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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Is This a "Man’s World"?

 

What is it about the book business, anyway, Moon wonders. Sometimes it seems like nobody on any level of it makes any money. Maybe if you’re Random House and you can figure out how to publish nobody but James A. Michener, you can make a little money. Everybody else picks up peanuts.

 

Why do they do it? he wonders. But he knows why.

 

-      John Dunning, The Bookman’s Wake

 

 

Only fitting, I reflected, to find myself reading a mystery starring a rare book dealer in a copy I scored from a ten-cent table of used books. Not a signed copy, not even a first printing, but quite a clean, decent later printing of the hardcover edition, a volume I’m sure Cliff Janeway, fictional former cop-turned-bookman, would have picked up himself for resale. Janeway is also a reader, and the quotes and references to works of literature in the stories' dialogue are part of the fun of this series.

 

I was about halfway through reading The Bookman's Wake when, as I turned a page, a slip of paper fell out. No, it was not a $100 bill. Not even a dollar bill. Twenty-eight years a bookseller come this summer, I have yet to find money in any book that has come my way, which seems ironic, considering how often I used to hide five-dollar bills in my own books back in a previous (pre-graduate school) life. I would move my hidden cash around so often -- in my concern that the book holding the money was far too attractive and obvious, certainly the first item a book-loving burglar (in my vivid imagination) would pull off the shelf to inspect! -- that I would lose track of it, which made a subsequent accidental finding seem like manna from heaven, an unexpected gift. A harmless eccentricity left behind but occasionally fondly recalled when I find random bits of paper other people have left behind in used books I buy. -- Are you curious? Do you wonder? Grocery lists and airline boarding passes are a couple of the most common such items. 




The slip of paper from the Dunning book made me smile as I read the lines on it made by an old dot matrix printer, words that indicated a purchase made by Mary Ann, of the former Mary Ann’s Mostly Books in Benson, Arizona, the book ordered directly from the publisher when new, its cover price $21. Two Benson bookstores we loved to visit in former years are both gone now. We found retired bookseller Lenore volunteering at the Friends of the Library bookstore, however, and learned from her that Mary Ann had moved her base of operations to Apache Junction, at the urging of (and, I hope, with a lot of help from) her children. In any case, I remember both shops fondly and enjoy my reading all the more, knowing the book came by way of Mary Ann.


- B O O K M A N -

 

The word ‘bookman’ (from the Dunning’s title) is interesting. Merriam-Webster defines it broadly as “a person who has a love of books and especially of reading” or “a person who is involved in the writing, publishing, and selling of books.” Dictionary.com says a bookman is “a studious or learned man; a scholar” or “a person whose occupation is selling or publishing books.” (Parenthetical note: note ‘person,’ no gender specified three times, ‘man’ once.) In the world of John Dunning and Cliff Janeway, an actual, real-life world inhabited by many world-wide, ‘bookman’ is understood more narrowly. It implies a person (man or woman) working in the secondhand book trade, especially one specializing in rare books, a dealer (occasionally a bookstore employee) with an emphasis on and knowledge of contents as well as physical attributes, as well as a deep love of same


Anyone can be a bookseller. To be called a bookman, especially by a bookman, is a compliment, an acknowledgement. When a bookman friend – another woman – told me I was a “real bookman,” I glowed!

 

‘Bookwoman’ is heard now and then but somehow seems to imply more what the dictionaries give as the definition rather than what we in the trade understand by ‘bookman.’ A big reader. Why is that? Is it the way 'poet' sounds serious and 'poetess' brings to mind a wannabe? No wonder women in theatre and film want to be called, simply, actorsI usually call myself simply a bookseller and leave questions of expertise and gender to others. Today, though, I’m thinking about those questions.

 

In The Postmistress, a novel that was one focus of my most recent post, the woman in charge of the little post office is actually called the postmaster. The character notes at one point in the novel, and the author reiterates in her afterword, that U.S. postal regulations give the position title always and only as postmaster. This fact points silently to a time in American history when having a woman in the position was unthinkable and perhaps not even recognized as legal. One female postmaster in Dos Cabezas, Arizona, did the work of the job while her husband held the official title, I have read. That’s just how it was. I wonder if the husband, the nominal postmaster, ever made an appearance behind the counter.


No post office here any more


If either my artist husband or my bookstore volunteer is in the shop at the same time I am there, and someone comes in for the first time with a question for the owner, the question is invariably directed to the man. It doesn’t matter who is sitting at the desk. It doesn’t matter what we are wearing. One dear friend of mine who suffered this indignity for years finally began to do a slow burn when her husband, jokingly, would say to the questioner, “Perhaps my assistant can help you,” the assistant being the actually bookseller – and, in her case, definitely a bookman!

