Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dropping by Versailles

He wasn't witty, or even particularly good at telling a story. He never knew when to stop, or not to, just going on until he'd told it all, so far as he could remember.  He did have an excellent memory.  He also made a practice of writing everything down as soon as he possibly could after something had happened, or hadn't.  His style, as I understand it at least, only in translation from the French, was good.  He's said to have coined the word "intellectual" as a noun.  He wasn't one himself, mind. His book doesn't lend itself to quotation, anyway not unless one has already read it, or at least in it far enough to recognize some of the more familiar names, far enough to know something of the author's subject, his preoccupations, his place and his enemies.  Once one does, it's impossible not to smile when he's on yet again about this or that mistress of the king, some little scandal or violation of etiquette, like how the king -- Le roi de France, Louis XIV -- at some grand military exercise, had to keep taking his hat off and then putting it back on, not to salute the troupes, but in order to pop the royal noggin in and out of the window of the lady's litter to explain things and answer charming little questions.  Just as often, what seems most to exercise the writer is even more trivial; usually something to do with who should walk into dinner before and after himself, etc.  He had no secrets, certainly none he seems to have kept out of his book, though he otherwise appears to have been the very soul of discretion, if he's to be entirely trusted on that head.  In fact, his may be not only the greatest collection of tittle-tattle ever composed, but also, curiously enough, one of the most blissfully unexamined souls ever encountered in memoirs --and such a long book, too.

He was Louis de Rouvery, duc de Saint-Simon, -- or "the Duke of Saint-Simon," as his translator, Bayle St. John has it here.  He was godson of the king, a soldier, a diplomat, a courtier and resident of Versailles, and author of Memoirs of Louis XIV and the Regency.  Here's the three volume set, from a series of "Memoirs and Secret Chronicles of the Courts of Europe," by the St. Dunstan Society, Akron, Ohio, "Illustrated with photogravures on Japan Vellum" and so on.  1901, M. Walter Dunne, Publisher.  (I've seen other stray volumes in this series drifting around used bookstores for year, always in the red cloth covers, with the lovely old photogravure illustrations, etc.  This would be the first time I've actually thought of buying something from the series myself.)

Helene Hanff, in a letter to "84 Charing Cross Road," describes spending cold winter evenings, curled in her armchair with only dear, silly ol' Saint-Simon for company, and as always with my favorite reader and guide, craving more, bless her.  I do not doubt she was reading the translation of Bayle St. John, though not in an edition from Akron, Ohio, considering she got all her books from London by then.

I discovered so many books and authors because Helene read them first, just as she discovered most of what she read because Arthur Quiller-Couch, or "Q", editor of The Oxford Book of English Prose, among other things, read them before her.  Saint-Simon is one of these, though I've never really tried to read the Memoirs straight through before, never having had anything like a complete, or even a proper selection come my way before.  Now here it is.

Bayle St. John, curiously enough, is a name I only really came to know in the past couple of years, after the bookstore where I work acquired an Espresso Book Machine and I discovered a whole new way to search out obscure titles and have new, paperback copies printed up for me on the spot.  I'd read Sarah Bakewell's delightful book, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  I decided I needed to read another, more traditional biography of Montaigne thereafter and went looking for one, but never did find one.  Then I discovered Bayle St. John (1822 - 1859) on a search of the database of titles available for reprint on the EBM, and had his Montaigne, the Essayist, a Biography (1857) run up for me in two wonderful, thick, ugly little volumes.  It was everything it should have been for a biography of the period and I enjoyed every bit of it.

Now here's my old friend, Bayle St. John, again, this time the translator of Saint-Simon's Memoirs, that same Saint-Simon who kept Miss Hanff company one long winter in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn, thanks presumably to the recommendation of her teacher via books, "Q."  See how this works?

I hadn't thought to buy this three volume number, either to sell in the store or to read myself and had actually put it back in the bag it came out of, once I'd looked it up online.  We don't keep such things on the shelf at the bookstore where I work, or rather we don't anymore, at least not for any length of time.  The chances that anyone other than me would ever buy it seemed a bit risky as an investment, even of so little money, if more than an inch or two of shelf-space.  I kept reconsidering.  Then there was the fact that I am still trying to shed books, not acquire them just now.  Had to consider that -- if I was thinking of buying the book for myself, which I wasn't until I did.

There are long winter nights coming my way soon enough, and generally in my experience what's good enough for H. H., is good enough for me.

I've been dipping into all three volumes for a week or more, ever since it landed on the desk.  I see the appeal now in a way I probably hadn't the last time I read Saint-Simon.  There's not the company of a friend and a philosopher, as there is in reading Montaigne, but there is the pleasure of a faithful correspondent from a lost time and place.  And Bayle St. John, the translator, seems to me every bit as reliably readable as Bayle St. John the biographer and essayist.  The world of  The Duke of Saint-Simon seems to be at least as interesting as that of Samuel Pepys, of whose diaries I've come to be more fond as I reach the age at which, I suspect, again, H. H. read them.

Long books to replace many briefer ones.  Maybe that's the idea.

Meanwhile I dip.  Some of Saint-Simon's stories, already seem to me to fall a bit flat, the joke perhaps requiring if not French, then something French in the way of sensibility, despite the yeoman efforts of the translator.  Likewise, more than once already I've found myself getting a bit impatient with absolutely ridiculous nature of life at Versailles.  (I've experienced a similar irritation reading about court life in Tales of Genji, where there was at least the chance of a bit of fencing.)  Still and all,  I can see the pleasure in visiting, if not for an extended stay.  After all, friends reccommened the place.

Daily Dose

From The Memoirs of Louis XIV and the Regency, by the Duke of Saint-Simon, translated by Bayle St. John


"Here was to be my great trial, for the major-domo major and the nuncio of the Pope were to be present at the ceremony, and according to the infamous and extraordinary instructions I had recieved from Dubois, I was to preceed them! How was this to be done?"

