922, she observed, and could hardly have imagined what would come to pass in Germany (he had moved to Switzerland) in the next two decades – a nightmare that was anything but decent. Helen and I have no quarrel over the facts. What I must hope, however, is that in our ‘today,’ knowing what grew out of that earlier European ‘today’ when decency was abandoned, we will remember that nightmare and not accept behavior that would bring on a repetition of history’s modern European Dark Ages. The danger, I agree, is very real.

The Hesse book remains by my side. After having written a response to something I’d seen and been troubled by on Facebook, I found last night a couple of quotations appropriate to the subject of heroism and courage. The first is short and to the point:
As I see it, the love of heroism is permissible only in those who risk their own lives; in others it is not only a delusion but also, I believe, a ruthlessness, which fills me with shame and anger.
Ruthless encouragement to others to risk their lives while we remain safely at home, handing out judgments: that aspect of a modern “warrior culture” should give us reason to pause and reflect.

The following passage in the book enlarges on the theme of courage by examining its opposite:
Anyone who shirks the labors, sacrifices, and dangers that his people must undergo is a coward. But no less a coward and traitor is the man who betrays the principles of thought to material interests, who, for example, is willing to let the holders of power decide how much is two times two. To sacrifice intellectual integrity, love of truth, the laws and methods of thought to any other interest, even that of the fatherland, is treason. When in the battle of interests and slogans the truth, like the individual, is in danger of being devalued, disfigured, and trampled under foot, our one duty is to resist and save the truth – or rather, the striving for truth – for that is our highest article of faith.
Do these statements seem controversial?

·     “[A] coward and traitor is the man who betrays the principles of thought...”
·     “To sacrifice intellectual integrity ... is treason.”
·     “...[O]ur one duty is to ... save the truth.”

Do you think Hesse exaggerates?

These are heavy thoughts, but I hope the small doses, if it did not win for them a warm welcome, at least allowed them a fair hearing. Anyone interested can read more about the life of Hermann Hesse here. For other books of quotations, less scolding and more can-do in nature, look here.

And if you look to movies for inspiration, look no further than “Broken Trail,” a surprising Western starring Robert Duvall that brings together historical detail, believable dialogue, and stunning cinematography. The story has a Western’s requisite heroes and villains but manages to feel real and gritty and dangerous without plunging into a cesspool of four-letter words. And the horses! The horses are magnificent!

The beauty of horses, the companionship of dogs! What would the world be without them? Bleak indeed!


Friday, December 9, 2016

In Which Snow Arrives

You expected maybe a snow scene?


From inside the house, in the night, darkness all around, one feels the cushion of new snow around the foundations and blanketing the surrounding fields. We were warned to expect the storm on Wednesday night, beginning at midnight, but in the dark of Thursday morning I knew before looking that it had not come. The wind’s sound was unchanged: it swept yet across bare ground. Gusts of blowing flakes came midmorning Tuesday, but little accumulated, and still the cold wind blew. The forecast was rewritten, moved off another twenty-four hours, and expected accumulation revised upward.

Waking around 4 a.m. on Friday, however, I felt the difference immediately. Utter stillness ... that sense of being wrapped ... soundless insulation. In the South, I thought, there would be quiet after big winds as live oaks, sea grapes and palms would cease their rattling, but it would be an empty calm, would it not? Up North, in winter, here the calm of winter’s first heavy, swaddling snow is dense.

I got up for to make my morning café au lait, anticipating the light that would reveal, in a few hours, a transformed landscape, but for the moment content with my books, beginning my day’s reading with the final chapter of The Swerve, reading the story of Montaigne’s copy of Lucretius, of Anne Hutchingson’s translation, and of Jefferson’s correspondence with John Adams. For the morning, at least, in the dark with an untouched blanket of snow wrapping my old farmhouse, I smiled to think of the social pleasures of reading – not only communion with writers distant in time and space but also contemporary conversations and correspondence with book-loving friends.

We are not isolated from one another, we readers. We do not withdraw from society when we go into our books. We are deeply social.

I reach for pen and paper to begin a letter to a friend.

*  *  *  *  *



Later. The snow was not as deep in the yard as I imagined it would be, but that scene (and the one here in town) may change in the hours ahead. Meanwhile, if you are up here at the north end of the Leelanau County and don’t usually see The Glen Arbor Sun, stop by and pick up a copy today at Dog Ears Books to enjoy the article on “Orchards and Orphans” by Kathleen Stocking. Also, please note that, by Kathleen’s own request, we are running a “blue light special” (minus the blue lights) on her essay book trilogy: $25 for all three, if you get in here fast enough! That’s practically like buying one book and getting the other two for free – and what a great holiday gift for a special someone on your list!