 

But I’ve had to learn to let that stuff slide. It will never end, and there’s no point in spending the precious days of my life resenting ignorant, thoughtless assumptions over and over. 


In MY bookstore!


Whether or not ours is objectively a “man’s world” (and who in the world could take an objective position on the question?), I try to live as much as possible in my own world. I was quite entertained one time when a male friend was telling me about how he could “lose himself” in nature, on a river or in the woods, and added for my benefit that he didn’t think women ever had such experiences!“ And you know that by comparing your experiences as a man with the experiences you’ve had as a woman?” I prodded gently, whereupon he had the good grace to laugh.


My darlings when they were only yearlings


Here are a few aspects of my world. The actual owners of a pair of two-year-old horses, half-brother and -sister, have no idea that I think of those horses on the edge of Willcox, Arizona, as mine. People driving back and forth on I-10 certainly do not recognize the tree I call my tree as mine. Back in northern Michigan, there are many little rural corners and stretches for which I feel what I must admit is a proprietary kind of love. But this is not a sense of ownership as the law would understand it. These are things that have become parts of my soul. I lose myself in them.


And so yes, when I am lost in a book quest or examination of an exciting book find, just as when I am out exploring the morning world with my dog, I am not doing it as a woman but simply as myself. This is one of the glories of being lost in one’s work or in the natural world: other people’s presumptions, assumptions, expectations, and judgments fall out of consciousness. Self-consciousness evaporates.


Michigan insolite!

Off-road Arizona


Why, though, do I not call myself a ‘bookman’? Out of modesty? In part. But also out of honesty. Whatever the field of my various life endeavors – music, philosophy, books – I have never been drawn to specialization. It is the old question of depth vs. breadth, and time and time again I have chosen the latter, content to be one of life’s generalists.

 

As for whose world ours is, each of us is the center of our experience, and our experiences and emotions come to us subjectively, not comparatively. So I make no apology for living and working and feeling and writing out of my own little world. I say, anyone who claims to be doing otherwise is self-deluded or seeking to delude.

 

Outdoors with dog or indoors with books? I could not choose one over the other. Fortunately, the two come together in me. Moreover – and miraculously -- my world and the Artist’s world exist side by side and overlap! Lucky, lucky, lucky both of us!






Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Dear Friends, What Are We Telling Each Other?

Clear day view

Dusty day view

[Those photographs above have nothing to do with my topics today.]


How do you understand fiction? As truth or make-believe?


Jane Austen’s first four works of fiction were all epistolary novels, fiction presented as a series of letters between characters. One of the four was First Impressions, a precursor to Pride and Prejudice, and the later, iconic version of the Bennett girls’ story, while going beyond a collection of imagined letters, still relies on fictional correspondence (40 letters given in whole or quoted from in part) to advance the story at several pivotal junctures. 

 

Recall, for instance, that the character of Mr. Collins is introduced, before he appears in person, by the first letter he writes to Mr. Bennett, a letter Mr. Bennet reads to his family at the breakfast table. Darcy’s explanation of his reasons for separating Bingley from Jane, as well as his own family’s history with Mr. Wickham form the longest letter in the novel. And Jane’s letters to Elizabeth about Lydia also function as would expository dialogue in a stage play, recounting events that neither sister witnessed personally.

 

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, is not an epistolary novel. It is neither composed of letters, nor are letters the main subject. The book is, as any novel must be, about life as experienced by the characters on its pages. Written correspondence, though, does play an important part in those life experiences at that time. Reliance on the post is crucial in The Postmistress, as letters were still the most important and common means of communication for people separated by long distances during World War II, the period of the novel. Moreover, as the title indicates (though she is called postmaster in the text, and that is eventually explained), one of the principal characters is Iris James, the government employee in charge of the U.S. mail in the small seacoast village of Franklin, Massachusetts. Iris takes seriously her responsibility to maintain an orderly post office. 

 

…The broad wooden sorting table was cleared for the morning’s mail. If there was a place on earth in which God walked, it was the workroom of any post office in the United States of America. Here was the thick chaos of humanity rendered into order. Here was a box for each and every family in the town. Letters, bills, newspapers, catalogs, packages might be sent forth from anywhere in the world, shipped and steamed across water and land, withstanding winds and time, to journey ever forward toward this single, small, and well-marked destination. Here was no Babel. Here, the tangled lines of people’s lives unknotted, and the separate tones of voices set down upon a page were let to breach the distance. Hand over hand the thoughts were passed. And hers was the hand at the end.

