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Friday, January 29, 2016

I Am Not (i.e., No Longer) the Target Audience

As this post began taking shape in my head, where a lot of preliminary writing takes place while it looks as if I’m only washing dishes or driving or doing nothing at all, I had in mind to title it “Slow Pleasures versus Immediate Gratification” or (I wasn’t sure), “Immediate Gratification versus Slow Pleasures.” Anyone who has read this blog before or knows me at all doesn’t need to guess which side I favor. Yes, I’m a slow food, slow books, slow walks kind of woman. I don’t even think fast, although in my defense David likes to say, “She grinds slow, but she grinds exceeding fine.”

I was thinking about the online behemoth’s goal of delivering books within 2 hours of anyone placing an order. No, as a small, independent bookseller I cannot do that. Well, if the customer is in my shop, and the book is in stock, I can do it faster, but otherwise? Order a new book from me, I’ll place an order on Monday (if I have enough to meet the minimum), and books will usually be delivered by Thursday and can be picked up that afternoon or Friday or Saturday. It doesn’t take an eternity (some customers have been surprised to get books “so fast”), but it’s way more than a 2-hour wait. Sorry! C'est la vie chez moi! 

And it's hard for me to frame or view my reality as a problem. Because, to me, even a book in hand is the antithesis of immediate gratification. It isn’t a coffee or a slurpy to go, nor a candy bar to stuff into your face behind the wheel.

o    Anticipation is a huge part of the reading experience.

o    Waiting until you have time to open the book at leisure is part of the reading experience.

o    Putting a bookmark between pages, setting the book aside, and turning out the light is part of the reading experience.

So why shouldn’t a waiting period between ordering and receiving also be part of it?

But I know, I know -- !!! (I knew long before anyone kindly informed me, too.)

Waiting and anticipating are not enjoyed, because (a) this is the modern world; (b) modern people want and expect immediate gratification; (c) I am a dinosaur; and – as I have pointed out to David on more than one occasion, whenever he shakes his head in wonderment over advertising we both find thoroughly repellent and off-putting – (d) I am not (and we are not) the behemoth's target audience.

In sad fact, no one is aiming at us at all any more, except to try to sell us things we don’t even want to think about, and I can say emphatically that we are in no damn hurry to get those things, either, so -- Back off, world! We did not choose life in the slow lane to be harassed at any age! We’re just hoping not to be roadkill before our time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bookseller Musings: Slipcases, Curating, and Fonts

Snug in Our Boxes

Sturdier than a jacket, covering all of a book but spine, a slipcase protects its inhabitant. No dust can collect on the slipcased book’s top edges. No hasty index finger can tear the binding at the top of the spine by careless removal of book from shelf. The slipcase demands respect for the book – and yet, there is nothing forbidding about it. Instead, it invites us in. Its presence lends anticipation to our reading experience before we remove the book from its shelter and carefully open to the pages within. 

We set the slipcase aside gently while reading the book. And when it comes time to return the volume to our shelves, there is again something magical and sweetly secretive about not only closing the book but slipping it into a neat box designed to fit that book and only that book.

In cold midwinter, when most of northern life is lived within doors, humans and pets snug in the “boxes” of homes and places of employment, a slipcased book has a special familiarity. In my bookstore, books in their cozy boxes are surrounded by the larger box that shelters us all.

Curatorial Publishing and Bookselling

Reading an interview with John Makinson, chairman of the recently merged Penguin Random House group and owner with his brother of a small bookshop in Norfolk, England, I came across a phrase that was new to me: curatorial publishing. When the interviewer asked about how Penguin Random House is negotiating the current [digital] environment, his answer began like this:
I wish I had some sort of cosmic message for you, but it is very difficult to divine the essence of curatorial publishing, the kind of publishing we do. That said, it’s about human relationship, a commitment to skill and craft. So the progress we make in any market is incremental.
How refreshing that someone in such a huge business can be content to make incremental progress! How heartening to read about commitment to skill and craft! Years back, an admirer of my bookstore referred to my curated collection. Now, reading Makinson’s phrase curatorial publishing, I was moved to get out a Webster’s unabridged dictionary.

Disappointment was my lot. 

