I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city’s various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a “good” bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won’t tell you to leave until they’re closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it’s hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don’t expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don’t plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don’t know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the “important” books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I’m confident that I’ll find what I’m looking for in Chicago.
“Calvin and Hobbes” has begun reappearing – in reruns – in newspaper funny pages around the country as a way to promote what will surely be among the big-ticket book gifts during the upcoming holiday season, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. The 1440 page, 22 and a half pound, three volume, slipcased behemoth is an attempt by the publisher Andrews McNeel to recreate the success of its similarly mammoth offering from two years ago, The Complete Far Side. Judging from the current Amazon ranking of the Calvin and Hobbes book (81), it looks like another high-priced winner for the publisher. Meanwhile, Bill Watterson, the famously reclusive artist behind the strip, is still not speaking publicly, and newspapers around the country are notifying their readers of the beloved strip’s brief return with a palpable sense of disappointment. For example in the St. Petersburg Times:We announce their return with, shall we say, bridled joy. For starters, this is not permanent; Universal Press Syndicate is offering the feature only through Dec. 31. And the strips have been published before.Will Watterson ever make a comeback, as, I suspect, so many newspaper comics fans hope, or should we just shell out the dough for this voluminous shrine to the best strip to grace the funny pages, well, in my lifetime, anyway. (With apologies to “Bloom County.”)
At 8 a.m. on a recent Monday, my first morning back in New York City after a year and a half away, I looked up from my newspaper – a Wall Street Journal, given away for free at my Financial District hotel – and saw that I was the only rider on the R train leaving South Ferry at the base of Manhattan reading print. Every other rider on the subway car was staring at a screen.
In 2004, when I first moved to Brooklyn, the commute on the New York subways was a world of paper. In the evenings most people read books or magazines, and in the morning it was newspapers. Riders from the outermost neighborhoods read the Post and the Daily News while those closer in read the Times and the Journal, fussily folding the broadsheet pages into quarters for easy reading on crowded trains. Here and there, a few younger kids might be sporting earbuds connected to then-newfangled iPods, but even most of them had at least a freebie AM New York parked in front of their faces.
To friends living elsewhere I described the New York subway system as a rolling public library. It was like one of those big, messy city library reading rooms where homeless men passing the time reading the day’s news sat next to uptight city-college profs correcting student papers minutes before class. New York is the only place I have ever enjoyed my commute. Each morning, as soon as the doors slid shut behind me I opened up my book and entered a different world for the twenty minutes it took me to get from my Brooklyn neighborhood to Midtown Manhattan.
A decade later, like real libraries across the country, New York’s rolling library is going digital. That first morning on the R train turned out to be an extreme example, but on every train I rode during my week back in New York, screens outnumbered printed pages, sometimes by a factor of two to one. When I’ve peeked, some of those screens have been displaying news stories and magazine pages and even a few books, but far more often my fellow subway riders were watching TV shows or playing Candy Crush on their phones.
None of this should come as a surprise, of course. The demise of the printed newspaper is by now very old news and it’s hard to imagine a venue where the shift from printed pages to screens makes more sense than on a crowded subway. Still, the speed and starkness of the change is a shock. A decade ago, none of the devices my R train companions were so avidly viewing even existed. Back then, if you didn’t want to read on your morning subway commute, you stared off into space.
When we talk about books, we tend to think in terms of great works of art and forget that for most people books, like newspapers and magazines, are merely a handy thing to have around for that idle moment when there isn’t something else better to do. Now, more and more often, those idle moments – on subway cars, on airplanes, in dentist’s offices – are being filled by games and movies and social media. By screens.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end is nigh for literature as we know it. The golden age of American theater came in the 1940s and 1950s, a generation after radio and talking pictures seemingly outmoded live theater. Arguably, some of the greatest movies American directors have ever produced debuted in the 1970s, a generation after television seemingly outmoded movies. Still, a vibrant art form has to serve a utilitarian function in ordinary people’s lives or it gradually becomes relegated to the museum and the specialist viewer, as has happened to visual art and, more recently, to live theater. And if the printed page can’t survive on a New York City subway car, that once-great rolling library, where else can it survive?
Image via Erwin Bernal/Flickr
I was in search of something light after Libra and turned to Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. Miller wrote this piece for spare money after his return from Paris by submitting 5-10 pages at a time. He got paid $1 for each page and submitted them to a Mr. xxxx who ran a bookstore in LA. One day he dropped off 10 pages and let Mr. xxxx know that this was it, the novel was complete. The catch is that Mr. xxxx also carried nude pictures and pornographic literature at the back of his store. I don’t know if you already guessed but Miller was writing for the illicit part of the store, hence Under The Roofs of Paris is pure pornography, and well, it is sick. I enjoyed the book immensely, mostly because it left me gaping at the obscenity Miller put into words: incest relationships, black masses at the French countryside, tricking prudent American women into orgies, and teenager whores are just the beginning in this 126 page book. There is a very loose plot that revolves around sex and I would suggest that you do not approach Under The Roofs of Paris unless you are already perverted or have a desire to be.To snap out of the ludicrous state of mind Miller put me in, I turned to Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, which I had been meaning to read for a second time since November ’03. [Emre’s piece on Maqroll previously appeared here.]After Maqroll I could not bring myself to start a new novel and turned to Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions. I had kept my brother John Leahy’s present at my bedside table for most of the year but the period immediately after Maqroll is when I turned my full attention to Borges’ labyrinths and tried to decipher them. I must admit that I feel very illiterate while reading Borges and have quite a difficult time connecting certain dots in his stories, mostly because of all the literary references that I cannot catch. Still, I enjoy Borges’ stories a lot and value his old-school language, use of fairy/folk tale language, and matter-of-fact style. He drops gems such as “One man’s dream is part of all men’s memory” in each story, which I believe Maqroll would value greatly and inscribe on the walls of the restroom corridor at The Snow of the Admiral. Collected Fictions is best read in a coffee shop, Lucy’s, or in bed, accompanied by black coffee, vodka, or water.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
A brand new blog called The Happy Booker has arrived on the litblog scene, and its proprietor Wendi is wasting no time jumping in to the fray. Also worth noting: I Read a Short Story Today in which Patrick reads and discusses a new short story (almost) every day. It’s pretty entertaining so far, but he should add comment functionality so we can get some discussion going.