Debbie Harry shot to international stardom in the late 1970s as the lead singer of the new wave band Blondie. Now, at age 74, Harry has produced a candid, harrowing, and humorous memoir, Face It, that looks back at her eventful life—as a child put up for adoption, as a dreamer scuffling in New York, through Blondie’s rise and dissolution and reunion, and her solo career as a singer and actress. Along the way, Harry introduces readers to a sizable chunk of the pop pantheon, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and John Waters.
The Millions: You say in your book that you’re a private person. Why did you take on the challenge of writing your memoir at this point in your life?
Debbie Harry: I sort of got persuaded to do it by my manager, but after I got started, I enjoyed the process. I think in a way what it’s done for me is just to clear away a lot of the debris and be done with it. I’m really looking forward to making some new music and possibly writing some more stories.
TM: You mention in the book that memory is subjective.
DH: I’ve done a lot of interviews with Chris [Stein], my partner, and inevitably we remember different things. Fortunately, together we sometimes create a better understanding of what we’re talking about. But, yes, memory is subjective.
TM: You say you were influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. Were there other memoirs, maybe music memoirs, that resonated with you when you were writing this book?
DH: For a long time I was really, really interested in autobiography and biography, and I’ve read quite a few. And they’re fascinating, but I sort of got out of the habit. Recently I picked up Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s memoir, and he’s quite a good writer. And I’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and some of her sentences are just mind-blowing, so good.
TM: You say in your book that you still love New York, even though it’s unrecognizable from when you were making your way here in the 1960s and ’70s and even the ’80s. What do you miss most?
DH: I don’t know that I miss any building or restaurant or anything like that because that’s always in flux in New York. I discovered that after being out on the road. I’d go out on a tour for a couple of months and come back—and something would be completely gone, and there would be something new in its place. That kind of transition and change in New York City is normal. The things I miss a lot are the enchantment and the drive of the ’70s when I was just getting started with Blondie. That was a really special time, getting all that going and me and Chris having this wonderful relationship and the excitement of the scene and the other bands. It really was a privilege to be a part of that.
TM: Are there things you don’t miss about the good old days?
DH: The problem for us was survival. We weren’t making any money and we were scratching to get by, but I guess what helped somehow was our youthful enthusiasm—and optimism, basically. Day-to-day would seem like, “Oh, this is hard! What’s gonna happen?” Sometimes it was almost deliciously scary that you would be fighting against these odds. The reward of having a creative enterprise and having it be accepted is kind of amazing. It’s not like anything else. You’re at your wits’ end, and when you make the slightest little bit of a gain, it’s like, “Oh, man, it’s unbelievable!” You really do get a great feeling.
TM: You mention that Marilyn Monroe was a big influence. You describe her as “a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman”—with a lot of smarts behind her. That’s Debbie Harry in Blondie, too, isn’t it?
DH: To some degree, yeah. I actually don’t think I was as smart as Marilyn. She was playing with the big boys, you know. The music world is not quite as cutthroat as the movie business. The more money that’s being spent to produce a project, the more intense and tense and crazy it gets. The movie business is definitely in that league.
TM: Is your own movie career something you prize a lot?
DH: It really is. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great directors, but I’ve never been in a position to be a producer or a writer or a director on a film. I’ve always been hired to play a part or make a cameo, so the responsibility hasn’t been on my shoulders. But it’s a tremendous enterprise. Look at John Waters. He started out from such an underground position and was so controversial. Much the same as David Cronenberg—again, a very controversial, independent director who slowly built to a point where he was making very commercial pictures.
TM: Have you read any of John Waters’s books? He’s a fine writer.
DH: Yes, and he’s an artist who has exhibited in galleries. And he gives lectures—I love his lectures, they’re fabulous. He’s so knowledgeable and so entertaining about B movies.
TM: In your book, you write that “success quickly started to feel anticlimactic.” Do you still feel that way?
DH: I think I understand the nature of the business a lot better, and my own nature. I think I’ve come to an easy resolve about it. But for a person like me who was not familiar with showbiz, it was a bit of an eye-opener. You know, I was kind of idealistic and foolish—and I’m still kind of a fool, but at least I have a little bit more experience.
TM: Climate strikes are taking place all over the world today. There’s a picture in the book of you onstage in Argentina last year with the words “STOP FUCKING THE PLANET” on your back. Are you optimistic or gloomy about the future of the planet?
