Friday, November 5, 2010

A collection of dust and decay

In my early 20s, while living at the New Jersey shore - don't even think it - I frequented a used bookshop (now, I hear, replaced by a store selling tires, which in turn replaced a liquor store) in one of the rundown neighborhoods at the edge of Atlantic City. In that desolate nether region of the state, cut off from the civilized world by the Pine Barrens and, well, the rest of New Jersey, used bookstores were few and far between, so this particular one - I've forgotten the name - was a dusty and cluttered haven. Never during any of my visits did I encounter another browser; I was left to think, a bit wistfully, that I was the only person who shopped here. The owner, a frail old man whose look belied his pugnacity, seemed reluctant to engage with his customer(s) and only did so with a sort of shuffling and begrudging respect.

Despite the lack of business, I cannot remember him ever acknowledging my arrival. He kept his head in a book, as if unwilling to let the presence of a mere human being interrupt his idyll. I liked his version of customer service: not unfriendly, but neither was he overeager to engage in conversation. He struck me as a man who didn't need to flip an "Open" sign around each morning, but did, perhaps, out of a desire to see some of the collection he'd gathered find other homes. (Occasionally, I would make a purchase that would delight him - I could see in his movements, a little more sprightly, as he wrote down each title I was buying on a carbon copy receipt.)

I bought dozens of books there and after a while noticed that many of them, mostly classic novels and works of philosophy, were inscribed with the same name and university on the top right corner of their title pages. The name is unimportant now, or is a story for another time, but a series of coincidences led me, then, to find out who this person was whose secondhand books I was buying...

All of which is to say in a roundabout way: Molly's post a few weeks back got me thinking about my relationship with bookstores as physical spaces in which one picks up books, carries them while browsing, where strangers may tell you, enthusiastically, "That's a great book," where you may accidentally stumble across something you didn't even know you were looking for, where you may meet your future partner, or sometimes just go to escape the house, and even where the sheer quantity of reading material is enough to make you want to give it all up in favor of... a beach somewhere, maybe. (Ah, but what would you read on that beach?)

I'm also reminded of an article I read this summer, about the late (and sadly neglected) novelist David Markson's relationship with his favorite bookstore, The Strand. It seems that after Markson's death his heirs sold his library, his books heavily annotated (if you've ever read one of his novels, you'll understand why), back to his favorite bookstore. As it happened, a customer picked up a copy of one Markson's secondhand books, noticed the name inscribed on the title page and dived into the stacks, seeking out more. (Read the story in the London Review of Books for a glimpse of some of these humorous annotations.)

And to really (finally) bring home this rambling point about serendipity, things that can only happen in the real world, and the delights of treasure hunting, there's this interview with Sylvia Beach, founder of the legendaryParisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, where writers and artists as important as Paul Valery and Pablo Picasso came in search of conversation and books. (And where, in return for shelving books, lucky visitors can spend the night.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why I Read by Peter Coyote

An occasional feature in our email newsletter is the "Why I Read" column. We've collected some wonderful short essays on the topic from fine writers over the years. Here's what actor and writer Peter Coyote had to say back in April of 2006 when we asked him:
I read, because I prefer being the casting director for my own imagination and expanding my circle of friends to include Odysseus, Anna Karenina, Julian Sorel, Richard III, The Snopses, and old ambidextrous Portnoy. There is no coffee shop or lecture hall in the world that can offer the breadth and depth of humanity I get from spending several hours with a good book. In non-fiction, reading is the perfect antidote to sound-bytes, spin, leaden-headed reporters and talk-radio, which usually sounds like an ad for anger-management classes. Print can be highlighted, reviewed, clipped, scanned and pondered. It is, in effect, in-depth conversation with great and informed minds or wits that make what passes for comedy on TV seems like a runny ichor (a word you won't hear on TV). Surrounding yourself with the concentrated work of men and women who have had the guts and temerity to wrestle with a subject for the length of time required to write a book is a corrective to shallow thought, leaping to conclusions, and running blindly through cross-fires of argument armed only with a pundit’s opinion masquerading as fact. Reading is the deliberate slowing down of the acquisition of knowledge and sensation, based on the time-tested truism that good ideas, like good whiskeys, need to mellow and accrete complexity and flavor over time. Finally, I love the company of books. They rest on my shelves like old companions who are ever ready to summon up shared memories and re-engage and review humanity's finest moments from earlier times.
--Peter Coyote

