What Kind of Reader Am I?

“Avid” is an adjective I would use to answer my own question. However, “unfocused” is another.

I am always feeling that I have not read enough books. Recently, I vowed that this year I would teach myself more about the novel as an art form by reading some of the books that represent Big Gaping Holes in my Literary Education. They are,

Don Quixote
Tristram Shandy
Jane Eyre
Mrs. Dalloway
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The Recognitions
Gravity’s Rainbow
Infinite Jest

I have no idea whether I will be able to get through them all this year.

Jane Eyre I was supposed to have read in high school. I skimmed it, and remember little of it to this day other than Rochester’s wife being in the attic. Oh, and George C. Scott was miscast in the movie version we saw in class, a movie I slept through as I was tired from working nights at a hot dog stand.

The one I’m least enthused about tackling is the Pynchon. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and was unimpressed by it. Also, I have been turned off to Pynchon by his cult-like devoted fans. For them, reading Pynchon is some sort of workout and puzzle-challenge. So I’m going to read Gravity’s Rainbow without consulting any of the many web sites maintained by the fanatically devoted. I was all set to read it a few years ago and then Against the Day appeared and the Internet was filled with the orgiastic panegyrics to every piece of Pynchon prose, and so I was turned off again.

I attempted to read Infinite Jest shortly after it came out. I was bored 60-80 pages into it by all the, what seemed to me at the time, neurotic yammering about how he swore he was not ever going to smoke pot again and this was, he swore to himself, the last bag of pot he would by from the last dealer he would contact, a dealer who was given instructions to never sell to him again blah, blah, blah. I have the sneaking suspicion I was wrong. So I’m going to give it another go, now that I am an older, more mature, and patient reader.

Portrait of the Artist has been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly two decades. It’s in a volume that includes Joyce’s Dubliners and Chamber Music. I have read Dubliners and some of the poems in Chamber Music. Joyce was a so-so poet. Though the bastard had a first-rate tenor singing voice and an amazing facility for languages. I think he knew how to speak nine of them or more. How one human being can be so talented…

Speaking of Joyce, I have read also Ulysses and would like to read it again at some point in the not-too-distant future. Especially since I’m reading Sylvia Beach’s memoir Shakespeare and Company: The Story of An American Bookshop in Paris.

Also, thanks to Beach’s memoir I now want to read Djuna Barnes Nightwood and Ladies Almanack. Not sure when I’ll get hold of those volumes and make time to read them.

This is what happens to me. I lay out a plan for the next few books to read and then I go and get sidetracked, and the plan gets abandoned. When it comes to books, my curiosity tends to get the best of me and my reading proceeds from one digression to another. The result is that I’ve read widely but not systematically. (And not enough poetry either. Poetry is a whole other story.) I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. Meanwhile, I have a friend who is returning from her trip to India with a copy of Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, another book I’m keen to read, especially in light of all the recent hoopla over Eat, Pray, Love.

(What did I think of Eat, Pray, Love? Here’s this non-spiritual person’s Twitter-length summary of the book: “OMG Italian food is delicious! OMG Meditation is really really HARD! zOMG Teh Secks w/Felipe is hawt!!!”)

Anyway, I swear, Don Quixote is next to read.

Andrew and the New Pornographers

I’m wasting time on the Internet tonight, looking through YouTube and I come across this video. It’s from a show in Melbourne, Australia back in November by one of my favorite bands, The New Pornographers. The crowd wants them to perform “Myriad Harbor.” One problem: Dan Bejar who does the vocals on this song isn’t on this leg of the tour with the band. So some guy in the audience named Andrew gets up on stage and sings it with the band.

No, his voice is not great. But the guy had guts and the band are great sports for doing this. Funny and cool.

Independent Bookstores as Fallen Monuments

The history of independent bookstores is littered with fallen monuments.

So begins a review of The Letters of Sylvia Beach in Bookforum. Beach was the owner of the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris during the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was friends with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Joyce. It was she who first published Ulysses.