DH: Unless we act very quickly and very seriously, I think we’re in a lot of jeopardy. I’m not optimistic unless people get on it right away and start appreciating how beautiful the planet is and how desperate the situation is. Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s population is busy with their own day-to-day survival. If every single person on the planet took an hour or two out of their week and did some serious environmental work—cleaning water, cleaning rivers—it would really be important. If you talk to Vivienne Westwood, she’s much more up on the science. And many scientists are saying we’re beyond the pale.
TM: You mention in the book that you’re making some new music. What are you working on?
DH: Just writing snippets, little bits and bobs of ideas for lyrics and themes. I’ve been parsing out some of the instrumental tracks, and I’m trying to learn about new artists I really haven’t been paying attention to. All the little pieces are filtering into my brain. Hopefully in the New Year, I’ll get in the studio to do some solo work.
TM: Who are the musicians you’re listening to?
DH: One is Aldous Harding. She has this great video on YouTube called “The Barrel.” The song is very interesting and quirky, and she comes more from being a poet. There’s some great stuff out there. Let’s face it, rock ’n’ roll has come a long way; it’s very sophisticated and it encompasses a lot of attitudes and instrumentation.
TM: Do you think you’ll have a new record next year?
DH: Oh, God no, I don’t think it’ll be out that soon. Thinking positively, we could possibly get an EP out.
TM: Are you going on a tour to promote your book?
DH: I am. I have about five or six dates around the country, and then I go over to the U.K. and Germany. I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair.
TM: Good luck with the book. I hope it sells like Krispy Kremes.
DH: Oh, thanks [Laughs.] But not as fattening!
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.
“I ran into a girl…She said I was a strange person and she told me why. She said, ‘You were born in a certain area where the ground is metallic.’” – Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades Revisited
Bob Dylan was born in Duluth but spent his formative years in Hibbing, a small, isolated northern Minnesota town whose claim to fame (according to the billboard that greets you as you come into town) is that it’s home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. It’s also my hometown, in an area so remote from Minneapolis that a friend from the city had never heard of it.
There are a number of towns in Minnesota’s Iron Range, which covers the upper fork of the state, but Hibbing is a particularly weird place given an accident of history; its inadvertent placement atop one of the richest veins of iron ore meant the mining company had to grant the townspeople major concessions to persuade them to move its location. Thus Hibbing is the only town with a high school listed in the National Register of Historic Places: the building cost four-million dollars (in 1923!), complete with marble floors in the bathrooms, a 1800-seat auditorium patterned after the Capitol Theatre in New York City, and a Broadway-level green room. Because Hibbing, which is near Canada, wasn’t the most hospitable place to live (in his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan described the winters as so cold and unending as to be hallucinogenic), the mining company also invested in education: the superintendent of the school system supposedly received the highest salary of any school district in the state, and K-12 instructors were paid unusually high salaries for the area. The Hibbing public schools were thus funded more like lavish private schools, so you end up with people like English teacher B.J. Rolfzen, who is often credited by Bob Dylan for instilling in him a love of language.
To give you an idea, this is where we had our pep rallies for homecoming, our auditorium. You can imagine yourself laughing a young Bob Dylan (then, Robert Zimmerman) off the stage at the talent show (yes, this happened).
But whether it was the richly funded schools or the iron ore in the water or some other strange vortex (Hibbing is also, weirdly, at the epicenter of climate change), the town boasts an unusual number of writers, some of them culture-changers like Dylan. (And this is not to mention that Greyhound Bus Lines, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, and Gus Hall — all Hibbing originals.)
The uncle of one of the kids I sat next to in Earth Sciences in junior high was Vincent Bugliosi, the Charlie Manson case prosecutor and the author of the best-seller about the case, Helter Skelter. Bethany McLean has the distinction of being the person who broke the Enron scandal; she wrote about first in Fortune magazine, and then in the best-selling Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which was made into a movie of the same name. Rick Novak, M.D., is the author of a medical thriller set in Hibbing that references the newest Nobel Laureate: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Frank Riley, author of various science fiction novels, won a Hugo Award for They’d Rather Be Right, which he co-wrote with Mark Clifton — apparently this was only the second time the Hugo was awarded to a novel.
Who will come out of Hibbing next?