From Volume III. Chapter XXXIII

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834 - 1881, by James Anthony Froude


"My life is full of sadness, streaked with wild gleamings of a very strange joy, but habitually sad enough.  The dead seem as much my companions as the living; death as much present with me as life.  The only wise thing I can do is hold my tongue and see what comes of it."

From Chapter V, and a letter to John Carlyle

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Into the Box and Out of the Box

One of the saddest encounters inevitably to be had in the bookstore when buying used books from the general public is the conversation in which the collector's library is reviewed and returned en masse to the seller as frankly unsaleable.  As someone in the process of breaking up my own library, I know just how this feels.  I've had to face the fact that no one will be buying my hardcover "Firsts" of Ward Just, or Nicholas Mosley, etc.; books that I thoroughly enjoyed but will probably never reread.  (Not now, anyway.  Into the box.)  No matter that nearly all my books are in excellent fiddle, with pristine dust-jackets, each preserved in a mylar cover, and so on.  Who's going to buy my collection of Stanley Middleton novels -- all but complete, and admittedly unopened for years?  Bless 'im.  Into the box.  Anita Brookner?  I saved the essays and nonfiction, curiously enough, probably because I can't honestly remember if I ever read any of it; art criticism mostly, essays, whatnot.  But the novels I read, one by one, year after year, as they came out, after I'd caught up?  Into the box.

Read 'em all.  Loved them.  Into the box.  I've donated the lot to a friend's neighborhood book sale.  Bonne Chance, Dame Anita!

And then there's this, a book I've now bought half a dozen times at the Used Books Desk, and sold through every time.  Don't misunderstand me, the book pictured is not and has never been a book of mine.  When I read Christie, I read mass market paperbacks.  I started taking her books with me on vacation a few years ago, along with who knows what literary masterpieces I may or may not have finished.  I always finish the Christie.  When I go back to Pennsylvania to visit the old people, I just buy any old beat-up paperback copy I can find, and leave it behind me to go into the permanent floating yard sale the folks run in retirement to pay for their heart medicine.  Dad might sell the book for a nickel.  When I'm traveling generally, I want something I won't feel the slightest hesitation about leaving on the plane if I finish it before we land.  Besides, I love those rather lurid old covers, particularly the "prop" covers I remember from my own reading of Christie in the Seventies.  You know the ones I mean: a flat, feauture-less background with just props, no people in the foreground; maybe a dagger, a candlestick, a string of pearls, that sort of thing.  So evocative of Clue and the rather bare-bones characterizations of the great English puzzler.  (Hell, these old paperbacks might even be, by some improbable but not impossible chance, some of the very books I'd bought at yard sales in my youth.  Could happen.  Books are like witches, the only way to really destroy one is to burn or drown it, otherwise there may still be magic in whatever survives.  Books seem to travel sometimes by supernatural means.)

This ugly old thing, this cheap Book Club Poirot in hardcovers, pictured above is no bad example of this seeming immortality.  The design of the jacket is amateurish and bad.  The binding's sound enough, the "interior is clean," as we say in the trade, but there is absolutely nothing special about this book.  I'm pretty sure this edition is just an inexpensive reprint of an earlier, doubtlessly more attractive collection of the same name.  As I said, I've sold this edition half a dozen times, for about seven bucks a go, and could sell it again tomorrow if another came along, and it will.

The book's got fifty Poirot short stories in it.  That's it's only plus.  What's more, I've never much liked Christie as a short story writer, certainly not the stories featuring her greatest detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple.  The reduction to the shorter form spoils the sauce for me; what in the novels are the characteristic and amusing eccentricities of her protagonists, in her short stories become annoying ticks, or worse.  Miss Marple loses her deliberation, her glorious sangfroid evaporating into a kind of smug omniscience; "Isn't obvious, dear?" her knitting needles working with all the self-righteous pleasure of Madame Defarge, "I knew the minute I saw those expensive shoes under the old coat..."  And Poirot!  Already more than a little insufferable -- even to Christie after the continuing demand for him began to exceed her patience -- in the short stories loses his inevitable third act apology, "But I was so foolish as to not see my mistake sooner.  If only I had, Poirot might still have saved poor Miss..." -- insert name of second body here.  Without that admission of error, before the ingenious finale, the clockwork machinery of "the little gray cells" can really grind.

Christie herself preferred her stories without her more famous characters, and she's right.  I've read half a dozen of these independent numbers in the past year and they have all the virtues of perfect puzzles, including the interchangeable, instantly forgettable but ingeniously arranged pieces that pass for people in these plots.  (By way of interesting comparison, at least to mystery buffs, consider the very different but equally satisfying short stories of Georges Simenon, who's Maigret is, if anything, like Sherlock Holmes, at his best when pressed.  And there, perhaps the difference between great characters and great  puzzles.  Does anyone really remember, or much care just what it was Maigret worked out, let alone how?  Does anyone like Holmes less for being abrasive?  Still, Christie had wit, and more than either of those other old boys, humor -- which is not the same thing.  Maigret is most endearing, particularly if he must miss his supper, but he's never really funny.  And Holmes could no more have made a joke than Watson can identify a cigarette brand by the ash.  I may get myself in trouble, should a true cultist read this, but Conan Doyle was really just too kind a man to be really witty, which is why, I think, Sherlock Holmes is both lovable and never makes me laugh; he's too self-involved to be anything but unintentionally sharp.  Christie, on the other hand, can be wonderfully bitchy.)

So here then is a dreary reprint of by no means Christie's best stuff, and yet it survives, and sells, and sells.  Why should this book continue to find new readers when other, frankly better books, by considerably better writers, much more attractive books, I say again,  don't so much go away as go straight to the dollar-a-book-table at a charity sale?

