Monthly Archives: December 2006

The large print giveth and the small print taketh away

Via Miss Snark comes the word — or do I mean the Word — that author contracts at Thomas Nelson will include a clause stating they adhere to the Nicene creed.

Just thought you’d like to know, in case you were polishing up a book proposal.

Though I have to wonder what would happen to this requirement if Thomas Nelson’s star author decided that he was down with the Arian heresy.

Green thoughts

Here’s a reason to be happy for Internet radio: BBC Radio 4 will get medieval on our asses with a Dec. 21 dramatization of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This 15th century poem may not replace It’s a Wonderful Life as a favorite Christmas story, but it does offer a unique spin on how to have fun with your friends come Yuletide. It will also be narrated by Ian McKellen, which should help those of you in the throes of Gandalf-withdrawal, now that it appears Peter Jackson won’t be doing The Hobbit after all. The production won’t be using J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, but a new translation by poet Simon Armitage. His first novel was called Little Green Man, so I guess he’s got a thing about green guys.

The silent conversation

Let me say from the outset that I have no problem with the big-box bookstores that now dominate the landscape. I love independent bookstores like the Montclair Book Center (which I used to live above, actually) and Micawber Books in Princeton, and I park some of my bucks at them as often as I can manage, but I still appreciate the giants as well. I was still doing the newspaper thing when the first Basset (later Borders) Books opened on Route 18 in East Brunswick, and on nights when I had to cover meetings it became my ritual to get out of the office a little early and grab a double cap and magazine at the store before continuing on to the East Brunswick municipal complex. I don’t hate them just because they’re big. In fact, I don’t hate them at all.

But I have equally fond memories not just of independent bookstores, but of the old department stores that tried to be all things to all people. That meant each store had its own book department and its own buyer making his own decisions about what to stock. That meant there was no uniformity. And that meant it was worth one’s while to spend an afternoon poking through the nooks and crannies of different stores.

I was raised in Bergen County, N.J., and my favorite hunting ground was the Garden State Plaza off Route 17 in Paramus. It was still an open-air mall back then, and I had my regular circuit. First stop was Sam Goody, which at that time was a biiiiiig store with plenty of vinyl albums, a cassette section in front and a musical instrument section in back. They had a regular coupon in the Sunday New York Times that would get you $1.25 of credit if you brought in a $1 roll of pennies. That’s how a certain high school boy came to buy his first Bob Dylan record, Blood on the Tracks, and get a glimpse of how to walk tall with romantic heartbreak.

Looming over Sam Goody was Bamberger’s, and the first place to look for books. They had a nice feature display for new titles set up with ables and modular bookcases. There were also several rows of back-catalogue paperbacks, all carefully grouped by genre, right next to the big window. Bamberger’s is where I bought my first paperback copy of Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight the week it came out, for the outrageous price of $1.25.

Leaving Bamberger’s, if I wasn’t feeling rushed I would veer right and duck into a greeting card place called Atlantic Cards and Gifts. This store had a very small selection of paperbacks on shelves down near the carpet, so shopping there had an element of spelunking about it. Books would remain on that shelf for months, which is how I knew that after reading Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C.W Ceram, I could find another Ceram title, The First American, safely hidden at Atlantic, waiting for me to come to the rescue. I also found the third and fourth volumes of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books, beginning a long and happy acquaintanec with that neglected American master.

From there it was a straight shot to the holy of holies, Shiller’s (Schiller’s?) Books, which was everything you ever wanted in a bookstore. The new bestsellers were racked up front, and as you passed the cashier’s area there was a big table of remaindered books. The genre stuff was in the back, and beyond that were the academic books and heavy duty fiction section. For years I passed directly to the science fiction section — so directly that I’m surprised I didn’t wear a path through the tiles. Shiller’s always had the new stuff just as it came out: classy SF, the spiffed-up second-generation edition of The Lord of the Rings, with cover illustrations by Tolkien himself, and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which may sound like an adjunct of Penthouse Forum but was actually a pretty sophisticated attempt to find the next fantasy blockbuster to succeed Tolkien’s work.

Here, too, I came when I started feeling that I needed to be a little more demanding with myself in what I read. My brain felt flabby — I felt like an athlete who’d skipped too many workouts. The summer after my freshman year in high school, I decided to pick one Certified Big Time Author at a time and read everything I could get my hands on. Early in the summer, while the family stayed at a bungalow in Sea Isle City, I found a discarded copy of Travels With Charley.