 

-      Sarah Blake, The Postmistress

 

What lines to thrill the hearts of those who still write and send handwritten letters! There have been many novels in which a postmaster (or postmistress) appears, but has there been one before Sarah Blake’s novel to make that character and her work so essential to the story?


Excellent service here in Willcox, Arizona!

There are other characters, of course. There is the doctor’s young pregnant wife, who comes daily to the post office at 4 p.m. looking for that day’s letter from her husband, and there is the doctor himself, who after losing a patient has left his wife behind in Franklin to offer his services in London during the Blitz. There is the postmistress’s lover. And of course there is Frankie Bard, reporter, who, when she sees the doctor she has just met killed in a London street, rescues from the street the last letter he wrote to his wife. Soon after that, Frankie lands a long-desired assignment and is sent to travel Europe by train to “get the story” on refugees from Hitler’s Germany. After seeing one of the refugees, a young Jewish man whose voice she had recorded less than an hour before, shot to death before her eyes, however, she begins to think that recording voices is more important than any story she can shape.

 

“Maybe people talking, just being there, alive for the minutes you can hear them, is the only way to tell something true about what’s happening over here. Maybe that’s the story,” she finished, “because there’s no way to put a frame around this one, no plot.”

 

I began writing this post before finishing the novel, having read by then about two-thirds of it and, pausing to write about what I had read so far, I was struck by the difference between the living voices preserved on tape and the thoughts of the letter-writers preserved on paper and how and why the author foregrounds both in her story. Did she find the recordings of voices truer than the letters? It seems to me that the letters – No! Yes! We have Iris’s thoughts on this in my first quoted passage above! The letters do not contain stories shaped by someone else for an international radio broadcast: no, each letter contains a single voice, one person speaking to another, “voices set down upon a page … to breach the distance.” In that, the recordings (individuals telling their stories to Frankie, face to face) and the letters are alike. But in both cases the voices and thoughts shared are preserved, so that the one-on-one intimacy can be experienced by later listeners and readers.


 

Next morning.

 

My mother always used to call them “the wee hours,” those dark hours between midnight and first light. That’s when I woke and finished reading The Postmistress, and this morning I have a few vague thoughts on truth and story-shaping -- because of course the author has shaped a story, bringing together characters that coincidence would have been challenged to unite in real life – but I want to change direction here and leave the novel and World War II to bring attention to the United States Postal Service today. 

 

Have you been following the story on proposals for banking through our nation’s post offices? Here it is. If you are not old enough to remember the Sixties, postal banking may be a new idea to you, but it is not a new idea for the USPS, and it flourished until Lyndon Johnson abolished it in 1966 to "streamline" the USPS. (How much influence did the banking industry have on this presidential decision? One cannot help but wonder.) Now, with branch banks closing across the country and only online banking available to many Americans – and only to those who have easy, daily, affordable access to the Internet – the old idea is being revived. Bankers are against it, but bankers shouldn’t decide everything in American lives. Here is some of the history of postal banking. Read about it, please, and think about it. 


In Willcox again


If you have read my blog much in the past, you may know that I have always been a big supporter of the United States Postal Service. (If interested, see more here.) For me, it is not a nice option but an absolute necessity of life, personal and civic. We have one of the safest and most efficient and economical government postal services in the world. Not only are bankers against it, but the whole “government-is-bad” crowd would rather see privatization of everything. How about you? Would you trust a payday lender over your local post office? 

 

Thanks for reading today! – And now go write and mail a letter!!!




 


Monday, May 3, 2021

My World, So Tiny and Limitless

Bird of Paradise in bloom and giant agave in Benson, AZ


The other day we drove over to Benson to visit the Friends of the Library bookstore, one of our favorite destinations, and I came home with half a dozen or more used books new to me – a bit excessive, perhaps, as we will be returning to Michigan within the month, and it seemed all the more hoggish as the Artist, on that trip, uncharacteristically contented himself with three magazines. But one of the books I bought was as much for him as for me (The Psychology of Everyday Things, and he said, yes, he’d heard about it, and it did sound fascinating, and he would like to read it), and another was for a friend, and a third something I know I’ll re-donate as soon as I read it, so all in all I did not feel sinfully greedy or guilty. 

 

Benson is only 52 miles from Dos Cabezas (unfortunately, there is no way to get there by back roads, and we have to take I-10 from Willcox), and it is still in Cochise County. Our parking lot picnic after shopping for books was an apple and cheese stick apiece and a shared bottle of cold water from the car cooler, following which we drove back to Willcox and shared a brownie along with our usual drinks at the coffee house. Not a huge adventure, no new places, no exploring off the trail, and many of our days are like that, passed within a small, familiar world we know very well. But don’t let mileage fool you --.




