Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 11: The Cats

So we have two cats. Lots of other bookshops have cats, too, and have their own reasons for keeping them, and there are arguments against keeping cats (allergic or phobic customers being the most important one). Why do we have them?

A refugee cat stayed at the shop just after the tornado of 2006. Phey's house was among those destroyed in the storm, and she lived at the Haunted until her owner got settled in a new place. It was a little crazy at first; I'd never lived with a cat before. Then I realized that people were coming to the shop to check on Phey, that Phey liked the place, and that I was enjoying the company of a generally quiet, observant, sometimes silly companion. By the time she left, I was ready to give another cat a permanent home at the bookshop.

In July, I adopted a shelter cat and one of her kittens. Nierme was a little standoffish at first, but she'd just been through an awful experience: barely old enough to be a mother, she was abandoned with a litter of five in a cardboard box that had been taped shut. Only the fact that she was smart enough to chew air holes into the sides of the box saved them, and she still had that tense survivor's edge. But Elijah, the kitten, was naturally calm, so he relaxed much more quickly into bookshop life. He played with small children who came to visit the shop and spent the rest of his time purring on my lap or washing his mother's face. Everybody loved him.

He died on Thanskgiving that same year of a heart defect. For about a week I could barely work. I'd never lost a furry companion before, and I kept tearing up every time someone asked where Elijah was - and everybody asked, because everybody had been watching him grow and enjoying his warm, gentle personality. Nierme was inconsolable. I took her home and watched movies with her and 'talked' to her, but she still crawled around under the chairs at the shop, crying and sniffing for Elijah's scent.

In the end, I went to the animal shelter to find her another baby. I wasn't really ready. I'd adopted Elijah and Nierme because Elijah had just captured me somehow, had seemed like someone I wanted to know. I didn't want to know any other kittens yet. But one kitten had other ideas.

A flying, soda-can-sized ball of scruffy gray fur landed on me as I was headed to the door. It yelled, "Me!" Then it lost its balance and scrambled wildly to stay on my shoulder, accidentally leaving three parallel scratch marks. Maybe this doesn't sound like a good first impression, but his unreserved and instant trust made me decide to adopt him.

My friend D and I went to pick him up the next day. No sooner had we opened the cat carrier back at the bookshop than he systematically explored the entire place. Nierme bristled - a stranger who smells like flea rinse is generally a bad thing - and in the end we had to keep the new kitten in the office for a few days while she got used to his scent. But the tension stayed high even after we got the new kitten neutered. He had the attitude that went with the messy mane and the three parallel scratch marks. (We even named him Logan after The Wolverine.)

Then Logan got sick. He couldn't stand up and couldn't eat. Heartsick, I drove him to the vet's office and waited for the bad news. A couple of days later, our amazing vet, Dr. Brian Hayes of the Cat Clinic of Iowa City, called to tell me that Logan would have to eat special food for a while, but he would otherwise be fine.

In all the tension, I hadn't noticed how worried everybody else felt. All the people who had missed Elijah were as frightened for Logan as I was, and when he returned home safely, everyone fussed over him, much to his delight. Including Nierme, who greeted him by slamming him to the floor and washing his ears vehemently, as if to say "Don't ever scare me like that again!" I agreed.

Logan and Nierme had become family, and so had the regular patrons who had come to care for them. When I invited people over to celebrate Logan's first birthday, a crowd turned up and brought simple toys - crumpled paper and cardboard tubes - as well as fancy catnip mice and little knitted balls. I got to know other people because I liked the way they treated the cats and ended up chatting with the people myself. Children came specifically to visit the cats, allowing me a chance to enjoy the kids' company, too. And Logan, and gradually Nierme as well, thrived on the constant adoration.

They also work here. No, I'm not kidding. They kill any insects or spiders that sneak into the building, saving me the time and worry. They entertain kids so the kids' parents can browse. Nierme inspects arriving books; if she makes a certain face, I know she smells book mold, so I don't buy them. The cats keep readers company and have, more than a few times, consoled the unhappy or served as stand-ins for cats left back home.
I watch Logan for cues about new people at the store; he has very sound intuitions, steering clear of people feeling rushed or anxious, gravitating to those who arrive relaxed or curious. Nierme makes sure I know about problems in the shop, and not just empty water dishes; she comes to get me if a book falls from a shelf. Later, after hours, when I'm listing books for sale on the internet or catching up on trade journals, they curl up in my office chair with me and keep me company. Sometimes they barf or knock something over, but doesn't everybody?

