Conspiracy

We sell books on line, on Amazon and the three other major bookselling sites -- Alibris, Biblio and ABE.  I know that authors and new-book sellers generally despise Amazon, but used-book sellers can use it to supplement income.  We don't bother putting all our inventory on-line; only about 20% are worth posting, given the pricing vagaries of the internet.  It's not worth selling popular books, but the obscure stuff -- which is what we sell a lot in the store too -- can find a market.

So...we got a note from Amazon saying that one of our books had been removed from Amazon as a prohibited product.  Well, that's what I get for listing porn?  What, it isn't the porn?  Bomb-making instructions?  Nope.  By gosh, the prohibited, de-listed book was "The Man Who Killed Kennedy:  The Case Against LBJ."  

Now, of course, I wasn't the only one selling this book on Amazon.  And I listed several other JFK assassination conspiracy theory books -- I had picked up two boxes of them, for cheap -- blaming the Mafia, J. Edgar Hoover, the Dulles brothers, Fidel, etc.  None of those were prohibited.  And why not?  Why was this the one being silenced?  Are we finally sniffing the truth? 

Ah, but they were too late.  By the time I got the notice, I'd already sold the book.  On Amazon.  

Amazon's conscience won't let them list the book, but they kept the commission.

Dr. Bowdler

Well, delicate readers, the American Library Association has declared this week as Banned Books Week.  As you might suppose, most banned books are books aimed at young adults or younger, and the parents or other elders have determined that it is better to hide certain ideas than to bother to explain them.  There's a post on our Facebook page about banned books and the anti-celebration of the concept.

The purpose of this blog is to talk about a related, and more insidious topic.  Sometimes, rather than ban a book entirely, those who know what's good for us just alter the book and present that more appropriate version to us.  Sometimes we are told about the redaction and sometimes it's presented as the original.  The best word I know for the practice is bowdlerism.  The eponym comes from Dr. Thomas Bowdler, an English physician who, early in the 19th century, created a family-friendly version of Shakespeare, suitable for the women and children of that era.  He also did an expurgated version of Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  

Not surprisingly, the Victorian Era was the height of bowdlerism, as publishers edited the text to modify or eliminate references to sex -- including references to underwear -- or to drinking, or taking the Lord's name in vain, or to whatever someone found offensive at the time.  Many 19th-century editions of earlier publications -- think Tom Jones, Pepys, Tristram ShandyMoll Flanders -- were trimmed to lose much of the spirit, character and meaning.Of course, many authors self-regulated.  And others would never write that #$%$#@**& stuff anyway, being too high-minded.  

It's easiest to purify dead authors, but even live ones submit in order to be published.  My parents and grandparents subscribed to Readers' Digest and to Readers' Digest Condensed Books.  Given the basically Christian family-values outlook of Readers' Digest's publishers and editorial board, I suspect that they weren't just removing subplots and lengthy descriptions of mountains and clouds.  But the authors went along, didn't they?

I'm just thinking here about the English-speaking world.  In places where we think freedom of speech and freedom of religion and freedom of though exist, it's easy (or maybe a little lazy) to think we're doing better than those under the thumb of totalitarian regimes.  We know thought control occurs there, but we assume that (as Zappa says) it can't happen here.

Luckily, the world has changed and we've outgrown this sort of evisceration of literature, and the electronic world makes original versions available to everyone.  Well, almost.  Apparently, Kindle and similar devices have determined that some books can be made more palatable to wider audiences if some subtle alterations are made.  I can't say I know the details, but apparently it's true.  The effort is not really one of morality, but of marketability.  Is that worse?  This isn't just a plug to buy more real books from a real bookstore-- although, God knows, you should -- but a caution that we easily fall victim to this sort of controlling of our ideas.  

To read more about the topic, read Noel Perrin's 1969 book, Dr. Bowdler's Legacy.  He ends with the comment that we are past all this nonsense -- until the next time around.

 

Peter Matthiessen

I just finished reading Shadow Country by Peter Matthiesen, an American author, naturalist and all-around amazing man who died last year.  Check him out for some of the other things he did (CIA agent, co-founder of the Paris Review, etc.), but I wanted to tell you about this book.  Back in the '90s, Matthiessen wrote a trilogy of historical fiction (Killing Mr. Watson, Bone by Bone and Lost Man's RIver) that all tell the same story.  But he wasn't happy with that, so he rewrote them as Shadow Country,  which rewrites and incorporates the first three in one book.  

The story is set on the Gulf Coast of Florida from about 1890 to 1910, and follows the career of Edgar A. (later J.) Watson, who was eventually gunned down by a posse of his friends and neighbors.  I've now read the story seven times (I read Killing Mr. Watson twice) and I'm still fascinated.  Part of that is because Matthiessen was such a great writer, and rest is that the sage is such a great combination of American themes -- violence, ambition, racism, capitalism, community, family, public opinion, myth, ecology, justice, frontier, sex and drunkenness.  And probably a couple of minor themes I missed.  One book is third-person omniscient, one is told through Watson's eyes and the third through the eyes of a son, educated as an historian, who makes a vain scholarly attempt to clear his father's name.

