Essays

The Old Corner Bookstore

The matter is not that this place is now a Chipotle. The Old Corner Bookstore, as much as ‘Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe,’ was debauched generations ago and made to serve whatever interest was literally afoot at that moment in time. The iconic site, a beautiful vernacular Eighteenth Century brick building on a corner of Boston nearly across from the equally historic Old South Meeting House and about a block from where Benjamin Franklin was born, has long been shadowed on all sides by the assembled monstrosities of Nineteenth and Twentieth century architecture. The fact that a fairly decent chain of Mexican food restaurants has chosen to lease the physical space where Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow once argued the particulars of the New England Renaissance is incidental in the greater scheme. After all, where are the bones of Paul Revere’s horse now? But Rhian Sasseen picked up the story for The Millions and there it is, photo and all,  and in some visceral way the image begs for our attention. At least it does for me.  The abscess of pain which is the cause of my frequent complaint about the death of the bookshop is instantly tapped. I could go on about the importance of the bookshop to our culture as the key to any sort of livable future as much as a touchstone to the past that has made us. But is that really the matter? read more…

About the weather

A recent calculation of the ‘big picture’ in cosmic theory has the universe pulsing in an endless series of entropic expansions and contractions. When things reach a certain maximum (minimum?) of composition and the black holes go ‘pop,’ and disappear, it all starts over again. Nifty. Someone or ones will get a Nobel prize for physics and the world we can know (as opposed to the ones we can’t) will go on: governments will tax and pillage while people try to find some measure of happiness with the part of this universe that is theirs; thugs will rape and kill and wars will be fought over religions both political and metaphysical; and the weather will turn and twist over an Earth we pretend to understand, for reasons we have not yet fathomed.

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What lies beneath

The quiet you’ve heard from this place was just the sound of me lying low.

For about a year and a half I have been writing ‘The knight’s tale, a novel of the future.’ And now it’s done.

Though not quite the largest single work I’ve ever attempted, it is close to that, and easily the most complicated. The story was in fact pulled from a much larger epic first begun in 1976, which has occupied thousands of hours of my life in the years since. Over that time many aspects of the original concept were altered. The natural growth of scientific knowledge forced some of this. But more importantly, I have changed, and thus the way I saw the story I wanted to tell mutated. read more…

Journey Man

Sitting in the cab of a small car, alone for many hours and over many days while traveling cross-country, will produce a lot of rethinking of old problems and the discovery of more than a few new ones. In that enclosed space, I have come to the not so subtle realization that writing (and reading) is very much like traveling. An exploration. In fact I write by question, from inquiry to inquiry, like a journey with no absolute course.

“Why did he do it?”

“Why wouldn’t he?”

“But how?”

I do have a purpose, an ultimate goal, but I tend not to pre-determine its length or breadth until a shape has been conjured out of an accumulation of questions and answers–words chosen one by one for how they illuminate the path ahead. I think it’s the way many writers do it. read more…

What we reap.

The word is not good.

On a recent journey, it was simple enough to find a bookshop in a major city. A few perhaps. A Barnes &  Noble. An independent bookshop. Larger cities might even have two or more. Especially if there is a university close. Perhaps, if the city aspires to a significant intellectual life, you will find a good used bookshop as well. But most American cities today do not have an independent bookshop. A fact. Many do not even have a book chain outlet. The great majority do not have a used bookshop. read more…

Concerning Modern Slavery

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This was adopted in 1865, seventy-four years after the first ten amendments—a full lifetime–and at the cost of far more than the 620,00 lives recently lost in the Civil War.

Slavery, the forcible enslavement of one human being for the purpose of another, is variously defined as bondage, servitude, and thralldom–all aspects of ownership, subjection, control, and captivity.

Now the question arises: what part of this idea, if any, do you not understand today?

Let’s make this personal. Speaking at the safe remove of the third person is a waste of breath and ink or ether. I am personally interested in the answer. What is your difficulty with this Constitutional prohibition on slavery or the definition given here? Do you disagree with it? A part of it? What part is that?

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Tales from the Athenaeum

We can assay the weight and substance of a given work and argue its merits, but essentially the value of the thing is in its power to move us and hold us and remain in our minds long after the event of our first reading. For example, Tarzan of the Apes is a silly work in almost any critical regard except in the way that matters.

When art and craft are brought to a work that has that power to endure, we have the transcendent experience of stepping beyond our petty concerns into other places, in other times, and living larger lives than what we have managed by ourselves.

