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Whose Book Is It Anyway?

Authors write books and readers read them. It's a deceptively simple contract. Booksellers are professional readers who get to discover works before they're reviewed or released, thanks to the ARC avalanches that bury, in the best possible way (mostly), bookstores everywhere. Agents, editors and publishers may justifiably profess to being the readers who truly discover new works, but booksellers still plant a flag of their own with staff picks.

Given the intimate connection on the printed page between authors and their readers--in the book trade and beyond--certain questions inevitably arise. What is the true nature of this relationship? Where is the borderline? What do authors "owe" their readers beyond the work itself? And when a reader tumbles down the rabbit hole and fully enters a fictional world, does the novel's alchemy change? Whose book is it anyway?

I recently fell down one of those reader's rabbit holes while checking out the Paris Review's interview with playwright and author Yasmina Reza, whose latest novel is Happy Are the Happy (translated by John Cullen).

"To my mind, to understand a character is to understand his inner voice," she said. I immediately thought about my favorite authors, narrators and characters; as well as all of those other readers who breathe life into letters on a page with their own disparate inner voices. Reading is a creative, collaborative act, and hearing voices plays a key role. Polyphony? Cacophony? It depends.

This sparked a memory from 15 years ago, when I saw the brilliant off-Broadway production of Reza's The Unexpected Man, starring Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates. The play is about two strangers, in their 60s, sitting opposite each other on a train from Paris to Frankfurt. For all but the final 10 minutes, they speak only in interior monologues (to me, audience members might reasonably think), each caught up in personal obsessions while occasionally, and surreptitiously, observing the other.

Paul Parsky is a dyspeptic Author (his opening lines: "Bitter. It's all so bitter."), while Martha, we soon discover, is his Reader. She recognizes him immediately, but remains discreet. In her handbag she carries a copy of his novel, The Unexpected Man, and she wonders whether she should speak to him or just "fetch out" the book and read it.

For his part, the Author simply passes judgment:

Strange this woman never reads anything. A woman who doesn't read anything the whole journey... Is there today one single person in the whole world, in the whole world, who might know how to read that book?

Martha again considers unmasking herself as his Reader:

I'm fetching out the book. I'll place myself so he can see me. He can't not react. He can't watch me embarking on an intimate relationship with him six feet away without revealing himself. What are you going to do in Frankfurt? The Book Fair? No. First of all, I don't think it's the time of year, and a writer with your nature, flirtatiously antisocial, doesn't turn up at the Book Fair.

She also contemplates an all-to-familiar social dilemma:

Maybe I ought not to get to know you, Mr. Parsky. Suppose I don't like you, why take the risk of no longer being able to love anything about you? I'm told there isn't necessarily an intimate link between a man and his work. How can that be possible?

Then the Reader finally stakes her claim to his books:

I'm the one. The one who loved you, who colored you according to my inclinations, the one who studied every subject under your perpetual catechism, I shall abolish you, I shall make off with you when my time is up and nothing will remain of you or anything else.

At last, like Chekhov's loaded gun, the novel is brandished and the Author struck by its appearance:

She's reading The Unexpected Man. It's really too much. I knew she was an interesting woman. Shall I remain anonymous? Why wasn't she reading it when we set off?

They have a brief conversation. The Author attempts to conceal his identity, but the Reader counters that move by citing examples from his work, concluding:

All these things and so many others you've described, Mr. Parsky, have made me weep... You have no right to be bitter. In your books there have been hundreds of moments like eternity.

I won't reveal how the play ends, but it's safe to say the relationship between Author and Reader remains a complex one even after the applause has died down. Whose book is it? Why spoil the mystery. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2452


Good Job, Philip Levine

Philip Levine

This week I've been thinking about winter and work. It's five below zero and the wind chill is Arctic (soon to be Siberian). The weather does its work as I do mine.

Maybe I didn't need to write about Philip Levine's death and his poems. So many people already have. But "need" is a funny old word. I have been his reader for years and admire his work, in every sense of that complex little term. So I did need to say something after all.

I often write about work. I was born into the working class (Remember the working class?). I've worked a lot of different jobs over the years at various places--golf course, marble mill, supermarkets, restaurant, magazine, bookstore and now a book trade newsletter. Some jobs I loved and some I hated. I've worked indoors and outdoors, for good bosses and... not-so-good. Like many people, work has defined me more often than I care to admit. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be considered a "good worker," no matter what the work entailed.

In 1988, Levine told the Paris Review: "I worked for Cadillac, in their transmission factory, and for Chevrolet. You could recite poems aloud in there. The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear."

