We like to go on about why we read, the power of literature, etc. Literature can transform indifference into empathy, we insist, transubstantiate ink on bleached papyrus into flesh and blood. It’s all very “Kumbayah” and, coming from writers, a tad grandiose. A little defensive, even. “It may look like I’m diddling unwashed in my pajamas in a room by myself -- but no! I’m weaving an immortal thread on the great tapestry of the human experience!” Delusions of grandeur are comfy, but this year they’ve forsaken me. This year I’ve picked up lots of books and found not the transcendent but the smug, the affected, the dull. It started to feel like “the power of literature” was a product I’d been sold, which I was now employed in schilling. Teaching will do this. But then came Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. What I found in Bynum’s second novel was not the Power of Literature™ but something less leaden, more meringue. As I read, an old feeling came to me from back before I treated Literature like medicine or a communion wafer. It was joy! And the best kind of sadness! Plus heaps and heaps of laughter! I read with the same studious fervor with which my sister and I once stayed up late listening to the radio, teaching ourselves the freaky subspecialties of punk and metal -- a memory Bynum’s “Creep” excavated for me. Her chapters (stories? who cares!) kept doing this, dredging up parts of myself I’d completely forgotten. So I deem Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles the best book I read this year, for reminding me of my favorite reason to read: pure joy. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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Cultural anxieties are currently running high about the future of the book as a physical object, and about the immediate prospects for survival of actual brick and mortar booksellers. When most people think about the (by now very real) possibility of the retail side of the book business disappearing entirely into the online ether, they mostly tend to focus on the idea of their favorite bookshops shutting their doors for the last time. Sub-Borgesian bibliomaniac that I am (or, if you prefer, pathetic nerd), I have a mental image of the perfect bookshop that I hold in my mind. It’s a sort of Platonic ideal of the retail environment, a perfect confluence of impeccable curation and expansive selection, artfully cluttered and with the kind of quietly hospitable ambiance that makes the passage of time seem irrelevant once you start in on browsing the shelves. For me, the actual place that comes closest to embodying this ideal is the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury, run by the people behind the London Review of Books. It’s a beautifully laid-out space in a beautiful building, and its selection of books makes it feel less like an actual shop than the personal library of some extremely wealthy and exceptionally well-read individual. It’s the kind of place, in other words, where you don’t so much want to buy half the books in the shop as buy the shop itself, move in straight away and start living in it. The notion that places like this might no longer exist in a decade or so is depressing beyond measure. But I don’t live in Bloomsbury, or anywhere near it. I live in a suburb of Dublin where the only bookshop within any kind of plausible walking distance is a small and frankly feeble set-up on the second floor of a grim 1970s-era shopping center, above a large supermarket. It’s flanked by two equally moribund concerns, a small record store and a travel agent, thereby forming the centerpiece of a sad triptych of retail obsolescence. It’s one of those places that makes you wonder how it manages to survive at all. It has a rack of greeting cards, carries a small selection of stationery sundries, and its “Mind, Body and Soul” section — mostly books on stuff like dream interpretation and angel husbandry — is slightly larger than its Classics section, which is really just a couple of desultory shelves with a few Dickenses and Austens and maybe a Brontë or two. It’s not a good bookshop, in other words. It is, in fact, a pretty terrible bookshop. But I have an odd fondness for it anyway, and I’ll occasionally just wander up there in order to get out of the apartment, or to see whether, through some fluke convergence of whim and circumstance, they have something I might actually want to buy. I’ve often bought books there that I would never have thought to pick up in a better bookshop, gravitating toward them purely by virtue of the fact that there’s nothing else remotely interesting to be had. I bought a copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel there, for instance, a book I would probably not have thought to look for in a larger, more lavishly stocked place. I also found, in the aforementioned “Mind, Body and Soul” section a few years ago, a copy of the philosopher Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man, slotted between How to Hear Your Angels and How to See Your Angels. I bought it because it was a work of serious philosophy on an interesting topic, surrounded on all sides by dewy-eyed spiritualist nonsense and self-help snake oil. I think I may have felt a little sorry for it, having to keep such poor company, and felt morally obligated to give it a proper home. It’s a fascinating book which has had a lasting influence on the way I think about the relationship between humanity and nature, and chances are I wouldn’t have read it if I lived within walking distance of Bloomsbury. I’ve also bought a few novels there which, being classics that pretty much every bookshop in the world has copies of, probably would not have caught my eye elsewhere. If you’re a compulsive book buyer, in other words, and there’s nothing worth looking at except a ropey-looking paperback of Madame Bovary, you might end up realizing that it’s completely unacceptable that you’ve never read it, and you might then take it with you to the counter and onward toward a future in which you’re slightly better read. And this brings me to the point I want to make about bad bookshops, which is that they’re rarely actually as bad as they seem. In a narrow and counterintuitive sense, they’re sometimes better than good bookshops. The way I see it, there are three basic categories of retail bookseller. There’s the vast warehouse that has absolutely everything you could possibly