On the first page of his 2005 memoir Chronicles, Bob Dylan recounts his experience signing with Leeds Music Publishing company. It was 1961 and Dylan had just traveled to New York City from Duluth, Minnesota. He was twenty. He’d been written about once or twice in the music section of the Times, and that was enough to convince label executives that he was worth a deal. While walking around the office with Lou Levy, then the head of Leeds, Dylan bumped past Jack Dempsey, the famous boxer. Dempsey took a good look at him, sized him up, and said that he’d have to get a lot bigger if he wanted to be a fighter. Dylan politely told Dempsey that he wasn’t a boxer. He was a musician. A folk musician at that.
A few years later, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the now very popular Dylan played a routine acoustic set on Saturday evening. He played well-loved folk songs for an affectionate folk-loving crowd. But the next night, Dylan returned to the stage with a fully electric and amplified band — an apparent rock band. Despite persistent boos and jeers from the crowd, who shouted obscenities and felt betrayed by his newfound electric sound, Dylan played without batting an eye, and he sang “Like a Rolling Stone” with a special bite.
Before the Dylan Electric controversy and his signing with a major label, before Dylan even took up a guitar, there was Woody Guthrie, whose honest, traditional, and dedicated approach to songwriting inspired Dylan. Alongside “Song to Woody” and a few other early tries, Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his first major hit. The song became largely identified as a protest song aligned with the civil rights movement; beyond its message, what arrested listeners was Dylan’s voice: it wasn’t cute or polished or even all that pleasant. It was a bit raspy, sometimes off-key, even wiry. He didn’t sound like someone who would be on the radio, and yet, there he was, standing in front of the nation, connecting with people on the basis of what he had to say, not how it sounded.
Bob Dylan has a built a career by defying expectations — as a kid who told Jack Dempsey he was a musician, as a folk performer trying to go electric, as a voice on the radio, and now as the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Dylan clearly infuses that same sense of defiance into his lyrics. The difference between listening his words in a song or reading them on a page is marginal. The power is always there, the inflection always inherent in his short, carefully rhymed (often internally rhymed) verses, his painstaking attention to rhyme and meaning existing on a continuum with hip-hop and slam poetry. Consider the long but wildly short-tempo “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” with its verse: “A question in your nerves is lit / Yet you know there is no answer fit / To satisfy, insure you not to quit / To keep it in your mind and not forget / That it is not he or she or them or it / That you belong to.”
If Woody Guthrie taught Dylan how to properly structure and perform a song, then the Bible gave him a wealth of phrases, ideas, and philosophies to put to poetic music. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” of course, is a reference to Ezekiel (12:1-2). Notice how Dylan changes the exact line — “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Oh mortal, you dwell among the rebellious breed. They have eyes to see but see not; ears to hear, but hear not” — to a simpler, more poignant question: “Yes’n’ how many ears must one man have?” Dylan’s rephrasing of the line shapes it into its own rebuttal, a small but powerful twist of feeling that he’s mastered.
One of Dylan’s most critically acclaimed albums, Highway 61 Revisited, is rife with Biblical allusions. In “Tombstone Blues,” Delilah, a temptress from the Book of Judges, appears alongside John the Baptist. Cain and Abel are included in “Desolation Row,” while the title track “Highway 61 Revisited” opens with the moment when God asks Abraham to sacrifice a son. The whole concept of Highway 61, the road that stretches through much of the American heartland, rings with similarity to the Red Sea, the body that runs between the heart of North Africa and the Middle East and was significant in the story of Moses, one of Abraham’s descendants.
Taken together, Dylan’s intense interest in Biblical mythology seems to lean toward moments of conflict — a father being asked to kill a son, a temptress clashing with a saint, the feud between Cain and Abel. The Bible is filled with conflict, but these are intimate, personal conflicts of a different sort. Defiance arrives not with some sweeping turn of events or by divine intervention, but with the steeling of a person’s heart. Small victories that win big battles.
Conflict over death, sadness, and human faith were also the favorite themes of Dylan Thomas, the poet from whom Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman) took his name. Thomas’s poems are often death-obsessed — the poet himself died young at 39. In “Clown in the Moon,” Thomas writes, “I think, that if I touched the earth, / It would crumble; / It is so sad and beautiful, / So tremulously like a dream.” The usual mood is there: reflective, honest, melancholy. In “Oxford Town,” Dylan maps this same mood over a song about racism in a small town. The last verse in Dylan’s song has an eerily similar feeling to Thomas’s: “Oxford Town in the afternoon / Everybody singing a sorrowful tune / Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon / Somebody better investigate soon.” The two poets meet somewhere in the middle — Oxford town in the afternoon, like a dream, haunted by sadness.