Although I never worked in a car factory, I know what hard work and hard words are, and how well they mesh when the gears align. I also know how hard not having work is. Levine's words traveled these tough roads--the complicated pain/pleasure of aching bones and brain, the odd combination of power and powerlessness. Words often saved me, as did work. I think Levine felt that way, too.

In The Bread of Time, he wrote: "My life in the working class was intolerable only when I considered the future and what would become of me if nothing were to come of my writing. In one sense I was never working-class, for I owned the means of production, since what I hoped to produce were poems and fictions. "

Winter and Levine's work

His friend Edward Hirsch told the L.A. Daily News that Levine captured the ways "ordinary people are extraordinary."

Part of the genius of Levine's poetry is his understanding of working class kids like me, who were born to be laborers, no matter what work we do. Can't outgrow or outrun that genetic code. I've seen photos of my ancestors, all those sorry-assed ghosts in the grainy old marble mill photos with their weary-eyed expressions and mute accusations--"What are you looking at us for? We've got work to do."

Fortunately, I found Levine and his good words a long time ago:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.

For a few years, I taught an English Comp. course at a community college. Many of the students had lousy jobs or were unemployed, just looking for a break, another chance, a fresh start, whether they were 23 or 43. Work was one of the things I asked them to write about. We read "What Work Is" together. They already knew what work was, but they worked their way through Levine's words with me. If a poem can be "gotten," some of them got it. And if they never read another poem, they really read this one.

So here is what I know. This week I'm mourning the death of Philip Levine, even as I celebrate his life the best way I know how--by reading him again. He'd done his work. On February 14, he punched out one last time on a cold winter's day. 

From "Naming":

it's winter in Michigan with snow falling
in the twilight and hiding the stalled cars
on Grand River. Head whitened with snow,
Eugene lets the receiver slip from his hand.
I can see his eyelashes weighted with ice,
his brown eyes slowly closing on the image
of who I was, who I will always be.

From "Zaydee":

The maples blazed golden and red
a moment and then were still,
the long streets were still and the snow
swirled where I lay down to rest.

Good job, Phil.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2447


Le Tour de Valentine's Day

Le Tour de Valentine's Day is not simply a language mashup I just invented. It's a genuine, virtual trip (I just invented) around the U.S. to see how some of us in the book trade are celebrating this year. While we may or may not live in one of Open Table's or WalletHub's or Amazon's "most romantic cities," we do seem to be particularly susceptible to, and inspired by, the charms of this holiday in myriad ways, retail and otherwise.

From Main Street Books, Mansfield, Ohio

Somehow, Valentine's Day manages to elicit from even the most skeptical of bookish hearts the distinctive pleasures of romantic marketing campaigns, creative store displays (Eight Cousins Books, Falmouth, Mass.; Granada Books, Santa Barbara, Calif.), chocolate fever (R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn.: "Feel the love! Stop by and SAVE 20% off lovely and unique Valentine's Day cards and beautifully packaged Lake Champlain chocolates for your loved ones"; Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan.: "André's Confiserie Suisse Valentine's Chocolates & great Books go together like Hugs & Kisses!") and more.

Here's just a small sampling of what I discovered on my tour:

The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C.: "As we once more approach that red-letter day, February 14, our thoughts turn to matters both silly and serious. Matters of the heart. As booksellers, we feel that most books worth reading engage the heart as well as the mind, so we have hundreds, if not thousands of suitable Valentine's Day presents lining our shelves."

The Strand Book Store, New York City: "Inspired by the many Craigslist Missed Connections that happen in our store each year, we've re-enacted some of our favorite missed connections here!"

Soho Press associate managing editor Rachel Kowal (in the Huffington Post): "Here's a selection of Strand Tumblr posts that celebrate a variety of loves (platonic, romantic, familial, fraternal) to help get you in the mood for Valentine's Day or at very least, to provide a bit of warmth to your cold, cold heart."

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Our Books Are for Lovers video.

Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt.: "Poet Julia Shipley will be here and writing personalized love poems for customers. You can ask her to hand-write or type a personal love poem for your sweetie, your child, your best friend, your horse, anyone!"

The Spiral Bookcase, Philadelphia, Pa.: "Why not give two gifts in one! Dana Bate and the Spiral Bookcase have teamed up for this sweet deal. With every purchase of this delightful foodie rom-com [A Second Bite at the Apple], we will be donating a gently used book to Inter-Faith Housing Alliance in Ambler."

The New York Public Library: "14 literary conversation hearts that should exist."  

Village Books, Bellingham Wash.: "Saturday is Feb. 14 and the world's best holiday ever: International Book Giving Day! Oh, and it's also Valentine's Day, for which a book would also make an excellent gift."

