To Live And Die By Books

April 24, 2014 at 6:40 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

“She never wanted me to save her, only to love her as she was.”

– from The Archivist


The awful truth of it all is that madness isn’t beautiful.  But it can be made to sound like it is by literary giants who suffer from it or have had someone close suffer from it.  Anyone who has read the works of Sylvia Plath or T.S. Eliot could tell you this.  Martha Cooley makes this so utterly clear in The Archivist.  Reading Cooley’s work is like coming home.

“Her anger lay just under the surface, and it governed.  I was foolish to think I could urge or lead her anywhere.”

If you’ve known or been close to a manic depressive, you know how maddening this can be.  You know how frustrating the inability to react properly to anything that goes on in their head.  You know how quickly you, too, can be sucked into their reactions and find yourself angry as well.  You also know how wonderful is the defense mechanism of diving into a good book or hiding away with your journal and pen.

“People with special powers are frightening to love.  That’s why Eliot and Vivienne were doomed by the way – why their marriage was bound to fail.  They terrified each other.”

The literary mind finds safe places where it can… inside the pages of books.

“[…]While denial is useful, it has its price.  There’s no such thing as identity without history.”

So many quotes from Cooley moved me with their simplicity and truth.  They are words that I feel in my bones.  “Authentic moral resonance,” Robert Taylor of the Boston Globe called it.  Resonance is always felt in my bones, for all their conditioning I am oddly hyper aware of them.  They are undeniably tied to my passions – my loves – my needs – my life.

The ArchivistIn 1998, Steven Moore of the Washington Post Book World, wrote: “It is rare and gratifying to read a novel about people who take literature seriously, who practically live and die by books…”

It’s not so rare anymore with the likes of Diane Setterfield, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and Kate Morton lurking about.  These days there is a whole sub-genre of fiction dedicated to it featuring titles like The Secret of Lost Things and The Little Book.  My own book is a feeble attempt to honor these authors with a dose of what suited the publishing company at the time.  The Bookshop Hotel is a bit of a romance – but one where the main character is quite in love with books and her small town more than in love with another human.

Poets, a marriage, diaries… Possession won awards and became insanely famous.  Somehow, however, Cooley’s book got buried once it ceased being a New York Times Bestseller – but it should never be forgotten.

I think I’m drawn to these kinds of books because I always find peoples’ relationships to books telling of what their relationships to people are.  Sampling someone’s library is like peering into their soul and seeing where their loyalties lie.  Or, if they have loyalties at all.

There’s a quote on page 47 that I find so familiar –

“She had become familiar to me physically as well as intellectually; I knew her dark brows and good coloring, […] the slope of her neck, the slight overbite of her upper teeth.  I was familiar with the details, yet she eluded me.  Something to do with her motives remained completely beyond my grasp.”

I find this true of many people I’ve encountered.  And many books too.  You hold them, weigh them in your hands.  You lovingly caress their spines.  You know their smell, you know what they are saying.  You know their stories, their backgrounds, their recurring themes.  But you couldn’t begin to comprehend why they are telling you and what motivated them to do so.  You’re not always certain what they want you to do with the information.  That part belongs tucked away in someone’s secret heart and one can only guess.

“I sat at my desk, staring at the note and struggling to make sense of it.  I remember feeling a peculiar detachment – as if I were someone else, trying to unravel a mystery that was captivating but in which I wasn’t personally implicated.”

The Archivist is a must have for any book lovers library, especially for those who live and die by the printed word.

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Weekly Low Down on Kids Books 3/13/12

March 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

This week’s kids books have been greatly divided for me.  Into two categories: the Librarian on the Roof, and NOT the Librarian on the Roof.

Librarian on the Roof is a non-fiction picture book about RoseAleta and the public library she revamped by sitting on its roof for a week during wind, rain, and everything in between.  As a home school mom, this genre of picture book is both my favorite and the hardest to find.  Most non-fiction kids books are factoid books, dinosaurs, bugs, ancient people, counting, abcs, numbers, shapes, and so on.  And those books are great! We have a ton of them.  But finding a picture book that tells a story and then discovering that the story is true is even better.

M.G. King has taken a fascinating tale of courage and determination set right here in modern day Texas and turned it into something amazing.  It also helps that she is one of the sweetest people you could ever meet.  She is kind, friendly, loves talking to people about her book and anything else, and my favorite part – looks right into your eyes while she’s speaking with you.  It’s no wonder that a story about a librarian trying to get the funds to encourage kids to get back to her library would move her.

