Notable Articles, Quick Hits

What Makes a Bookstore?

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.
Essays, Notable Articles

I Guess It’s Probably Time for A Manifesto

At work yesterday, after my first 15 minute coffee break, but before my 30 minute dinner break, I thought about some things. Among them was the idea that The Millions really ought to have a manifesto. A manifesto takes this messy collection of asides and non sequiturs and gives it purpose and meaning. You are no longer reading my uncollected natterings... you are reading a means. And ideally this is a means to an end. It seemed like a good idea save one problem. I'm not really a manifesto guy. They strike me as too rigid, too static. Will I adopt a manifesto and then stop delighting myself, and perhaps a few others, with the promise of a varied discussion on varied topics? On the other hand, I decided a while ago to devote the blog to books primarily, so what's another artificial restriction anyway? Plus, what if my manifesto is purely a force for good, and by devoting myself to it, I provide a service to whomever encounters this little blog. Still, that word manifesto bugs me... so maybe it's just a problem of language then. Perhaps if I think of it as a declaration, a statement of purpose, an annunciation, a mission statement... a pronunciamento if you will, perhaps then I will have less reservations about its formulation. Luckily, last night when I decided that perhaps The Millions needs a manifesto (or whatever you want to call it), a manifesto sprung fully-formed into my mind. It stems from a fact that most readers are not fully cognizant of: there is a concrete number of books that you or I will be able to read in our lifetimes. I'd say that on average, given my moderately busy lifestyle and the fact that I read the New Yorker in full each week, I am able to read approximately one book a week, and therefore, allowing for longer reading time for some of the behemoths that I occasionally undertake, about 50 a year. (n.b. I set a goal for myself to read 75 books this year, but it looks like I'll be lucky if I hit 50). So therefore, I would estimate that I have probably read about 500 real books in my life, give or take a few dozen, and assuming I live until I'm 80 (and am still able to read at such a rate), I'll read another 2750 give or take a few hundred. 3250 books may seem like a lot to read in a lifetime, but a look around the book store and you quickly realize that it is possible to read only a very small fraction of what has been written, and only a fraction of what is worth reading. Which brings me to my manifesto (or whatever), given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy.I know, heavy shit: death, obligations, the conversion of unimportant choices into important ones... that's why I wanted to keep my mouth shut. But we have to look at this the right way. I am not making the declaration that if you haven't read Dostoyevsky or Joyce, you are under some sort of moral obligation to do so. I am saying that, given the finite number of books that you will be able to read, you ought to read ones that are good for you, not so much nutritionally, but spiritually. I'm partly inspired here by the food writers that I seem to enjoy inordinately. Calvin Trillin refers in Feeding a Yen to seeking "deliciousness" wherever he can find it. He and his fellow food writers are not saying that if you don't eat at this place or eat this type of food you are doing yourself a disservice; the goal is simply deriving joy from food as often as possible, ideally at every meal. The list of foods that qualify as delicious is different for different people. Likewise the list of books is different for different people. To reiterate: this isn't about compulsory reading; this is about making sure that whatever you read will serve a purpose for you and that, as often as possible, this purpose is to bring you the curious sort of joy that only a book can. Clearly there are some problems with my manifesto, first among them being that, I need a word as good as deliciousness to describe the quality we are looking for in our books. Any suggestions???Lighter NotesMy good and old friend Hot Face has finally joined the rest of us and got himself a blog... follow his adventures if you dare. I continue to feel obligated to mention The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis at least twice a week. I do this because, more than any other book, I insist that you read this... Never have I enjoyed a book so profoundly. My excuse for mentioning it this time is that I just found an interview of Mutis in Bomb Magazine. The interview is conducted by another Latin American writer Francisco Goldman, who is an old friend of Mutis' and provides the introduction for Maqroll.The book I'm currently reading refers to this historial event that I was unaware of: "Dan White, on trial for shooting and killing San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder after his lawyer raised the Twinkie Defense, the claim that Dan White's brain had been so deranged by Hostess Twinkies and other sugary junk foods that he should not be held fully responsible for his actions. Twinkies, the argument went, made him do it." (Apparently this occurred in 1979, but it was news to me)Anybody know of any decent book blogs or websites about books?... I haven't been able to find any besides Arts & Letters Daily and the various newspaper book sections, of course... I'd like to find something that's a little less review focussed and more discussion focussed. (Something I hope to do here in the future).
Essays, Notable Articles

I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions

I've decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon's recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is... it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.