January  28,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

[Princess de Polignac] said Proust's limited knowledge of England came through Ruskin; and that one of the first things he wrote was preface to a French translation of Ruskin.  The last time she saw Proust was at a dinner party given for him in Paris.  He attended pale and ill, wearing a long seal-skin dressing gown down to his ankles.  The Duke of Marlborough who was present and had no idea who Proust was, was indignant at the informality of his clothes.  The Princess again told me she never liked Proust.  He was always hopelessly, unrequitedly in love, and this was wearisome for his friends.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Wednesday, 24th November, 1943

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January  27,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

We then talked of eccentric people living in country houses.  Emerald told us how when she was first married and lived in the English country, she went to call on the Mexboroughs.  Presently, Lord Mexborough was wheeled into the room.  He had a long white beard down to his knees and was wearing a top hat.  As soon as he saw Emerald he let out a piercing scream, 'Take her away! Take her away!'

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Wednesday, 8th September, 1943

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January  26,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

After breakfast, I carried out what I had resolved.  That is to say I took Pompey's basket, hid it away, burned his two bones, his cotton reel, his blanket and cushion in the incinerator in the yard.  I threw his chain as far as I could into the river.  I got a taxi, and told the driver to take me to the vet.  I held the little dog on my knees without looking at him, without (thank God) seeing his eyes.  I told the vet to destroy him, and walked out, and away.  All this I did without a qualm, for his cough was getting worse, and his fits persisted.  For five or ten minutes I felt jubilant.  Had I not done the right thing?  Would someone ever do the same service to me?  In walking rapidly along the embankment I felt, at first with surprise, then shame, the tears coursing down my cheeks.  By the time I reached the door I felt nothing but unmitigated grief.  I had been no better than a murderer.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Monday, 15th March, 1943

[N.B.:  The best diarists are able to write in telescoped form what, in fiction, would be the most poignant of short stories.  Indeed, it is not surprising that many of the great writers of fiction also assiduously kept diaries or journals.  Note also that in this one short paragraph Lees-Milne manages to capture some of the conflicted ambiguity of our modern notions of euthanasia and animal rights.]

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January  25,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

She was, to her blunt, expanded fingertips, a daughter of London, of the crowded streets and hustling traffic of the great city; she had drawn her health and strength from its dingy courts and foggy thoroughfares, and peopled its parks and squares and crescents with her ambitions; it had entered into her blood and her bone, the sound of her voice and the carriage of her head; she understood it by instinct and loved it with passion; she represented its immense vulgarities and curiosities, its brutality and its knowingness, its good-nature and its impudence, and might have figured, in an allegorical procession, as a kind of glorified townswoman, a nymph of the wilderness of Middlesex, a flower of the accumulated parishes, the genius of urban civilisation, the muse of cockneyism. 

--The Princess of Casamassima by Henry James

[N.B.:  Where are the authors who can write a sentence like that today?  Oh wait, it violates the rule of "show, don't tell"--they must have been killed off in the creative writing abattoirs.]

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January  23,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Where shall we set our histories?

Who are the errant, the aimless ones

outside the village boundaries,

dead meteorites from long dead suns,

unfree travellers at whose end none stirs.


The meanest priest preserved from dust

wound from wind in mummy-cloth

has more eternity than us

--our character is lost in death

and what are we to passers-by

but grey stone in a field of green?

We have no Arab story here

to bring us hope of Singing Bird

or magic water on our hair

to give us back our former shape.

Unmarried now we lie alone,

a gold ring and a skeleton.

--October by John Bayliss (excerpt)

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January  21,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

After tea I walked with Lord Berwick in the deer park having been enjoined by his wife to talk seriously about Attingham's future, and press him for a decision on various points.  I did not make much progress in this respect.  On the other hand, he expanded in a strangely endearing way.  When alone he loosens up and is quite communicative.  All the seeming silliness and nervousness vanish.  He talked to me earnestly of the ghosts that have been seen at Attingham by the WAAFs.  Lady Berwick would not have tolerated this nonsense, had she been present.  He kept stopping and anxiously looking over his shoulder lest she might be overhearing him, but he did not stand stock still and revolve, which he does in the drawing room when she starts talking business.  He told me that Lady Sibyl Grant, his neighbour at Pitchford [Hall], constantly writes to him on the forbidden subject, passing on advice as to health which she has been given by her spiritual guides.  She no longer dares telephone this information for fear, so Lord Berwick asserted, of the spirits hearing and taking offence, but more likely for fear of Lady Berwick overhearing and strongly disapproving.  He is not the least boring about his psychical beliefs but is perplexed by the strange habits of ghosts.  He asked me, did I think it possible that one could have been locked the housemaid's cupboard?  And why should another want to disguise itself as a vacuum cleaner?  Really, he is a delicious man.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Thursday, 8th July, 1943