Like many of the scattered residents of the Ten Thousand Islands, Watson was an outlaw, hiding from his past.  He was also a charming man (unless drink brought out his violent temper) , a family man (with several families, some simultaneously), and a successful businessman (who was rumored to keep his payroll costs down by killing off employees).  It's never clear how many people he killed, versus how many he prompted others to kill -- but the total murders in which he was involved ran to 15 or so.  And myth and rumor added to that number.   He escaped jail once, bought his way out another time, and was found innocent two other times -- through influence or bribed juries.  

Despite all this, he persisted in trying to make it big.  His dream was to develop the Gulf Coast the same way Miami was being developed on the Atlantic Coast.  It still hasn't happened, as Watson's empire of swamp and islands, from Key West up to Marco Island, is still pretty much as he found it over 100 years ago.  I've always thought Florida was uninhabitable, and this book does nothing to discourage that thought.

The joy of reading Matthiessen is, in large part, his prose style.  As a naturalist and environmentalist, his descriptions of the heat, loneliness and danger of the Everglades, and the devastation of the hurricanes, put you in the place and time. You're never quite sure which parts are fictionalized or extrapolated from facts, especially the characters of Watson, his family and the other denizens of this odd American frontier

 

I thought of that while riding my bicycle

Back in May, Amelia hung a poster in the bookstore bathroom.  It has a lengthy physics formula, a silhouette of a bicycle and a quote from Einstein:  "I thought of that while riding on my bicycle."  (For a fictional elaboration on that story, read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.)  We also placed, appropriately, some scratch paper, a pencil and a small box labeled "What do you think of/about when riding your bicycle?

This is not a contest.  There are no winners, no losers.  There are a number about flying, freedom, hills, and even more about sex -- but here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):

1.  Why dogs like the air in their ears so much.

2.  Some sort of mirror person riding below the road with me.  (complete with drawing)

3.  "Holy crap! I don't own a bicycle.  Where did I get this from?!!"

4.  Safety first.

5.  The path in front of me.

6.  I spend many hours on my bike, but prayer & serving come to mind most often, with the occasional, "Watch out for that tree!!!"

7. Al Green tunes

8.  How I look to others -- Poise

9.  Potholes and Vonnegut

10.  Food!

11.  RIFFFS!

12,  I take out my dreams and dust them off and feel glad of wherever it is I find myself.

13.  Can I pet that cat?

14.  Comebacks to when people hassle me in heavy traffic.  Freedom at other times.

15.  Colors.  I want to paint everything I see.

 

 

 

 

 

Categorical

I just finished a book called The Power of Maps  (Denis Wood, 1992) -- a book about a number of aspects of maps and mapmaking, but especially about how maps reflect the opinions and prejudices of the mapmaker and yet the reader assumes the map is without viewpoint and prejudice.  A lot of the book is about how the brain codes and decodes maps.  Towards the end, there's a lot on semiotics -- at which point I was only grasping half of what was said because it's couched in language that has meanings different than the ones we speak -- but, just in time, it got back to Winnie the Pooh, which is more my level.

But this piece isn't about The Power of Maps, exactly.  It's about the fact that I'm going to put this book on the bookstore's shelves somewhere, and I can't decide where.  We don't have a Cartography shelf.  I've considered Science, History, Psychology, Philosophy and Sociology -- and each has its arguments.  Part of the problem is that different chapters cover different facets of mapmaking and mapreading, and the general theme is almost political, but not quite.

I like reading books that don't fit any one category perfectly. Books with titles like The History of Science, or A Sociological History of the United States, or Walden.  Some are on the cusp of two, but others cover a range within their pages.  And it doesn't really matter how you categorize them, really, but I have to choose a shelf nonetheless.

Part of the point of The Power of Maps is that the mapmaker decides which of the many features belong on the map and which ones don't.  They won't all fit, or it wouldn't be a map -- it would be the real thing.  For instance, I have a Hudson's map of the Twin Cities in my car that I use all the time; it shows where all the hockey rinks are, but not the libraries.  That's an interesting choice.  In the same way, if I decide to shelve Walden in the Nature section, I'm emphasizing a different aspect than if I shelved it in Philosophy or Memoir.  And so, if I had the credibility that we all grant cartographers unthinkingly, bookstore browsers would automatically think of Walden as a Nature book.

For my bookshelves (and music shelves) at home, I can categorize however I want, because the whole purpose is that I can find them when I want them.  At the bookstore, part of the purpose is so that other people can be looking in a favorite category, stumble across a book they haven't heard of,  and become interested.  