The dictionary defined the verb ‘to curate’ as ‘to act as a curator,’ and ‘curator’ as ‘the person in charge of a museum, art collection, etc.’ or ‘a manager; superintendent.’ Is that all? I felt cheated. If ‘curatorial’ is nothing more than a management function, ‘curatorial publishing’ is simply a redundant phrase, the adjective contributing nothing. I’m not satisfied. I’m sure more is meant.

I conferred over lunch (homemade chicken soup with rice) with my artist husband. I told him I see a curator’s role primarily one of selection, ensuring quality, and I was happy to have him agree with me. Perhaps some readers take quality in selection as implied in managing or superintending. I don’t. It’s great when quality is one of a manager’s responsibilities, but whether or not it is seen that way will depend on others – chief officers, boards, even stockholders. Certainly, in business we’re talking about, management is generally first and foremost about sales and profits. The phrase ‘quality control’ is an add-on.

One of the ways booksellers have always survived has been (1) to sell products other than books along with books (e.g., greeting cards and non-book gift items) and (2) to stock large numbers of bestsellers by famous authors, fewer (if any) numbers of slower-moving, niche category books by unknown or forgotten writers. That is a perfectly legitimate management plan. It is not, however, the plan of a curatorial bookseller.

Any curated collection offered by any independent bookseller, whether or not augmented by items other than books, will reflect that bookseller’s interests and values, with selections made according to quality as determined by that bookseller. For example, someone once jokingly advised me that if I were to “get rid of all these science books, there would be more room for fiction.” I cannot envision a bookstore without fiction, but neither can I imagine one without books on the sciences. For me, that would be no bookstore at all.

Font Choice

I have abandoned (for some time now) Times New Roman on this blog for Bookman Old Style. Both have the serif, which I like for its generosity, but Bookman (besides sounding appropriate to a bookseller’s blog) has more readable spacing, to my eye, and a satisfying roundness. 

Again, I have made a selection that pleases my own eye. Comments? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Good Weather -- for Reading and Writing

My Sunday bread-baking got shifted from Sunday to Monday this week. Reading and baking bread work well together, as do reading and writing letters, or reading and doing laundry. All are good, productive indoor winter activities.

But Sarah and I do get out a few times a day, too, of course!

Our intrepid Ulysses Reading Circle will meet next week to discuss Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, so I re-read and have been thinking about that book lately and also re-reading Willa Cather’s essay on Jewett’s work. Still making slow progress through The Tale of Genji. And I’m also still thinking about M.F.K. Fisher, as glimpsed through the collection of her letters I read.

In her books about France and about food, the author is MFKF, professional writer but also, as one learns from the letters, self-created persona. MFKF is solitary, mysterious, somewhat fey, definitely haunting. When she hurries around a corner, you think perhaps she vanishes.

I met MFKF for the first time in Map of Another Town and was spellbound. I’d never met anyone like her. Having now met Mary Frances the letter-writer, I realize the distance between the person and the persona, as well as how much closer I feel to the letter-writer. Mary Frances loved letters writing and receiving them. She loved getting to know her correspondents better through letters, keeping in touch with old friends, and exploring what was going on in her own head. For her, sitting down to write a letter was a self-indulgent escape from the hard work of “real” writing. In one letter (and I can’t find it again in the book) she writes that she is a letter-writer the way some people are alcoholics or “Benzedrine-boys.”

(Many times – and I’ll put my personal responses in parentheses so as not to seem presumptuous, as if I'm putting myself in the same league with MFKF -- I have the same feeling. Self-indulgent! I find it then very strange when anyone thanks me for a letter. It was not a selfless sacrifice! Almost always so much the opposite that I sometimes worry, in fact, about imposing letters on people, since those not addicted to writing letters themselves may feel irksomely called upon reciprocate. I don’t see it that way. I don’t consider that anyone “owes” me a letter in return. Just for the record.) 

Another time she writes,
I can think and feel and write better when I am invisible. I become clearer to myself... sounds foolish but you’ll understand. Here [at home] I play too many parts, often because I enjoy them or find them challenging. When I am in France I am more truly real to myself....
This passage, I think, was not meant to contrast the writing of letters to being with people face to face. It was, note, “in France” that she felt “more truly real” to herself, and as I interpret that, she felt, when far from home, more simply herself. Living abroad, she was not required to face anyone as daughter or sister or long-time neighbor, as professor or employee. The relationships she formed while in Dijon and later in Aix-en-Provence were limited by circumstances. Her landlady and the waiters who recognized her were not her close friends; they knew little of her other than what they saw. And out of that solitude Mary Frances was able to construct the MFKF persona and to work and to be, unhindered.