Norman Mailer Finally Gets His Due

In today's New York Times Book Review, Lee Siegel, a senior editor of the New Republic, finally captures the essence of Norman Mailer in his feature review (indeed, not just feature, but probably the longest review published by the NYTBR in several years) of Mailer's new book about the fictionalized childhood of Adolf Hitler as narrated by the devil, The Castle in the Forest.  As one can tell from the premise, Norman Mailer is a preposterous, shambling intellectual-writer manqué who has been blessed with an understanding critic, in the guise of Lee Siegel, who has written a preposterous, shambling, intellectual-writer manqué review.

One would think at first that the review is a parody.  But, no, it is something much better than that: the earnest striving of a journalist trying to defend the indefensible using pseudo-intellectual jargon that would make even the shade of Sartre blush.  In other words, it's a feast of amphigory.  Here's my favorite example (although there are many, many others to choose from):

Early on, Mailer understood that in a democracy in which the most radically different types of people are thrown together, a harmonious encounter with "the other" is an American dream (e.g., the national obsession with the Relationship), the reality of which often becomes an American nightmare (e.g., popular culture's obsession with crime).

Read that sentence three or four times and watch any possible meaning vanish magically before your eyes.  It is the new Jabberwocky.  Siegel has performed the invaluable service of constructing a chapbook on how not to write a review.  Certainly, for such a review to transcend the merely banal in order to enter into the gates of gaseousness it is critical to swath one's opinions in yards and yards of  undefined concepts--Truth, Justice, The American Way (look, up in the sky, it's Supermailer!)--and then sprinkle them about like mouse droppings in sugar. 

Mouse droppings, though, are not enough for a truly bad review.  One must also set forth truly obnoxious opinions, what I have alluded to above as "the defense of the indefensible":

Mailer has never, like the dandy, tried to live aesthetically.  When he stabbed his wife at a party in 1960 and when he helped get released from prison a literarily gifted killer who then stabbed an aspiring young playwright to death, it was because he followed the wrong impulses, not the wrong ideas.  He never committed the ugliness of insinuating that he screwed up for art's sake. He let the ugliness and the impudence of his actions speak for themselves.

This is a deeply offensive statement--particularly in the midst of a review of Mailer's book which attempts to describe how Adolf Hitler became a megalomaniacal mass-murderer.  Indeed, substitute "Hitler" for "Mailer" in the above paragraph to appreciate just how heinous it is.  But Siegel, is not satisfied with merely excusing Mailer's own forays in personal violence--Siegel also wishes to excuse Mailer's written advocacy of violence for its own sake:

Mailer did heedlessly write--in the notorious essay "The White Negro" (published in the democratic-socialist journal Dissent, a most decent, un-notorious little magazine [N.B.: another lesson in bad book reviewing: inappropriate and poor humor])--that the hypothetical murder of a middle-aged shopkeeper by two hoodlums was an example of "daring the unknown," of "trying to create a new nervous system," of "looking for the opportunity to grow up a second time."  It is widely assumed that Mailer was tying to shock the bourgeoisie with a sympathy for violence.  But if you read the essay all the way through, you see that he was doing something else: trying to shock the respectable class with an imaginative inhabitation of the violent [N.B.: do you see Supermailer yet in his clouds of gas?].  Rather than advocating murder [N.B.: glad to hear it], Mailer was exercising his perfect sense of the other . . . . blah, blah, blah, ad nauseum.

Sartre, Sartre--call your lawyer, you're being mercilessly parodied. 

I could go on with a number of other important lessons that Siegel imparts, but you should read the review on your own to appreciate it's unique brand of . . . deliciousness.  I will leave you with this last lesson contained in the final paragraph where the bad book reviewer attempts to sum up the greatness of a writer by setting forth some literary trait which, rather than revealing literary genius (or advocating murder, for that matter), instead reveals that both author and critic are certifiable nincompoops:

Alone among American writers, Mailer has earned the right to use the triple negative.

And there you have it, the greatness that is Norman Mailer: the triple negative.  I couldn't have said it better myself. 