One of the first thing a new buyer working in used books has to learn is that just because a book is good, or even important, does not mean it retains it's retail value.  Particularly true of hardcover novels, literary and otherwise.  We hardly buy them anymore, unless they are very new titles, or titles that have crossed over into being "classics."  I put that word in quotations here even though I am a believer.  I do believe that there are works of art superior to their time and even the memory of their authors.  For the used book dealer though a "classic" is any book that will still sell in hardcover.  Ah, the rough judgement of the marketplace!  If a true classic is any book people will continue to read because of what's in it, the "classic" in the quotes is any book people will buy after it is out of print.  To achieve either status for even the best modern fiction is still a pretty dubious proposition.  I know just how good a novelist Stanley Middleton was.  I read him.   He was handsomely published and reviewed throughout his long career.  He won prizes.  True likewise Patrick White, who after all won the bloody Nobel!  And what's become of them?  What's become of my collection of both of them?   Into the box.

Why?  I don't suggest that any of these writers don't or won't still find readers.  Not while I'm alive, and she's in print will Anita Brookner want for a very insignificant champion.  With or without me though, I think there will always be people pleased to discover such an elegant and ethical writer.  She's never written a chapter that's not worth reading, never a misstep in either sympathy or observation of life.  I have read every novel she has ever written and will happily read any she may yet write.  As a writer I think she is a model of both elegance and maturity, unchanging perhaps in both a good and a less good way.  The fact remains, I don't know that I have ever or will ever feel the need to reread a single one of her books, nor frankly could I tell you the name of a single heroine, or honestly distinguish any title of hers from any other by either the plot or characters. While that doesn't preclude for me the pleasure in reading another book should there be one, it does not speak well, I think, for any of her books achieving the status of a classic, with or without quotes.  Neither new readers nor admirers, at least of the common variety like me, would seem to need to keep her books.  I did, for years of course, but I don't know that I ever opened them again once they had been read.  Into the box.  (May she live to be one hundred, may I abashedly say, and go out with a pen in her very elegant hand!)

Fiction, by even the most respected and admired writer, need not live forever, or even outlive it's author to be good and worth reading.  What a ridiculous standard that would be to impose on one's contemporaries!   As a bookseller, I do wish I could find a way to sell more of it, but no matter.  Not my job to right the world, even in so small a way.

The reason then the above unhappy object still sells, even if I don't much like it otherwise, would now seem to me to be it's frank familiarity.  Someone will always recognize Poirot, and Christie and want a go at this one.  These stories, in my admittedly flawed and snobbish system may not qualify as classics because I don't actually think most of them very good, but they've at least earned their quotes; they will always sell, someone will always want to read them, even if I can't imagine anyone, including me, reading them more than once.

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of Mark Akenside


"Thou silent power, whom welcome sway
Charms every anxious thought away"

From To Sleep

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834 - 1881, by James Anthony Froude


"A fine, large-featured, dim-eyed, bronze-coloured, shaggy-headed man is Alfred; dusty, smoky, free and easy, who swims outwardly and inwardly with great composure in an inarticulate element of tranquil chaos and tobacco smoke.  Great now and then when he does emerge -- a most restful, brotherly, solid-hearted man."

From Chapter VII

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

 From Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834 - 1881, by James Anthony Froude


"Articles, reviews, have lost their charm for me.  It seems a mere threshing of dusty straw."

From Chapter VII, Journal, October 23, 1839

Monday, August 26, 2013

Apology to the Reader, and M. Camus

I feel an idiot.

In the post I put up Friday, up until a minute ago or so, the following appeared:

"The penultimate word on the subject of the next used buyer, I leave then to Camus:

  'Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.'"

That, along with the title I took from it, I've just deleted.  

Let me first apologize for any confusion this may cause, and for making a fuss about it now.  Of the couple of dozen people likely to have read the thing, there's not likely to have been all that much notice taken of those lines.  (Only takes one, though.)  The piece as a whole is still there, still what I wrote, still something I wanted to say and said as best I could. I wanted people to read that post and, hopefully, appreciate it as a tribute to coworkers I love and will miss.  That was it's purpose.  Still is.  Let it stand.  

Rather than delete the post, I took out the two lines above and took Albert Camus' name out of the tags.  Least I could do, because as it turns out, Camus probably never said or wrote anything of the kind.  

I did something I don't usually do, used the Internet in a way I don't usually, and it bit me on the ass.  I deserved that.  I've posted hundreds of quotations here, day after day.  Most have come from my own reading.  I've found some of them on the Internet.  I've learned to check those against the actual sources.  The Internet is full, you know, of stuff from who knows where.  I trust books.  Stands to reason, doesn't it?  Considering what I do for a living.  I know, I know, I write for the Internet, don't I?  Doesn't mean I trust it though.  Best to check.  This time I didn't.

The supposed Camus quote seemed to suit my purpose, to say something I wanted to better than I could -- rather the point of quotation generally -- and if it was perhaps uncharacteristically sentimental -- uncharacteristic of Camus I mean, not me -- then all the more reason I should have vetted it.  I didn't.  I meant to.  Normally, before posting such a quote, say as a "Daily Dose," I would have done.  I was feeling very sorry for myself when I wrote that piece, and yes, more than a little sentimental.  I didn't check the quote.

When I'd posted a link to the piece on facebook, an old friend rather quickly called me out on the sentimentality of the quote, on what Darran Anderson, in the piece I've just read, quite rightly calls it's "triteness."  Reminded me that I hadn't checked to find the source of the quote.  Sinking feeling.  I should have known better.  I do know better.  Should have checked.  Wish now sorely that I had.  Very embarrassing.  Entirely my fault.  (And thanks, dear G., for the heads up, sincerely.)