Main Street Books, Mansfield, Ohio: Check out this sidewalk board, which has V-Day promises that can never disappoint.

Powell's, Portland Ore.: Sweethearts & Cynics Sale--"Whether you're a romantic or a skeptic, these books will help you and that special someone get the most out of Valentine's Day."

Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga.: "To provide relief from the stress of being single on Valentine's Day, Avid Bookshop will host a Valentine's Soiree that invites singles (or those without their significant others on V-Day) to join us in the shop for an evening of mingling and fun on Saturday, February 14.... Take dating off a Web page and surround it with book pages instead!"

Broadway Books, Portland, Ore.: "And speaking of love and hearts, we would like to send out a big ol' bunch of Valentine love to all of you. We believe strongly in the importance of local, independent businesses, and we try to demonstrate that through our own shopping. We appreciate so much that you do too."

Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass., deserves this year's overall Bookish Valentine's Day Award for responding to a poignant discovery in a used book that prompted this compelling tweet: "Did you sell a Walker Evans book to our UBC recently? Are you missing a heartfelt letter from Lili to Emily?"

The Boston Globe picked up on the story, noting that "a recent transaction turned up a letter so deeply personal that the Coolidge Corner shop is making an extra effort to find the writer--or the recipient.... 'Lili,' the writer, references a trip to Venice. The text of the undated letter to 'Emily,' found in a black-and-white photography book by Walker Evans, quotes the poem 'Ode on Melancholy' by John Keats."

Now that's a worthy conclusion to this year's Le Tour de Valentine's Day. -- Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2443.


Thomas Merton, Reading

"I am reading..."

Those three words recur, as a kind of litany, throughout the writings of Thomas Merton, whose birth centenary is being celebrated this year. Although many people know him as the "famous" Trappist monk (a contradiction in terms, I know, but not inaccurate) and prolific author, I was struck from the beginning of my four decades-plus engagement with his books by the literally catholic range of his reading life. Open to any random page, especially in his journals and letters, and you'll discover something important about him as a reader.

Merton's official birthday was January 31 and events have been occurring worldwide, including a discussion at the Brooklyn Public Library hosted by New Directions, which has long been associated Merton's work. On the publisher's blog, Mieke Chew wrote: "I recently found the address of Gethsemani in a rolodex at New Directions. It has been many years since James Laughlin and Thomas Merton exchanged letters, but the evidence of their shared interests and passions can still be found in our archives and in each of the books they worked on together."

Last Saturday at Canio's Cultural Café, Sag Harbor, N.Y., community members were invited to read "a favorite excerpt from Merton's work, creating a Merton "mosaic"--diverse representation of the vast ways in which Merton's work has touched our lives."

I attended a similar event on Sunday at Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y., where Stanley Hadsell hosted the bookstore's fifth annual Merton birthday party. Although Stanley and I have talked about Merton many times previously, we just realized that we had originally discovered him in a similar manner. I was raised Catholic, but my initial encounter with his writing occurred during the early 1970s, when I began reading books by Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki. Soon I found Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite and The Way of Chuang Tzu, which eventually led me to his classic autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. The rest, as they say, is reading history.  

In the 1990s, Merton's seven-volume journals began appearing, one book at a time, and I learned the value of heightened anticipation as well as patience. Occasionally his name would come up in conversations, and it was like I had encountered another traveler on my reading pilgrimage.

One of those conversations occurred when I was working as a bookseller and answered the phone, fielding a simple customer question: "Do you have any books by Thomas Merton?" I said yes, and what followed was a long conversation with author Jon Katz, who had recently moved to the area and was working on a new book that would eventually be published as Running to the Mountain: A Journey of Faith and Change.

"I am reading," Merton wrote again and again, followed by all those names: James Baldwin, Matsuo Bashō, Boris Pasternak, Federico Garcia Lorca, Czesław Miłosz, Margaret Randall, Graham Greene, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Meister Eckhart, Gabriella Mistral...

There is a moment in volume five of the journals, Dancing in the Water of Life, that eloquently speaks to the power of a reading life. In June of 1964, Merton received permission to fly from his monastery in Kentucky to New York City for a meeting with D.T. Suzuki, who was 94 years old. Merton wrote: "He read to me from a Chinese text--familiar stories. I translated to him from Octavio Paz's Spanish version of Fernando Pessoa." The words of a legendary Portuguese author, shared with a Japanese Zen scholar via a Mexican poet and an American monk.

One of the many impacts Merton has had on my life is the way he embodied the ideal of reader and re-reader, never ceasing to look for the next book, the next author, while valuing and revisiting those that had come before.