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January  20,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

For dinner we had soup, whiting, pheasant, apple pie, dessert, a white Rhine wine and port.  Lady Hoare has no housemaid, only a cook and butler.  But she said with satisfaction, "The Duchess of Somerset at Maiden Bradley has to do all her own cooking."  She kept up a lively, not entirely coherent prattle.  She said to me, "Don't you find the food better in this war than in the last?"  I replied that I was rather young during the last war, but I certainly remembered the rancid margarine we were given at my preparatory school when I was eight.  "Oh!" she said.  "You were lucky.  We were reduced to eating rats."  I was a little surprised, until Sir Henry looked up and said, "No, no, Alda.  You keep getting your wars wrong.  That was when you were in Paris during the Commune."

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Monday, 12th October, 1942

[N.B.:  Do you find entries such as the above quite amusing and witty?  Too bad such books are not published in the United States--although you can pick up a copy at amazon.  I highly recommend it.]

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January  18,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

I used my time in translating from foreign languages, and even now I hold this to be the best way for a young poet to understand more deeply and more creatively the spirit of his own language.  I translated the verse of Baudelaire, a few of Verlaine, Keats, William Morris, a short drama by Charles van Lerberghe, a novel by Camille Lemonnier, pour me faire la main.  Just because very strange language at first offers opposition in its most personal turnings to those who would copy it, it invites forces of expression which, otherwise unsought, would never come to light: and this struggle to wrest from a strange language its most intimate essence and to mould it as plastically into one’s own language, was always a particular desire on my part. 

--The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig.


Why I Don’t Finish Books, Part II

Besides lazy writing, I also get frustrated with a writer’s lazy imagination.  For me, this is exemplified by a book many praise for its surfeit of imagination, the new National Book Award winner, Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker.  A thumb-nail sketch of it would seem to support his fans’ praises:  Mark Schluter flips his truck on a deserted Nebraska road and sustains brain damage which causes his sister, Karin, to quit her menial job and care for him; his brain damage, though, has made him paranoid causing him to believe that his sister is an imposter; called in to consult is a world famous brain doctor, modeled on Oliver Sacks, who helps Mark recover to some degree; oh, and mixed up in all this is a meditation on the migration patterns of cranes and their battle against an evil real-estate developer out to destroy their habitat.  Okay, maybe the sketch does point out a lazy imagination.  For me, though, plot is beside the point; and my favorite authors are those whose plotting tends to be minimal (Henry James) or slipshod and secondary (Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare) in order to concentrate on the interactions of their characters.   So let’s not hold Powers’ plotting—such as it is—against him.

What I will hold against him is his failure of empathetic imagination.  What I mean by that is his inability to sympathetically portray characters whose mindsets are very different from his own.  Instead, he engages in the Heep Big Injun school of writing: condescension.  A still-revered writer John Steinbeck, exemplifies this school in his short novel, Tortilla Flats, the loving tale of a group of paisanos (i.e., Hispanics) in the eponymous California coastal town near Monterrey who spin not, neither do they eat (much) but they sure drink a lot of wine.  They might commit rape, arson, burglary and assault—but it’s all in good fun and everyone can still laugh about it afterwards.  This kind of writing should be regarded as deeply offensive.  It is worlds away from the sensitive treatment of India and its inhabitants as portrayed by Rudyard Kipling.  And yet Powers engages in his own brand of such condescension as he depicts the world of those Red Neck Nebraska-billies in thrall to them big, evil corporations. 

For me, Powers made three strikes and was out early on in the book concerning the Nebraska Natives, thus requiring that the book be quietly interred without a formal ceremony (please, no flowers).  Strike one comes on page eight when Mark’s sister has just arrived at the hospital:

Back in the waiting room, she witnessed eight middle-aged men in flannel standing in a ring, their slow eyes scanning the floor.  A murmur issued from them, wind teasing the lonely screens of a farmhouse.  The sound rose and fell in waves.  It took her a moment to realize: a prayer circle, for another victim who’d come in just after Mark.  A makeshift Pentecostal service, covering anything that scalpels, drugs, and lasers couldn’t.  The gift of tongues descended on the circle of men, like small talk at a family reunion.  Home was the place you never escape, even in nightmare.

Yes, Lone Ranger, those are Apache doing the Spirit Dance in their bright-colored flannel and slow-moving eyes.  They are calling for Big Medicine to save their Chief.  It is best we leave here before they get restless and we cannot escape.  Heigh-ho Silver. 

Strike two comes on page eleven when Karin needs to find a place to sleep for the night after visiting the hospital:

As next of kin, she qualified for the shelter house a block from the hospital, a hostel subsidized with the pocket change of the world’s largest global fast-food cartel.  The Clown House, she and Mark called it, back when their father was dying of fatal insomnia four years before.