PS. Other installments of the series await you by Beth Lisick, Susan Choi, Peter Rock, Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler, TC Boyle, Joyce Maynard, and Peter Carlson. What other authors should we solicit?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Medium of the Story

I don't think books or comic books should be adapted into movies.

Unless perhaps you're talking about something like Andy Warhol's Empire, filmmaking is very rarely a solitary endeavor (actually I think even that was a two man job). Typically it requires the minimum involvement of a small cast and crew, and more often than not additional producers, backers, film processors and so on, each by virtue of mere presence altering the final product in their own particular way. Sadly, despite consistent failures, Hollywood attempts again and again to create a formula that will translate the novel to the screen, and it is a consistent trend of the ambitious film crew to mangle the work of authors. Even in the most favorable of situations, a team of filmmaking virtuosos collaborating on a cinematic version of, oh I don't know, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (but seriously, try to imagine that as a film), are unlikely to crack the outer shell intense private vision behind the novel itself. The art of writing a novel, a good novel, is internal. It is a matter dealing with the thoughts, ideals, obsessions and base complexities of a particular individual, the author. The camera, as astounding an invention as it may be, cannot replicate these particulars. Being that it is neither eye nor imagination, but a mechanical abstraction of the eye directed by the imagination of not one, but a team of people, further tangles the matter. The novel is not duplicated by whirring cogs or digital vidcap, and neither is its contemporary, the graphic novel.

Following the recent tragic disassembly of stories by comic authors Alan Moore and Stan Lee (although Stan Lee endorses this) I found this excerpt of Dan Clowes' 1997 essay Modern Cartoonist: The Naked Truth quite appropriate (penned pre crappy Ghost World movie):

They [comics] are in a sense the ultimate domain of the artist who seeks to wield absolute control over his imagery. Novels are the work of one individual but they require visual collaboration on the part of the reader. Film is by its nature a collaborative endeavor. The filmmaker's vision, filtered through "reality," is more accessible to a general audience but in most cases less a precise, pre-conceived vision than one based on compromise and serendipity. Comics offer the creator a chance to control the specifics of his own world in both abstract and literal terms. As such, the best comics are usually done by a single creator, often an obsessive-compulsive type who spends hours fixing things and making tiny background details "just right." Nabokov (whose favorite artist was Saul Steinberg) has a good line: "There is nothing I loath more than a group activity, that communal bath where the hairy and slippery mix in multiplication of mediocrity." At its highest level of achievement, comics allow the creator to transmit vivid images from one specific imagination to another individual who may react as passively or actively as he sees fit, without an editor or panel of executives tweaking it to make it more "audience friendly."

And so my dissent has been expressed. Meanwhile Hollywood unbuckles, preparing to drop another Cleveland steamer on my childhood.

Recommended reading:
The entire Tintin series.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Armistead in the house!

Yes, Armistead Maupin, silly. You didn't really think I meant respected jurist Armistead Mason Dobie, did you? He's been dead for years!

We were just graced with a visit by Armistead Maupin, local literary icon known best for his Tales of the City series. His most recent installation, Mary Ann in Autumn, was released today, and we now have signed copies! It's not too early to buy holiday presents, and what's more unique than an autographed copy of a fine new novel by a local legend?

PS Here's a review from Sunday's Chronicle.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"BOOKS ARE GOOD!" screamed the very excited Giants fan, while running past the store.

Congratulations, San Francisco.
Don't forget to vote on Tuesday!