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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Only Constant: Change

Snow and cold are not news.
Maybe you’ve heard of Esther Forbes. In children’s literature, she made her name as the author of Johnny Tremaine, the 1943 winner of the Newbery Medal, but she also in her lifetime was one of the foremost scholars of Paul Revere and won the Pulitzer in 1942 for Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Her first published short story, “Breakneck Hill,” won the O. Henry prize for short stories in 1915. The author was then 24 years old. You can read more about this fascinating American writer here

A novel by Esther Forbes that I’d never heard anyone mention fell off the shelf and into my hands not long ago. Rainbow on the Road tells the story, from the perspective of an old man in Kansas looking back on one summer in his youth, of an itinerant portrait painter in 18th-century New England. No less than John P. Marquand wrote of Rainbow on the Road (he is quoted on the flyleaf):
A while ago I wrote a paper in which I tried to show that no historical novel can recapture the true spirit of the past, since its writer must always present it in terms of the present. I was amazed at how mistaken I was in this idea when I read Esther Forbes’s last novel. I have never seen the illusion of a period so beautifully presented. Somehow she has caught the whole spirit of New England, which I used to recognize when I talked to very old people during my childhood. In my humble opinion, it is outstanding in every way. It is literature and by far the best thing she has ever written.
It is interesting to see that Marquand called Rainbow on the Road the “best thing she has ever written,” considering Forbes had won the O. Henry in 1915, the Pulitzer in 1942, and the Newbery in 1943. Looking back on the fact that Johnny Tremaine has never been out of print, what would anyone say now was Esther Forbes’s “best” book? And what of John P. Marquand? Sixty or seventy years ago, who would have predicted that he would be found on a website (could websites have been predicted!) calling him one of America’s “Forgotten Writers”? Sic transit gloria mundi.

Book Club edition, 1954
This morning I was telling David the bare bones of the story of Rainbow on the Road – the unschooled portrait painter, trained by apprenticeship when young as a “limner,” who painted bodies and backgrounds all winter and then traveled the countryside come summer, filling in faces and selling his canvases for $3 to $5 apiece; the handsome, womanizing highwayman whose description was close enough to the painter’s that the two were often confused in pre-photography New England; the life of all the various peddlers on the road in late 18th-century New England, days of horse-drawn coaches and stages, small town inns and public houses, rocky hills grazed by sheep, isolated farmhouses, flatboats and canals as good transportation, and political speeches as good entertainment.

Close to a third of the novel (this is only an impression, not anything I measured, and my impression may exaggerate the facts) is taken up with stories told by various characters. Speechifying, story-telling, and the making up and passing along of original ballads were ways that Yankees passed the time in those days. Their stories, added to the author’s descriptions of the countryside and plot complications as Jude Rebough is confused with Ruby Lambkin, make for a very entertaining novel. Historical verisimilitude, which Marquand praised so highly, is rich icing on a hearty cake.

One of the great themes of Rainbow on the Road is that of social change. The narrator was thirteen years old, he tells us, when he spent that summer on the road with the man who stood in the place of an uncle to him. (His “Aunt Mitty” was not a blood relative but had taken him in when his parents were killed in a road accident near her house.) As an old man looking back, he tells us, along with his story, about the way things were done then.
I guess I’ve made it clear by now that these days were before the time an artist (and seems like everybody is an artist now) could buy paint in a compressible tube with the oil and the pigment already mixed together. The powdered colors, each ground to the proper coarseness or fineness best for it, came to Dr. Bloomer in containers about like what rare tea come in. On selling them they were transferred to bladders of small animals. When Jude wished to use a certain color he’d prick the bladder with a bone tack, sprinkle out the amount he’d need, and mix in the linseed oil. But I associate the smell of oil of lavender with his work, and turpentine as well. From then on, the bladder having been breached, the tack served as a stopper....  
The biggest bladder used was that of a rabbit. If you wanted more, instead of going into sheep or swine bladders, you bought two rabbitsful. As I remember, this was about an ounce. A rat’s bladder was smaller. These were commonest but other animals served. A mouse’s bladder was the smallest unit.
I found these descriptions mesmerizing. The boy, accompanying the artist as an apprentice, never did learn to paint, but he learned to make brushes (also described), and he took over the handling of money, something for which the artist had no gift.