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Days of Distraction


Sticking to business isn’t always easy during the distracting holiday season. Add to the usual seasonal distractions all the political furor of 2016, and you have a recipe for scattered attention. But when loyal downstate customers turn to their Up North bookseller for holiday gifts, that bookseller has to come through, and I’ve been happy to oblige, along with filling requests and queries from closer to home. And for those looking for gift ideas, I’ve tried to come up with a few original thoughts, aesthetic, historical, and inspirational. Board books for little ones have been big sellers this year. I can hardly keep them in stock!

Once our pack turns toward home, however, my thoughts turn to welcome domestic distractions: what to fix for supper and what book to settle in with afterward. One of three different books I’m reading at home these evenings is The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, the story of a fifteenth-century hunter (“perhaps the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance”) of ancient classical manuscripts and how his rediscovery of On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, influenced the course of Western thought from then until now. I loved the way The Swerve began with the author’s happening on and purchasing a copy of Lucretius for its cover illustration and only later, opening the pages, falling in love with the text of a work previously unknown to him. Serendipity! The thrill of used books! Oh, lovely distractions!

Our weather here Up North has turned very cold. Last night and all day today the wind has been fierce, with a forecast is for big storms tonight, possibly delivering as much as ten inches of snow to cover our still-bare (as of this afternoon) cold ground. The Christmas tree in Northport has already looked good but will look even better with snow on the branches.


Friday, December 2, 2016

December -- Can It Really Be?


Sun gave way to rain, with temperatures still mild enough that, except for bare trees, a wakening Rip Van Winkle might guess the month to be October rather than December. We rub our eyes and blink in confusion. But there is the big lighted tree at the T-intersection of Waukazoo and Nagonaba, and we remember Saturday’s holiday festivities throughout the village.

Her busy days a blur, one family member says. My mind blurs, too. In the background, on the radio, I seem to hear the Red Queen shouting, “Off with her head!”


Yes, yes, I’m reading. Of course. Ordering books, selling books, discovering books, loving books. That, after all, is a bookseller’s life.

Other aspects of life, however, such as the greater public scene, cannot always be held at bay, and I think of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, saying to her father, “And they must marry! Yet he is such a man!”

Interludes of stimulating conversation make up parts of most days, as friends and customers (customer-friends) and I share coping strategies and positive actions we can take in a difficult political climate. (Thank you for your presence!)

Interludes. Reading. Sleep. Then the drumbeat again, pounding, pounding, pounding:

“He is such a man!”
“Off with her head!”
He is such a man!”
“Off with her head!”

Hard to ignore, and yet paying attention only fuels anger and frustration, so I pick up another book or a pencil or a pen – to read, to write, to draw.

You see, I had an entirely different post to write, but it went out the window, and the wind blew it away. Strange winds blow these days, but standing firm is a challenge I fear will only grow greater with time. Is it possible we may look back at these “difficult” times soon with something like nostalgia? Or will they possibly give way to calmer, more reasonable days. Which is more likely?

On Thursday afternoon for a while I fell into The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-cented Manuscript should close!
       The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

Roses! Those I brought into the house in mid-November are nearing their final days, but they have given me a long run, and the petals are still fragrant. They will not be dust for years to come. Remember.



What do I "mean"? You tell me.




Tuesday, November 29, 2016

We Needed a Little – and Got a Lot


Rising to the occasion, Northport put on a great party for the Saturday following Thanksgiving. A little snow would have been pretty, but we were all just thankful not to have rain. The village was decorated, stores open with treats and surprises, and this year the townsfolk turned out. Hugs, laughter, and conversation were accompanied in my place of business by the all-important book purchases, that critical element that decides whether or not a bookstore can keep its doors open. Then, starting at 4 o’clock, clip-clopping hooves on pavement told me that the horses had indeed arrived. As the line for free rides in the decorated wagon grew and grew, I was proud to remember the first year it was my idea to bring horses to town and give free rides. I’m happy it has become such a popular Northport holiday feature. Sorry I did not manage to get any decent pictures of the horses....




Carolers in Victorian garb strolled through town, spreading cheer, while band and choir assembled under the roof behind the big tree, and the darkness felt friendly, filled with happy crowds. A lighted magic wand appeared, waving up and down, back and forth, and then – all four thousand lights blazed forth! It was the absolutely best-ever tree-lighting our little town has ever seen, greeted by spontaneous applause and oohs and ahs.



Sometimes it’s hard psychologically, ahead of time, to gear up to rise to an occasion, but happy occasions more than make up for the effort required. They give us back our appreciation for and joy in one another. Thanksgiving at our house was like that, and Saturday in the village was like that, as was a Monday night dinner at home with old friends. We needed it. We needed a little Thanksgiving, we needed a little Christmas, and we needed time to relax with old friends.



Monday brought rain. Now on Tuesday the welcome sun has returned, giving us a bonus of light for our spirits and another chance to do the last of fall’s outdoor work before winter is upon us. Snow in the forecast for Friday! Everybody up and at ‘em!