23 February 2012

It's a small store. You have to choose carefully.

Everyone assumes edifying thoughts can be found in books. Often everyone is right.

“The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. That’s a good one. Speaking of newly-minted Americans he added, “Can we never extract this tapeworm of Europe from the brain of our countrymen?”

I post-it-noted those lines in my copy of Lions of the West by Robert Morgan. The context – a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward the frontier –  doesn’t much matter. The lines quoted are simply –  juicy.

A college professor, a novelist married to a novelist, first turned me on to reading with a kind of focused detachment – letting the story carry you along but also paying attention to the craft.

In The Enemy author Lee Child has a small-town character who owns a small hardware store in a small town. He understands that of the things he sells, a few could be used as murder weapons.

The old guy shakes his head. “I have to choose what I carry very carefully. Which in some ways is a burden, but which is also a delight, because choice is very liberating. These decisions are mine, and mine alone. So obviously, for a crowbar...” and so forth into the weeds of quality crowbar sourcing.

We’re talking crowbars, of course, and that paragraph suddenly struck me as a semi-hidden anti-big box store message. Lee Child may have intended nothing of that sort, but that’s what his words did for me. A few words on the joys and pitfalls of business. It’s a small store. You have to choose carefully. It’s a burden, also a delight.

“I sell one of these crowbars a year... two, if I’m very lucky,” the old man added. “They’re expensive. And appreciation for quality is declining shamefully. Pearls before swine, I say.”

Another passage in the same book might as well be addressing the disaster unrolling right now in Syria, even though The Enemy was written eight years ago:

“... The twentieth century’s signature sound is the squeal and clatter of tank tracks on a paved street. That sound was heard in Warsaw, and Rotterdam, and Stalingrad, and Berlin. Then it was heard again in Budapest and Prague, and Seoul and Saigon. It’s a brutal sound. It’s the sound of fear. It speaks of a massive overwhelming advantage in power. And it speaks of remote, impersonal indifference... the very noise they make tells you they can’t be stopped. It tells you you’re weak and powerless against the machine.”

That is so Syria, so accurate and so visionary.

In Adam Hochschild’s recent book on the moral drama of World War One, To End All Wars, I found sentences everywhere that speak to the current condition. Describing the German invasion of Belgium and the emotional British reaction he remarks, “... citizens of a great imperial power always like to think of themselves as anointed protectors of the weak.”

Good one. And this passage, concerning the prolific pro-war novelist John Buchan:

“Like the best propagandists, he was not just a manipulator but a believer, for his sunny personality allowed him to imagine the upside of absolutely anything. The inevitable British victory, he claimed, would produce a more democratic society, and so ‘this war may rank as one of the happiest events in our history.’”

Happy, of course, if you don’t include the countless deaths and massive devastation. And for the opposite feeling, this passage from To End All Wars:

“Recruiting posters... appealed to shame: one showed two children asking a frowning, guilty-looking father in civilian clothes, ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ ... Bob Smillie, leader of the Scottish mineworkers, said his reply would be: I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.’”

I quote these juicy words for no other reason than to share with you some small part of the pleasure I get from reading. Pretty much wherever you look, in the most unlikely places and least likely contexts, authors may speak in terms that resonate through the years or hit the reader like an unexpected slap.

And that’s something almost any author seeks – to have a more than trivial effect. To change things, open eyes, move mountains, or at the very least simply share.

This two-way exchange between storyteller and listener is one of the most human aspects of being human. Perhaps it’s the only thing.


Lions of the West by Robert Morgan. Algonquin Press hard cover $29.95. ISBN: 1565126262. paperback will appear in August, 2012 at $18.95. Also available on compact disc read by David Drummond.

The Enemy by Lee Child. Dell Publishing Co. paperback $9.99. ISBN: 0440245990. Also available in compact disc, Mp3 audio and large print.

To End All Wars, A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin hard cover $28. ISBN 9780618758289. Also available in compact disk and Mp3 audio.

Interesting what a large difference there is between what can be published and what can be aired. Too bad the free speech pioneers who fought for TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence and V. Nabokov couldn't have managed to establish similar free speech principles for American radio...

