“Tender feelings for so-called used bookstores” –March 15, 2003

As loathe as I am to enter commercial shops other than grocery, drug and computer supply stores, I still harbor tender feelings for so-called used bookstores (which these days may not qualify in the commercial category). I recently paid an overdue call to my favorite bookseller Vincent McCaffrey at the new location of Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore. Since Vince was still dealing with old business (like cleaning out the old location) and thus unavailable, I was unable to purloin my usual few bits of wisdom—on matters far and wide—from him. Anyway, the new site looks very much like it will be a bookstore in a year or two. Blue the cat seems to be adapting to the new digs, and even in its nascent state AVH has a good feel and smell. This jaunt reminded me that Jody Watson’s House of Sara, a sweet little bookseller in Cambridge’s Inman Square, had closed its doors last month. And so to quell my burgeoning gloominess, I headed over to the Bryn Mawr Bookstore on Huron Avenue in Cambridge for their bi-annual half price sale. (My buddy Iron Michael points out that I now look forward to that sale in the same way that in the ’80s I anticipated the Louis Boston sale at Filenes’ Basement).

Okay, occasionally I harbor ungenerous thoughts such as "Other people’s ignorance is my good fortune" when I find treasures at Bryn Mawr. To find a copy of Michael Malone’s Foolscap (which I have read) or a British edition of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (which I haven’t read) or a first edition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John and on and on, all for very low in the single digits prices, is something I believe Jews call a mitzvah. It also strikes me as peculiar that hardcover books can lose their dollar value so quickly. Most of this has, I am sure, to do with what I call the Crush of the New.

Apparently it has become the rule in the businesses to do with books, music and movies (less so with movies, given the large costs of production) that lots of ‘product’ is pumped out in to the marketplace and when a book or a CD or a movie shows signs of commercial success, large amounts of money are then arrayed to market and publicize that product. This is very much the blockbuster mentality that is responsible for a decline in the quantity of quality movies. Thankfully, since the absolute formula for ‘hit’ books and records (and even movies) remains elusive, some wonderful literature and music and film makes it to the marketplace. And sometimes, even commercial success results. Holy Moly!

One of the bad effects of this huge outpouring of cultural products is that the people who have chosen to be or appointed critics or reviewers or commentators (sometimes known as the cultural arbiter establishment) are caught up in this onslaught. Thus a disproportionate, I think, amount of attention is paid to what is new—what is current seems to have an extremely short life span. Personally, when it comes to books and literature I do not believe everything new is news or that everything not new is not news.

Alex Good (http://www.goodreports.net/news.htm) is a commentator on things bookish up in Canada (that is the sovereign nation just north of Buffalo where writers like Alice Munro, Michael Ondaajte, Rohinton Mistry, Ann Carson, Alistair McCleod and Wayne Johnston live). Recently in his Good Reports he was bemoaning something or other—I was confused by what the point was:

The online magazine Salon.com is facing bankruptcy.

While I’ve had fun taking shots at Salon’s book coverage…I’ve also admired their occasional irreverence, energy and gusto. It’s unfortunate they didn’t better understand the nature of the Internet beast.

But the loss of Salon.com is only part of what might be a trend. Also announced this week was the demise of Central Booking.com, a busy, good-looking book site that focused on new and under-appreciated American writing. Do these latest casualties indicate a similar fate for book sites?

I don’t think so.†

I’m sad to see Salon and Central Booking go. But a high turnover rate is business as usual on the Internet. Whatever is lost, more good things are on the way.

Though I find David Talbott’s messianic posturing irritating, I will be mildly distraught at Salon‘s last hurrah. But I am much more encouraged by the burgeoning of intelligent life on the weblog planet especially where literature is concerned. At the complete review’s Literary Saloon (http://complete-review.com/saloon/), Michael Orthofer and Elizabeth Morier (with a little help from their friends) do an admirable job of carrying the flag for writers of all linguistic persuasions. And their attention goes beyond the news of Garcia Marquez’ grand success with his (so far only in Spanish) memoirs or WG Sebald’s posthumous publications or a momentary nod to the latest obscure Nobel Laureate. Such is their dedication that their most recent review is of Oottupulackal Velukkutty Vijayan’s Malayalam (that is the prevalent language of southern Indian Kerala) novel The Legends of Khasak.

And equally encouraging is a trend toward examining the dusty-but-fallow shelves of literature. Katherine Power’s A Reading Life in the Sunday Boston Globe a couple of times a month has for years marked out a broader literary horizon for her splendid musings. Dennis Johnson at MobyLives.com has a Recently Under Appreciated and a Blast from The Past section where he solicits nominations from readers. The Minor Fall, The Major Lift is a quirky (that’s good) weblog that has recently inaugurated an Unsung Heroes series:

As a sort of apology for the general lack of posting going on lately, our plan for the next two weeks is to give you a list of ten authors we find to be tremendously underrated. Not necessarily from a critical standpoint, but in terms of sales or in-print status. And don’t get us wrong, we’re not making claims that every one of these writers is in the first division, talent-wise, but they’ve all got something that makes them worth reading. So the idea is we’ll post one a day (which gives the illusion that TMFTML is being updated daily over the coming fortnight), with a brief description and some suggested titles. Because a number of our candidates are, unfortunately, out of print, we suggest you check with your local library. Or, if you’re really interested, Abebooks, which we’ve found to be reliable, comprehensive, and reasonable.

To date the list includes Stanley Elkin, Charles Portis, Percival Everett, William Gaddis and J.F Powers (the above-mentioned Katherine’s papa). And to move this trend more squarely into the mainstream (though made simple by among others the admirable work of the Library of America [that’s despite the trashing the LOA was given for their publication of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy]) Jonathan Yardley at the Washington Post introduces Second Reading: "an occasional series in which The Post‘s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past."

So from where I sit, at my monitor, it is all good…

rosie the dog

Rosie in Repose copyright RB

Posted in a reader's progress and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.