think of (Strand Bookstore in New York’s East Village, for instance, is a fairly extreme representative of this group, or at least it was the last time I was there ten years ago). Then there’s the “boutique” bookshop, where you get a sense of a strong curatorial presence behind the scenes, and which seems to cater for some aspirational ideal of your better intellectual self. The London Review Bookshop is, for me at least, the ultimate instance of this. And then there’s the third — and by far the largest — category, which is the rubbish bookshop. There are lots of subgenii to this grouping. The suburban shopping center fiasco, as discussed above. The chain outlet crammed with celebrity biographies and supernatural teen romances. The opportunistic fly-by-night operation that takes advantage of some short-term lease opening to sell off a random selection of remaindered titles at low prices before shutting down and moving elsewhere. And, of course, the airport bookshop of last resort. I have a slightly perverse fondness for these sub-par emporia, because they have often been the places where I have been forced to stray furthest outside of my usual buying patterns. Sometimes the situation in which our options are most narrowed is the one which ends up most widening our horizons. As great as it is to be able to choose whatever you want on Amazon, sometimes what you really want is to have no choice at all. Which is another way of saying, perhaps, that maybe there is really no such thing as a bad bookshop. Image credit: wmankowski/Flickr
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Book trailers are one thing, but what’s a literary short film? According to Red 14 founders Adam Cushman and Mike Sandow, “it's not advertising a product; it gives a cinematic glimpse into the book, one which will ideally make the viewer interested in learning more about the author, the author's current book, and the author's past and future work.” Together, the pair has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund four such films about four worthy titles (Matt Bell’s awesome debut novel among them).
Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the novel, On This Day, and a collection of poems, Why Speak?.A line of poetry by Nathaniel: "It takes youth to witness such desperation and read it / as joy..."At a recent reading in New England, I was asked two questions that stumped me. They shouldn't have, but they did. The first was: Why do you write both fiction and poetry and how are they different to you? The second one was: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?The questions weren't necessarily complicated, but they brought up things I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about. Or, rather, things I haven't spent time articulating to myself. As a result, my responses were pretty poor. To the first question I said that my fiction attempts to tell other peoples' stories and my poems attempt to tell my own. This felt true, if overly simplified. The second question was harder and I answered: "I'm really not sure."On the train ride home to New York, I thought a lot about the questions and my answers to them. After the train left Boston, it went through various neighborhoods and shopping districts outside the city limits, all of which seemed strung together by an endless line of telephone polls. These telephone polls brought back a memory I hadn't thought of in years, of when I was a kid walking home from school just as it was getting dark and the streetlights were coming on. We lived in a small town back then and as I made my way down the quiet streets, the pools of light from the streetlights grew more and more distinct against the growing darkness. It was both terrifying and exciting, passing from shadow into light - being hidden and then revealed - knowing that at the end there was the safety of home.Thinking of this memory, I remembered how I'd described it to a high school fiction writing class years before as a way of explaining my approach to writing fiction. Like that street, the reader progresses forward in a story through passages of ambiguity and mystery, stopping periodically in stations of light and clarity, which the author has strategically placed along the way. The reader is urged forward through these opposite and sometimes uncomfortable states by the promise of a secure, however unknown, destination.After Providence, Rhode Island, the train tracks closely hugged the shoreline. The views of the marshes and ocean were beautiful. We passed by a beach, which was empty except for a couple and their dog. The dog ran along the waterline chasing after its toy; its dark coat against the white sand made me think of our old lab who used to follow us down to the cove near our house where we'd all go swimming.One of my most vivid memories of that place was from high school, just before I left for college, swimming after sunset. The water was calm and the wind was warm. I floated on my back a few yards from shore, listening to our dog chewing on driftwood, the wind rustling the leaves on the hillside, the water echoing in my ears. Slowly, the stars appeared in the sky above me - and then, somehow, all around me: blue and glowing, lifting with the gentle waves and spiraling around with the current. I was surprised but not afraid: I had seen this before - phosphorescent algae in the marshes and water in the area - but I had never swum in and among them. They were everywhere. The dark water pulsed with an otherworldly glow that seemed to surround and include and devour me all at once.I looked out the window of the train and over the winter ocean and thought: that's what poetry is like - that feeling of being immersed in black water, shot through with tiny living lights. It seemed as truthful a comparison to my poetic aspirations as the memory of walking home on that lit street came to represent my approach to telling a story. These memories weren't perfect analogs to why I've come to do what I do, and they couldn't have served as sufficient answers to the audience members at the reading. But they were answers I felt grateful to come upon, embedded, as they were, in a version of myself that feels very far away.So in that way, I guess I did arrive at a response to that second question: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? I think I would have to say: when I was still very much a child.More National Poetry Month at The Millions