Yep, them evil cartels are always trying to sucker us dim-bulb consumers by using their pocket change to throw us a sop like the Clown House.  What do they think we are, a bunch of Cedar Choppers?  Actually, the Ronald McDonald House is about the last thing that Powers, in his smug inability to think outside of his own limited imaginative box, should have attacked in such an off-hand manner.  The cheap shot is the mark of the cheap artist.    

Powers, though, is on a roll, preaching truth to power, and on page thirteen he has his third and final strike by demonstrating his hilarious ignorance regarding any and all business issues.  Here, Karin is calling her own employer—obviously, Gateway—to let them know that she’ll be out for a while:

They were a big outfit, the third-largest computer vendor in the country.  Years ago, in the early days of the PC clone boom, they’d broken out of the pack of identical mail-order vendors on the simple gimmick of running herds of Holsteins in their ads.  Mark had laughed at her when she’d dragged back to Nebraska from Colorado and got a job with them.  You’re going to work complaints for the Cow Computer Company?

Just as with the second strike, this is not the occluded, first-person viewpoint of one of the backwoods, goat-roping characters but rather the pronouncement of our omniscient narrator-in-chief.  Well, of course, the way that dumb Cow Computer Company was able to dominate its field was just by running a bunch of cows in its ads.  Surprisingly, no other company has tried to hawk its wares using this simple expedient.  Powers seems to revel in his lack of imagination as he gets in yet another cheap shot.  And so the book is tossed. 

One last point:  Powers is a good example of the author who writes what his readers already know in a form that they are receptive to consuming.  He makes them feel smart and sophisticated while he feeds them pablum served on a bed of polenta.  He is a child of his time.  And you know what that means.

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January  14,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

This temple of progress [i.e., the Viennese newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse] preserved another sacred relic in the so-called  feuilleton: like the great Parisian dailies such as the Temps and the Journal des Débats, it printed admirable and authoritative essays on poetry, theatre, music, and art in the lower half of the front page, separated sharply from the ephemera of politics and the day by an unbroken line that extended from margin to margin. In this space only well-established authorities were permitted to express themselves. Sound judgment, the comparative experience of years, and finished artistic form alone could summon an author to this holy place after years of probation. Ludwig Speidel, a master of the pen, and Eduard Hanslick had the same pontifical authority in the theatre and music as Sainte-Beuve had in his Lundis in Paris. Their yes or no in Vienna decided the success of a work, a play, or a book, and with it that of the author. Each of these essays was the talk of the day in intellectual circles. They were discussed, criticized, admired, or attacked, and whenever a new name bobbed up among the time-honoured and accepted feuilletonists, it was an event. Of the younger generation Hofmannsthal alone succeeded, with a few of his capital essays, in gaining admission. Other young authors had to be content to sneak in and find refuge in the literary section at the back. He who appeared on the first page had hewn his name in marble, as far as Vienna was concerned.

--The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

[N.B.: Newspaper editors constantly complain about their subscription erosion due to the inroads made by competing media such as cable television, but here’s an old idea that cannot be easily replicated by any other medium that delivers content to a relatively passive audience—oh, wait, it requires "intellectual circles." Sorry for the interruption, please go here for further amusement where the feuilleton still flourishes in a medium that requires the active participation of its audience.]


Why I Don’t Finish Books

For years, I was afflicted with a serious malady: I would finish every book I started. No matter how dull the writing, or the subject matter, or both, I’d feel honor bound to earn my reader’s merit badge by trudging through the wastes of some wretched tome.  Luckily, I had an epiphany that I would be dead—sooner rather than later (indeed, we all go sooner rather than later)—and should discard this habit which was hastening my demise.  I mean that literally in the sense that spending time on an activity with no benefit other than the expenditure of that time serves no purpose other than to bring one ever so much closer to that time when time will be time-less. Hence, my general aversion to television. And so, along with turning off the TV, I turned off books that I found off putting for one reason or another.