(In our last winter’s high desert isolation, though David and I were together, I felt very free of multiple roles and social expectations. With David and Sarah I can be completely myself -- lose myself in writing or reading or wandering aimlessly outdoors or exploring roads by car with the two of them. And no one else knew me in the ghost town or the nearby cow town. I could disappoint no one, and no one could disappoint me. Simply being there, taking in our surroundings, which felt delightfully foreign, as fully as possible, with all senses, learning as much as I could about a strange, new part of the world – all that was “work” I assigned myself. I felt very “clear” and lighter than air.)

Mary Frances the letter-writer was confident and frank. Asked to read someone’s book, even the book of a friend, she delivered her opinions bluntly. She was equally honest in her response if a friend confided in her about a mood or a personal dilemma. To her, friendship required honesty, and any relationship that honesty would destroy was no friendship in the first place.

(I cannot be otherwise than honest in giving my opinion of a piece of writing or an idea. My frankness equals Fisher’s in those restricted domains and is usually, though not always, received without resentment. On other topics, I’ll more often listen without giving an opinion, and I am unlikely to chide a friend for bad moods (even if frequent) or what look from the outside like self-inflicted personal difficulties. That is to say, I am a reader and writer and editor and philosopher to the marrow of my bones but do not take it upon myself to act as a psychiatrist. I am not criticizing Fisher for telling her friends how she honestly saw them. She was able to carry it off and perhaps to help. I have not that gift. Everything having to do with another’s heart seems complicated to me, and I am more likely to second-guess, over and over, my interpretations of others’ complex motivations and ever-present inner struggles. Also, I certainly do not welcome a friend’s “psychologizing” me! But this is a deep and mysterious realm....)

Fisher’s side (we do not have in the book letters written to her) of her correspondence with family and friends begins, in A Life in Letters: Correspondence 1929-1991, when she was living in Dijon with her first husband. The last in the volume is two sentences long and was written to the same friend who received one of the earliest in the collection. It is so short and such a perfect close for the volume that I will quote it in full:
Transcendental is the word. I don’t believe in all this stuff about grief because I think we grieve forever, but that goes for love too, fortunately for us all.

Some women I know were talking the other morning about how “no one” writes letters “any more,” and the thought made me sad. I think of the closeness developed with several friends through the writing of long letters to each other (after more superficial acquaintance) when they went to live in far-off places and we could not meet in person for months or years. When they returned, we had become true friends, and those friendships continue to this day.

The very slowness of handwriting a letter, along with the tactile component, brings intimacy to the process. The necessary wait for a letter to arrive allows anticipation to build. Finally, there is the delight of taking the envelope in hand at last, with that dear, familiar handwriting. A letter from my friend!

While I truly delight in e-mails from a handful of friends (and I’m sure people receive at least some phone texts with delight, though I do not text so do not know from firsthand experience), how can instant electronic match the miraculous sensation of opening a letter and beginning to read it, picturing one’s friend writing the words several days before, and now, days later, feeling that friend’s mind in communion with one’s own? My own letter-writing, as I say, feels self-indulgent, and yet I am grateful for personal letters others write me. Reading a letter, I am thankful that my friend set aside time to share her or his life and thoughts with me.

Friendship, after all, like marriage, takes time. There are no shortcuts to long relationships.

On the heels of the sad conversation about “no one” writing letters “any more,” I went straight to the post office to buy stamps. That was Saturday. Now today, Tuesday the 26th of January, Leelanau Township bows under a heavy, wet snow. School is closed. Roads are bad. It’s a good day to write letters. And maybe somewhere, far from my isolated farmhouse, a friend is writing a letter to me....

