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Monday, December 28, 2015

Why I read Old Books


I rarely read new books. Two or three a year might make the cut if they sound too good to miss (please keep writing, Marilynne Robinson), but the vast majority of my diet is drawn from the books of the dead. In part there is a simple reason for this, rooted in my unusually high capacity for both pickiness and laziness. Most of the worst old books have been weeded out by the passage of time, leaving a well-tended garden of excellent reading. New books, on the other hand, can be a thankless slog through mediocrity. I'll never get back the time I spent reading White Teeth. And all that Ian McEwan! It was like the literary equivalent of white noise. 

But there's another reason I love old books that extends even to the ones that aren't that good. Novelistic clich├ęs can be found in any era, but it's the ones from the present time that bother me the most: upper-middle class academics having affairs; young people making pop-culture references, anything described as 'off-beat'... I once began a book in which the protagonist was an artist living in New York with a sister who was a writer in London. I threw it against the wall after three pages. 

But by a magical process similar to the beneficent aging of wine and cheese, the same kind of offhand, thoughtless writing in an old book is transformed into fascinating cultural detail. Here is a real, sincerely-delivered line of dialogue from John Buchan's The Three Hostages (1924): "He's a first-class sportsman and said to be the best shot in England after His Majesty." What a great line. If that book had been written today, I'd have to say the author was a satirical genius. It's like reading an adventure story written by Bertie Wooster. 

There's a short story by Jorge Borges called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," in which the narrator reviews an entirely faithful recreation, by a contemporary French writer, of Cervantes' Don Quixote. "Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical," writes the critic, "but the second is almost infinitely richer." It's a conceit that plays on the fact that any book is enriched in complexity and subtlety merely by the passage of time. Reading old books, we all become Pierre Menards, recreating them in the light of our own times. Even the best historical fiction can only emulate the way people thought in another time and place; only actual historical books can offer the real thing.

Borges

What often stand out are outdated prejudices. Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days (1889) portrays a world in which all English people are emotionless robots and no American bats an eye at dueling on a moving train. Comparing H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) with John Buchan's 1910 African-adventure novel Prester John (which reads like a colonial Mein Kampf) is to witness the invention of the racist logic of Apartheid before your eyes.

But you can gain insights, too, that are difficult to find anywhere else. In Cause for Alarm (1937) and his other pre-war thrillers, Eric Ambler dramatized his anxiety about the spread of fascism. The Weimar-era stories of Christopher Isherwood mention very little about fascism, but they offer a window on a society that was all too short-lived. 

So go buy an old book! They're cheaper, too.

-Stephen

Saturday, December 26, 2015

New Author Crushin'

There are many joys that come with bookselling, naturally other booksellers being top of the list. Besides their wit, kindness, humor, and general all-around goodness, they're also readers. And as a reader, I often turn to these other, more well-read readers for ideas on what I should read next.

Wes!
So when I was hoping to find some books or essays on obsession, I knew just who to go to. Wes is invariably the guy you want to talk to if what you're searching for is just a little bit unsavory, just a little outside the mainstream, just a little cringe-inducing, but hugely fascinating. What's great about Wes is his ability to offer books that target just what you need but also suggestions so weird they couldn't possibly work and then turn out to be exactly what you're looking for. So in my search for obsession, Wes offered up a book about stalking, and one about drinking, and also one about a diary.

Well, more precisely, it's about a woman keeping a diary, and then not keeping that diary. The book is Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, and the author is Sarah Manguso. Wes had figured that Manguso's obsession with recording her life, (her diary had stretched to 800,000 words-- for a frame of reference, War and Peace is just a little shy of 600,000,) was exactly the kind of obsession I was looking for. He was right.

Ongoingness is one of the best books I've read this year, perhaps my favorite. Instead of a memoir, it's more of a commentary on the keeping of her diary. What it meant to her, what she wanted it to be, how it failed. It seems no coincidence that Manguso's manifesto comes in this slim little volume; miles away from 800,000 words.

Of the diary, she says, "I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it."

Illustration by Montse Bernal/Reference:
Andy Ryan; From the New Yorker
Ongoingness feels like a study of thinking and overthinking. It's spare and  precise; brilliant. And eerie in it's universality. She explores motherhood, mortality, purpose, but mostly her compulsion to record evidence of her own existence. Manguso reads my mind and writes about my exact worries, yet she says it with an elegance and economy that is startling. So many times I stopped, and reread, and opened my journal to record her words and my own meager thoughts about those words. There is no way to read this brilliant woman and not feel like a dullard in comparison, but the kind of dullard who may just be on the right track

After Ongoingness, I inhaled more of her work. The Guardians, an elegy on the loss of her friend, his madness, and her fear of her own. And The Two Kinds of Decay a study of the rare disease Manguso battled in her twenties and the depression and havoc it lead her to. All of her books are beautiful; all of her thoughts, wise. She is the writer I wish I was, the thinker I aspire to be.