Actually, I have two basic reasons for discarding a book in media res: (1) lazy writing; and (2) lazy imagination. I have just put down (as in, put to sleep) two books, each of which illustrate one of these two cardinal faults:  Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers.  Let’s handle the easier case first, lazy writing. What I mean by lazy writing is not synonymous with bad writing—bad writing one can recognize in a paragraph or two and hence discard the book precipitously without wasting hardly any time at all. Lazy writing is more insidious.  Certainly, the writing might lack a certain sparkle and verve, but it’s not aggressively painful to peruse.  Instead, the writing is repetitive in the sense that the book is not only flat but tends to repeat the same few points over and over again with only a slight variation in the repetitions (a good example is the entire classification of business-management books where the same simple five or ten rules are repeated ad nauseum throughout the entire genre). Since Richard Powers just won the National Book Award for The Echo Maker it’s safe to say that his book does not suffer from this fault. And so we move on to the titillating-titled, Paris: The Secret History.

I came across Paris: The Secret History in my yearly perusal of the stacks of Barnes & Noble after having received a gift card to this establishment.  Admittedly, I was becoming a bit desperate that I would not be able to redeem the card except at the in-house Starbuck’s, which is to coffee as Barnes & Noble is to books, when I stumbled across Mr. Hussey’s (apt name for the subject matter) book regarding a down-and-dirty review of the more louche aspects of Parisian history.  I was heartened to see that it was highly recommended by Peter Ackroyd who had accorded a similar treatment to his home-town haunt, London.  Ackroyd is a fantastic writer, so I snatched up the book.  Little did I realize that I had just been bitten by proxy by the blurb-bug, that pesky parasite which causes great writers, for one reason or another, to praise indifferent offerings by their lesser-talented fellow craftspeople (it must be some kind of guild requirement).

Paris: The Secret History is a frustrating book.  Andrew Hussey is the head of French and Comparative Literature at the University of London Institute in Paris, so he would seem to have decent credentials for tackling such an enterprise as the gutter’s view of Parisian history.  Instead, he offers a standard, potted history of Paris as it relates to its central place in the history of France, and, every few paragraphs or so, adds a variation of the following:

This kind of random violence was also a reminder that the real city of Paris was still filthy, disease-ridden, a good place to be stabbed or raped, or to starve to death. If it was at the centre of European history, few Parisians sensed that they occupied a privileged and unique position.

Hussey also makes mention every page or so to the Parisian whores.  Not any colorful detail, mind you, just that Paris had a bunch of ‘em: whores, whores, everywhere one looks, one can’t help but trip over two or three.  The Sun King might be plotting his next military adventure in the splendor of Versailles but just down the road a piece there’s a number of demi-reps selling theirs.  Oooh, how transgressive; how, how, well, lazy. Wake me when the whores leave.

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January 7,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Practical, useful and beneficial as an academic career may be for those of average talent, it is superfluous for individually productive natures, for whom it may even develop into a hindrance.

--The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig


The Sound of Bogey’s Voice

I have just finished reading a book by Vincent Price—yes, that Vincent Price—I Like What I Know, his paean regarding an amateur’s appreciation of contemporary art and the delights of tasting the various objet d’art on offer in Europe.  He has fairly good instincts—such as owning a gigantic Richard Diebenkorn that I would give my right arm for (I’m left handed, actually).  Besides praising Diebenkorn—this is in 1959, mind you—he also admires Mark Tobey. Not a bad two-fer (on the debit side, he does go ga-ga over an aging starlet’s artistic progeny, but let’s file that error under the old cliche: undue praise is the coin familiarity pays to mediocrity).  Perhaps this little book of artistic musings is not a lasting monument to art appreciation and is more an example of Dr. Johnson’s lady preachers and dancing dogs as applied to showbiz types and art books, but I found it highly entertaining nonetheless.

Why was this book so much fun?  Because I have seen and, more importantly, heard, so many Vincent Price movies that, as I read the book, it seemed that it was being narrated by none other than Vincent Price himself.  I’ve experienced this sensation just one other time with respect to the works of Raymond Chandler. There, I thought that the exploits of Philip Marlowe, which are invariably told in the first person, were being recited by the great Bogey—Humphrey Bogart.  As a result, in such an instance, my critical faculties are completely overcome by the odd sensation of being read to by these long-dead celebrities.  I wonder if others experience this odd sensation from time to time and what books might provoke such a response.