Librarian on the Roof is hands down a must have for your child.  I was lucky enough to get a signed copy for Ayla at the Deerbrook Mall Barnes & Noble the other day, where King had set up shop for the afternoon.  (Yes, I know, I work for Half Price Books, but the NEW books have to come from somewhere to make it to a USED store.  I even have a membership card there.  Yes, I know, I’m a hopeless addict, please forgive me.  I will make amends with anyone my book addiction has harmed… when I’m older.)

If you’re a book lover, lover of libraries, lover of heartwarming stories, but have no children, you should still go buy the book.  The first time I read it all the way through, kiddo was actually napping and I just couldn’t wait to pop the book open.  I didn’t full on cry, but there were definitely happy tears welling up in the back of my eye balls when RoseAleta finally got to come down off the roof.  The line about being able to buy chairs just the right size for the kiddos actually choked me up for a moment.  Books and people who love books make me absurdly happy.

Buy Librarian on the Roof

2010 was a awhile back and this article I’m about to share is old, but if my post about this book has piqued your interest just a little bit, I think this will seal the deal:

Now, for the NOT the Librarian on the Roof books we read this week:

Shout! Shout It Out! – Denise Fleming

Probably great for boys, but Ayla just wasn’t interested in yelling with me.

Little Tad Grows Up – Giuliano Ferri

Loved! The art is amazing, and it goes through the lifecycle of a frog.  Pretty cool, and educational.

Hattie Hippo – Christine Loomis

This was easily Ayla’s pick of the week. Great for girls.  I’m not really into gender discrimination (my little girl’s nursery is baby blue, green, and orange), but Ayla loves twirling hippo ballerinas and could care less about the shouting toddlers and rodents, go figure.

Gobble, Gobble – Cathryn Falwell

Beautiful illustrations.  Its nice to read about turkeys that we aren’t planning to eat.

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Libraries, Librarians, Bookshops, and Booksellers…

November 24, 2009 at 4:00 am (JARS) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

from The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken

“I was a librarian when I met him. That much is important. I had my library, which I loved and despised. All librarians, deep down, loathe their buildings. Something is always wrong – the counter is too high, the shelves too narrow, the delivery entrance too far from the offices. The hallway echoes. The light from the windows bleaches the books. In short, libraries are constructed by architects, not librarians. Do not trust an architect: he will always try to talk you into an atrium.

“Space is the chief problem. Books are a bad family – there are those you love, and those you are indifferent to; idiots and mad cousins who you would banish except others enjoy their company; wrongheaded but fascinating eccentric and dreamy geniuses; orphaned grandchildren; and endless brothers-in-law simply taking up space who you wish you could send straight to hell. Except you can’t, for the most part. You must house them and make them comfortable and worry about them when they go on trips and there is never enough room.

“My library was no exception.”

George Orwell‘s Bookshop Memories

When I worked in a second-hand bookshop — so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios — the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one. First edition snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all.

Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who ‘wants a book for an invalid’ (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover. But apart from these there are two well-known types of pest by whom every second-hand bookshop is haunted. One is the decayed person smelling of old breadcrusts who comes every day, sometimes several times a day, and tries to sell you worthless books. The other is the person who orders large quantities of books for which he has not the smallest intention of paying. In our shop we sold nothing on credit, but we would put books aside, or order them if necessary, for people who arranged to fetch them away later. Scarcely half the people who ordered books from us ever came back. It used to puzzle me at first. What made them do it? They would come in and demand some rare and expensive book, would make us promise over and over again to keep it for them, and then would vanish never to return. But many of them, of course, were unmistakable paranoiacs. They used to talk in a grandiose manner about themselves and tell the most ingenious stories to explain how they had happened to come out of doors without any money — stories which, in many cases, I am sure they themselves believed. In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money. In the end one gets to know these people almost at a glance. For all their big talk there is something moth-eaten and aimless about them. Very often, when we were dealing with an obvious paranoiac, we would put aside the books he asked for and then put them back on the shelves the moment he had gone. None of them, I noticed, ever attempted to take books away without paying for them; merely to order them was enough — it gave them, I suppose, the illusion that they were spending real money.