Friday, January 22, 2016

On the World Stage, Opinions Are All Over the Map

Years ago I heard for the first time, so memorable it never afterward left me, on Interlochen Public Radio’s Saturday morning call-in request segment, the tenor and baritone duet from Bizet’s opera “Les pêcheurs de perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”). For only the second time in my life (the first was a violin piece by Paganini), music on the radio stopped me in my tracks so that I had to sit down and do nothing but listen, with tears in my eyes. I knew nothing of the opera’s story. Subsequently I borrowed a CD from the library with music from “The Pearl Fishers” and listened to it over and over. Of all the operas in the world, this is the one I most wanted to see and hear live.

The New York Metropolitan last staged “The Pearl Fishers” in 1906. Even before I had any idea it had been such a long time since they’d done it, when I heard that the Met was mounted a production this month, I had to see it. That dream made possible by the fact that the production would be available to patrons of the State Theatre in Traverse City through HD simulcast (as well as by a good friend who, unlike me, doesn’t mind ordering tickets online). Many people we know regularly attend the opera simulcasts at the State Theatre. It would be our first time David and I had gone.

Were my expectations impossibly high? Was disappointment inevitable?

Saturday became increasingly complicated. I had already planned to take care of fairly urgent banking business in Traverse City when David got word of a friend’s funeral to be held that morning in town. We drove in early, and I dropped him off at the church, going on to credit union and bank by myself. It was a snowy winter day.

On Division Street (U.S. 31 South) another driver insisted on following practically on my rear bumper. The highway was snow-covered and slippery. Apprehensively glancing between windshield view and rearview mirror, I missed my turn and had to circle around, crabbier by the minute.

Driving back into town along West Front Street, not far from my old (as in “long ago”) neighborhood, I thought about driving on snowy Traverse City streets back in 1970-71 and how much has changed since then, the “City” part of the town’s name much more appropriate now. And yet, back then all streets, sidewalks, and alleys, not only downtown but throughout residential neighborhoods, were plowed 24 hours a day, much to my initial astonishment that first winter. “I miss it the way it used to be,” a friend said to me last spring. Sometimes I do, too.

But heaven forbid that irritability should ruin a day so long anticipated! Back in the 1970s, after all, the struggling State Theatre had a very outdated sound system and didn’t show many movies I wanted to see. Once again, “Something’s lost, and something’s gained,” as Jonie Mitchell sang in “Both Sides Now.”

I was still nervous about picking David up at the church, getting downtown in time, parking the car, and meeting the friend who had booked our tickets, but all went well, and once we found our seats I could relax and look around in good spirits. So many friends in the audience! And soon we were transported to New York City (where the people in the audience at the Met looked pretty much the same as the one in Traverse City). David and I tried to think of people we knew in New York to look for them in the audience. Later I heard that one of the couples we’d thought of had been in the audience, though we couldn't spot them onscreen. The wife told me they found it “amazing.” Same here!

The opening sequence of the opera was a spectacular technical tour de force, lyrical and captivating, but I was impatient for the full stage and the appearance of the singers. For me, there were no disappointments.

I loved the opening set with rickety wooden seaside docks and pilings, the ensemble of singers (villagers from the little pearl-fishing community) and the way they moved onstage with the music, the colorful but down-to-earth costumes, the mix of traditional and modern elements that felt like such a realistic portrayal of life in that part of the world, but always – above everything else – the beautiful music and exquisite singing. Not for a single moment did I feel the slightest hint of tedium. The voices of tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, singing Nadir and Zurga, seemed made for their lyrical duet, and soprano Diana Damrau’s delicate, soft seemingly effortless trills made me hold my breath. We were also impressed by Nicolas Testé and the way he inhabited the role of the high priest, Nourabad. Throughout, the music swept me up, held me, and carried me away. In fact, days later, the magic is still with me. A couple friends from our group spoke of similar responses.

So imagine my shock when I looked online for a review, in hopes of finding someone in the larger world who shared our delight, and found one of the most negative opera reviews I’ve ever read, in which the reviewer actually calls the production “tawdry”! He liked almost nothing, from the composer’s music to the work of the set designer. I could only imagine what terrible things must have been going on in his personal life. Another reviewer, the second I found, raved about the singing and acting and the sets (thank God!) but faulted the story of the opera for its thin plot and contrived ending.