Read her.

-Erin

Monday, December 7, 2015

Bookseller Spotlight!

Christina at Ravenna

It was probably always Christina's fate to wear big glasses and work with books.

How long have you worked at Third Place? Less than six months. Before that I worked in speciality coffee for several years.

What section(s) do you shelve? History, Gardening, Crafts, Fashion/Beauty, Art/Architecture/Photography, Adult Coloring Books (a burgeoning section if ever there was one!), African-American Studies, Native American Studies, Women's Studies, LGBT, Economics, Business, Nature, and Environment. (editor note: Christina also handles Ravenna's Instagram account, go see her beautiful pictures.)

Most underrated/ book in your section? I am always very happy when people take home a copy of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz!

What's your favorite section in the store? Probably history. There is always, always something to learn, and I think the more familiar one can be with history, the greater perspective and compassion one can gain. Also, history has Mark Kurlansky and that guy loves cod enough to make it interesting, which is pretty miraculous (see his 1997 book, Cod: A Biography). I think about Kurlansky's cod monomania and the paths his wonkish interest took him down almost as often as I think about how Joanna Newsom and Andy Samberg are married.

What book do you recommend most? Right now I'm recommending my November staff pick, Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria from Small Beer Press. I'll quote from my review: "Samatar is an incredible writer and [her novel's] plot of a naive young man drawn into matters over his head will speak to anyone whose travels have made them both sick with excitement and the longing to go home. "

Favorite bookstore, besides Third Place? My favorite bookstore will always be Book People in Austin, TX. I pretty much grew up there! My summers as a kid were often spent there, dropped off at my request with lunch money and quarters for the pay phone. My family were late adopters of cellphones so that line about pay phones probably makes me sound older than I am.


What are you reading now? Right now I am reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt and also a Georgette Heyer omnibus. I suspect I am not alone in wanting to leaven heavy reading with something light.

Do you have to finish a book once you've started, or do you give up on books? Uh, I give up on books all the time. I try to give every book a fair chance but sometimes the book is awful or you just aren't in the right mood. Also, the grim satisfaction to be found in discarding a book that's driving you up a wall is not to be missed. My grandmother and mother both claim that Gravity's Rainbow is the only book they've ever (independently within their own histories as readers) thrown across the room. I didn't throw it. I set it down very firmly.

A book you regret not reading sooner or a book you regret never having read? I wish I had read
Octavia Butler sooner! Everyone should read Butler as soon as possible.

Favorite author, or three, or five? Susanna Clarke, Octavia Butler, Fumiko Enchi, Nnedi Okorafor, Dorothy Sayers, Karen Armstrong, Ursula LeGuin, Natsuo Kirino, Gao Xie, Yoko Ogawa, PD James, Barbara Tuchman, Per Petterson, Tove Jansson, Miyuki Miyabe, Roxane Gay, Karen Lord, Junichiro Tanizaki, Rabih Alemeddine, Sofia Samatar, Janet Mock, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, NK Jemisin...

Do you have an all-time favorite book? What is it? I'll say instead that a book I wish I'd written is The Ill-Made Mute, by Cecilia Dart-Thornton.

Guilty reading pleasure? I am firmly in the camp of "there is no such thing as guilty reading". If we feel guilty about reading something--romance novels, erotica, thrillers, whatever--it is probably because there is a problematic social stigma against it that has nothing to do with the work's content or value, and everything to do with narratives about whose words are important or what subjects are "legitimate".

Do you keep books? Borrow them? Lend them? Borrow and lend! I love that a thing my coworkers do at Third Place is buy multiple copies of their favorite books expressly for the purpose of loaning them out with no expectation of getting them back. That's awfully cute.

How are your bookshelves arranged at home? My bookshelves at home are like a messed-up Tetris level. There are floor stalagmites of books which I have tried to arrange aesthetically. There are two booksellers in my household, so...

A book you loved that you wouldn't have read if someone hadn't recommend it to you, who recommended it? Eden, a graphic novel/comic by the Argentinean artist Pablo Holmberg. My partner recommended it to me!

Favorite movie version of a book, or a movie that most ruined a book? The news that a favorite book is being adapted into a movie usually causes either wild panic or a headache. Like, the Golden Compass adaptation was cringeworthy. But the BBC miniseries adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is amazing. I was so scared it would be bad, but it's not!