I've had hold of this problem from the other end before.  More than once I've been suspicious of quotes appearing in social media and reposted by friends, one quote supposedly from George Orwell in particular that turned out to not be his, and one by John Adams about God that was completely distorted by having the context conveniently trimmed away.  I've also encountered any number of misattributed or mangled quotes endlessly recycled through the online quotations and or "inspirational" sites.  I've actually written here before, at some length, on just how unreliable such quotations can be, and the disservice they do the authors to whom they are attributed incorrectly.

And then I did just what I've railed against other people doing and used a quote I didn't know, from a writer I don't know well at all, and without checking to see where it came from.


I don't usually edit my posts here after the fact.  What I wrote stands as just what I've written at the time.  No good going back to fix things.  When I've gotten something wrong -- misread a poem in a video, mis-attributed a quote, mis-remembered an event -- unless there was some question of hurting someone else by letting it stand, I've simply apologized for my mistakes and left the evidence where it was found.    In the four + years I've been doing this, I've taken down maybe half a dozen posts in all, none because I changed my mind.  When I've changed my mind, then I write about that.  I've addressed my mistakes, when brought to my attention, in the comments, and let it be.  This blog is meant to be a record of my thoughts and opinions, my memories, reading and experience down to the day.  No use trying to go back and tidy myself up.  Better to just apologize and have done, mostly.  The immediacy of thing is probably as near as it comes to having any lasting value beyond the day it's posted.  I make no claims to any journalistic standard of objectivity.  I try to be honest.  I think I am.  When I make an honest mistake then, I'm okay with that.  I can be wrong here.  People can see when and where I have been, can agree or disagree with whatever it was I wrote.  I've corrected birthdays and that sort of thing, corrected my misquotations when I've caught them.  I've added a modifier here and there when I sounded sure and wasn't.  But really, I am not much interested in going back and correcting my own misperceptions or misstatements, or fixing anything beyond grammar and spelling as needed.  That's my idea of how best to do this.  This time, not so much.

My friend didn't exactly say I'd got it wrong, by the way.  What he did do was suggest that the quote seemed likelier to be from some sentimental song than from Camus.  He was right, about it not being Camus anyway.  No idea where it actually comes from.  I've tried hunting it down online, without success.  Seems it is indeed one of those misquotations, one of those mistakes that gets perpetuated, well, by people like me, not checking.

So why not just quietly delete the lines and never say another word about it?  Who would know, after all?  Not like there are legal implications or a staff of fact-checkers to come after me.  And who does it hurt, this sort of seemingly harmless bit of misinformation?

The answer to that, most obviously is me.  It pains me to contribute, if only here to this self-perpetuating  digital inaccuracy.  If I say it's Camus when it wasn't, then I'm adding to the legitimacy of the whoever said it was Camus when it wasn't in the first place.  It's not really even that first person saying it that is the problem so much as the fact that once it's been posted on the Internet, then it's somehow real.  Do you see?  I've no idea of the motivation of the person who said it first and claimed it was Albert Camus.  May have been a perfectly honest mistake, back wherever that was.  Might have been a bad paraphrase of an equally bad translation, for all I know.  Once it made it's way, as it were, into the system, there's no one way to correct the mistake except to correct it when it's discovered, as here.

It matters, not just because I'm usually more fastidious about these things, and not only because even so small an audience as mine shouldn't be mislead simply because I was too lazy to check for a source, but because it matters, who said what.

There's a tendency nowadays -- call it a fashion -- for claiming the whole of literature, of culture as just so much stuff; socks in a laundry basket.  Does it really matter whose sock it is, or was, does it?  Like it, take it, pair it with another if you like.  Wear them as your own.

I don't like it.  I don't approve, because I don't accept the premise.  I think it false, and dangerous to the whole enterprise of expression.  I post things here to amuse and inform such of my friends, and the general public as may find their way here, by invitation or accident.  Every one's welcome to whatever I've offered.  But I do try, and really mean to emphasize that most of what I do here, even the very personal stuff, is directed at an audience in whom I may inspire some curiosity to seek out more than just the bits and bobs I post here.  What I most want in doing what I do here is to invite others to read some of what I've read, to think about some of the things that preoccupy me: books, bookselling, reading aloud, literacy, television, movies, art.  I don't approve of the suggestion that simply because this is mine that everything I do here is sufficient either to me or my readers.  Simply because I write, and quote from and write primarily about other people's art, doesn't make it mine.  I think that that is a frivolous argument, made by second-rate intellectuals, and tired academics, usually in an attempt to elevate what they do with other people's art rather than make it themselves.

Yet, in an admittedly minor and thoroughly modern way, I do this too.  I use pictures, pictures from the Internet, without attribution.  I post quotes, some of them from books very much in print, by authors still very much alive.  I try, with the latter, to always include where they've come from.  With the pictures, I try to use what isn't proprietary; I avoid anything that looks to be some one's artistic property, anything that someone intends to earn a living from, anything my use of which will infringe on either the rights or expression of anyone else.  (I've only been challenged about two pictures -- a logo, interestingly enough -- and a photograph of an insect that evidently came from a museum's private collection.  Soon as I was notified, I immediately took them down.)  I've tried, always to be respectful of other people's stuff.  I've tried not to be dishonest.

That wasn't exactly what happened this time.  This time I was just lazy, and emotional and feeling sentimental and in need of -- I thought -- an admittedly sentimental quote.  Turns out, I was wrong on all points.  The piece I wrote now seems fine without it.  Camus never said it.  I was wrong to use it without making sure it was real.  Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

A whole generation may well be coming up now for whom all of this business of who said what where is not terribly important.  Somebody said it.  There it is, all over the Internet, with this guy, Camus's name attached to it.  What's the big deal if he said it or not?  I don't believe that for a minute.  I don't believe that it doesn't matter and I don't believe that it won't continue to matter just because technology now allows, even encourages us to perpetuate our mistakes, honest or otherwise.  And I don't believe in this invented young person, this abstract consumer of digital information without the faculties or the decency to care who made the words they read or the things they look at.  Setting aside any academic standards that may still require accuracy and honesty in attribution, I still believe that the primary function of quotation, for example isn't just to lend legitimacy to one's argument, but to suggest better ideas, further reading, new readers to old books.  Doesn't mean of course that I can't be just as stupid as the next fellow.