Both have large vocabularies; Logan makes a certain range of sounds when hunting, another range when playing with children, another when demanding dinner. Nierme mimics human tonalities; she can complain, question, call for help, or drop an offhand 'what's up.' I've learned the difference between the vocalizations and body language that mean 'clean my litterbox now' and those that mean 'go away, I'm busy being beautiful.' The first thing I hear in the morning is Nierme's funny little chirp greeting, and the last thing I hear before leaving at night is Logan's 'don't leave' cry. These sounds are part of life now, like leaves changing in the fall and the ubiquitous coming and going of Vonnegut novels.

Does this answer the question of why the Haunted has cats? For some reason, some people are reassured that the cats are important when I tell them about the bug-hunting. Others see the way that Nierme and Logan act like part of the team with Ali, Anna, Jon, Luke, and me, and they get it. Little kids are usually too delighted to question the fact. For everyone else:

Logan's on my lap right now, trying to use my right arm as a pillow, which makes typing complicated, but he's purring. I have a stack of medieval history books to price and some African-American Studies to sort. Ali's laughing with Luke up at the front counter, and someone just walked past the office door, saying "I'll be in the Nature section" to someone else who is, by the sound of her footsteps, already up on the stage. We've been saying goodbye to a lot of old friends during this traditional Iowa City moving-away season, but we'll be here when those friends come back to visit. Things change; sections get bigger or smaller, the cat on my lap now weighs eleven pounds instead of three, and some of our friends are only here once every few years instead of every few days; but some things stay the same: the sense of community, even family; the ongoing conversations; the shiver-inducing feeling of being surrounded by ideas and stories in tall and alphabetical ranks; the playtime with puppets and the recommendation of books; and the occasional demands for chicken-flavored crunchy treats. As with most lives, the life of the Haunted Bookshop includes ambition and direction, while some parts of the life just sort of happen. And, as with most lives, some of those parts somehow become necessary when we aren't noticing. Including the parts that go meow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

So many we had to make a new section

Library of America! Many of them are the slipcased ones, and the collection includes American history, poetry, and literature (so far - there's more coming).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why you should use cash

This is a straightforward, short article explaining the many ways in which using plastic hurts your favorite businesses, your friends making less than $20,000 per year, your local economy, and, in the end, your wallet too.

Check this out:
Credit card fees make the rich richer.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

This just in....

Finally, some good new Judaica! Here's a biography of Maimonides, a copy of the Book of Enlightenment of Zohar, and an assortment on everything from acculturation for medieval Jewish boys to a study of rabbis as folklorists. Coming up: more early Christian theology, some medieval and Renaissance philosophy, and a bunch of raw foods recipe books.

First Officer's Log No 8: Liberal Application of the Joystick... or, How I Learned to Love Video Game Writing and Storytelling

There is a constant argument in the field of entertainment, regardless of one's professional background, that video games aren't art. I'm not going to argue for or against it, because I haven't made up my mind yet. What I have determined is that sometimes a game can tell a great story, and where there is a great story, strong characters, and a compelling reason to keep going, there is something special. Perhaps not art, but certainly something special.

Imagine this scenario: A military commander is the second in command on an advanced warship. When the warship is called to a colony in distress, the commander and two others venture forth to determine the cause and try to save those they can. Instead, they discover a relic of an ancient civilization that grants the commander visions of a terrifying enemy on the horizon. Now, to stop a scourge of destruction, the commander must recruit a specialized team or the entire galaxy will be destroyed.

Or another: A country is overrun by darkness and dangerous enemies are present everywhere, especially after dark. The only one who can help is a white wolf, who must rediscover her previous life and use her mystical abilities to restore life and beauty to the world.