Before even paying for my day’s selections, I had read the first page of one of the books I’d found, and I couldn’t wait to dig in further. “Couldn’t” wait – but had to. Peasy needed his regular afternoon run when we got home, and a start had to be made on our supper -- both my responsibilities. Once the dog had had his exercise and a beautiful pasta salad was cooling in the fridge, however, I sat myself down with a cold beer and Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, the story of an American couple who move to the celebrated town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, where the husband, the book’s author, soon finds himself working (“anarchistically,” he says!) for none other than bookseller Richard Booth (d. 2019), the eccentric man who remade the little Welsh town into a literary heaven on earth


The town we found that first day was filled with stores stuffed to the rafters with old books, massive ancient shelf breakers like a Pilgrim's Progress the weight and color of a manhole cover, a heavy bit of allegory indeed; and a slim and beautiful copy of Eve's Diary -- a curiously innocent work, lush with languid Beardsley-like drawings on every page, almost unrecognizable as being by Mark Twain, of all people -- we spent hundreds of pounds just shipping them all back home.


- Paul Collins, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books


“This alone was worth the drive to Benson!” I tell the Artist happily, as I emerge from the Welsh countryside and back into my seasonal southern Arizona life. 

 

Hay is a town of 1500 inhabitants, and at the time Paul Collins and his wife moved there with their toddler son from San Francisco, Hay boasted 40 bookshops! The boast now has shrunk to “over 20,” still more than a decent number (apparently several former bookshops are now antique shops), and there is a huge annual book festival, too. Reading of Hay, I recalled the summer I tried to persuade young Paul Stebleton (he is my son’s age, so, young to me), bookseller-owner of Traverse City’s Landmark Books (formerly Book-o-rama), to move his shop to Northport so the two of us could be pioneers in founding a northern Michigan version of Hay-on-Wye. He demurred – and is now in beautiful digs in the old state hospital in Traverse City – but it was a pleasant fantasy for me while I entertained it.

 

Back to the present – that is, the very recent past: After our pasta salad supper, I read a little further in my book and then set it aside to read aloud an article on Van Gogh from the new issue of New York Review of Books, trading my solo Welsh armchair travels for an armchair trip to France with the Artist. We paused once to return to Cochise County, Arizona, to make popcorn, and we then had Peasy’s full attention as we humans continued exploring Van Gogh’s world, rewarding little Pea’s good manners with the occasional popped kernel. For now, the three of us are still together, and it was a happy evening for me.

 

Much earlier in the day, shortly after sunrise, Peasy and I had fortuitously encountered friends out on the range, where Therese and I caught up on news and laid plans for the following day while our dogs enjoyed each other company, Peasy and Molly in their usual rambunctious way (Molly loves to chase Pea, and he loves being chased by her), old Buddy more sedately. That was a lovely interlude, too.




At day’s end the Artist and I watched, on the recommendation of both my sisters, the first few episodes of “The Kominsky Method,” which we loved. (Alan Arkin! It doesn’t matter to me how old he gets: to me, he is always sexy and appealing.) The show is set in Los Angeles but felt, to me, not so much like travel to an exotic place (my mother was born in L.A., but I’ve never been to California)  as being in the familiar country we now inhabit daily, that of the declining years of life. Not in a terrible way, either, for the most part. After all, the “small world” feeling of doing ordinary things together is very sweet, as we had experienced in Benson, in Willcox, in Dos Cabezas. We don’t have to be in Wales or France to be happy. (Good thing, too, eh? We still work at least half the year. We are not checking out yet!) And before we went to sleep we visited Peru! Yes, as I read aloud from Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, the Artist and I were two young Argentine doctors, hitch-hiking around South America!

 

This happiness thing – it comes and goes. Reading aloud to David, watching him share popcorn with my dog, I was perfectly content in my little world. Such a tiny world! Just the two of us in the car that afternoon without the dog, too, and then sitting in the coffee house together. My time outdoors with Therese and our dogs. A geographically and socially restricted world it is of partner, neighbors, dogs, birds, and cows, but it feels quite expansive, since there are also letters from faraway friends and books and movies to transport me over miles and across oceans.

 

The truth is, I wake almost every morning (and usually during the night, as well) to free-floating feelings of angst and dread, and it takes coffee and writing to put my world back into perspective and fill me with gratitude for the life I have had and the life I still have, and this return to perspective I have to accomplish over and over. (Like housework, like showering, it's never done!) But it works, so I will do it again tomorrow.