Okay, I'll admit it straight out – I am a naive opera-goer. My parents’ love of opera failed to capture me at an early age. I’ve never studied the musical genre and have attended very few performances in my life. But others in our group of ten greatly surpass me in musical sophistication, and we all loved what we saw and heard, so I hardly think my enjoyment can be chalked up to nothing more than naiveté.

As for “contrived”? Opera is contrived! The artificiality of it is the main reason I was immune to its charm for so long! Accepting contrivance now as part of the package, why would I be disappointed in a thin plot or an unrealistic ending? It’s the music, the music, the music, the voices, the voices, the singing -- and I was enraptured by the music of these voices from start to finish.

Told the New York Times had a positive review, I went over to read it. Thank heavens! Someone who saw and heard the same opera that thrilled me!

I still feel sorry for that poor Spectator reviewer, for whatever prevented him from feeling the magic, and as for history’s opinion, cited by the Guardian, that the promise of this opera of Bizet is “unrealized,” I can only be grateful to the Met for ignoring history’s opinion and staging their triumphant production in spite of it.

Bravo, les artistes! Et merci mille fois mille fois!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Joining Love and Power

...And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a resignation of love. 

We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.

-       Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dark Days but “Nothing Darker...”

“There is nothing darker than a dark screen.”
 -      Gary Frost, book conservator

Winter is a dark time in the northern hemisphere. Monday morning’s sunrise did not break through heavy clouds along the horizon until 9:15 a.m., and not for long did the sun’s visible presence cheer the frozen landscape. All day falling snow shifted direction constantly in the wind and formed deep drifts on the ground.

Dark winter days and nights, thanks to electric lights (or, in an emergency, candles and kerosene lamps), are good for reading, of course, and I’ll be the first to admit that winter reading for me is often escapism. In the pages of a book I am no longer in cold northern Michigan but in sunny California or sunny Provence or even wintry medieval China – since winters of another time and place don’t chill me as does the one outside my door. And then, unreconstructed bibliophile that I shall remain as long as I draw breath, I take from the shelf Julia Miller’s Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings (I have written about this book before -- see this post, if interested) and among the wealth of scholarly and practical detail in those pages I also find the author’s firmly stated opinions on the value of physical books. It was from a much longer quotation in Julia Miller’s book that I took today’s opening epigram.

(And yes, I am well aware of the irony of posting what follows online to be read by viewers of screens, but this is the public forum available to me, an unknown bookseller in a small northern Michigan village.)

Darkness and books together bring to mind what we were taught in my young school days to call “the Dark Ages,” those long centuries of war and plague that stretched, in my old high school lessons, from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Renaissance. We know that books and learning did not disappear entirely during the period, that literacy and even creativity were preserved and even flourished in the libraries of monasteries throughout Europe.

But do you imagine early Holy Land texts only as scrolls? Newer works produced in medieval monasteries only in manuscript form? Dr. Miller makes the case that what we consider a codex, “sheets of papyrus or parchment [that] carried information on both sides and [that] were attached together through some means,” probably dates as far back as the second century of the Common Era. Not a single example of a second-century codex has been found with an intact covering, but Miller speculates that what we today call a book’s binding might well have been separated from an ancient text when it was discovered and that ancient bindings, not recognized as such and/or not considered important by archaeologists, may yet exist in museum collections -- warehoused, forgotten, and far from the text they once protected. So the book as we know it may be older than we generally think.

Miller cites the work of John Sharpe, who saw the nascent codex form in crudely made papyrus notebooks and multi-leaved wooden tablets from the first century. Second-century poets did not consider codices to be, strictly speaking, “books” (one wonders what would they make of e-books!), but the format clearly existed, both in single-quire and multi-quire form. After all, Miller writes,
Perhaps scribes simply realized that the bound page format was easier to use, could carry more text by being written on both sides, was easier to store, and could be more easily referenced.
It is much later in her own book that Miller makes a plea for preservation not only of physical texts but also for conservation of physical bindings. Part of her plea for books is a cry of alarm:
The preservation of our past, present, and future intellectual heritage has become a pressing problem to the intellectual property managers of public and private information collections. The gap between generating the written record and finding the means of maintaining and preserving it adequately has been a problem throughout the history of the physical artifact record. A new problem arises with a new way of storing information: more and more of the content of once-traditional libraries and archives is moving onto electronic storage systems.
It is in this context and this chapter, on the following page of Books Will Speak Plain, that Miller quotes Frost at length, italicizing one of his sentences in the first of three paragraphs from ‘Medieval Bookbinding”:
Only passing nostalgia for the book is typically considered, without serious thought given for any attributes of print that cannot be supplanted by on-line reading.
Impossible that the only value people see in a physical book is nostalgia for a quaint, outmoded object. Isn't it? 