Having embarrassed myself already in this way, why compound the embarrassment here, by blathering on about it now?  Because it matters more to me, getting Albert Camus right, than it does admitting I was wrong.  As I've said already, I'm not even all that familiar with, and certainly not specially fond of the writing of Albert Camus.  Doesn't mean I don't owe him an apology.

So, rather than just say "sorry," may I say, in my potentially bad, Internet-translated French, "Je suis désolé, M. Camus."

Hope that's right, at least.

Daily Dose

From The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning


"Why take the artistic way to prove so much?
Because, it is the glory and the good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least."

From XII: The Book and The Ring

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Mark Twain's Library of Humor


"There is here and there an American who will say he can remember rising from a European table d'hote perfectly satisfied; but we must not overlook the fact that there is also here and there and American who will lie."

From European Diet, by Mark Twain

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Volume II, by William H. Prescott


"The man who trusts his honor to the tampering of the casuists, has parted with it already."

From Chapter X, Partition of Naples

Friday, August 23, 2013


I've been asked to write a job description for what it is we do at the Used Books buying desk.  Seems we've never had or required such a thing before.  Remembering that the two of us who buy more or less full-time now are the same two people who were at the desk the day we started seven (?) years ago, this undefined state of affairs isn't as surprising as it might be.  We simply did it.  Not alone, of course.  With the enthusiastic support of executives, management and a few coworkers back in the day, and after what seemed at the time an exhausting number of meetings to sort out things like inventory control, purchasing, hours and the like, we just started buying.  We all went down to Powell's where they were most generous with both their time and expertise.  My then boss and I went to the warehouse and found not one, but two disused counters.  Operations cobbled these into one, L-shaped buying desk.  They bought us some nice, tall bookcases at Ikea, to put the purchased but not yet priced stock into.  Somebody made us a sign to hang above the desk.  The Marketing Department made us a bunch of other signs that said, "Sell Us Your Books!" and we put them all over the joint.  Even made us buttons of the same.  Supplies ordered us a lot of yellow "dots" to mark each used book on the spine, and we got our own tag-printer with yellow price-tags rather than white.  Add a few yellow pencils, some Ronsonol lighter-fluid and razorblades for getting off other people's old price-tags, and we were pretty much in business.

There have been more than a dozen people who have been buyers at the desk since.  We've trained more than that, to work at other branches, other college bookstores.  I've been a guest on a panel at a college bookstore convention, discussing used books.  I've written here and elsewhere about buying.  I've been interviewed about used books for an industry magazine, and fielded questions from booksellers from as far away as England and Norway, booksellers interested in adding used books to their new book inventory, as we did.

Our success was not immediate but real.  It took time to build a new inventory, a whole new business.  People liked our used trade books, liked having a less expensive option.  Still do. It took the two of us, frankly, the two that started the thing, time to find our footing too, but we did.

What my partner in the new enterprise brought to it, beyond her own bookselling experience, was taste, discrimination, a more thoughtful set of mind than mine, a strong sense or organization, a wider interest and a far more balanced and pleasant disposition.  Eventually, the business we were doing justified adding a third to our number, and we became a trio.  He brought us a ruthless practicality, a vast institutional and operational experience of the bookstore, taste very different in the main from either of ours and an impressive erudition, particularly as to history, that proved invaluable.  He was, and is also a writer.  We three became professionally inseparable and personally the best of friends.  I adore them both.  Working with them so closely proved to be one of the very real joys in my working life.  Various additions to our little family were made here and there, other buyers came and went.  We stayed.  It worked.

When I train buyers, I used to say that it wasn't possible, buying used books, to make a mistake.  I don't say that anymore.  The margins are so much better than the margin on new books, even selling a used book that hasn't moved at a discount, even a big discount, can still make a profit.  Mark the book down, go and sin no more.  Then the recession happened.  My mistakes, and some truly lovely used stock started filling up the clearance tables twice a year and, well, I don't say the bit about "no mistakes" anymore.  Live and learn.

I'm now the "Senior Used Buyer" at the bookstore where I work.  I never had even an informal title, I don't think, until we required one for some third party.  (I am not a "supervisor."  I "oversee a task," if that clarifies things for anyone who's curious.)  Among ourselves, we were all equally capable, every bit as necessary not only to the smooth operation of the desk, but also to our mutual equilibrium.  As I say, it worked, rather beautifully, if I do say so.

Then, just this year, one of the points in our triangle left to pursue his writing career full-time.  He sold his novel to a major publisher and he's working on another.  We wished him every success, still do, and have nothing but confidence in his bright future as a novelist.  Miss him at the desk every day.  He brought a light-hearted and giggly good humor to our days.  I miss boy-watching with him.  I miss his explanations of the ancestry of Margaret Beaufort.  I miss him.

Now my original partner at the Used Books buying desk, the single individual most responsible not only for launching Used Books, but also for making a success of it with me, is leaving, in her case after twenty one years at the bookstore.  She and her husband and her animals are finally able to end the commute between their house in town and their place in country, to which she now goes permanently, animals, husband and all.  There she will be surrounded by lavender and blue skies and dogs.  The dogs will have a proper, big yard.  She'll have vegetables and flowers and good, clean dirt on her hands, her beautiful hands, a pianist's hands.  (I should have know when the piano moved from town to country.  Maybe I did, a little, but didn't want to think about it.)  She's yet to leave and already I miss her terribly.  I am however very happy for her.

So it goes in a working life.  People come and go.  I myself have come and gone from more than one desk like this one.  It matters, sometimes, when we go and it certainly matters the longer we stay.  It seems to matter more to me as I get older.  It matters most dreadfully to me now.