Not every great work is a Moby Dick, or should be. Not every reader has the stamina, or the need for the quest of a Frodo, or a picaresque journey by raft on the Mississippi. And often enough, the best of our literature is not fiction but memoir–that assembly of fact from memory that bears truth more than history.

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The Powell’s Posts

I was recently asked to contribute to the Powell’s Books website as a guest blogger for the week of Monday, October 19 through Friday the 23rd. I was quite pleased to do it. The idea of a new audience of potential readers at this moment when my first novel is just out was a great opportunity.

But then there were choices to make. Should I pick a different subject each day or carry a theme. Should I be light or jump headfirst into those darker thoughts that plague me.

In the end I chose to write on a single theme, the death of the book, but avoid my worst nightmares for the sake of some degree of polite conversation. After it was done, I thought it came out fairly well. No loud ranting. No dead bodies.

Powell’s has kindly given me permission to repost my entries here and I have decided to put them all up at once in consecutive order:

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Musing about mysteries.

I have been reading mystery and crime fiction since I was twelve and first discovered Mr. Holmes. The contest of good and evil was a fine caution for a teenage mind bent on breaking the rules. I did study the genre briefly in the 1970’s for the purpose of developing a mystery magazine to complement the science fiction monster that was swallowing me then, but that came to naught and in general I do not like to spend my time watching the sausage get made. I just happily eat it. When I made the decision to write a fiction about the death of the book some years ago, I quickly adopted the mystery genre as the right vehicle for the getaway. It was then that I decided to catch up with what had been going on since Travis McGee took permanent retirement.

In short, very few detectives drive Oldsmobiles these days (or an old Rolls-Royce converted to a pick-up truck for that matter). The psychology of the criminal act has taken the place of any moral judgment for a large percentage of mysteries. Social concerns often outweigh catching much less punishing the criminal. Criminality in and of itself is frequently in question, no matter the ultimate nature of the crime. The ‘mystery’ is more often an exposition of a crime and its aftermath.

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The Anti-heroic Phallacy

Modern fiction is, by authority, a literature of anti-heroic impulse, anti-heroes, and the failure of mankind. Most primarily the dramatic action of the modern novel is dependent on a Freudian fallacy which pretends that human behavior is guided by sexuality, and as a subset, by greed as a form of sexual domination. After the misguided suppression of sexual matters in the Victorian age, this sort of ad hominem theorizing once appeared liberating to an intellectual elite already estranged from the daily toil of the larger community. Don’t we all have these sexual feelings? Are we all not guilty of the original sin? The ‘hero’ does not save the damsel in distress for reasons of good will and humanity, but to rape her.

We have several generations of this sort of tripe polluting the academic mind at this point. I am 62. I was first introduced to a supposed sexual subtext of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ when I was 16–in a high school class no less. The joke is that such pseudo-intellectual claptrap is still being foisted on new generations of sixteen year olds as if it is recent revelation. The Victorians are still being challenged as if they are ‘the Man,’ in the same way as Nazi’s are still the villains in so many movies after sixty years of Pol Pots and Stalins, Idi Amins and Che Guevaras, Mao Zedongs and a dozen other mass murderers more relevant to the current world scene.

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deus ex machina?

So a friend of mine was telling me about a bit of behaviorist evolutionary theory and I found it very appealing. I have generally found most behaviorism as unscientific as any religion–drawing conclusions from insignificant or incomplete data and thence supposing whole worldviews. Thus the activities of ants might become a modus for human action or the pre-calculated terms of conduct of lab animals in a closed system become rules of human political order.

But all behaviorists are not so insane or inane. Their foundational methods are actually scientific and their discoveries can be enlightening. It is usually when they begin to extrapolate from mice to men that they go terribly wrong. Such pseudo-scientific theory is so 20th Century!

So I listened to my friend and found his proposition very appealing and immediately began to self-consciously wonder why. Why?

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Wyeth in passing

When Andrew Wyeth died I found myself reviewing many past thoughts and realizing a few new ones. He was by far the preeminent painter of my time, one of the first living painters I became aware of as a youth. I cannot remember the exact text, but his work was the cause of the first argument I ever had about art, and subsequently many others. His father, the fabulous N.C. Wyeth, had filled the dreams of my childhood with colors that challenged the nature of the ordinary. And that path lead back and beyond to the great Howard Pyle. Andrew Wyeth’s personal life made the national and world news. Books of his work were bestsellers and helped pay my rent during the 1970’s as I started life as a professional bookseller. But his greater importance to me was, from the first, that he made me think.