As much worse-than-usual winter business darkness falls on my oh-so-modest bookshop in northern Michigan, such that I cannot tell if it is experiencing a brief eclipse or entering irreversible last days, my personal devotion to the printed and bound word remains steady. Not that I offer my clientele fragments of ancient parchment or illuminated medieval manuscripts. While most of my inventory is ordinary, however, I do have a small selection of more special items – signed modern firsts, beautifully bound classics, 19th-century survivals, some rare and curious titles – but I see the value in my collection more in its existence than in its present bottom-line market value.

For example, on my own shelves at home is a volume containing John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government. If I were unable to get to a library, if the digital world were to go dark, or if some future despot were to decide Locke’s ideas too dangerous to be accessible to the public, as long as my body and spirit are united in this world I like to think I can open my book – something as much my possession as the shoes I wear -- and read the words Locke wrote in the 17th century (first published in 1690), words that helped to shape our own nation almost a hundred years later.

Not long ago I was offered several boxes of books by a couple who explained that they were “going digital.” I have more than one friend who stores “books” in a remote “cloud.” A law librarian tells me that more and more information is unavailable to students and practitioners in print form, and he worries that much is being be lost. Failure to update online information is another deep problem for any knowledge quest.

I see the value of having a backup system, but digital storage is not backup if it is one’s only system, not itself backed up with a medium like that used by so-called “dark” medieval culture – to quote Gary Frost again,
a medium that [is] eye readable, interfaced by the reader alone, and physically accessed by direct manipulation.
Not all books need to be preserved forever. That I’m sure we all recognize. But can we truly and securely possess any book without owning its physical presence? In Locke’s Second Treatise he discusses money as something unlike venison or acorns, something can be “kept without spoiling.” The same is true of physical books, given adequate care, as is shown by the survival of so many of them through the centuries.

Dr. Miller’s area of scholarly expertise is historical bindings, and much of her plea for conservation has to do with the outward covering -- the clothing, if you will – of books, but she clearly recognizes the value of content, as well, and its increasingly precarious position in today’s world:
At the same time that collections managers are balancing many responsibilities to their patrons and their collections, they also have to contend with the inherent vulnerability of the digital record. The Internet as the global storehouse for intellectual property has a very big problem, and that is that access to it can be ended at the whim of a terrorist or a dictator or a natural disaster. We all fear a system containing our intellectual heritage that may in future be able to be altered or information removed, where access can be denied for political reasons. We know it has happened in the past with the hand-written and printed record, and there is no reason to suppose the cyber-intellectual record will be any more secure from manipulation; it may be more vulnerable. [My emphases added]
And so I continue to believe in the value of my chosen way of life and in the physical book. More than that, I believe that every bookstore in the world and every library of physical books, whether public or private, has inestimable value not only for the present but for the unforeseeable future.

While Europe descended into centuries of chaos, many books survived and even multiplied. In 21st-century Michigan, when the power goes out and batteries go dead, physical books can be read at night by lamp or candle, in daytime by daylight alone. In the search for energy independence, it is important to remember devices and inventions whose use requires no fossil fuels, no batteries, no power grid. 

Let me close by repeating today's opening quote, in hopes it will be seared into a few brains:
 “There is nothing darker than a dark screen.”
 -      Gary Frost, book conservator

Monday, January 11, 2016

Launching Into Another Year’s Reading

Dog Ears Books will reopen on Wednesday, January 13 – weather permitting!!! – and will be open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week. We will, however, be closed on Saturday the 16th, which I know is bizarre beyond words, but a simulcast of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” is being shown at the State Theatre in Traverse City that day, and of all the operas ever written, it is this one I have most longed to see and hear. So that’s where I’ll be. Then, back the following Wednesday and open Wednesday through Saturday for the remainder of the winter, weather permitting, and unless otherwise announced. Sound complicated? It really isn’t.