After I had written my previous post about Borders and what its demise would mean, I came across this review in Bookforum. It seems independent bookstores have never had an easy time.

There is something inherently ephemeral about the trade, and the obstacles—indifferent publics, high rents, minuscule profit margins—are too many to list. It’s not just Amazon or the e-reader; there was always something putting the independents out of business, and whatever our sentiments, the world does not owe bookstores a living.

Sylvia Beach eked out a living, riding out and being an integral part of the literature written by an expat community of uniquely talented writers in the 20th century. She had a rough go during the Great Depression. And then the Nazis invaded France. She was put in a detention camp. After the war, she didn’t reopen her bookstore. The current store was opened by an American as an homage of sorts (it’s now been open far longer than Beach’s original). So now I’ve gone and put her memoir on hold at the library.

Today I read this post by Tayari Jones (courtesy of The Rumpus) in which she talks about attending the American Booksellers Winter Institute and her renewed need to buy books only from independent booksellers.

One woman said to me on the elevator, “I want to get your book in people’s hands.” I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t want to seem crazy.

But seriously. The indies represent resistance to the homogenization of our country. They call them “indies” because they are independent. Buying decisions are made in-house, not from some corporate entity that knows nothing about the community. You may remember my big box store horror story—I was in Arizona and I went to a big chain to sign my stock. I was told that they wouldn’t carry my book because there are not enough black people in Arizona. This decision didn’t come from the community, but from some big corporation that underestimated me—and the local citizens. The independents in Arizona carried my book because they know that book people read.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last, post/article/rant about the “need” to buy only from indie bookstores. Theirs is a precarious position. One that shows know signs of improving and stabilizing. For those of us that lived in a bookstore desert, the arrival of a Big Chain was a Godsend. For those who already had their beloved indie bookstore, the arrival of a Big Chain was a declaration of war.

One thing I do need less from bookstore employees these days, regardless of the store, is recommendations. Often I get recommendations for books via blogs and online literary sites (The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Conversational Reading, Bookslut, to name a few).

This would contradict a point I made in my previous post about liking an informed attentive staff at a bookstore. For me, my lack of available time to browse has also brought with it a lack of time to chat. It’s hard to chat with the staff when either your two-year-old is randomly pulling books off of shelves and putting them back in a way most convenient to her, or your six year-old is having a meltdown because you won’t buy him a cheap tiny wind-up toy from the bin of cheap tiny wind-up toys next to the checkout line.

I suppose that when I’m older and my kids are older, I’ll have some time to myself at a bookstore. In the meantime, the lure of shopping online continues to beckon…

Telling people to shop at indie bookstores for the sake of shopping at indie bookstores is not going to work. Indie bookstores need more than the handful of Dedicated Patrons. They need a constant stream of casual buyers, too. Though the former might love the place, without the latter the store cannot survive anymore than the original Shakespeare and Company could.

Borders: A Requiem

All of the recent news about the bookstore chain Borders is bad. Some are predicting it will file for bankruptcy this year. (If that happens, it will give people here in Michigan one more thing to moan about.)

I liked Borders for a long time. Growing up in my hometown of Northlake, IL there were no bookstores. The only places I bought books were the small bookstore chains like Walden and B. Dalton located in the malls of Woodfield or Stratford Square or Yorktown. There was also a small bookstore in downtown Elmhurst for awhile. I can’t remember the name. I do recall buying a number of fantasy and science fiction paperbacks from that store.

It was at stores like those during my teenage years that I purchased books from Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Terry Brooks, Ian Fleming, and Douglas Adams.

I occasionally used the small, but nice, local library, though I was very bad when it came to returning books on-time. 🙂

I first became aware of Borders when I was between colleges during the summer of 1991. I had dropped out of Northern Illinois University with Grand Plans to attend the University of Hawaii. (It’s a long story. For another time. I never made it to Hawaii.) I’d heard from my mother, I think, about this new big bookstore in Oak Brook, which wasn’t all that far from my parent’s home.