So how to describe what it is we do here?  What is required of whoever comes next to this desk?  Not so easy a task as one might think.  (It's also been a long time since I've had to reduce my thoughts to proper bullet-points.  Oh dear.)

It's important to be able to say "no" gracefully.  It's vital that anyone buying used books reads.  (That one seems obvious, but in my experience, you'd be surprised.)  Anyone working at this desk, right by the front door, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide, has to be prepared to direct people to the restrooms many, many, many times a day.  We're also often the front-line for crazy.  Steel yourself, oh, gentle new buyer, for the monologists and madmen, for the outraged vanity and disappointed expectations of collectors, heirs and fools. Have some sense, both common and of character.  Be cautious but not chary, kind but not a pushover.  Never argue the value of a book, only the price and the cost.  What else, what else, Polonius?

 Oh, I don't know.  What I'd like to say is be as bright and delightful as Jason, as smart and kind as Terri.  But I can't say that.  I haven't any right to expect whoever works here at the desk with me to be family on that first day, or even on the last.  That only happens when it does, when one is very lucky and the alchemy of personality and character mix in just such a way as to make friends.  How can one require the ineffable, or, in all conscience, list love in a job posting?

I know just how lucky I have been.  I don't discount the possibility of it ever happening again.  I don't.  It took time to get the three of us together.  Three less likely musketeers no one might have guessed.

The last to my friends.   Bonne chance!  

Miss you.

Daily Dose

From American Romances: Essays, by Rebecca Brown


"If you are illiterate you are probably poor, you're missing something basic from your diet and you will probably die sooner than you should."

From Extreme Reading

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Part One of Nash It All!

Part Two of Nash It All!

Part Three of Nash It All!

Part Four of Nash It All!

Part Five of Nash It All!

Part Six of Nash It All!

Part Seven of Nash It All!

Today's Idiot

Daily Dose

From Library of World Poetry, edited by Williams Cullen Bryant


I love at eventide to walk alone
Down narrow lanes oerhung with dewy thorn
Where from the long grass underneath the snail
Jet black creeps out and sprouts his timid horn
I love to muse oer meadows newly mown
Where withering grass perfumes the sultry air
Where bees search round with sad and weary drone
In vain for flowers that bloomed but newly there
While in the juicey corn the hidden quail
Cries ‘wet my foot’ and hid as thoughts unborn
The fairy like and seldom-seen land rail
Utters ‘craik craik’ like voices underground
Right glad to meet the evenings dewy veil
And see the light fade into glooms around

by John Clare

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

RIP, Dutch

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin


Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

If We Must Die

Daily Dose

From Marriage Lines: Notes of a Student Husband, by Ogden Nash


When the thunder stalks the sky,
When tickle-footed walks the fly,
When shirt is wet and throat is dry,
Look, my darling, thats July.

Through the grassy lawn be leather,
And prickly temper tug the tether,
Shall we postpone our love for weather?
If we must melt, lets melt together! 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cities, Old and New

Daily Dose

From Bed Riddance: A Posy for the Indisposed, by Ogden Nash


In January everything freezes.
We have two children. Both are she'ses.
This is our January rule:
One girl in bed, and one in school.
In February the blizzard whirls.
We own a pair of little girls.
Blessings upon of each the head ----
The one in school and the one in bed.
March is the month of cringe and bluster.
Each of our children has a sister.
They cling together like Hansel and Gretel,
With their noses glued to the benzoin kettle.
April is made of impetuous waters
And doctors looking down throats of daughters.
If we had a son too, and a thoroughbred,
We'd have a horse,
And a boy,
And two girls
In bed. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ring Out from In Memoriam

Daily Dose

From Bed Riddance: A Posy for the Indisposed, by Ogden Nash


"A good deal of superciliousness
Is based on biliousness.
People seem to be proud as peacocks
Of infirmity, be it hives or dementia praecox."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Death of Tom Paine

Daily Dose

From Good Intentions, by Ogden Nash


"One cantaloupe is ripe and lush,
Another's green, another's mush.
I'd buy a lot more cantaloupe
If I possessed a fluoroscope."

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mother Hubbard's Tale

Daily Dose

From Good Intentions, by Ogden Nash


"Sally Rand
Needs an extra hand."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

No Enemies

Daily Dose

From Good Intentions, by Ogden Nash


"There goes Leon
Glowing like neon.
He's got an appointment
In somebody's ointment."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Rebel

Daily Dose

From Everyone But Me and Thee, by Ogden Nash


"The emmet is an ant (archaic),
The ant is just a pest (prosaic).
The modern ant, when trod upon,
Exclaims, 'I'll be a son of a gun!'
Not so its ancestor, the emmet,
Which perished crying 'Zounds!' or 'Demmit!"

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

An Appeal to the Young

Daily Dose

From Everyone But Me and Thee, by Ogden Nash


"For half a century, man and nipper,
I've doted on a tasty kipper,
But since I am no Jack the Ripper
I wish the kipper had a zipper."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Freedom, by James Russell Lowell

Daily Dose

From Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad


"He was good-tempered, had not much to say for himself, was not clever by any means, thank goodness -- wrote my friend."

