Friday, May 13, 2005

Saying goodbye to a beloved bookstore

I don't know how I missed it, but one of my favorite bookstores closed at the end of October 2004 and I just didn't hear about it. WordsWorth Books in Harvard Square was my home away from home during my four years at Harvard College. And now it's gone! I knew they had filed for bankruptcy, but not closed. It pains me. Harvard Bookstore better be thriving -- Harvard Square just wouldn't be the same without it, and I don't think I could stand losing yet another favorite bookstore... even one thousands of miles away.

Hillel Stavis, owner of WordsWorth Books, in a Boston Globe interview after WordsWorth's closing, talked about reading, bookstores, and booksellers's reading habits:

As independent bookstores wither away, what of the future of reading? Is it time to prepare the obituary for bookstores?

''No, people read, although they have attention-span-reading-disorder. People buy books, but I have a suspicion they don't read them through. Everybody bought [Umberto] Eco's 'The Name of the Rose,' but how many read it? [Hey, when I was a bookseller I wanted to sell books. Sure, I would like everyone to be a voracious reader, but, let's get real, no one ever reads every book s/he buys!]

''Habits are changing. Bookstores are no longer the sole repository, other than libraries, of intellectual pursuit. There's competition. Television has not only stupid music videos but serious offerings, like the History Channel. From the Internet, you can download Shakespeare.

''I don't want to give the impression books are becoming extinct. Recently, I was looking at John Locke's 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding.' Online, you can read three paragraphs and get the gist, but if you bought the book you might tend to read the whole thing. [I thought people didn't read the books they bought, but maybe Locke just trumps Eco... Nah...]And unlike your tape recorder or a plasma TV, a book is relatively inexpensive. You can lose it and replace it easily, and so, when you think about Gutenberg's invention, it's proven to be portable, cheap, and remarkably durable."
.....
''People fantasize about owning a bookstore, but what happens is that you get so busy with minutiae you don't have time to read. If there's a retirement home for booksellers, what you'd see is a lot of old booksellers sitting in rocking chairs, and what would they be doing? They'd be reading all the books they never had time to read when they owned a bookstore."
Now, that I agree with. When I was a bookseller I hardly had time to read. In fact, I read much less those two years than at any other time since I was about 10 years old. I always felt that I was drowning in a sea of text... (I still miss, though, the thrill of opening the boxes of new books and of handselling beloved titles to potential readers, but not the aggravation of dealing with vendors or employees or taxes...)

An unexpected side effect of blogging

I usually have several packages of books arriving every week; I just can't seem to stop myself from ordering books that look promising. Since I started blogging and cruising the lit blogosphere, I have found many new authors and books to read, so the influx of packages has grown.

That I expected.

What I didn't expect was how often I now find these packages from amazon.com, Powell's, allibris (etc) have surprising contents: books I have no recollection of ordering. Once I look them over, I know I ordered them, because they all have something that catches my interest -- plot, theme, character, that elusive first sentence... but for the life of me I cannot recall how I originally came upon the book... It does make each box more of a gift, though... so many lovely surprises arriving weekly (almost daily!). I just wish I could remember how I found each book for the first time!

How Leonard does it

One of my recurring obsessions is finding out why writers write and how they do it -- you know, the mundane little details of routine, schedules, tools... Here is Elmore Leonard's writing story, culled from a NY Times May 9 profile:

On how he writes:
"[Elmore Leonard] writes seven days a week in the living room of a nice house in the suburbs here with a No. 5 Pilot Pen on unlined yellow paper. He does not use e-mail or a computer. He types the handwritten pages on an I.B.M. Selectric, which occasionally breaks down from daily exertion."

On why he writes novels:
"I write them to find out what happens," he said of his novels. "I don't write for anybody else."

On the structure of his novels:
"Mr. Leonard does not think what he does is very complicated.

"The first part moves along O.K., and then I have to think about the second part, because the second part keeps it going," he said. "And then you've got to get to some new things, say around page 250. There is always those surprises near the end.""

On the role of characters:
"Characters serve as can-openers on plots for Mr. Leonard. Once conceived, they become his masters, shoving him from one scene to the next, until the book ends, usually at about 300 pages."

And how they (sometimes) get their names:
"This great American author, one of the best dialogue writers ever, lets people at charity auctions bid for the right to name his characters; Ed Hagenlocker, a "hard-shell Baptist" and cotton farmer in "The Hot Kid," got his name that way. "Why not help them out?" he said."


Thursday, May 12, 2005

Have I got a great book for you!

Today I devoured gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. In one sitting. And when I finished, I wanted to read it again. Now that's an unusual desire for me -- since there are so many wonderful books awaiting discovery I hardly reread, except for favorites like Pride & Prejudice, for example, or books I'm either teaching or studying. But gods in Alabama is a truly wonderful novel. And I am so very glad I set aside my distrust of Southern themes to pick this novel up.

You all know by now that I collect first sentences that grab me. Well, gods in Alabama has one of the best opening paragraphs that I have ever read:

There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches.

Who could resist all the questions prompted by these two little sentences? And the lovely thing is, the rest of the novel is just as delicious a read as that yummy first paragraph.

I'll be posting more on this novel, but in the meantime: run, run, run and grab a copy of your own! It really is worth plucking down the $19.95 (which is way cheaper than most new hardcovers anyway!).

I promise you won't regret it. gods in Alabama is the ultimate reader's dream: a truly satisfying read that delights both brain and heart. The characters are compelling and richly drawn; the plotting is superb, including many unexpected plot twists; and the storytelling is top-notch -- Jackson can pull the reader along even (or perhaps even because) she has already disclosed some heavy duty secrets from the very beginning. It's a journey well-worth taking.

Why is it that...

... when we professors don't show up for class the students start clamoring to be taught? Are they just being contrary? Is it human nature or some particularly annoying trait of late adolescence? I sure don't know what it is -- all I know is that when I called in sick today for the fourth time this week, the department secretary regaled me with tales of woe from all the students who had been by the department suddenly worried about their final presentations. Oh please. I just told her to tell them to take the extra time to prepare and just be ready for next class (and darn it, just leave me the hell alone). Okay, that last part I didn't actually say. But I wanted to.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Still sick...

... and reading a lot of erotica (comfort reading extraordinaire -- I love Ellora's Cave!) and watching too much tv.

I watched the finale of Amazing Race (I am totally addicted!) -- I wanted Rob and Amber to win... yes, he's unapologetically machiavellian but his relationship with Amber is wonderful. Not once during the whole season did they ever yell or insult each other -- they were the only couple who didn't. In my book, that's pretty special. I just wish Puerto Ricans weren't so susceptible to sob stories; then Joyce and Uchena wouldn't have been able to get on the flight from San Juan to Miami when the door was already closed and the walkway retracted. Oh well, here in my part of the world we sometimes are a little too nice!

There was also quite a long and interesting spoof of news networks' coverage of blogs on tonight's The Daily Show...

Now I'm off to cuddle with my Kleenex. I've got lots of good books to talk about still (those two memoirs and two novels), plus of course, all that erotica (some of it quite good). So, see you tomorrow, folks!

Monday, May 09, 2005

I have a bad cold...

... so I'm a little woozy. Those Tylenol Cold tablets sure pack a punch! Hopefully, I'll be back tomorrow with a clearer head. Til then, happy reading!

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