Thomas is also renowned for continually resisting the thought of death, best evidenced by poems like “Do Not Go Gentle (Into That Good Night)” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” He writes, “Though they may be mad and dead as nails, / Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; / Break in the sun till the sun breaks down, / And death shall have no dominion.” This simple refusal to let grief and death take control of the beauty in his world was shared by Dylan, who again shaped the feeling into a powerful social outcry in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” “Take the rag away from your face,” Dylan sings hard-nosedly to mourners, “Now ain’t the time for your tears.”
If you take the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, the stories of the Old Testament, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the styles of folk, rock, and blues, then it’ll add up to something like Bob Dylan’s literary style. His work is an ideally balanced marriage between content and form, like W. B. Yeats or Tennyson, with an air of social and political challenge.
The Nobel Prize cements Dylan’s legacy as a musician who shaped, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “new poetic expressions in within the great American song tradition.” He joins the ranks of other American laureates like T.S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison. As someone who’s spent his life defying expectations, Dylan probably enjoys being in that company; like all great artists, he knows that he deserves to be there.
For years, Bob Dylan has been considered a longshot contender for the Nobel Prize. Nobel watchers have not taken the possibility of a Dylan win seriously, not because he isn’t a legendary talent, but because giving him the prize would be so out of character for a committee that has so often used the Nobel to bring a regional master to a global audience. A case can and certainly will be made that Dylan is as deserving as any other for something as arbitrary as a literary prize, but there is some disappointment in not bringing a lesser known talent to worldwide acclaim, let alone one whose primary medium is books.
That said, as far as rock memoirs go, Dylan’s Chronicles is considered perhaps the best of the genre. The book is meant to be the first in a trilogy but there has been little in the way of firm news as to when the second and third volumes might appear. In 2012, Dylan told Rolling Stone, “Let’s hope [it happens].” Certainly, however, the committee did not have Chronicles in mind when it gave Dylan the prize. A new edition of Dylan’s collected lyrics is set to be released within the next month.
In 2009, in these pages, Andrew Saikali made a strong case.
Whole books have been written, whole careers launched, with discussion of the lyrics of Bob Dylan. But reading Bob Dylan and listening to Bob Dylan are two completely different experiences. And it’s his melodies, vocal phrasing and musical arrangements that lift these masterful words off the page, animating them, haunting them, imbuing them with mystery.
In 2010, Jim Santel explored the suddenly popular rock memoir genre, setting aside Chronicles as an exception “among the most persistently disappointing of literary subgenres.”
In 2011, Buzz Poole reflected on Dylan’s 70th birthday: “Lurking in everything Dylan has ever done, for better or worse, is the myth of America, its chameleon-like quality to be everything to everybody its greatest asset, permitting openness, not for the sake of change but because of its necessity.”
Rock-and-roll memoirs are among the most persistently disappointing of literary subgenres. Like athletes, rock musicians are rarely articulate about their craft. Both groups have easy recourse to common bodies of stale jargon—athletes give glory to God and say they “just went out and gave 110%”; rockers are all about the music, are glad to be clean, and didn’t really mean to suggest in their last interview that they were ambivalent about success. Genius that relies on fleeting inspiration, gut feeling, and unthinking improvisation is ill suited to the slow, reflective process of writing. It takes an outsider to get inside. Observers like John McPhee, John Updike, and Gay Talese have done this with sports. But rock music has eluded even serious writers. When Rolling Stone sent Truman Capote on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972, he complained that there was simply nothing to write about, and never filed.
Capote’s work ethic had certainly eroded by then, but even the canonical body of book-length rock writing, by the likes of Greil Marcus, Stanley Booth, and Nick Tosches, never feels like more than the musings of very smart devotees about frequently inane artists. Nothing essential is transmitted. Read Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, and you understand baseball. Read Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, and you have a headache. If something essential about rock music eludes capture by writers as fine as the ones I’ve listed, it positively dissipates when the musicians themselves try to explain it.