Because of one word, I can’t use this quote on air (from The Enemy) ... "The cotton items were worn and soft and the jacket was neither cheap nor expensive. Together they made up a soldier's typical Saturday-night outfit. Shit, shave, and shower, throw on the civilian duds, pile into someone's car, hit a couple of bars, have some fun."

16 February 2012

Do E Books Get Dusty on Your Shelf?

Been reading through the Paris Review Blog online. Good writing, stimulating essays. But I have to wonder why a literary magazine able to publish anything it wants also runs a literary blog, and publishes there as well?

Why is the weekly New Yorker Magazine also online? Who besides politicians can possibly have THAT much to say? Why is Karen Brown, of the esteemed Karen Brown travel guidebooks, publishing her annual guides this year only in electronic format?

Why do successful travel guides from Lonely Planet, Frommers and DK Eyewitness plus BBC Travel and TimeOut and Hearst now come in a new app for Pads and Phones and Touches, not to mention Androids? The Wenzani app combines amateur feedback with professional research, producing – well, if you read the early reviews from users –  producing a flawed piece of software that crashes easily and doesn’t yet have a lot of useful information on it.

All this puzzles me.

Any time I feel a bit out of synch I can look around my study and gaze at seemingly endless shelves of books. The more obscure the happier they make me. These silent books provide inspiration just by standing on the shelf.  I don’t have to open one to feel the joy. Blowing the dust off is enough.

Here is my high school copy of Candide (is Voltaire still read in American high schools?). Early chapter: How Candide Escaped from the Bulgarians and What Became of Him.

In this underlined passage the amazingly naive Candide is referring to his mentor, Doctor Pangloss:

 “(He) was right in telling me that all is for the best in this world, for I am vastly more touched by your extreme generosity than by the harshness of the gentleman in the black cloak and his good lady.”

Candide has made his way across a bloody battlefield, seen villages ruined by opposing armies, begged unsuccessfully for a crust of bread, had a chamber pot dumped on his head for not acknowledging the Pope as Anti-Christ, and finally been rescued by a stranger who feeds and washes him. This adventure is detailed in two pages, by the way.

Why did I underline so much? Did I fear it would be on the test?

Jefferson and Franklin and the other reluctant revolutionaries were all alive in 1759 when Voltaire published Candide. No doubt many of them read the book in the original French or the immediate English translation. Voltaire was an effective agent of change. He gave courage to French intellectuals and to the Americans as well.

This week a book trade publication reported the results of a Book Industry Study Group survey on Consumer Attitudes Toward E-book Reading. Some of the findings are surprising. According to the survey, three-quarters of people who buy books have not yet purchased a single E-book. As many as 14% of people who own an e-book reader have not yet purchased anything to read electronically.

In other words, three out of four people who purchase books to read still read on paper, despite the rapid growth of electronic alternatives, and a significant number of people possessing e-readers don’t use them much.

The survey also reported that e-books continue to sell in increasing numbers, but the rate of growth has slowed substantially. Maybe the novelty has worn off. My unscientific guess is that people who read books on e-devices do so for specific reasons – while traveling, for reference purposes, to play Sudoku, but for long-form literature, not so much.

I have been asked many times, as if I had special knowledge, and I don’t, what to think of the e-book phenomenon, as if suddenly we had reached the end of the 500-year Gutenberg experiment. At first I didn’t know what to say – people were afraid the trickle of e-readers would soon become an avalanche, sweeping away everything – shelves, dust and all.

But that has not happened. Electronic access to reading materials is becoming simply another path to reading. E-everything E-expands the universe of choice, and will suit some more than others. More readers, more things to read and more ways to read them. How can that be a bad thing?

I look around this room, pull down a few dusty books from a high shelf, and flip through. Here is An A.B.C. of English Usage Price 2s. 6d., published in 1936 at the Clarendon Press, Oxford. It was once owned by Schuyler G. Urquhart, who has excellent handwriting, and Schuyler I want to thank you for the loan, probably to my mother, and let you know you can have your book back any time now.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy reading the explications of terms such as apodosis, apostrophe and apopthegm, which, apparently is much the same as aphorism.