A third: A young man in Renaissance Italy witnesses the betrayal and execution of all the men in his family and swears revenge. In his adventure, he discovers a conspiracy that involves famous members of Italian society, from the Medicis to the Borgias, and must use his young friend Leonardo's inventions and brilliant mind to track the plot all the way to the highest levels of Italian society.

If any of those sound familiar, you're either a video game player or you have one in your family. The first is Bioware's "Mass Effect", a science fiction epic. The second is Clover's "Okami", which uses Japanese mythology as the basis of its adventure story. The third is Ubisoft Montreal's "Assassin's Creed 2", an adventure, a mystery, and a classic story of revenge all rolled into one.

Three stories; they could be novels, or films. There is a sense of wonder in each, an intriguing concept that draws the audience in. Like any good book, they offer unique characters, a grand scope of a story, and multiple layers of writing - from the cheap jokes that can sometimes remind us of the humanity of our characters, to the knowledge that more than one's self interest is at stake. Unlike novels and films, games like these offer an audience the chance to immerse themselves in the story, in the action, perhaps feeling as if they are part of the grand scheme.

There are many things to be said for a great book or a great film. There is something about a great story, though, that drags you in, regardless of the medium. I'd like to think that there's always something special out there, something that reminds me why I love good stories and great writing, what reminds me why I've always been drawn to them. Different mediums can tell great stories, and sometimes the medium can surprise you.

So it was these three stories that truly convinced me that video games have something to add to the world of stories. While it's not up to me to judge them as art, I think that these three in particular offered the familiar but made it better.

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 10: Cleaning Solvents

At this time of year, we buy literally hundreds of books a day. We clean each book with dustcloths, water, rubbing alcohol, and/or special solvents designed to remove sticker goo; we repair and cover with clear protectors any damaged or potentially damageable dust wrappers; we price the books carefully, sort them into sections, and shelve them, dozen after dozen. That's why you'll often see one or more of us at the counter cleaning and fixing books, one or more working on our internet listings of the more obscure or academic titles, one or more of us shelving books among the 45,000 titles currently in stock, and not me - I'm in the office, dealing with the most complicated ones.

After a few hours in the office with the rubbing alcohol and solvent fumes, I get a little wacky. It's hard to tell, I'm sure, since I'm known to scurry up and down aisles with a hand puppet, an inventory checklist, three pens (one in hand, one behind each ear), and an armload of books while speaking in a passable imitation of Rizzo the Rat or Elmo, but sometimes I get thoroughly out of hand. Freer with my opinions, more likely to come up with recommendations from unexpected sections, a little playful in my pricing notes (yes, I do use "THC" as my section code for "Theatre History and Criticism"), and more likely to end up singing made-up songs while sweeping or wiping windows.

This is why I don't let people in after hours when I've got a broom in hand:

I am the very model of an independent bookseller;
I've information internet and alphabet and pure rumor;
I know the names of winners of the Nobel and the Pulitzer
The Pushcart Prize and Book Award and even of the Man Booker
I'm very well acquainted with the Hugo and the Nebula
And know a lot of authors nominated for the Agatha;
My tastes run to the classics of a well-kept scholar's library
Although I buy for everyone who loves books quite prodigiously;
I grade books fine or very good or good or just acceptable
And list them on the internet with prices quite comparable
And shelve them first by topic then by author or by editor
In categories based upon the tastes of my best collectors;
In short in matters mercantile of books and bibliophilia
I am the very model of an independent bookseller.

That's bad. It's only July 21. I'm not supposed to be that silly until at least the 27th.

If you're coming in to have a serious conversation with me, best wait until after the 3rd or 4th of August. At least by then I'll be spending less time with the cleaning solvents. Maybe.
"A manly refined squee? :clears throat and, in deep voice: Squee." - Jon

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"I did not have mercantile relations with that book." - Luke, in regard to Hunter S Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

This just in....