John Steinbeck had always seemed a little forbidding from a distance, but here was a book about a guy driving cross-country with his poodle. You couldn’t get much more approachable than that. The book went down in one gulp, and when we came back from the beach, I took my sunburned self to Schiller’s (Shiller’s?) and inspected the long white rack of Steinbeck paperbacks put out by Bantam. I started with The Long Valley, and each week thereafter (continuing after school started again) I would make the pilgrimmage to pick out a new Steinbeck. I held back from the biggies, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, for a while, which is how I got to discover such neglected titles as The Pastures of Heaven and Cannery Row.

The next summer, as I finished up Steinbeck (Burning Bright — couldn’t make heads or tails of it) I decided to try Hemingway. First The Old Man and the Sea — I’d seen the Spencer Tracy film, and it was obvious the story would be pretty reader-friendly. Then A Farewell to Arms, which has one of the most wonderful opening lines of any novel. It also has a doomed love affair, and since I was deep into my Sorrows of Young Werther period, that definitely rang a bell. I started For Whom the Bell Tolls during a visit to Darlington Lake, and I can still remember lying on my towel, hearing the wind in the upper branches of trees in New Jersey while reading about Robert Jordan in a pine forest, listening to the wind rustle the upper branches of trees in Spain.

And let me tell you, I got the oddest feeling that I had a secret accomplice in this project. When I started burrowing through Steinbeck, the shelf with his books became longer over the weeks, and obscure titles like Once There Was a War cropped up just when I thought I would have to order them through the mail. Somebody at that store was paying attention and placing stock orders without making too big a deal of it or even calling out to me. He was talking to me through the books. I am convinced of this.

Shiller’s (Schiller’s?) Books is gone, but there are still plenty of others like it. They can be a little hard to find, but finding them is worth the effort. You can get a lot of things through the big box stores, but you can’t get a silent conversation through books.

Passages: Joan Didion

From “Rock of Ages,” a short piece in Joan Didion’s 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

Alcatraz Island is covered with flowers now: orange and yellow nasturtiums, geraniums, sweet grass, blue iris, black-eyed Susans. Candytuft springs up through the cracked concrete in the exercise yard. Ice plant carpets the rusting catwalks. “WARNING! KEEP OFF! U.S. PROPERTY,” the sign still reads, big and yellow and visible for perhaps a quarter of a mile, but since March 21, 1963, the day they took the last thirty or so men off the island and sent them to prisons less expensive to maintain, the warning has been only pro forma, the gun turrets empty, the cell blocks abandoned. It is not an unpleasant place to be, out there on Alcatraz with only the flowers and the wind and a bell buoy moaning and the tide surging through the Golden Gate, but to like a place like that you have to want a moat.

I sometimes do, which is what I am talking about here.

Didion’s book was published a year before a group of American Indians occupied the island for 18 months in order to make a statement about self-determination and Indian titles to unused federal lands. If she’d gone afterward, she would have seen what I did: red spray-painted fists making a power salute on many of the walls, painted over white but with the red fist still showing through.

The first Didion collection I read was The White Album, which has some excellent pieces in it — I particularly recommend “Bureaucrats,” which shows the arrogance of California engineers conceiving “diamond lanes” for traffic, those horrors that would later be inflicted on New Jersey — but too many of the pieces seemed to justify the criticisms I’d always heard about her: chiefly the jittery self-regard, the equation of personal problems with greater public malaise, as though an inability to find someone to do decent bathroom grout means the gyre is widening and the center of civilization will not hold. There was also the essay about her migraines, which seemed to go beyond self-parody.

I put Didion aside for a few years and came back to her via Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I picked it up because I’d been interested in the prison island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay ever since I saw the film Birdman of Alcatraz as a boy. The passage above, and the sentence about sometimes wanting to live in a place with a moat, not only summed up why I’d always been fascinated by the idea of a fortress island in the middle of one of the world’s busiest ports, it also showed me I was probably a little more simpatico with Joan Didion than I might have thought.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains one of my favorite books; together with George Orwell’s selected essays, it is essential reading for anyone who writes nonfiction. Though it shares many preoccupations with The White Album, I think of it as more probing, less glib — The Day of the Locust, where The White Album is more like Hotel California