One of the novel’s minor characters is a peddler of broadside ballads, Phineas Sharp. Sharp puts words to tunes of his own invention and sings his way along the road, keeping his overhead low and selling copies of his lyrics. The last time Jude and Eddy meet with Sharp, the latter tells them abruptly, “I’m sixty-four,” adding, “What’s more, when I die there will be no more like me coming on.” This meeting, coming near the end of the book and near the end of the summer’s adventure for the painter and the boy, begins to sum up the changes that were in the wind all along.
“My trade’s done. Pianofortes and music stores. Sheet music. Music books. I’m the tail-end of the last. People, learned people, have told me there have always been singing men upon the road since the beginning of time. But I know they will not last on into time to come. If I had a son, or a grandson rather, I’d never learn him my trade.”  
We had come to the edge of the high ridge on which Bennington sits. Below us was the great valley into York State. The road he would follow on dipping and appearing and disappearing across it. 
 “Ballad singers and broadside men are done for,” he said.
That was the last they ever saw of Phineas Sharp, footing it along that ridge road, appearing and disappearing over and over until he passed forever out of their sight. In retrospect, the narrator sees that limners like Jude were as much a disappearing breed as broadside men.
...[Jude] was just about the tail-end of his trade too. Not the last of people like H. H. Hooper, who called themselves artists and had studios. But he was among the last of the traveling limners, for already (unbeknownst to any of us) that Frenchman, name of Daguerre, had done his work. Before you could guess it the itinerant limner was clean off the road and the daguerreotypist and the tintype men were on it.
The days of canal boats and rivermen were coming to an end, too. Soon the railroads would arrive, and the strong horses on the towpaths would disappear along with the ballad singers and limners.

As a bookseller for over 20 years, I am forced to think about and adapt as best I can to constant change. To extinction, however, one does not adapt: one succumbs. The question is, which is it to be? Bookshop proprietors have been worrying about their own demise since the first appearance of the newspaper. Movies and television and electronic games all presented new threats, while more recently it is the online world of virtual text, amusement, instant answers, and distance socializing that some think has booksellers doomed. What is the future for books? Many hazard predictions and have ideas, but no one really knows.

Lately I’ve been fretting (winter tends to encourage all kinds of fretting) about what seems like a new, disturbing development in the world of books and reading. Ten or twenty years ago, whenever anyone in my bookstore gave a sly little smile and referred to the local library as my “competition,” I’d shake my head and say, “Every town deserves a library and a bookstore. A library is not a bookstore, and a bookstore is not a library. There’s room for both.” I said that, and I believed it. For several years (two years practically single-handed) I helped run our local library’s summer guest author series. But recently I’ve felt a rumbling underground, changes beneath my feet, the carpet moving under me, and I’m wondering more and more if bookstores and libraries are complementary, as I have been invested in believing for so long, or if economic reality has conspired to cast booksellers and librarians as competitors.

Research into recent developments is better done online than in old books, so I began poking around. One library site, rather than describe or predict, went in for prescription: 
In the end, there should be no competition between bookshops and libraries.    Authors, publishers, booksellers, and libraries would do well to view each other as allies in the struggle to preserve literacy and instill a passion for reading and learning in all of mankind.  When everybody reads, everybody wins.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? That is definitely the world I want to see, the one I love to believe in, as I’ve loved libraries and librarians all my life -- and still do! On the other hand, here’s a retired librarian proposing that librarians become booksellers. What happens then to “no competition” between us? 

I found some ideas from the year 2010 for ways bookstores and libraries can collaborateand I found an opinion from 2014 from a radio talk show host who believes bookstores should be more like libraries and libraries more like bookstores. Problem: Library funding is discussed; bookstore revenue is pretty much glossed over. Numbers of people through the door mean nothing to a bookstore’s bottom line. Nothing counts but sales.

A piece from Forbes magazine was the scariest. The writer, Mark Bodnick, predicts that public libraries will go extinct, following the disappearance of bookstores, because anyone will be able to download whatever they want to read without going to either a bookstore or a library.

I cannot read the future. Quite frankly, I find more enjoyment visiting the past via books – and visiting real, live friends face to face, whenever possible, spending time with them in the same room, although we have no “need” to do more than call each other on the phone or chat through Facebook. But that’s just me, and my feelings prove nothing about what will come to pass with books in the years ahead.

I could be that I am one of the last of a vanishing breed. If that’s the way things turn out, I will be grateful to the end of my days for such a wonderful experience: my own bookstore, surrounded by books, meeting strangers, making friends, helping customers, and getting to know writers in this world we shared as the 20th century turned to the 21st on planet Earth.