Into the long and prosaic line of rock star autobiographies comes Life, by Keith Richards (co-written by James Fox), which will be released on October 26th and which is excerpted in the most recent issue Rolling Stone. I’ve had high hopes for Keith’s autobiography, and not only because I’m a Stones fan. Rock autobiographies that aren’t Bob Dylan’s Chronicles fall into two equally hollow categories:
1.) The sentimental redemption tale, in which our hero discovers the blues in his small town in rural England or northern Minnesota, finds success, finds that this success comes too early and too fast, uses a lot of drugs and alienates a lot of people, finally cleans up, and unconvincingly assures us that he now knows what satisfaction is. Eric Clapton’s recent autobiography and the popular film adaptations of the lives of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash fall into this category.
2.) The raunchy, no-apologies tell-all, in which the rock star has a lot of sex, takes a lot of drugs, and refuses to repent doing either. Gene Simmons’s Kiss and Make-Up is the benchmark here, though elements of the tell-all are essential to any mainstream rock autobiography.
Keith’s life presents a chance to avoid the dual-track stagnation. For one thing, Keith Richards doesn’t deal in redemption; survival is his game. He’s cleaned up but still seems like an outlaw. This isn’t because he refuses to apologize, but because, by force of personality, he’s kept beyond the cultural discourse wherein fans simultaneously crave tales of backstage debauchery and demand apologies for them. Only Dylan has been so successful at staying above the public’s wildly oscillating morals. And while we’re speaking of debauchery, Keith’s addictions could be legitimate points of interest. The needles-and-groupies portions of most rock books tend to devolve into numbly pornographic lists. But Keith’s sustained cocaine and heroin usage has become so legendary that it might be interesting to know how he didn’t die.
As it turns out, the answer makes Keith sound like Warren Buffett telling you how he made his money. Richards and Fox write:
It’s not only the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival to. I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher. That’s where most people fuck up on drugs. It’s the greed involved that never really affected me…Maybe that’s a measure of control, and maybe I’m rare in that respect. Maybe there I have an advantage.
That’s it. Keith Richards survived because he had a sense of moderation, and because he could afford the really good stuff.
Not only is this passage laughably anticlimactic, it just doesn’t sound like Keith. This is not to fault James Fox; his task was nigh impossible. Richards is one of the better interviews in rock and roll. His memories change a lot from interview to interview, but he is amusing and tries to be honest. His appeal, however, depends on his gravelly voice and his erratic deportment. Abstracted to the page and filtered through a co-author, things Keith would say tend to sound silly: “The travelling physician we’ll call Dr. Bill, to give it a Burroughsian ring.” Just as often, the excerpts don’t sound like Keith at all, as when he suddenly morphs into a frat boy: “No wonder I’m famous for partying! The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”
As that last quote suggests, Life does not refrain from the obligatory relation of prurient details. There is indeed a lot of sex in the Rolling Stone excerpts. Even the sex that might have been interesting is degraded. Of his relationship with Anita Pallenberg, whom he stole from soon-to-be-deceased bandmate Brian Jones, Keith says, “I still remember the smell of the orange trees in Valencia. When you get laid with Anita Pallenberg for the first time, you remember things.” Spoken like someone who doesn’t remember; everyone knows Valencia smells like oranges. Of another sexual encounter with Pallenberg, Keith says, “Phew.”