At least two dozen volumes of the slipcased Library of America books, fiction and non; more Bukowski and some beat poets; a lot of hard-to-find steampunk, plus John Crowley, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, and more.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"If I had $1000 of burnable cash, I would buy a whole bunch of books, old and new, open them once, smell them, put them in a pile and roll in them." - Jennifer, one of our regulars**

** This is a statement that is the first sign that you in danger of becoming a bookseller. Or, maybe, you're just a bibliophile.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"By Gar!" - Everyone in the cast of Merry Wives of Windsor

Thanks so much to everyone who came to participate in the ACE Experiment production this evening. You people are delightful, and we look forward to enjoying your company again!

First Officer's Log No 7: The European / Asian / Non-American Invasion... of Mystery

So! We're back to another installment of the First Officer's Log, and, following through from my last post (apologies for the long delay - madness has ensued), I'm going to mention a handful of European and Asian mystery writers who have caught my fancy. I mentioned a number of Americans whom I am quite taken with, but I admit that I've found some non-American authors more interesting.

The few Europeans who have caught my eye tend to be British in flavor. Val McDermid, still a favorite after all these years, wowed me when I was a teenager with her exquisitely twisted serial killer novel "The Mermaid's Singing". While I find a few quibbles with the novel now (mostly with regard to characterization), I still find it a deliciously twisty turny mystery, featuring a criminal profiler who meets his match in a killer who is never quite what he seems. Her follow up, a stand alone called "Killing the Shadows", could be read as a response to her own genre: the serial killer and criminal psychologist profiler story line. While it's become a bit cliche in this day and age, McDermid wrote an excellent novel with "Shadows", where the victims of a serial killer are those very writers who create novels in which profilers triumph over all evils. McDermid is such a good writer because she seems to grasp the flaws in her own genre and is not afraid to show them to the public. Of her novels, "Killing the Shadows" still reigns as my favorite.

John Connolly, whom I've mentioned before, gets another nod on this list of favorites. His Charlie Parker novels, marvelously eerie and elegantly written, portray a man who faces evil head on, with the full knowledge that the farther he progresses into his series, he is slowly becoming the very thing that he hunts. Connolly's novels get eerier and more sinister with the telling, and his stand alone novel "Bad Men" might be amongst the best novels I've ever read, simply because it never goes in the direction you expect. A murder occurs, and a good island police officer dedicates himself to finding out what has happened, with results that leave the reader (well, this reader at least) alternately flabbergasted and filled with pride, secure in the knowledge that there is one author in this world who is unafraid of playing in the darkness, and somehow coming out with his hands more or less clean. Connolly's novels all take place in the American NorthEast, though he is an Irishman. His prose captures the haunting atmosphere of Maine and the villages on the coast, relating the stories of men who have fallen into the depths of a place between life and death, and perhaps somewhere in between.

It is a difficult thing, determining who my favorite mystery writer is, but between Connolly and the American Dennis Lehane, I'll never be bored.

Two more authors I'd like to bring to your attention, both Japanese, a man and a woman, who write about Japan as it is now, from the 1970s to the chilling present.

Ryu Murakami's (no relation to Haruki) books came to my attention last summer, when I decided that, since I didn't know much about Japanese literature, that I should dive into it head first, without looking at the pond depth. Murakami is an engaging writer, with a voice that plays and twists with your expectations. "In the Miso Soup", probably his best known novel in the states, takes place over three nights in Tokyo, as a young Japanese man leads an unusual American on a tour of the red light district. Along the way, the young man begins to suspect that his client is a serial killer. The story alternates between horrific and laugh out loud funny, but when the conclusion arrives, it is bittersweet. "Coin Locker Babies" is a sharp detour, a novel about two young teenage boys, abandoned at birth by their mothers and left to die in subway coin lockers, who survive and become reflections of the 1980s. One becomes a punk rock singer, the other a student, but they remain friends and decide to find the women who abandoned them and seek revenge. It is not a gentle story, and might leave you feeling uneasy, if only because Murakami writes about shattered youth so well, so refreshingly, and with an understanding of youth culture that American writers don't seem to grasp as well.

