Better Places

I have to confess that I’d never heard of Ottessa Moshfegh before.  Shame on me, I know.  As a wannabe writer, I feel compelled to know other writers’ names.  Hang in literary circles.  Etc.  The good news is, however, that I found Homesick for Another World in an indie bookstore.  I’d gone in for something else that they didn’t have, but I don’t like walking out with nothing, especially when it’s a small store.  Besides, I trust the taste of most independent store owners. 

I can’t remember the last time I read a book of short stories all the way through.  As with most writers some work appeals to you more than others.  In my mind the first and last stories stick the firmest.  The latter, “A Better Place,” is haunting, almost Shirley Jacksonesque.  Others make you uncomfortable in your own skin.  This is a rare talent.

Finding a writer who, using simple words and expressions, takes you to another place is a rare gift.  The short story (the only kind of fiction I’ve actually published) is a versatile and engaging form of literature.  Books collecting them are often good for picking up when you have a little time and putting down for a while again.  I felt compelled to go through this whole work, being drawn into the weird and somehow familiar worlds of characters who seem to have no purpose, no goals.  It’s almost as refreshing as Kafka or Camus.  To be a writer who requires only one name to evoke a genre must be glorious.  These stories are strange without recourse to the supernatural, and they defy easy genre assignment.  (This makes publishers crazy.)

There’s an earnestness and a longing in this collection.  A kind of nihilistic spiritualism.  A wanting with no particular object in mind.  I read a lot of fiction, some of it very good.  The kind that leaves you a little stunned and questioning what reality is.  This is that kind of book.  Had I not gone into that indie shop that Saturday morning I never would have found it.  I certainly didn’t know to look for Ottessa Moshfegh.  Here again I’m reminded of the value of the bookstore experience.  The ability to browse without clicking or scrolling feels like a luxury to me now.  I may have to pay more than Amazon’s competitive pricing, but then this is like a finder’s fee for being in the real world.  Even if the book makes you question that reality when you’re done.

Giving a Hand

A friend sent me a news story that really spoke to me.  A bookstore in England, forced to move because of rent, asked for volunteers to help move their stock to a new storefront.  The response?  They had to start turning people away after 250.  A human chain was formed to pass books down by hand to their new home.  Book people, it seems to me, are like that.  I spent a recent weekend looking at downtown Easton—one of the triplet cities that make up “the Valley” (Allentown and Bethlehem being the other two).  Surprisingly, I found two used book stores within blocks of each other.  The proprietors (especially of the first) were friendly and helpful.  They were book people.

I mentioned to said first proprietor that two of the books I was buying were to replace copies ruined during our move.  The look of alarm and sympathy on her face was genuine.  Book people know that look.  They can feel each other’s pain.  They will freely give of their time to hold knowledge in their hands, if only briefly, to pass it along to others.  Now, like most bookish people, I’m aware that I’m considered odd by the average guy who enjoys sports, mechanical stuff, and money.  I’m content with a book, either reading or writing, and the occasional foray out among the more active and boisterous.  I like to think that if I lived in Southampton I’d have given up a vacation day to help out.  Saving books is saving civilization.

Book people know there’s more to life than themselves.  Ironically, such readers are often quiet and sometimes thought to be stuck up.  If you go to help move books by hand, I suspect that gives the lie to feeling above other people.  Reading is thought of as a passive activity, but it makes the mind more active.  There’s a reason our species have large brains.  It’s not that all books are for everyone—I’ve had plenty of disappointments in my reading life—but the unread book is full of potential energy.  And often that already read rewards us when we turn back to it.  Books, you see, are the ultimate givers.  Those who sell them may make a profit, but the return on investment tends to be quite high for the buyer.  If you have to move and you hire a moving company chances are they’ll complain about your books.  You’re better off asking book people for an unstinting hand.

Whelmed Over

I have to admit I feel overwhelmed by the task.  You see, I spent twelve years living in a town that went from one small used bookstore to none.  Within a half-hour’s drive I could be at two bookstores—indies, of course, since B&N doesn’t always count.  One of the shops was the Princeton University bookstore, so that was almost unfair.  Now I live in a region with many bookstores.  I wasn’t truly aware of this when deciding on where to settle; the decision was made on practical matters such as being able to get to work, and affordability.  It turns out that central eastern Pennsylvania is unexpectedly bookish.  I’m not complaining, you understand.  I haven’t had much time to explore, and that’s why I’m overwhelmed.  That, and Banned Books Week.