Now I know something new, and I’m happy.


A new conglomerated travel app

09 February 2012

Dream Walking Through Bookstores

If there is one thing I know well, it is bookstores. I used to own one, and over the years I’ve probably visited another couple hundred, in many countries, not all English-speaking.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to stop in to three independent stores in just a few days... all owned by the same people, Paul Jaffee and Barney Brown, co-founders of Copperfield’s, in Sonoma County, California. You can find two Copperfield’s in Sebastopol where they began, and two in Petaluma. They’re also in Montgomery Village Santa Rosa, plus the downtowns of Napa, Healdsburg and Calistoga; altogether, eight iterations of the same store, each one different, including two that specialize in used and rare books.

I shopped and browsed for the same things in three Copperfield’s, and the experiences could hardly have been more different. The Calistoga store felt winter sleepy and somewhat empty, like the surrounding town. The Healdsburg store by contrast was crowded, compact and well stocked. The one in Napa had the deepest selection and put me into a fine book-induced dream state.

There’s always an interested mind behind any truly interesting bookstore. How can this be, you ask? After all, all new books bookstores draw on the same universe of currently published books. That’s where the interested mind comes in – both the customer’s and the book buyer’s. If you purchase science books and cook books, say, the store will stock more of these. If the manager happens to be obsessed with chess and travel, you’ll find more of those as well.

Local management at Copperfield’s clearly influences each store’s style and content. I found many of the same authors in each store, but there were differences. One store stocked one Lee Child thriller; another store carried more than a dozen of his titles, some in multiples.

Contrast this with online stores that endeavor to have everything you could ever want in one virtual space. That very comprehensiveness can be discouraging. When you have everything, you want nothing.

The pseudo-friendly algorithm will attempt to tailor the shopping experience to what you’ve liked in the past, but only a human, with all the subtlety of cultural interaction between not-quite strangers, can put in your hands exactly the book you wanted before you knew you wanted it. Here’s a toast to people over data-mining mathematics.

Another way I know a good bookstore is by the physical effect it has on me. Often people in bookstores fall into some kind of trance-like state as they wander around.

This cannot happen to people who work there. The best ones are constantly aware of books out of place or leaning over each other; listening for customers with questions (My all-time favorite remains: “Where is your non-fiction section?”); aware of music too faint or too loud; of the need for a break or a crack at lunch.

Having left day-to-day bookselling behind, now I too fall into that browsing trance. It’s not that I start bumping into things. It’s more like entering a smooth, stand-up dream, where each book, fiction or not, kicks off a new story. Minutes after walking in I’ve already visited wartime France, seen loggers clutching axes. I’ve checked out a few favorite authors, and thumb-flipped through the most beautiful islands of Greece.

Walkable bookstores charm, seduce, excite, challenge and educate the open-minded dreamer, especially so for some lucky children.

Which brings us to World Book Night, April 23. Hundreds of people will be giving away thousands of free books around the world that night, and I just learned that I will be one of them.

“Don’t gloat,” the welcome letter cautions, “if a friend or colleague didn’t get this email.” Perhaps they picked one of thirty titles that already had been taken to zero by other enthusiastic potential book-givers. Or they entered their email address incorrectly.

As it turns out, several people in the Mendocino area have been picked to give away books in April. Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino plans to have a meeting for these people so we can compare notes and share fears about walking up to complete strangers, asking something such as “Have you read THIS book?” and then handing it to them.

Like The Millionaire of vintage TV, we aim to make people happy readers, with no negative consequences. If only the rest of life could be that easy.


Copperfield’s home page...

World Book Night USA

World Book Night UK and Eire

02 February 2012

Now Into Folding Paper Airplanes, Thank You Professor Weinstein

There are so many things one might do with one’s short time here on the surface of planet Earth. One might save the world, or a small piece of it, or just for fun, one might fold paper airplanes.