The last writer I want to introduce to you is Natsuo Kirino, a mystery writer who writes about women and men and the terrible, sometimes desperate, things that pass between them as they attempt to survive. Her first novel translated into English "Out" is a brutal thriller, while "Grotesque" is a terrifying journey into the life of a woman who has no regrets. Her newest novel, "Real World" is about teenage girls in Japan, and what kind of a life they occupy and represent. It is as much a novel that seeks to educate outsiders about teenagers in Japan as it is a novel about teenage girls, and the things they think they want despite their youth. It is a message that crosses cultures. Kirino strikes me as a woman who gets women, actually understands the horrors and the terrors that women still face, and isn't afraid to talk about them. From this stance, I admire her, for while I can't always agree with what she writes, and I can't always read it with a strong stomach, I can read it and understand that she is telling a story, a painful but brilliant story. For this reason, I love her books.

Well, many thanks for allowing me to ramble on about mysteries I like. Does anyone have a suggestion of a mystery writer I should check out? American or European? What mysteries get under your skin or make you think?

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 9: Two Ways of Reading Books

We have a literary criticism section. It has very recent things and very old things - the latest from Duke University Press and Matthew Arnold - in the same bookcase. As with many disciplines, we select books for this section based not only on what is currently of interest but also which texts shaped this field of study. Aristotle, William Morris, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Derrida: they are all important in the history of how scholars read.

I have to admit, as a point of bias, that I'm a formalist by nature and a reader response critic by training, so the section probably has a slight slant based on my tastes. A slant, not a selection principle; the biology section has a selection principle; I do not consider creationism to be a science, as a matter of definition, so there isn't any in my biology section. I don't disinclude postcolonial critics from my literary criticism section, because they are, definitionally, literary critics. I don't always agree with them, but there they are.

But I do have a larger-scale bias that does affect my recommendation principles not only for criticism, but for everything. It's time I admitted to that, too.

Two categories into which I divide fiction, critical theory, memoir, and several other genres of written work are oneirophilic and omphalophilic. I have an extremely heavy bias toward the former, and since I recommend books based on what I know, most of the books I recommend have qualities appealing to the oneirophile.

The oneirophile likes the structure and the aesthetic, the narrative and the well-reasoned, but most of all, the Idea of Things and the Possibility. The oneirophile dislikes tragedy without catharsis, narrative without protagonism, theory that examines and postulates but offers more deconstruction than appreciation. The oneirophile likes complex symbolism and, while finding influences on literature interesting, does not believe that evidence from any related critical schools can explain away the goodness of a book as merely and unfortunately particular to a privileged class, unless it is quite clearly the author's intention to exhibit and promote an ugly belief (such as that a certain minority lacks intelligence or moral judgment, or that a crime such as rape or enslavement is justifiable). The oneirophile cannot tolerate an act of art designed to create ugliness; ugliness in art, selon the oneirophile, should exist only to give us a reason to love what changes during the book or what one leaves the book prepared to hope.

The omphalophile likes beautifully written tragedy, catharsis or no; beautifully written relations of experience, with or without change on the narrator's or main character's part; and critical theories that explain an author's slant or bias or class influences or cultural history and the effect of these things on the author's writing, with or without love for the story or its author. Omphalophiles also tend to prefer description to evocation, example to archetype, and conscious deconstruction of a form over conscious use (or playful misuse) of a form. For some reason, a statistically significant percentage of omphalophiles I know also like the beautifully rendered ugly subject.

I, an oneirophile, can make myself appreciate the quality of the rendering, but I'd rather be watching britcoms on public television than trying to appreciate an aesthetically interesting treatment of an unpleasant or unhopeful subject. For this reason, I adore Calvino, Borges, Garcia Marquez, Winterson; Cather, L. M. Montgomery, C. S. Lewis, Morrison; David Mitchell, Kawabata, Woolf, and the late Saramago. I've read Madame Bovary and The Awakening and Death of a Salesman and Angela's Ashes, and it's not that I don't understand why they are important and well made; it's just that after a long day of answering sales calls and cleaning up oopses and fielding the criticism and feast/famine ledger lines one naturally gets in any retail business, I don't want to read about ennui, degradation, attrition of hope, unmendable sorrow. I certainly don't want to read about any of those things from authors with less skill than Flaubert, Chopin, or Arthur Miller.

Oh, here I am talking about my personal opinions again. As with all my personal opinions, I invite differing ones gladly. I like to know what other people think.