Gerry Sell said...

This was a wonderful post. I had to follow links and more links and think about things and . . . I digress.

(1) Booksellers are curators. I think there will always be a real need for curators. I wonder how this important work can be made to pay a living wage? Such an odd world. Financial success seems to result mainly from finding ever more creative ways to spy on people, the better to sell them--us--an astonishing array of useless Stuff.

(2) I would like to read Rainbow on the Road. Please advise if you have a copy for sale. I've already learned a lot from it - never heard of a limner before, and that turns out to be a very useful piece of information. Besides, I'm making a study of the ways that people write about the past.

(3) And what the heck is it about Kansas???? It keeps coming up everywhere I turn. Clearly I need to go there, but not just now.

Book Nerd said...

Pam, you are such a wonderful writer, and a philosopher as well. I am longing now to read Rainbow on the Road. And part of me wishes strongly I worked in a bookstore like yours. My own bookstore seems like a part of progress -- a moneyed, fashionable progress -- but I miss the bookselling life that seems like a magic pocket outside of time. Maybe everyone wants that. Maybe that's why it hasn't ever gone away. In any case, spring will come, and we'll be less fretful, whatever occurs. Thanks for your work and your writing.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Nothing beats finding a wonderful book we've never heard of only to find a time machine that whisks us away. Can books on a screen do this as well as books with paper pages. I don't think so--they don't have texture, especially selected type fonts and papers, worn pages, scents from attics and garages and paneled libraries. We can't stop "progress," I guess, though in various ways we may all be its victims.


Marilyn said...

I remain optimistic that real books will always be needed and treasured and the experience of carrying around a beloved novel so it can be opened at leisure and rediscovered will be (as it should be) romanticized. Thanks for being one of the "true believers", Pamela, who makes this possible for the rest of us. A library has its limits (public funding, the choices of its librarians) but a good bookstore just goes on and on and on. Missing you!

P. J. Grath said...

And so, Gerry, you don't think I have a prayer of financial "success"? Me, either. But I'll be happy to put your name down for that book club edition of RAINBOW ON THE ROAD (pictured in post) and can send it to you (it will be cheap) as soon as David either reads it or decides he doesn't have time to read it.

Jessica, I am very happy for the success of Greenlight in Brooklyn, and I know you have worked hard (and continue to work hard) for that success. Your words of appreciation mean a lot to me. Thanks for visiting Books in Northport.

Malcolm, it sounds like you and I are of the same tribe. I love holding books in my hands and receiving real letters in the mail. I must admit, however, that I love the way the Internet has connected so many of us who would never have met otherwise.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Marilyn! Your comment came in after I’d replied to the others above.

Booksellers and librarians have different advantages and challenges. Librarians are under more pressure to provide what the public wants, whether that be 20 copies of the latest TV personality’s biography (something I recall noticing many years ago in a larger town’s main library), current magazines and newspapers, Internet access, or whatever, and they have to hold their expenses to the limits of their budgets, certainly. In my bookstore, on the other hand, choices about what I stock are mine alone, but I also (like a library) have fixed monthly and annual expenses (in addition to inventory purchases) --without a guaranteed income. I am my own boss, and no one can fire me! (I can go belly-up, but I can’t be fired.) Gerry’s comment about curating is very much to the point of how I see my work. I don’t continue to house only books for which there is immediate demand but also books that strike me as worthy of attention. Demand for the books I love may be slim to nonexistent, but whenever a customer exclaims in delight at finding unexpected treasures I feel vindicated. And it is this aspect of bookselling that makes it very much a vocation, a calling – because a get-rich scheme, it ain’t and never will be.

I miss you, too, Marilyn, and look forward to your spring return.

Kaye said...

I love your use of the Esther Forbes book to illustrate your attitude to change. Now I too, want to read that book!
As an ex-librarian and now 2nd hand bookseller, I would like to think that there is a place for us all - what form/shape that place takes will always be a mystery.

P. J. Grath said...

Kaye, I am honored to have a visitor from Australia and very pleased that you are also a bookseller. Indeed, "the future's not ours to see," as the old song goes. Best wishes to your second career's success!

Gerry said...

On the contrary, I fully expect Dog Ears Books to hum along quite successfully. You will perhaps not accumulate an enormous bank balance, but you will be rich anyway. So there.

I look forward to reading Esther Forbes whenever it's time.