If you're looking for The Power of Maps, it's on the Sociology shelves -- so it must be a sociology book, right?.  

 

Road Trip with a Mission

I know several people who have set the goal of visiting every national park.  I'd say that's an admirable and interesting goal.

And I know a guy who had visited every Major League Baseball stadium -- and then some new ones were built, and he had to hit the road again.  For me, at least, being a baseball fan all my life, that seems like a good goal.

I've even met a guy who has set foot in every county in the United States.  I'm not so sure about that one.

One of my brothers stops at every historical marker (unless he's read it before).  It used to drive his kids nuts, but now they kinda get it.  Kinda.  

A lady came into the store today.  She's driving from New York to the West Coast, and then back again.  On the way, whenever she stops for long enough, she's hunting up a bookstore and buying something local.  She picked up a copy of Mary Relindes Ellis's Bohemian Flats -- not just a local author, but a historical novel set in Minneapolis.  Yeh.  I could do that.  

 

Mrs. Gaskell

 

I thought I'd occasionally write about authors who had been fairly popular and famous in their day, but are now pretty much forgotten and ignored.  Talbot Mundy, perhaps, or Robert Ingersoll.  Sure, some forgotten works aren't worth resurrecting, but it's worthwhile to see   It's always fun to guess which of the current bestsellers that will happen to -- the opposite of guessing which ones are currently writing deathless prose.

Elizabeth Gaskell's first published work, Mary Barton, came out in 1848 -- anonymously.  Later works were published under the name "Mrs. Gaskell."  Now, doesn't that say a lot about the position of women in British society and literature at the time?  Some of her works remind me of George Eliot -- a woman writer publishing under a pseudonym.  And Mrs. Gaskell's most ambitious work was a biography of Charlotte Bronte who -- like her sisters -- also published under a pseudonym.

Mrs. Gaskell published a few novels, that bio of Charlotte Bronte and a number of ghost stories (published in a mag edited by Dickens), in the dozen years that she wrote before she died.  I just finished reading Mary Barton, and it stills read pretty well.  As with most novels written in that period, the prose can be overwrought by today's standards, and the plot needs a couple of convenient deaths and a miracle cure to get everything tied up neatly -- but, overall, it's still worth reading.

In the first place, besides the love story, the book is largely about conditions among the weavers in Manchester factories, and the class struggle drives the plot.  It was published in 1848 -- the same year as The Communist Manifesto and the same year as a number of popular uprisings throughout Europe.  She wrote it the year before, so she was reacting to the mood in the air, not the actual uprisings.  No surprise it was a hit at the time.  Gaskell's position on the uprisings is unclear.  While she sympathizes with the plight of the working poor, she makes the point, a couple of times, that they aren't necessarily doing the right thing in unionizing and taking action -- but that she's just pointing out why it's come to this.  Maybe she was playing to her audience, or maybe she can't help her middle-class gentility (daughter of a minister, wife of a minister).  And she doesn't portray all the workers or the bosses as the same; she shows differences in opinion in what is to be done.  And the book ends with a debate between a self-educated weaver and an owner who rose from the working class -- with both possibly learning something from the other.

Another thing about Gaskell is that she writes her dialogue in dialect -- to the extent that some of it needs to be footnoted.  It's mainly a Manchester dialect, but the older characters emigrated from the surrounding countryside, and have different accents and vocabulary.  And then the plot takes us to the dockside at Liverpool, and the speech there is totally different, and often incomprehensible to pretty little Mary Barton, the Manchester seamstress.  In fact, one of the characters talks so strangely that the narrator breaks form and admits that she didn't understand what was said and isn't going to try to write it down.

And that's another thing about Gaskell's writing in Mary Barton:  the narrative voice.  It was still fairly early in the development of the novel, and maybe the rules particularly well-formed -- but she uses the omniscient narrator with the occasional odd little break (like the comment that she couldn't do the right accent for the Liverpudlian).  My favorite is during the trial scene, during which she describes the emotions and body language of all the characters and, then, out of nowhere, says that she wasn't there, but that Mary looked just like a particular famous painting. She only breaks out of that narrative voice a dozen times or so, interjecting herself.  I doubt that it's a literary device (as it would be if someone did it now).  If the rules existed, she didn't know about them.  And this naivete adds to the earnestness of her message -- that the masters should think more about the lives they're affecting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STACK OF BOOKS

I always have a stack of books by the bed or the couch. Sometimes it’s two or three stacks and for a while there it got completely out of control, and expanded to seven shelves.  That’s when I knew it was time to open a bookstore.  For storage purposes.  The stack contains the books I’ve set aside to read next.  The intent is that, when I finish what I’m currently reading, I can choose a pre-selected, pre-screened book from the stack and dive in – usually after a suitable breather from the ending of the last book. 