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Morphology

Two of the greatest American authors among us today are Tom Wolfe and John McPhee, both of whom are often pigeonholed as part of the New Journalism school that arose in the 1960’s, but are in fact just plain good writers alive by chance at the same time, and both, by the nature of the academic mind, in need of tags so that their work can be more readily handled or dismissed. I am in awe of both men, and have re-read portions of their work to see if an examination of the bones might reveal the source of their magic–on a par with dissecting the golden goose.

My younger brother re-introduced me to McPhee in the early 1990’s. My brother is a geologist and was taken with several of those works which border on that territory, as well as the one on Alaska if I remember correctly. I had only read one of McPhee’s books at the time, the Deltoid Pumpkin Seed–brought to it by my own interest in lighter than air vehicles–and was not yet enamored with the man’s work. McPhee was a bit too cool on a subject that was hot to me.

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Fungible!

I do not remember who taught me the word, ‘fungible.’ I am as sure that I did not discover it in a book as I am of any memory, but I cannot recall the person who opened that window in my mind. I have a vague recollection of repeating the word aloud and being told its meaning. I believe the discovery must have been in high school because it appears in a manuscript of the time.

The importance of the word to me lay in the sudden self-awareness that others had wrestled with the amoebic edges of memory and found a word for a phenomenon I was already encountering. We often exchange actual and original purpose or intent with a better cause when we recall our actions. Price may have been the determining factor and money the motive for accepting the price, but it was, after all, the perfect gift, was it not?

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On the death of the book

A short but excellent article in the Wall Street Journal by Steven Johnson does the service of touching on a few of the key elements in the ongoing murder of the book. They would be called clues were the crime not committed in plain sight and to the indifference of those very witnesses whose lives and fortunes will be most devastated by the loss.

I imagine the death will be mourned much like that of a rich uncle whose testament has yet to be read. The gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts will not occur until later, when it is discovered that Uncle Octavo has squandered his fortune in recent years and there is nothing left for his various relatives or wives, much less his children, legitimate or not.

Let us look at the evidence.

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Post hoc ergo propter hoc…again.

When, about ten years ago, I made the decision to begin writing seriously again, the first project I undertook was a juvenile–a story I had imagined many years before and given up on.

I think the decision was tied to an example of foolishness which is worth re-considering: that it would be easier to write a juvenile–to break the ice before getting on to the harder stuff.

The common belief is that childhood is blessed by simplicity. Things were easier then. But this is quite false, of course. We all know that, if we know anything. But we want to believe it for reasons which are themselves complex.

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of smaller homes and gardens

I have designed at least a thousand homes in my life. None of them built. Designing a home to suit a specific need has become my way of relaxing. It’s a quick and purposeful refuge from those realities I need to escape. Watching a baseball game is good, but not nearly as good.

Looking back over some of the designs, many of which took weeks to complete, I can trace my own intellectual and emotional history as well as my economic state of mind. The homes are smaller during periods of financial difficulty. They were largest when my bookshop business did best. But, more interestingly to me, they all have a central idea or purpose and looking at older plans now reminds me of dreams I’ve had and perhaps forgotten.

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Theme

The theme of the Hound is the death of the book. It seemed an obvious concept to me at the beginning: to use the lives of individuals faced with this cataclysm as a means of revealing its true magnitude.

I made several false starts before realizing a problem. The simpler the theme, the more difficult the story.

And certainly, writing a book to present such a theme is inherently ironic. But then irony is a part of the human comedy–as it is in the catching of whales, Ahab might have said at the last. More to the point, the game is afoot. The murder is happening now.

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The voice of hubris.

As I have noted elsewhere here, my mother’s parents were illiterate. They were the type of mountain people who knew one book only and that by ear, line by line repeated, and knew those stories as they played out in their own lives. Their deep knowledge was hard won and held closely. When advice was given it should be heeded.

My grandfather would have been a good writer if he had been born to the opportunity. He told stories as easily as cutting a plug of tobacco and they usually lasted about as long. The final spit toward the nearest gully was the end of it. He often told stories we had heard before, but we listened and laughed to ourselves at the changes along the way.

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How to Build the Perfect Bookshop

The Christian Science Monitor asked me to write a short piece on bookselling back in 2002. The context at the time was the continuing struggle of our small business to survive the tides and vicissitudes of our age. There were and are hundreds of articles easily findable on the internet about the difficulties of bookselling–even a few I have caused to be written–but at that time I had been working on a poem about the ‘Perfect Bookshop’ and though a poem was not what the newspaper wanted, I decided to rework the effort into a prose statement on the subject. The result can be found here: www.csmonitor.com/2002/1108/p11s01-coop.html (The perfect bookshop weathers the storm).

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