I’ve been to the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world, The Moravian Book Shop, in Bethlehem.  Twice already.  But there are many more within an easy drive from here.  “Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer goes, but if we’re honest we’ll admit we love the challenge.  Home owning is expensive.  There’s always something that needs to be done—the sort of thing you used to let the landlord handle—they are lords, after all.  And time for reading is scarce.  Add to this that there are bookstores I haven’t even entered yet, not far away, and a kind of anxiety grows.  You have to realize that even in Manhattan reaching a bookstore on lunch hour was difficult.  They are few and far between.  It’s overwhelming being in a region where indie bookstores have held on.

My wife recently showed me an ad for an indie bookstore over the border in New Jersey.  They were looking for new owners.  We’ve often discussed how perhaps a retirement job for us might be just such a thing.  Of course, business sense isn’t my strong suit—just learning how to own a house seems pretty hard.  The idea of making a living surrounded by books, however, is appealing.  (You might think an editor reads all day, and while that sometimes happens the reading is generally embryonic books.  Besides, there’s something serendipitous about discovering fully fledged books that you didn’t know were coming.)  To buy a business requires capital, and we’re more the minuscule type, when it comes to finance.  As we settle into our house we decide which books go where, and it is remarkably satisfying.  After I’m done being overwhelmed by all there is to do in the house, I’m looking forward to being overwhelmed by exploring the bookstores of central eastern Pennsylvania.

Morning Thoughts

One of the persistent dangers of being a morning person is the fact that places aren’t open early when you have to be out and about. Since my wife had to work yesterday morning, instead of spending a good part of the weekend alone, I drove her to her location. (The fact that there was a used bookstore nearby had absolutely nothing to do with it, of course.) The bookstore didn’t open until ten. My wife’s meeting started at 7:30. Much of what I have to accomplish on the weekend involves the internet and occupies me well before such late hours. Although I’m anything but trendy, Starbucks is open early and it offers wifi. And it’s ubiquitous. Kind of like churches used to be. As I pulled out of the parking lot where my wife’s meeting was being held, I found a sign saying Starbucks, this-a-way.

It was still early (for the secular) when I arrived. In fact, the banner outside read “Now Open.” This implied that previously it hadn’t been open, so this was virgin Starbucks territory. It was early enough that a table was actually available. I had a lot to get done, and by the time I was finished the place was jammed. In fact, when I first arrived, some of the other new patrons were joking that they would move in now that Starbucks had come to town. Groups sat in small knots for an hour at a time. People borrowed the extra chairs at my table. Countless more came in and walked out with paper mugs steaming in the chill air. I was here to wait opening time for a used bookstore. I was pretty sure I was the only one with that motive.

There are more of us out there, however. While looking for a birthday idea for a writer friend of mine I ran across a writing box online. There were several reviews. Many people lamenting on Amazon the loss of the culture of the bookstore and the hand-written manuscript. They’re the ones who review used bookstores and weep the closing of indies with authentic tears. We’re the displaced. Our society is extinct. I love old books. Touching them takes me into the past. Yes, their words are public domain and can be found online, for free. What’s missing is the thingness of it all. I’m not a materialist, but I’m even less of an electronist. My spellcheck won’t even let me keep that word. Say what you will about the old way of doing things, paper was never so uppity as to refuse the words I intentionally placed upon it. At any time of day or night.

Endings

It’s hard not to feel sorry for survivors. In a hostile world, the ability to resist the entropy lapping at your toes is a feat that inspires admiration. Although independent bookstores are making a comeback, there aren’t many around. An evening spent at Barnes and Noble, if allocated well, can evoke some sympathy even for a dying giant. While my wife had an appointment next door, I spent a good while in the fiction section—really the only part of our local B&N that is well stocked. My time among books, excessive to some, is my solace. It’s not a bad vice to have. Seeing others out shopping for books also delivers a message of hope to a world disinclined to read.

In the B section I saw an edition of A Clockwork Orange. If you read my post on Anthony Burgess’s book in the last few weeks, you’ll know that the American edition has always lacked the last chapter. I wondered if maybe, just perhaps, if this edition might contain the missing ending. It has been several decades since the original embargo. I picked it up and, indeed, the last chapter was intact. I stood in the aisle and read it. Say what you will about Barnes and Noble, but nobody thinks this kind of behavior odd. Once again I was transferred back to Alex and the world of his droogs, only to discover that the ending was something like I had anticipated. If you’ve read the standard American edition you know that it ends abruptly. Writers know how to draw a story to a close. Herewith I offer a spoiler alert.