Of course, books are added to the stack frequently, and occasionally a purge will eliminate ones that I realize I no longer care enough about. 

Sometimes I’m reading a few at the same time, but that’s usually short story or essay collections, where I can bounce among moods. 

When I finish a book, another decision has to be made – does the book come to the store to be sold, or is it added to the shelves at home.  The rule – frequently obeyed – is that if the book is to be added to the home library, another book has to be sacrificed and sent to the store for redistribution.   

Here’s the current stack, in no particular order (except for the first one):

Nicole Krauss, Great House (2010).  Fiction. This is what I’m currently reading.  I’m 150 pages in, and so far it seems as good as her History of Love, which I read a few years ago.  Her plots are intricate, subtle and unpredictable, and her imagery and language are superb.  This book is basically about a desk – but it’s about failure, separation, happiness, etc. in the lives of the people surrounding the desk.

Dennis Lehane, The Given Day (2008).  Usually filed in Mystery, but his other ones I’ve read are either Suspense or just general Fiction.  This is light stuff with heavy characters (if you like crime and violence), and makes good, quick reading after a more intellectual book.  His books get made into good movies like Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, so this will be fun when I’m in the right mood.

Patricia Highsmith, Slowly in the Wind (1979).  Short Stories.  Her The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train feature two of the creepiest characters I’ve encountered – and you actually start rooting for Ripley despite yourself.  Her bisexuality sometimes gives the main theme to her short stories, but in other pieces and novels, it’s an unstated undercurrent that adds to the ambiguity and tension. 

Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853).  Memoir.  I usually avoid books that have recently been made into movies.  I’ll make an exception here because of my fascination with 19th Century American history.   The book reproduces the original typestyles, woodcuts, etc., giving it a historical feel, even though it was issued this year.

Richard Donnelly, The Melancholy MBA (2011). Poetry.  Donnelly walked into the bookstore a couple months ago and gave me a copy of his book.  I liked the title so it went onto the stack.

Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown (2005).  Fiction.  Some of Rushdie’s stuff is wonderful (Haroun and the Sea of Stories) and some is a little long-winded for my attention span (Satanic Verses) – but even his verbosity can be astonishingly brilliant, larded with puns and cultural references in a number of languages.  I’m too ignorant to understand some of the Indian political and religious details, but   

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004).  Sociology.  Did you see Bob Dylan flogging Oldsmobiles on TV?  I get righteously pissed-off when I see something like Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” (about the death of trains because of the growth of automobiles) being used to sell cars – but I sometimes fall for it, despite my defenses.  Most often, I end up with the song stuck in my head, and forget the product – and that’s OK with me.  And that’s just the counterculture music – this book looks like it goes deeper than that, into the whole ability of advertising to make us think the product is somehow different and anti-establishment and therefore just right for those of us who think we’re rebels.

Erich Marie Remarque, A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954).  Fiction.  Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is probably the best war/anti-war book ever written – it was one of the first targets of Nazi book-burning and is still powerful.  He wrote a dozen books, and the ones I’ve read – particularly Spark of Life – are very good, even if they can’t match All Quiet.  This book is one of his later ones and that can mean either a mature outlook or a loss of spark, so we’ll see.

Marishka Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006).  Fiction.  A well-regarded first novel with a cool cover – but this could be a book that lingers on the stack for a year and then gets removed unread.  We’ll see.

China Mieville, The City and the City (2009).  This is sci-fi or fantasy something like it, and I can’t really even type the title correctly since the second “the City” is written with the letters backwards.  I don’t think I can do that in Word.  People have been recommending his Perdido Street Station to me for years, but I foolishly left my copy on the store shelves, and it sold before I got to it.  So I’ll start with this one since I’ve got it in hand. 

Richard Powers, Gain (1998).  Historical Fiction.  Years ago, I read his Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance and loved it.  Since then, I’ve tried to read Operation Wandering Soul and The Gold Bug Variations, and found them impenetrable.  I’m giving him one more chance.

Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading (1996).  Essays/History/Anthropology/Sociology.  Manguel is Argentinian-Canadian and seems to know everything I ever wanted to know about books.  I loved his series of essays about the form, feel and history of libraries (The Library at Night) and was amused by his reference work, A Dictionary of Imaginary Places.  This book is his magnum opus (so far) and will no doubt take me a month to read, but I’m braced for it.

Vance Packard, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955, 1957).  History.  Packard was a popular sociologist in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers – exploring advertising and the US class system, respectively – opening a lot of eyes that needed opening.  The jacket makes it clear that he first wrote this in the afterglow of the victory of Brown v. Board of Education, but that he added a later chapter to sadly show that the fight wasn’t over because the Supreme Court decision was being undercut by new state and city laws.