The excerpts do offer insight into another of Keith’s tortured and talked-about relationships: the one he’s maintained for forty years with Mick Jagger. The Glimmer Twins’ dynamic tends to be inscrutable, and Keith offers a bit of directness. Jagger, he muses, was jealous of Keith’s friendships with other men. He felt like he owned Keith. “…I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate,” Richards says. “But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
Or are we? As interesting as all this is, anyone who’s read even a few interviews with Jagger or Richards knows that there is no easy way to describe their friendship; the pair is always saying, “Yes, but…” Every blanket statement that makes for a nice block quote comes with a qualifier that does not. This is true of any subject, from Keith Richards to George Washington. Good biographers use nuance to approximate a life; they bring us closer to how a person lived. And a serious autobiographer can draw us even nearer to understanding, for no barriers of consciousness need surmounting; the author is already inside. But rock stars are subject to a specific set of demands, and by the nature of their work, they’re disposed to give us what we want. And as long as we desire accountings of every grain of cocaine and tallies of every groupie, we will remain in the audience, watching.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: New, Used, or Antequarian?Edan: My preference is for new books – to me, reading someone’s yellowed copy of Pride and Prejudice feels too much like wearing that same someone’s stinky sneakers. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but I can never drum up the same kind of lust for the used as I can for the new. This might have its origins in childhood trips to Children’s Book World in West L.A. where I went to attack L.M. Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, or to get the latest installment of the Babysitter’s Club series. My appreciation for the new became part of my job at Book Soup; there I spent a lot of time stacking smooth hardcovers and shiny paperbacks, and oohing and aahing over what the receiver unpacked next. Even now I can’t help but fix displays at my local bookstore – it’s just too pleasurable to handle all those new novels.For me, buying a new book is an event, and after a day or two of reading, I write my name, and the month and year, on the book’s inside cover. I rarely get rid of the new books I buy; the connection is too deep. I love starting with a stiff and shy paperback, and ending with something dog eared, scribbled on, and creased – in that process, the book becomes read, and becomes mine.Andrew: I know I’ve been in a good used-book shop if, upon leaving, I begin to muse what it would be like to quit my job, buy the shop in question, and become Andrew Saikali, bookseller, Esq. Then reality usually sets in, and I forget this fanciful notion.Second-hand book shops are like an extended version of my den – they are what it would resemble if I had the resources. So, for me, because of the experience of buying used, coupled with the cost-savings, second-hand books trump even the shiniest new books. That said, on occasion I’ll comb the city looking for a just-released title, price be damned. (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles was a case in point.)While I admire antiquarian books – taunting me as they do from their snobby little perch behind the glass, behind lock and key – I’ve always resisted the temptation to splurge. However, if anyone wishes to initiate me into the rarified world behind that glass, my birthday is in April. You’ve missed this year’s, but you can begin to think about next year’s. I also like imported wine and fine chocolate.Kevin: I don’t know if the problem is with me or with used book stores, but either way, the relationship always ends in disappointment. I want to like used book stores, to see them as little pockets of virtue in the miles and miles of new, shiny waste sold by other stores on the block. I want to admire the shy, balding hippy who runs the place, and his quiet young apprentice, who volunteers five hours a week for unlimited free trade-ins. In my first year in every city I’ve ever lived in, I’ve made the rounds of the local used bookstores. Usually my initial trip is also my last. My latest such dalliance was with two places down in Old City Philadelphia. Not wanting to leaving empty handed, I walked out with a frayed history of colonialism in Latin America and a collection of Vonnegut short stories. Both are sitting just where I left them when I came home, in a stack at the foot of my bed. One problem with big chain bookstores, I suppose, is the way they press books upon you, with table displays and prominent shelf placements. It’s hard to discern value that way, too, as hard as it is to determine the same among the undifferentiated clutter of most used book stores. That’s why, all in all, I prefer hand-me-downs from friends, and the library.Emre: I find it hard not to get new, crisp books. There is a certain delight in slowly molding a novel’s spine until the covers bend for a comfortable one-hand-hold read. And, they smell good. That said, I prefer used books when reading not-so-recently published works. I appreciate three qualities in used books: artwork and fonts from a different era, notes by various previous owners (I enjoy the conversation regardless of whether we agree or not) and the randomness that often characterizes how I get them. So far they have – through friends, hole-in-the-wall bookstores or sidewalk vendors – introduced me to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and The Sirens of Titan, and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, among others. As for collecting and caring for vintage books, I got nothing. Some sort of book karma seems to be recycling everything that passes through my hands.Emily: Although I love a good rare books room (nothing like the feel of vellum and a little paleographic challenge), I don’t own anything much that’s worth more than the paper it’s printed on. I do own a first