Meanwhile, during my time off, in addition to fun with David, outdoor time with Sarah, kitchen adventures, ubiquitous laundry, and the horror of deep-cleaning my desk and catching up with business bookkeeping (I’ll spare readers the discouraging details that task revealed), I’ve indulged in quite a bit of reading, a report of which follows.

Poetry is the perfect bridge from one year to the next, and Jim Harrison’s new book of poems, Dead Man’s Float, arrived before the end of the year. At last! I took the book up with the feeling of deep gratitude I feel for every new book of Jim’s poetry. There is a lot about pain in this collection and a lot about birds, too. A small book, in which most of the poems fit on a single page. Once many, many years ago now, when I dragged my IBM Selectric typewriter up from Kalamazoo to Lake Leelanau to work alongside Jim in transcribing a sheaf of new poems he’d written for a new book, on the way from the house to the granary where he worked I became as shy as if we’d never met before. “I feel as if I’ve been reading your diaries,” I told him. He replied matter-of-factly, “You have.” Some people believe that modern poetry differs from prose only in the line breaks. I continue to maintain that the best poems differ from prose in being exquisite distillations. Most modern poetry is also very intimate. Exquisite, intimate distillations of one man’s vision of life. Thanks again, Jim. I’ll be taking this book up again and again....

Losing My Mind: An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer’s, by Thomas DeBaggio, is as terrifying as the title suggests. Once I got into the rhythm I speed-read through it, but I must say that getting into the rhythm was initially difficult. Three different strands – memories of his life from childhood on; facts about Alzheimer’s; and observations of his own deteriorating mental condition – appear in turn, and the jumps from one to the other had me questioning my own mental processing. Bits of what might be called a fourth strand, some of the author’s brief specific insights or thoughts, are set off in italics, but the three major strands are all in the same typeface, so although long passages of quoted factual material are indented, it wasn’t as easy to distinguish at first glance the author’s present writing from his childhood memories. Another odd difficulty is that the book is so coherent. What I mean is that the book’s cognitive coherence, along with perfect sentences and perfectly spelled words, is so at odds with what the author writes about his difficulties with spelling, remembering words and events, even reading his own handwriting, that often it feels more like reading fiction than memoir. We read and feel deep sympathy, and yet it’s hard to believe the man is “losing his mind.” How can he express the mounting losses so clearly? (Just how much editing was necessary?) And yet, a reader does believe. DeBaggio accomplished what he set out to accomplish, leaving a stunning personal account of his own loss of identity.

I mentioned the Paris book in December when it first came in. The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, by Elaine Sciolino, could not fail to interest me, as that market street in the 9th arrondissement is one I know fairly well. Not, I hasten to say, as intimately as Sciolino knows it. I did not, as she did, develop friendships with the vendors whose shops I visited daily. Astonishingly (and as someone who generally haunted the churches of Paris every time I was there, I cannot account for this omission), I don’t believe I was ever inside Notre Dame de Lorette, the church at the base of la rue étroite qui monte au Sacré Coeur. And so Sciolino gave me inside glimpses and historic background of many buildings outwardly familiar to me. Now I am more than curious to learn how someone unfamiliar with the street will respond to the book. Ed? How did it strike you? And don’t tell me you haven’t started reading it yet!

Having heard on NPR of a new book about the life and work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I felt moved to give his fiction another try. I don’t remember which novel I tried to read years ago before deciding I just was not a Vonnegut fan, but this winter I elected to read Cat’s Cradle. What a lively writer! What a romp through the dark landscape of deadly 20th-century American ideas and inventions! How on-the-nose the definitions of the wise Bokonon! (Ah, yes, the granfalloon! I’ve been welcomed into a few of those in my time, and surely you have been, too.) I laughed aloud many times while reading, and once, in the car, laughed just recalling a bit of dialogue from the book. The final disaster I saw coming, so no surprise there, but the final image I had not foreseen. Thus there were many laughs along the way but no laughs in closing the book. A dark vision, indeed. But worth reading. I’m glad I gave him another try.