From Chapter 18

Sunday, August 11, 2013

These Populations

Daily Dose

From The Poetry of Ogden Nash


Between the dotard and the brat
My disaffection veers and varies.
Sometimes I'm sick of clamoring youth,
Sometimes of my contemppraries.
I'm old too soon, yet young too long;
Could Swift himself have planned it droller?
Timor vitae conturbat me;
Another day, another dolor.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Bed Riddance: A Posy for the Indisposed, by Ogden Nash


There was a young belle of Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comment arose
On the state of her clothes,
She drawled, When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Nash News

When I was an ignorant child, and much exercised by my embarrassment of that fact, I had a peasant's distrust of unfamiliar words; the first person to have said the word "beautiful", I suspected, must have meant to keep the likes of me from ever being able to spell the damned thing.  Those triple vowels were clearly a trick, or a test.  Nobody I knew had ever needed so many in just the one syllable.  Besides, most people I knew pronounced the word to rhyme with "rueful."  I was taught spelling as consisting of rules, and a plain matter of right and wrong, which was neither very helpful nor as it turns out entirely accurate.   Words were either "hard" or "easy" -- and not forgetting "dirty" -- and for some of us, even the easy ones  might conceal surprising difficulties.   (In my childhood, dyslexia was as yet largely unknown in our little corner of the backwards.  My older brother happened on an enlightened -- and temporary--  administrator his senior year in high school, quite by chance, and so vaunted at the very last from the sulky back row onto the Honor Roll.  The lesson, however was sadly lost thereafter and my sister matriculated undiagnosed and back again among the middling majority as just "bad spellers."  By the time my turn came, I'd learned to keep a dictionary as other boys kept a comb; always with me.)  What all those elementary spelling and vocabulary exercises actually taught us was to be wary of foreigners, new coinage and invention, just as "Reading" taught us to distrust  verse; where a whole other set of tricky rules seemed only to complicate matters.  (Later, as you might imagine, Shakespeare came as serious shock to us all.)

So it would seem to have always been, in the Back of Beyond.  My own dear mother would one day confess that she's never much cared for Dr. Seuss because he would insist on naming things that didn't exist and making up words of equally suspicious origin, presumably just to trip up the tired working parent, trying to read precocious and or fractious little boys to sleep.  Mum never was much for nonsense.

Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.

May not be much remembered now, but it was Ogden Nash who contributed that truism to the zeitgeist.  It was a sentiment, all unknowing, that my father was to repeat throughout my childhood.  Had no idea idea for the longest time what the old man was on about.  Didn't actually drink in my father's house.  Clearly though, the man who came up with that concise little number was a clever fellow, and had my Dad know the origin of it, he would have been the first man to say so -- though Dad would probably have called him "one funny sonofabitch."

My father, to my sure knowledge, never read him, or any poetry come to that, light or dark.  Had he, I'm now convinced, he'd have liked him fine.  Would simply have never occurred to him to do so.  Likewise my husband, who's considerably older than me and who likes to say, when we've discussed his own childhood, that he would never have had time for such nonsense, as he was "too busy struggling to survive."  There's a wink in there that there wouldn't be, had my parents used the phrase.  I do understand.

 I never liked Ogden Nash.  This wouldn't be news, had I not decided to celebrate the man's birthday with a public reading, come August 20th, as part of our Light Readings Series at the bookstore where I work.

In addition to the forced rhymes, willful misspelling, the motorized metre -- always revving and running, then coasting  -- and all the other, endless and playful invention I'd learned to distrust in "modern" poetry as a kid, by the time I was reading poetry for myself, the first time through, it would never have occurred to me to waste my time with anything so obviously not serious as the likes of Ogden Nash.  (That there is nothing else quite like Ogden Nash was a lesson for much later in my life.)  Not for me, the budding autodidact, what I doubtless saw as just so much stuff and nonsense.  Better I ponder "Prufrock" and waste my time in "The Wasteland."  Even Lewis Carroll was at least English, and with respectable connections to... Oxford, was it?  Cambridge?  Anyway, he was a mathematician. 

Ogden Nash was the poet of suburban commuter-train, of the polished shoe, the short-brimmed hat and the checkered sports-coat, the kind of writer read aloud over highballs to crack the ribs and split the sides of golfers. 

It was only when I'd stumbled well into middle-age myself, and begun to shed some of the self-seriousness that had served it's purpose and seen me out of the sticks and through to a relatively contented life; married into the middle-class, settled into bookselling, did I have the sense to look again at light verse and it's American master, Ogden Nash.

And oh, the fun I'd missed.

The very thing that I'd resented as a kid, and ignored in my youth, came now like a gift.


The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he's not a feast.
Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I'll stare at something less prepoceros.


Among the anthropophagi
People's friends are people's sarcophagi.

And then there's the uneven line that would have left me hot with impatience once, as the "rules" were so blatantly being flouted, as in:


I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
Just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,
And that is why I do not like the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons. 

 It's only been if fairly recent days, reading Nash as it were end to end, that I've come appreciate not only the technical cleverness in all this, but the wry esprit de joie.  (Can one serve that with wry, do you think?)  

You see what happens, reading Nash?  And now I find, from time to time, I think in rhyme, or near it.

Perhaps one need be middle-aged to read the stuff --  or no age at all, as Nash wrote wonderfully for little people as well.  Anyway, to read him as I've been doing in preparation to read him aloud, I can appreciate why poets as unlike as Archibald MacLeish and Wystan Auden, William Rose Benet and Elizabeth Bishop all and everyone were fans.  Nash was not the the baggy-pants versifier and comedian I'd imagined him to be.  Immediately recognizable, he's nevertheless endlessly inventive, individual, unique.  No one, before or since has had so much sheer fun with form and English.  He's also unexpectedly erudite -- when was the last time an American poet made a Latin pun?  In the end though, having satisfied my cultural insecurities that Nash is indeed well worth the candle, I can just enjoy one of the more delightful characters in our Literature; a great essayist in verse.

Now I just need to practice pronouncing "anthropophagi," 'cause I'm pretty sure that spelling can't be right, and I'm not sure I'm saying it right either.  Damn you, Mr. Nash.

(Come by the bookstore the evening of the 20th and you'll have the nail-biting pleasure of watching me try to dance on this slack-wire.)