Alex, now 18, has a new band of droogs. They sound quite a bit like his previous gang. Then he notices he doesn’t feel like the old ultra-violence one night. He goes to a coffee shop where he finds Pete, his old gang-mate, now married and holding a respectable job. He realizes with a kind of horror that having a child and wife appeals to him. He’s growing up. Critics often said Burgess was a moralist with Christian sensibilities. The original ending to A Clockwork Orange might suggest that’s true. Alex may be converted, but he’s unrepentant. Indeed, as he thinks of being a father he envisions his son being just like he was, and the cycle of violence and reform spinning on and on into the future. Shortly after I closed the cover, my wife met me in the store. I was amazed at how 15 or 20 minutes immersed in reading had shifted the mental world I inhabited. New information had changed me. This is the power of books, even when they’re found in Barnes and Noble.

Surface Tension

Montclair, New Jersey, is distinguished by having two bookstores. On Saturdays when my wife has to work there, I sometimes come along. Apart from the pleasant company, it isn’t every day that one can visit two bookstores. By supporting such shops, I am protesting the ignorance rampant in this nation. One, the Montclair Book Center, specializes in used books. Not always competitively priced, I nevertheless seldom leave empty-handed. It’s a healthy walk from there to Watchung Booksellers, a compact indie up by the train station. For a small store they always have an intriguing selection and I’ve never seen it empty on a Saturday. As I was walking the distance between the two, I noticed that Montclair’s downtown (and I’m not picking on Montclair, which I love) focuses on appearances. This is true of almost all shopping malls as well. Salons, clothing stores, eating places, tattoo parlors, health clubs. Places you go to help hone your image. Where are the stores catering to the mind?

Don’t get me wrong, I also have a body. I like to keep healthy too. I jog when I can, and I’m a vegetarian of nearly twenty years. Yes, there are the necessary places like drug stores and specialty shops where you can get your vacuum cleaner repaired, but few places to go explicitly to encourage mental growth. Hot, I stopped into a coffee shop for a bottle of juice. Patrons were busy at their phones and laptops. I recalled how there was a time when intellectuals hung out and conversed in coffee shops, exchanging ideas over mugs long grown cold. Even those sitting outside on the sociable, colorful chairs were busy texting, Instagramming, or tweeting away their weekends. I closed my book and walked on. I felt a vague but pressing need for intellectual engagement. I headed to the second bookstore.

On the way home one of those industrial-sized lawn-care vendors cut us off on the highway. Lawn-care is big business around here. It’s all about appearances. What has happened to the life of the mind? Allow me my curmudgeonly years—I recall walking downtown as a child and seeing the office supply store with actual paper, smoke-shops with their abundant magazines and wire spinner racks full of questionable paperbacks, and even the Christian bookstore with its tracts and Bibles. I didn’t have the benefit of living in a university town, but people I saw were talking to one another. Exchanging ideas with someone actually present. Self-consciously I look down. I’ve had these cargo pants for many years. This shirt I’m wearing I purchased in Wisconsin in another decade. Even these shoes haven’t been replaced after all these miles. This hat on my head is almost older than my college-graduate child. I can’t be bothered with my appearance right now, though, because there’s another bookstore just ahead.

Independent Bookstore Day

Many modern mini-holidays are centered around things you might buy. I don’t mind that so much in the case of Independent Bookstore Day—of which I wish you a happy one. Quite by accident I found myself in an independent bookstore just last night, not aware I was prematurely celebrating. If anything might save us from the muddle we’re in, it’s books. We live in a society with plentiful distractions, many of them shallow. Books take some effort. They demand your time. They make you take some quiet space to think. Books came along with, and perhaps were the source of, civilization. Today we’re harried and hurried and frantic with an electric source of information and entertainment that never turns off. And we’re seeing the results of that playing out on an international scale. How different it would be if we’d grab a book instead!

The strange thing is that those inclined to action often suppose reading to be an utterly passive activity. The basis for human progress, however, has often been what someone has read. Surprisingly, books can be the source of progress. When we see reactionary elections taking place around the world, leaders who don’t read emerge as the hailed champions of regress. We’re living through that right now. Books can be dangerous. Think about it—you’re being given access, however briefly, to someone else’s mind. The combined power of minds is an impressive thing. If what I’m reading is anything to go by, the hive mind is a source of incredible strength. You want action? Put multiple minds together. There’s a reason that civilization has gone hand-in-hand with literacy.

In the wake of Borders going under, independent bookstores have started to make a comeback. Those of us who work in the publishing industry have to keep an eye on those numbers. A visit to a bookstore is all about discovery. Quite often I’ve walked in with a list in hand. When I exit my list has grown rather than shrunk, and the purchase I’ve made was likely not on the list to begin with. Independent Bookstore Day gives us a chance to think about how very much we do not know. Unlike those who claim power and brag that they don’t read, admitting that we have more to learn is the way toward progress. I may not be the most active man in the world, but I do recommend action in the form of getting to a bookstore. If we each do our part, we can’t help but to make the world a better place.