edition of Mary McCarthy’s first novel The Company She Keeps, but that wasn’t more than fifty dollars. No, the most expensive book in my collection, coming in at a whopping $92 plus shipping, is (try to contain your jealousy) the out-of-print Life, Letters, and Philosophical Regime of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by Benjamin Rand (1900). It’s a discharged copy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and falling apart in spite of the fact that quite a few of the pages were uncut when it arrived. This purchase was practical: The Stanford library didn’t have a copy and since I didn’t make it to see the manuscript version of Shaftesbury’s regimen at the National Archives in London, this was the most expedient solution. In general, I’m pretty cheap when it comes to books. My most recent acquisition, for example, was a copy of La Princesse de Cleve (1678) by Madame de Lafayette, considered by some literary historians to be the first European novel. And that was free! (The only treasure in box of books left outside a used bookstore after hours.) Probably my best “find” after a copy of Colley Cibber’s classic (and then, perhaps still, out of print) early eighteenth century play The Careless Husband that I found on the sidewalk in Park Slope.Max: All three types of books speak to me. I blossomed as a reader thanks to used bookstores in Washington, DC and Charlottesville, where the books were cheap and I could easily compile the oeuvre of whoever I was obsessed with at the moment, Vonnegut or John Irving or Hemingway. But I’ve soured a bit on used books because too often used bookstores are hobbies of hoarders and impossible to navigate, or they are too polished and expensive. I will always love, however, the pocket paperbacks of the 50s to the 70s. I love the cover designs across those eras and I love being able to have a book with me, quite literally in my pocket, without having to schlep it awkwardly under my arm.But new books are in most cases better. I find them incredibly tempting with their shiny covers and crisp pages, though, as noted, I do get a bit weary of lugging hardcovers. As for the antiquarian books, I sometimes fancy the idea that it might be fun to be a book collector, but I know I do not have the temperament for it. I cannot see books as objects in that way, and, with the few books of value I have accumulated over the years, I fret about what I am supposed to do with them… sell them? Lock them in a safe? They sit in a box so that they won’t get wrecked. And that’s no place for books to be.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: Used, new, or antiquarian?
Book hoarder that I am, I tend to buy most things second-hand, occasionally remaindered, almost always paperback, ideally pocketbook. But never hot-off-the-shelf hardcover. Okay, occasionally. When Bob Dylan’s Chronicles came out a couple of years ago, I bought it after work on the first day and actually refused to return home without a newly-minted copy in my backpack. (It’s an obsession. I’m handling it.)The portability of paperbacks and the affordability of second-hand makes for an appealing combination. But the odd time that I do dig into my wallet for something new, especially a new hardcover, I’m astounded by the cost. This might sound a bit trite. The high cost of newly published books is hardly news. But I look at the price on the jacket and I see a massive difference between the US dollar cost and the Canadian dollar cost. This difference bears no resemblance to the 2007 economy.Less than five years ago, the Canadian dollar was sitting at around 65 cents US. In recent years, it’s been inching its way up and now sits at around 95 cents US. So you’d think that a new hardcover sold here in Canada would be only slightly more expensive than the same book in a US store. How then do bookshops and the publishing industry justify the 30 per cent premium that Canadians are often paying?A recent article from the Globe and Mail examines this phenomenon and explores the actions that Canadian booksellers are taking to bring book prices more in line with economic reality. And, in the process, corral more wayward book-buyers like myself, into their stores.With any luck, this matter will be resolved by the time Dylan’s Chronicles Volume Two comes out.
I thoroughly enjoyed the second installment of Emdashes’ Ask the New Yorker Librarians series.Michiko Kakutani hates Jonathan Franzen’s new memoir, The Discomfort Zone. Kakutani’s wrath filled pen aside, Ed explains why she’s right, and I have to agree. I looked back through the archives here and realized I hadn’t elaborated on it much beyond writing back in 2003 that “Franzen’s non-fiction bugs the heck out of me,” but it put me off enough that I avoided reading The Corrections for a long time because of it.Speaking of reviews, it’s a good thing Bob Dylan didn’t get the Franzen treatment. He tells contactmusic.com that while he doesn’t care about music reviews, the reviews for Chronicles Vol. 1 meant a lot to him: “Most people who write about music, they have no idea what if feels like to play it, but, with the book I wrote, I thought, ‘The people who are writing reviews of this book, man, they know what the hell they’re talking about. They know how to write a book, they know more about it than me.’ The reviews of this book, some of ’em almost made me cry – in a good way. I’d never felt that from a music critic, ever.”Even though it seems like there’s another “book banning” story in the news every week, the AP reports that the 405 challenges reported to the American Library Association last year is the smallest number since they started keeping track in the early 1980s. The challenges have dropped by more than half since the ALA started Banned Books Week to promote free expression. Kudos to the librarians.The second most brilliant magazine in the world (refer to the top item in this list for the first), The Economist has a characteristically well-considered a piece on the newspaper industry’s timid efforts to embrace the Internet. Thanks to Millions contributor Andrew for sending this along.