Like most second-hand bookshops we had various sidelines. We sold second-hand typewriters, for instance, and also stamps — used stamps, I mean. Stamp-collectors are a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums. We also sold sixpenny horoscopes compiled by somebody who claimed to have foretold the Japanese earthquake. They were in sealed envelopes and I never opened one of them myself, but the people who bought them often came back and told us how ‘true’ their horoscopes had been. (Doubtless any horoscope seems ‘true’ if it tells you that you are highly attractive to the opposite sex and your worst fault is generosity.) We did a good deal of business in children’s books, chiefly ‘remainders’. Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petrenius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators. At Christmas time we spent a feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which are tiresome things to sell but good business while the season lasts. It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited. The touts from the Christmas card firms used to come round with their catalogues as early as June. A phrase from one of their invoices sticks in my memory. It was: ‘2 doz. Infant Jesus with rabbits’.

But our principal sideline was a lending library — the usual ‘twopenny no-deposit’ library of five or six hundred volumes, all fiction. How the book thieves must love those libraries! It is the easiest crime in the world to borrow a book at one shop for twopence, remove the label and sell it at another shop for a shilling. Nevertheless booksellers generally find that it pays them better to have a certain number of books stolen (we used to lose about a dozen a month) than to frighten customers away by demanding a deposit.

Our shop stood exactly on the frontier between Hampstead and Camden Town, and we were frequented by all types from baronets to bus-conductors. Probably our library subscribers were a fair cross-section of London’s reading public. It is therefore worth noting that of all the authors in our library the one who ‘went out’ the best was — Priestley? Hemingway? Walpole? Wodehouse? No, Ethel M. Dell, with Warwick Deeping a good second and Jeffrey Farnol, I should say, third. Dell’s novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists. It is not true that men don’t read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel — the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel — seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories is terrific. One of our subscribers to my knowledge read four or five detective stories every week for over a year, besides others which he got from another library. What chiefly surprised me was that he never read the same book twice. Apparently the whole of that frightful torrent of trash (the pages read every year would, I calculated, cover nearly three quarters of an acre) was stored for ever in his memory. He took no notice of titles or author’s names, but he could tell by merely glancing into a book whether be had ‘had it already’.

In a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones, and one thing that strikes you is how completely the ‘classical’ English novelists have dropped out of favour. It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc. into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say, ‘Oh, but that’s old!’ and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are ‘always meaning to’ read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand. People know by hearsay that Bill Sikes was a burglar and that Mr Micawber had a bald head, just as they know by hearsay that Moses was found in a basket of bulrushes and saw the ‘back parts’ of the Lord. Another thing that is very noticeable is the growing unpopularity of American books. And another — the publishers get into a stew about this every two or three years — is the unpopularity of short stories. The kind of person who asks the librarian to choose a book for him nearly always starts by saying ‘I don’t want short stories’, or ‘I do not desire little stories’, as a German customer of ours used to put it. If you ask them why, they sometimes explain that it is too much fag to get used to a new set of characters with every story; they like to ‘get into’ a novel which demands no further thought after the first chapter. I believe, though, that the writers are more to blame here than the readers. Most modern short stories, English and American, are utterly lifeless and worthless, far more so than most novels. The short stories which are stories are popular enough, vide D. H. Lawrence, whose short stories are as popular as his novels.

Would I like to be a bookseller de métier? On the whole — in spite of my employer’s kindness to me, and some happy days I spent in the shop — no.

Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop. Unless one goes in for ‘rare’ books it is not a difficult trade to learn, and you start at a great advantage if you know anything about the insides of books. (Most booksellers don’t. You can get their measure by having a look at the trade papers where they advertise their wants. If you don’t see an ad. for Boswell’s Decline and Fall you are pretty sure to see one for The Mill on the Floss by T. S. Eliot.) Also it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman. But the hours of work are very long — I was only a part-time employee, but my employer put in a seventy-hour week, apart from constant expeditions out of hours to buy books — and it is an unhealthy life. As a rule a bookshop is horribly cold in winter, because if it is too warm the windows get misted over, and a bookseller lives on his windows. And books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.

But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro. There was a time when I really did love books — loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them for a shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties. For casual reading — in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch — there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl’s Own Paper. But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.



Electra Dietz
Here Lies the Librarian
After years of service
Tried and True
Heaven Stamped her
-Richard Peck

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