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
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 in Repose copyright RB