If one wanted to fold paper airplanes, one might benefit from expert assistance. Maybe a PhD expert. Yes, that’s it – a professor of molecular genetics at Ohio State University who also is an experienced pilot and longtime origami enthusiast. Origami – you know – the art of folding squares of paper into magical things such as cranes or flowers, stars, dragons, boxes, roses, hearts, even Yoda.

The professor has arrived. He is here to help you fold paper that flies, soars, dips and looks good doing it.

The successful California publisher in Fort Bragg, Cypress House, later this year will present On Folded Wings, Paper Airplanes for All Ages, written by molecular geneticist Dr. Michael Weinstein, with aircraft illustrations by Mike Dietz.

You can do this. You can create the Diamondhead Staggerwing.

“An antique aircraft, the Beech Staggerwing is one of the most elegant ever built,” professor Weinstein writes, before entering nerdland: “This canard* is similar, in that the canard wing is lower and forward of the main wing.”

Can this book actually be For All Ages? I doubt my new granddaughter can do canard wings or inside reverse folds yet.

Before I read this book and learned about canard wings, measuring the speed of the River Seine, Smart Dart stun planes, Mandelbrot sets, Bird-base fighters and more, I already knew how to make one paper airplane. Someone showed me on a slow day in algebra class. I’ve flown my paper jet into teachers’ hair-do’s. One of my best efforts once came to rest stuck between the teacher’s sock and the Achilles notch in his sneaker.

Most often, however, my personal jet launched with a quick baseball toss, then lurched to the floor with a pitiful dent in its binder paper nose.

With the professor’s book I would have learned something about aerodynamics. I could have benefited from centuries of research on why things fly or don’t. I could have built a tail-dragger, a Gremlin, a Triangulon, or an Enormously Abstract Heron. I could have hit my teachers more often.

On Folded Wings shows you how to fly pieces of paper. But that’s not all. It’s a short introduction to the science of flight, written light-heartedly but seriously, too. Clear schematic drawings in full color take you step by step into the sky, or at least the ceiling.

You will learn pitch, roll, yaw and basic folds. Master these folds, build your airplane. All but one plan calls for a single piece of paper (the Twin Star, being a twin, takes two pieces of paper). You will learn about air speed, and why piston powered planes need overhauls. You will find out what makes an airplane go fast (“The answer is actually a bit more complex than you might think.”)

This book is a gem, highly recommended as an educational tool and as plain fun and games.

Right now I’m trying a radical new design – folding the entire book into the world’s heaviest paper airplane. 


On Folded Wings, Paper Airplanes for All Ages by Michael Weinstein. Cypress House paperback $16.95. ISBN 9781879384798. Publication date April, 2012.

Cypress House on the web

And you can find them on Facebook as well... 

And another one on Maui!

*Canard: (1) duck (2) a false report; rumour or hoax (3) an aircraft in which the tailplane is mounted in front of the wing. Tailplane: Also called (esp US): horizontal stabilizer  a small horizontal wing at the tail of an aircraft to provide longitudinal stability. (From the World English Dictionary)

01 February 2012

My Application

This is what I wrote on my application to give away books on World Book Night...

Where do you intend to give away your books? (please give as much detail as possible)
I don't shop often at Safeway, preferring the local organic foods market and the locally owned bigger store. I see all my friends in these two locations, but few people I know in Safeway. Therefore, it will be a nervy challenge for me personally, and a great opportunity to approach relative strangers with such a magical gift.

To whom do you intend to give your books?
I'll be looking for people I never saw in my bookstore, people perhaps not dressed expensively. If I have copies of Because of Winn Dixie I'll look for children approx 8 - 13. Bel Canto is a fairly high level book but full of excitement and tension -- can be read purely on the adventure level so it won't be "literate" and offputting, but it is quite deep when one ponders what happens and the implications. Also has quite an emotional punch to it. People who read this book remember it.

Why do you want to give this book away? (less than 100 words)
As an independent bookseller for 26 years in Mendocino CA I recommended books endlessly; but never had the opportunity to give away a pile of them. What a pleasure and a treat to do this!

Note: it's "fewer than 100 words" not "less than..." but I didn't write that on the application. I want those books!