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January 4,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

It would not be easy to make a young person of today understand to what degree we ignored all sport and even disdained it. To be sure, in the last century the sport wave had not yet reached our continent from England. There were as yet no stadiums where a hundred thousand people went wild with joy when one boxer hit another on the chin. The newspapers did not yet send reporters to fill columns with Homeric rapture about a hockey game. Fights, athletic clubs, and heavy-weight records were still regarded in our time as a thing of the outer city, and butchers and porters really made up their audience; at best the noble and more aristocratic sport of racing drew the so-called "good society" several times a year to the course, but could not lure us who looked upon every physical activity as a plain waste of time. At thirteen, when this intellectual-literary infections set in, I stopped skating, and used for books the money which my parents allowed me for dancing lessons. At eighteen I could not yet swim, dance, or play tennis; and today I still can neither ride a bicycle nor drive a car, and in all sports any ten-year-old could put me to shame. Even now, in 1941, I am highly confused as to the difference between baseball and football, hockey and polo, and the sporting page of a newspaper with its inexplicable figures seems to me to be written in Chinese. In the matter of all speed and ability records in sport, I have always been of the same opinion as the Shah of Persia who, when urged to attend the Derby, replied with Oriental wisdom, "Why? I know that one horse can run faster than another. It makes no difference to me which one it is."

--The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig


Elegy for a Book Browser

I am sometimes bewildered by the idiosyncratic topics that the New York Times chooses to cover on a regular basis, but there’s one that I’m always drawn to in the way one slows down to view an automobile accident on the side of the road: the demise of the independent book store.  In Wednesday’s NYT, there was yet another in this continuing elegiac series bemoaning the impending end of one Micawber Books [N.B.: the article’s writer feels compelled to explain who  Micawber is—if that’s not a sign of the decline of literary culture, I don’t know what is], a quirky Princeton book store that has existed for a quarter century or so and, true to form, has an irascible owner (is irascibility a requirement of independent bookstore owners?), Logan Fox.  The article follows the usual format for this series so I won’t bore you with the details (rise—begins in a sleepy business district with other mom-and-pop establishments; decline—the first chain moves in; fall—more chains come, the advent of the internet, the rise of television babble replacing book babble, etc.).  Instead, I’ll just point out this one oddball reason for decline that I had not run across before:

But beyond those factors, Mr. Fox said, he blames a change in American culture, in the quickening pace of people’s lives, in the shrinking willingness to linger.  During the 1980s, in the store’s early days, customers would come in and stay all afternoon, carefully inspecting the books that were packed tightly together, spine to spine.

No longer. "The driving force of all of this is the acceleration of our culture," Mr. Fox said. "The old days of browsing, the old days of a person coming in for three or four hours on a Saturday and slowly meandering, making a small pile of books, being very selective, coming away with six or seven gems they wanted, are pretty much over. If you go to the Strand or to Micawber Books today, it’s a whole different gear, where society wants satisfaction and fulfillment now."

Oh dear. I just spent a few hours browsing in my town’s best independent bookstore, Book People, "making a small pile of books, being very selective [and] coming away with six or seven gems" that I really wanted—at least I hope that’s what I was doing.  I might add that there were several other book browsers engaged in the same endeavor. Is this truly endangered behavior?

True, I live in Austin, where one observes all sorts of odd behavior not particularly prevalent in other parts of the country.  Indeed, Austin is one of the worst cities in the country for browsing for used books because there’s too many readers.  The city is dominated by a giant used-book chain, Half-Price Books, which apparently has hit on the winning formula of having no inventory, no selection, no helpful staff and no low prices.  And yet it thrives in Austin because there’s no where else to go. Austin is in the fortunate position of being awash in book lovers (as evidenced by the Texas Book Festival).  So, pace Mr. Fox, perhaps in the illiterate Northeast book browsing has gone out of business along with independent book stores, but down here in Austin, it’s still a thriving activity.

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January 1,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

There is a great stir in Brooks's about the member who has been asked to resign, and won't go.  He doggedly makes use of the library every day and even insists on privileges which the most hardened old members would not dare demand after half a century's membership.  He has been so rude to the servants that in a body they informed the Secretary they would leave unless he did.  Now there is to be an extraordinary meeting in order formally to expel him.  Such a thing has never been known in the whole history of Brooks's.  The offender is a vulgar, sinister-looking fellow, who prowls around the club.  When he leaves a room the older gentlemen break into muffled whispers.

--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Monday, 2nd March, 1942

A special meeting was held at Brooks's this afternoon formally to expel the member who has been rude to the servants and has used bad language.  The Chairman announced that he had just received a letter from the member announcing his resignation after all, and promising never to cross the threshold of the club again.  Great relief was expressed by everybody at this end to their embarrassment.  Later in the day, I passed the man, looking unconcerned and truculent under the arcade of the Ritz.  Instantly I felt sorry for him and wondered why he had behaved like this.  I can quite understand how, if one senses that one is disliked, one is impelled to make oneself detested.

--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Wednesday, 18th March, 1942

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