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser: I’ve read it before and will read again, and I quoted it here in Books in Northport on my previous post. Often, listing to news on the radio, I can’t help editing what I’m hearing, eliminating clutter as Zinsser prescribes. What, for instance, is with the words ‘happen’ and ‘happening,’ which now seems to creep into every report? “The event is scheduled to happen on Saturday at 2 p.m.”? Why not simply “The event is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m.”? But that is just me being crabby. More importantly, as a writer criticizing my own prose, I value Zinsser’s directives. Where I fail, the fault is, obviously, mine own.

I continue reading the Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji, and should finish it by spring, despite myriad distracting temptations along the way, the most recent being M.F.K. Fisher: Her Life in Letters. I fell in love with MFKF when I happened, long before I ever went to France, upon her Map of Another Town. Now I read her letters and realize that in her books she created a persona, so that the writer we meet in the books on Aix-in-Provence and Marseilles is not the Mary Frances we meet in her letters. This is not criticism! I am not disappointed! I am fascinated both by the solitary, mysterious MFKF and by the warm, approachable, letter-writing Mary Frances. And in reading the letters, I feel a new point of sympathy when she writes to a friend that she is (I must paraphrase to save myself hunting through pages for a direct quote) a letter-writer in the same way some people are alcoholics or “Benzedrine-boys.” I too am a letter-writer in that way, though my pen-and-paper correspondents have dwindled terribly over the years. From time to time I think about arranging to print out voluminous e-mail correspondence with various friends but doubt I ever will. Letters on paper are precious keepsakes, their value rising – for me, anyway -- as they become increasingly rare in our world.

P.S. In addition to today’s new post on my kitchen blog, I’ve gone back and added a couple of photos to the preceding post, pictures of Sarah waiting for her special treats. Not to be missed! 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Yes, I Call It a Vacation

Newly uncluttered bulletin board at bookshop

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds. The writer is always slightly behind. New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon they are part of American speech. It only takes a John Dean testifying on TV to have everyone in the country saying “at this point in time” instead of “now.” – William Zinsser, On Writing Well (NY: Harper & Row, 1980, Second Edition)
Zinsser was talking about cluttered writing, an important reminder, but I'm thinking about my cluttered desk, at work and at home. The time has come for me to clear away clutter, to make way for productive work. On Saturday, January 2, my last day in my bookshop before a brief (13-day), self-styled winter hiatus, I enthusiastically detailed my plans for a customer friend.

“I’ll catch up on all my year-end bookkeeping and get everything ready for the tax man, organize my desk, file documents, and get rid of everything I don’t need to keep. Then I’ll do a deep, thorough housecleaning. I’m going to get my whole environment organized! Then I’ll set up a winter schedule -- mornings to work my novel, maybe one or two hours a week for drawing, and, of course, my limited winter bookstore hours. It’s gonna be great!”
When I start feeling too concerned that all the words I write be very smart and about something worthwhile, I find my urge to write replaced with an urge to draw monkeys. – Lynda Barry, Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: Drawn and Quarterly, 2014)

“You call that a vacation?” The question came from my friend’s husband. “You’re not going anywhere? How is that a vacation?”

My work space last winter in the Arizona ghost town

The woman understood. At our time of life, it seems most of us are determined to streamline personal space and schedules and organize so we can use time more wisely. It also seems as if the time for getting organized can slip through our fingers like quicksilver. Time must be made, set aside for an opportunity that will otherwise remain elusive, present time carved out and dedicated to ensuring productive future time.
Some days will go better than others; some will go so badly that you will despair of ever writing again. We have all had many of these days and will have many more. – William Zinsser
It’s funny, but even thinking about coming days of despair makes me smile. I’ve been there before. Yes, some days do go badly. But days when writing goes badly are still days spent writing, so I look forward to a very satisfying winter of work.

First, however, comes my brief vacation of organizing, cleaning, puttering -- and, of course, relaxing and reading. I’ve begun another very long book, the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji, which will no doubt occupy me off and on for weeks to come, interrupted by work, sleep, and other reading. Also on the stack is M.F. K. Fisher:  A Life in Letters (Correspondence 1929-1991), a hefty volume. Years go I chanced upon Fisher’s Map of Another Town, re-read many times since, and fell in love with her unique perspective on France, food, people, and life in general.

Truly, I’m looking forward to a rich vacation and then a rich winter’s writing.