So drove there one weekend afternoon to check out this bookstore located on the west side of Route 83, across from Oak Brook Mall.

I had never seen a bookstore like that before. It was huge. The shelves seemed to have one of everything. The staff was smart and knowledgeable. I felt that reverent glee which comes from being in a place with so many books. I’ve had that same, but stronger, feeling in other bookstores; like the former Midnight Special in Santa Monica, Unabridged and the Seminary Co-op stores in Chicago.

I went through a Kurt Vonnegut phase and an Ayn Rand phase and found what I was looking for at Borders. Later, while I was attending Elmhurst College, I went through a Beats phase. I found On the Road, The First Third, and even Naked Lunch all at that Borders.

For many people in the 90’s and early part of the 00’s, especially owners and devoted patrons of small, independent bookstores, Borders was the enemy (along with Barnes & Noble and Amazon). And I understand why. Many of those small bookstores were put out of business because Big Chain stores like Borders could provide a variety of books and at a steep discount.

For me, Borders was not the enemy. They were liberation and revelation. There were no bookstores like Borders in the suburbs around Northlake at that time. I don’t even remember seeing a bookstore in Franklin Park, Stone Park, or Melrose Park. I could be wrong about there not being any bookstores in those towns. I just don’t remember them from my youth in the 70’s and 80’s. I watched that Borders store outgrow its location and then move across the street to a larger store with more music offerings. I continued to shop there frequently until I moved into the city after college. And then I found Unabridged and Seminary Co-op in addition to the Big Chains.

I can trace the point at which I stopped spending so much time browsing in bookstores (and music stores for that matter): the birth of our first child in 2004. Have you ever tried to “casually browse” any store with a small child? It’s impossible. So my shopping at Amazon or Bookfinder increased. My trips to brick and mortar stores slowed. When I did make the trip to the brick and mortar stores, I found even more of what I had been finding through the years: less variety, prices that were higher than what online retailers offered, and staff who seemed even less informed.

During the most recent Holidays I was in a Borders, the one in OakBrook as a matter of fact. I was looking for a book to give to some friends of ours. I had first thought of getting Scarlett Thomas’ PopCo. But it was not on the shelf. I thought of a few others but none were on the shelf. Eventually, I found Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. There was only one copy on the shelf in paperback. (It’s a fantastic, panoramic view of many layers of society in modern day Mumbai, complete with glossary of Hindi slang.)

When I went to pay for the book, the checkout clerk gave me the rote sell about joining some Rewards Club that I endure at many stores these days. Every chain store has a “rewards” program, in which it takes an awful lot of buying to get very miniscule rewards. Why bother? That’s not the sign of a strong company. It’s the sign of a company eager to please but in a way that’s offensive and annoying. I’m there at the checkout counter paying money for the goods you sell. Why annoy me just as I’m about to leave?

I still love to browse bookstores, especially used bookstores. The latter because I can always seem to find a deal on an old or not-so-old gem of a book. Though I admit to having some Ipad Envy, for me books are still a tactile experience.

I miss Borders, or at least the idea that Borders used to represent; every book you could want under one roof sold by an attentive, respectful, and well-informed staff of people. But in this day and age it’s an idea that no longer needs to (or can) be represented on so many corners of so many streets or in so many large storefronts in so many strip malls.

If and when Borders goes out of business, publishers and distributors and people are undoubtedly going to be hurt, whether through nonpayment or the loss of a job. My only hope is that when the dust settles from the ongoing revolution in book publishing and book-selling caused by the Internet and ebooks that a handful of great bookstores will remain standing for those of us who still seek that reverent glee. A glee that cannot be found from browsing online, but can only be gotten from walking around stacks of books and holding a book or two in hand and turning the pages with our fingers.

Even then, I imagine I will still do most of my book-buying online. It’s far too convenient.