But don't try to make me like the latest unresolveably hopeless, urban-decayed, ruthlessly 'honest' bestseller. I may be curious, but I will never be other than an oneirophile. I don't refuse to see ugliness in the world and I don't refuse to respect art that captures ugliness - I just know that even with my strong genes and the best of medicine, I won't live past a hundred and twenty, which means I don't have enough time to admire the hopes and laughters and beauties of the world that, if well presented, contain within them the despairs and cruelties against which we compare them and perhaps even from which ashes we resurrect them. Especially if they're presented in Justice-like sestinas (the kind with deliberately clever end-word twisting), novels that are also good yarns, stories that are also puzzles, or imagery-rich, playfully crafted poetry. Because I'm an oneirophile, which, if you didn't know, comes from the Greek roots for 'lover of dreams.'

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 8: Sidebar on Serial Killer Fiction

Between Ali's column on American mystery writers and the fact that we've been asked for copies of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo about half a dozen times a day for the last few weeks (sorry, folks, we're currently out), I've been thinking about serial killers. As characters, that is.

As a matter of personal opinion, I find the vast majority of fictional serial killers to be not so much characters as cultural litmus strips. What's the worst thing we can imagine this year? Apparently, Nazi rapists. Not that I don't think Naziism is wrong and rape is unforgiveable. It's just that the characterization of Nazi rapist serial killers in currently popular fiction works more to tell me what people currently find most repulsive than it does to create a believable killer.

My reading in the area is somewhat limited, since my tastes in mystery fiction run to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Elizabeth George, and Erin Hart. But I have read the occasional serial killer story, and so far, I have found exactly two serial killer characters who stand up as characters with interesting motives.

One is Hannibal Lecter. The other is in Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders. They are the only two fictional serial killers who have frightened me.

Nota bene: I have only read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris; I have not read any of the other books featuring Hannibal Lecter for the specific reason that I don't want any more explanation of the character. What makes him so scary to me in The Silence of the Lambs is that on the one hand, he has all the knowable traits of a highly intelligent, apparently entirely self-serving yet, apparently, sporadically humane individual while simultaneously desiring things that repulse the normal person on the most basic levels. The mystery of how he can justify this to himself is, in calculated places, left to the reader to fill with the reader's own most frightening imaginings, and I strongly believe that horror, as a genre, is most artfully accomplished when the author very carefully selects what not to tell the reader.

As for the character in Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders, I can say very little without spoiling the story for those who might choose to read it, other than that once the reader reaches the explanation of the serial killer's reasoning, the sheer simplicity of the reason contrasted with the killer's willingness to enact all those killings to complete one simple purpose is what makes the killer terrifying.

What is it about the other hundreds of fictional serial killers that doesn't work for me? Some of them have very clever themes; I suppose I can appreciate that in the same way that I can appreciate a well-done parade float; but I am interested neither in what childhood trauma turned them into killers (isn't it almost always a childhood trauma?) nor in how cleverly they masquerade as ordinary people, nor again which species of non-normal sexual proclivity they have now. I do not want to be told why I should understand the killer as the necessary product of something (i.e., trauma); I do not get excited about the cleverness level of duplicity (sorry, Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne, I will always like the X-Men more than you for that reason); and above all, I am consistently underinterested in knowing about the perviest sex the author can imagine.

Which is all another way of saying that I only find serial killers interesting when they are at least somewhat mysterious. When they can tell another character why they kill and still not quite make sense because how, how can a person make the amoral leap to deciding that killing people - not out of revenge, not out of self-defense, not even for selfish or ambitious reasons, but killing people who are usually strangers, and more than one at that - is even possible? (And please don't say because they were traumatized. Trauma is horrible and affects people deeply, and I take it quite seriously as a basis for character motivation, but trauma doesn't deprive people of free will entirely, and also - ease up on the exposition already. There is far too much of that in current fiction.)

Anyway, if the serial killer is unscary, that removes an element of suspense. Which makes the story just another police case, or even more commonly, a romance story about the people trying to solve the case. At the moment, I'm pretty bored with stories about people deciding to have sex because they're both facing a dangerous enemy. No, scratch that, I'm almost always bored with that.