And we all can understand this moment from The Seven Storey Mountain: "One day, in the month of February 1937, I happened to have five or ten loose dollars burning a hole in my pocket. I was on Fifth Avenue, for some reason or other, and was attracted to the window of Scribner's bookstore, full of bright new books."

Or this journal entry (later collected in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton) from 1968, the last year of his life: "Lesson: not to travel with so many books. I bought more yesterday, unable to resist the bookstores off San Francisco." Always, everywhere... Thomas Merton, reading. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2438.


Reading Between the Goal Lines

"Shoat said it was too bad we would have to miss it but the Super Bowl halftime show was going to be even more spectacular than the pre-game show.... He said there would be a water ballet in the world's largest inflatable swimming pool, a Spanish fiesta, a Hawaiian luau, a parade stressing the history of the armored tank, a sing-off between the glee clubs of all the military academies, and an actual World War I dogfight in the sky with the Red Baron's plane getting blown to pieces." --Dan Jenkins (Semi-Tough, 1972)

In his 1973 novel North Dallas Forty, Peter Gent described football this way: "There's no greater display of everything that's magnificent about sport in America and everything that's wrong with culture in America." Many of the current, "shocking" headlines about the sport were anticipated by Gent and Jenkins.

In case you haven't heard, the Seattle Seahawks are playing the New England Patriots Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX. Does the book world care about the biggest day in sports? I suspect that's a multiple-choice question, with the following options:

  • Yes! (This includes some of my Shelf Awareness colleagues in our Seattle office.)
  • Yes, with reservations.
  • No!

This week, I've been trawling social media and websites in the book world for Super Bowl-related chatter and events, but it seems unusually quiet. I did find a few notable items:

In Seattle, the Bookstore Bar & Café will be "pouring some cocktails for Sunday's game. These drink specials are ready for the 12th Fan with the Hawks Hottie and the Throat Lozenge. The Hawks Hottie is their take on a hot toddy with butter, brown sugar, spices, dark rum, hot water, and topped with whipped cream. The Throat Lozenge is intended to sooth your vocal cords after an afternoon of screaming with its mix of Ballantine's, lemon juice, Chartreuse, and honey syrup. In addition to the drinks, the Bookstore Bar & Café will have an all day happy hour on Sunday."

In Phoenix, Ariz., site of this year's Super Bowl, Changing Hands is getting its game face on with "Happy Hour prices all day at First Draft Book Bar ($1 off all tap and house wine and beer, plus nuts and olives), plus a screening of the Super Bowl on the big-screens in the Commons." 

Inspired by fictional booksellers Toni and Candace at Portlandia's Women & Women First, staff from Portland's In Other Words feminist bookstore and community center will return to live-tweet the Super Bowl. On Sunday, go to @Portlandia and follow the hashtag #FeministBookstoreSaysWhat.

I also saw the expected reading lists--10 Football Books to Get You Into The Super Bowl Spirit (Even If You Couldn't Care Less About The Big Game); 7 Sporty Adaptations to Get You Ready for Some Football--and noticed that a new trailer for Insurgent, based on Veronica Roth's series, will be released during the Super Bowl pre-game show.

I learned that in 1984, Apple introduced its Macintosh personal computer with an advertisement during the Super Bowl XVIII telecast. The ad invoked George Orwell's novel. I'm still considering the long-term implications of that bit of information.

And then there was a surreal, "bookish" moment this week at the Super Bowl's annual rite of craziness known as Media Day, when New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski read a passage from Lacey Noonan's Kindle novella, A Gronking to Remember: Book One in the Rob Gronkowski Erotica Series.

For the most part, however, I haven't found much commentary from the book world, despite 24/7 coverage (seems like more) of THE GAME elsewhere.

In Salon, Steve Almond, author of Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, observed: "Football, already the most popular and profitable sport in America, will continue to be as big as we make it. This week's showdown likely will draw the largest audience in the history of the game.... But it's a safe bet that more viewers will feel the pangs of their conscience than ever before, too."

Is that why it's quiet out there?

So I return to North Dallas Forty. In his foreword to the 30th anniversary edition in 2003, Gent quoted Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers; it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight... in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world.

Then he wrote: "[I]t hits me that those words describe best the life I once led. In July of 1964, the right to work was all I hoped for when I arrived at my first Dallas Cowboys training camp... That September, Tom Landry gave me a job as a receiver that I kept for five years. They were great years. Terrifying. Thrilling. Happy. Sad. Most of all, they were ultimately satisfying."

But Gent also invoked another kind of reading: "We need to make a new generation realize that North Dallas Forty isn't just a book about football--it remains a prediction of the direction of America by reading the livers, kidneys, and spines of old NFL players."

It's complicated. I'll be watching anyway. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2433