Daily Dose

From A House in Order, by Nigel Dennis


"I pictured myself with them over and over again, with a bench pulled up to the stove and room being made for me at the warmest end; they gave me warm, stolen socks and oiled boots and fed me with mugs of hot coffee; in their brainless language they tried to tell me how much they shared my sufferings, and swore with their usual obscenities that I'd 'be okay now, cocky' and 'snug as a cat's arse' and God knows how many other bits of nonsense of that sort, all so maudlin that I spent half my time in tears, loving the plain goodness of simple idiots."

From pg. 79

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Clerihew of the Risen Son


Martin Amis
Mustn't blame us
If some prefer to read his father
(Though I can't think why they'd bother.)

Daily Dose

From Night Train, by Martin Amis


"I now had to purge myself of the last traces of affability.  Not a big job, some would say."

From Part One: Blowback, March 13

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Portrait of the Artist as an Ass-Hat

Daily Dose

From London Fields, by Martin Amis


"Everything was going perfectly normally or acceptably but he was finding it impossible to meet her eye.  He could point his face in the right direction, and try to will himself into her looming gaze.  At one juncture he made it as far as her bare shoulder before his vision went veering off to some arbitrary point on the bookcase, the carpet, his own shoes."

From Chapter 13: Little Did They Know

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Forthcoming Acquisitions

Daily Dose

From Fraud, by David Rakoff


"A dog's head is far heavier and generates a great deal more heat than you might imagine.  After three hours my feet are crushed and very warm, but it seems like bad form to kick a Seeing Eye dog."

From I'll Take the Low Road

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions, by Martin Amis


"All I have to do is give up entirely; then I'll write The Adventures of Augie March."

From More Die of Heartbreak

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Back to the Blackboards

Poetry, light or long, narrative or nonsense, all of it at least until the moderns was always meant to be read aloud.  I make that claim based on nothing much but instinct and my own rather spotty reading of both poetry and something of the history thereof.  Tell me I'm wrong.  Just because I may well be. I'd be willing to argue the point.  Still, that's what I've come to believe and more importantly that's been my way back in to much of the literature from which my background, education and insecurities once seemed to exclude me.  For me, the medium required what turns out to be an older method.  (Think, Homer at the ol' campfire, Dryden at the coffee house, etc.)  Maybe what was actually required was just grey hair.  Anyway, now I read poetry, and poetry aloud with something of the hobbyist's enthusiasm, though hopefully without requiring of my friends all the grim forbearance of the fellow sitting next to, say, a collector of antique bus schedules at a dinner party.  (Everyone at work has been, I must say, very kind when I've cracked open yet another Oxford Anthology at the Information Desk and started to quietly vibrate.   Not long ago, seeing me hovering with an open volume at her elbow, a coworker not known for her love of poesy said, "Oh, go ahead, Brad.  You know you want to.")

Bookstores, in my long experience are very tolerant of eccentricities.  There's a lady where I now work, will tell you everything you need to know to survive a week alone in the Senora desert.  There's someone who's pickling plums.  Let's face it, bookstores are feed-lots for hobbyhorses.  Perfectly harmless, most of us.

Bookstores are also always in the way of finding new ways, or more recently employing old ways to share our enthusiasms with the otherwise unsuspecting public.  Here then yet another bit of recycled media: blackboards are trending.

Long established as something of a fixture in the new wave of coffee and bubble-tea now awash across college-towns and the more upscale or dowtownish of neighbourhoods, what are now called "wet erase boards", I've only just learned, would seem to be all the rage.  Many a saucy barista, having invented some elaborate new combo of espresso shots, soy-milk and anisette, now announces the concoction of the day on a blackboard in the window and or on a sandwich board out front.  Bookstores are now on-board, including the one where I now work.  I think the idea a splendid one.  We've progressed from one or two discreet little boards describing the week's new arrivals and upcoming events to a couple of great big numbers, nearly the size I remember from the front of my elementary school classrooms.

We're quite lucky to have an artist in residence, dear M., who not only "letters" beautifully -- to use a verb likewise from my childhood -- but who has something of a genius for reproducing the covers of forthcoming titles in a beautiful and immediately recognizable way.  Not only are his drawings clear and quite charming, he also does a pretty mean free-hand rectangle.  No mean feat, that.

I was asked if I would draw dear Ogden Nash for the other board, to announce our upcoming evening of the same.  Seemed to me a capital idea.  Dear M. agreed to letter it for me, as nobody wants to see my primitive scrawl a foot high.  Size wouldn't help my legibility much anyway.  Two things I hadn't considered: first, I very rarely have drawn anything on such a scale, and secondly I almost never draw in ink, let alone the weirdly fluid markers used with these wet-erase-boards.  I draw, I see you might almost say, in number two pencils.  I've been know to make finished drawings in ink, as required, but really I'm a doodler by nature and practice and that means stubby pencils and scratch-paper often as not.  I almost never use color, for which I have no eye, and anything like paint seems to require a kind of manual dexterity wholly other from whatever it is I have.  Oh dear.

Also, turns out the "wet-erase" thing means dampening a rag and then rubbing and smudging until finally clearing the whole damned thing and starting over.  This I did no less than three times.  (By the time I was done with it, my "eraser" looked like a clown's dinner-napkin at a fish-fry.)  I learned that hesitations with the marker still in contact with the board means making a puddle.  I learned that blue works better for glasses and the tie and purple looks better for the pomaded noggin of the poet.  I'd made a little preliminary pencil sketch -- natch -- but I realized on my third attempt to reproduce it on the blackboard that I had to rethink a bit.  I remembered my high school art teacher and mentor, Griff.  I remembered him telling me, when I was trying to do something, anything, with watercolors, first that I was "still thinking with a pencil" and then, shaking my grip on the paintbrush until it loosened a bit,

"You're fightin' the paint, man, stop fightin' the paint."

New medium, new ways in.  Anyway, I tried.  Once M. had lettered the thing, I didn't think it looked half bad.  Perhaps not my finest hour, but, hey, I tried something new, me who doesn't do that sort of thing.

And it's all for the good of poetry, man.  Check it out.