But again, this is all just my opinion, so I'm inviting discussion here. What is it that makes serial killer stories interesting to you? Which ones are the best, and why? Why should I or should I not read Red Dragon? Teach me; I want to know.

***Oops! Edited to add: I just realized there is a third multiple-person-killer in modern fiction that I find to be a fully developed character. Try The Butcher Boy by Patrick McGrath. It's one of those stories in which you start out sympathizing profoundly with the main character and then, suddenly, around page 100, you start feeling queasy, and by page 200, you want to throw the book down and collar the author and ask "How did you make me agree to this?!" I love that. Call me a sucker for Pied Pipers, but I love it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 7: On the Motion and Entropy of Libraries

Several times now in the years that I have owned the Haunted, I have been called to purchase the collections of a deceased person, and in some of those cases, the deceased was a regular at the shop. A few times, they were even friends.

This week, I learned that another of my regulars, one with whom I had frequent conversations about books we enjoyed, one who introduced me to some of my favorite writers and to whom I introduced other writers, had passed on. I'm not suggesting that the loss I feel is comparable to what his close friends and family are feeling, but there is a kind of grief that a book dealer feels upon repurchasing the collection of a regular.

I remember particular books from this collection. There were a few that a different friend sold to me before leaving the country, so there is a kind of bittersweet fondness I feel at seeing those particular volumes again. There were others I didn't even know the deceased would have been interested in reading. I regret not learning about that interest while he was alive. I regret not having spoken to him about a few authors I'd only recently found. I regret that I can't remember the last time I saw him. Not exactly. Maybe the memory I have of the time he bought these two books over here was actually his last visit to the store. I wish I knew.

You've all probably heard my rueful cracks on the subject of how little a book dealer gets to read. The hours involved in running a small business of any kind tend to cut into reading time. But I don't mind as much as you might think, because for me, there are other narratives to follow. There are small children who now recognize letters and words, with whom I can now have conversations, whose first weeks in this world I remember. There are young people now leaving for college who have been regulars at the shop since they were in middle or even elementary school. There are readers who have shifted interests from one type of book to another. And there are those who came to the shop, conversed with me, traded books in, bought books, met friends, played word or board games here, helped during the flood or the move, whose libraries I am now selling, volume by volume, to other readers. Every time I sell one of these books, I am tempted to stop the buyer and say, "This book belonged to a friend of mine." Once I even begged a customer to buy the second of a two-volume series to keep the books together, for the sake of the memory of the former owner. Other times I make a point of recommending another author that the deceased former owner liked, in case the new owner might like that author too.

Maybe that's crazy. But I knew these people through their libraries, and this is the only tribute I can think of to make in memory of these deceased patrons.

So this week I had to close the book of my friendship with a particular regular. I don't think I will ever feel - with him or with anyone else who visits this shop as a patron - that I read enough of the story. Some of the books from his collection have already sold, and many I will never see again, because at this time of year a lot of paperbacks go on airplanes with people just passing through. Some I may see again if the new owner has to sell books before moving elsewhere. But I feel like there's a volume missing from my shelves now that I'll never find again, a rare book that passed through my hands that I won't be able to replace, the introduction to which I read but the real story of which I may never know.

To our friends and guests at the Haunted: If you buy a book in the next few weeks and catch me looking a little sad as I hand it to you, know that you are taking part of a story with you. Do the book, and its former owner, the honor of letting that book mean something to you. Tell me about it, if you like. I'd like to know. I want to believe that these books, arriving at the shop with more meaning than their pages convey, will go out and accrue meaning among other people whose stories I would like, however briefly, to know.

To the absent reader whose books I am now selling: Remember that time we talked about philotes? Maybe there's something to that idea of the balance of literary matter and conscience energy. I want there to be. For your sake and for mine. Maybe I'll tell that one kid about it - the kid you introduced to Stanislaw Lem - he's old enough now to understand the corollary that losing you has made me consider: that the story behind a particular copy of a book can affect the way another reader understands it. We'll call it the Terebithia Corollary to Matt's Theorem.