Category Archives: Uncategorized

What I’m Reading Now: July 3, 2018

All Heaven and Earth in a Bookstore

This week we take a break from discussing current reading to talk about another favorite book-related topic: the joys of the used book store.

Long-suffering readers of this blog have read about the wonders of the used book sale, which usually only happens once a year. A great used bookstore brings that wonder all the year round.

Like the brick and mortar retail bookstores, used bookstores are an endangered species. There used to be one in nearly every town, but not so anymore.

I have written before about the legendary Oxford Too in Atlanta’s Peachtree Battle shopping center, which like its parent Oxford Books closed in 1997. The Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, owned by Cliff Graubert, was another favorite, as was Smythe Books in Dunwoody, owned by my friend Jim Strawn. Both of the latter two are still operated out of the basements of the homes of their owners, and you can call them and peruse their wares by appointment, or find them on the Internet.

As an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, I well remember discovering Jackson Street Books in Athens after it opened in 1984. Their history and biography section was a gold mine for an aspiring historian, as so many of the UGA faculty disposed of unwanted books there. Alas, the store closed in 2016 after 32 years in business.

There are still some great used bookstores around Georgia, however. This is by no means a complete list, just three of my favorites: the Golden Bough in Macon if you’re traveling on I-75, E. Quinn Booksellers in Blue Ridge when you’re up in the mountains (say hello to Mike when you go), and our very own Book Lady right here in Savannah.

A few years ago I made a quick trip to New York and ran out of time before I could visit the Strand, the mecca of all used bookstores at Broadway and 12th. But when in Boston I did visit Commonwealth Books and the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, two legendary venues as well.

Back in 2009 I was planning a business trip to Washington, D.C., and was going to have an entire day free in the middle of the week. Readers of this blog know I’m a huge fan of Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. I sent him an email at the Post and asked what used bookstores he’d recommend in the D.C. area, figuring he wouldn’t write back.

He did, immediately, and sent me a complete list of his favorites, including Second Story Books, a cavernous book warehouse out in Rockville, Maryland, where he lives. When my free day came, I took the Metro Red Line to the penultimate stop in Rockville, just before Shady Grove, walked a mile to the warehouse, and spent several blissful hours perusing the stacks. I had to ship everything home, but it was worth every penny.

Just yesterday I spent a rainy afternoon in my friend Joni’s Book Lady Bookstore on Liberty Street, and found several treasures.

My first pickup was The Golden Argosy: A Collection of the Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language (1955), which contains such classics as Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” and Thomas Wolfe’s “Chickamauga.” I’ve been looking for this one for years, and there it was, for only $7.50.

I also found Peter Ackroyd’s The Life of Thomas More (1998), The Church & The Age of Reason, 1648-1789 by Gerald R. Cragg, Jonathan Green’s Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made (1996), and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s massive Robert Kennedy and His Times, the 1978 doorstop that weighs in at well over 1,000 pages, just in time for me to read at the 50th anniversary of RFK’s death. In hardback, yet. Five books at $46 total: taint bad, Magee.

Well, you say, used bookstores are okay, but I can buy anything I need, used or new, on the Internet—or better yet, I can download almost any book immediately to my Kindle. And so you can.

But if you truly love the printed word, there is nothing like the serendipity of browsing the stacks of a used bookstore. As a book collector, and truly, as a reader, the hours I’ve spent in these vanishing guardians of literary gold have been among some of the happiest of my life.

Christopher Morley said it best, in his great homage to the book, Parnassus on Wheels: “When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.”

I agree.

What I’m Reading Now: June 19, 2018

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, 1925, 180 pp.)

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is one of those artists whose tragic life has become in some ways more famous than his creations.

He was a founding member of the Lost Generation of (mostly) expatriate writers who flourished in the 1920s and ’30s, and who have been endlessly romanticized and criticized, particularly in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Fitzgerald’s meteoric rise after the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920, his stormy marriage to Zelda and her descent into madness, his rocky friendship with Hemingway, his close partnership with editor Maxwell Perkins, his alcoholism and depression, and his last frantic scriptwriting hack days in Hollywood are all well-known and well-documented. When he died of a heart attack four days before Christmas in 1940 (at age 44, like Robert Louis Stevenson), with his last novel only half-finished, he considered himself a literary failure who would quickly be forgotten.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. His third novel, The Great Gatsby, had never sold particularly well in his own lifetime—in the first year Scribner’s sold only 20,000 copies—and was considered nothing more than a 1920’s period piece. Then during World War II the paperback version became enormously popular with soldiers stationed abroad, and in the post-war years it was added to high-school curricula across the country. Suddenly it was re-evaluated as a towering classic of American 20th-century fiction, and sales skyrocketed. It has now sold over 25 million copies (including about half a million worldwide annually) and remains Scribner’s most popular title. If only Fitzgerald had lived to see even a bit of it.

Mercifully, I was never required to read it in high school, because if I had, I would have brought a 17-year-old’s sensibilities to a great piece of literature, and it would have been wasted on me. Now was my time to read it. Harrumph alert: It irritates me to no end when I hear grown, mature adults wave off reading a great book because “I read it in high school,” or, when I tell them what I’m reading, ask “Didn’t you read that in high school?”

The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Gatsby “the most profoundly American novel of its time.” The Modern Library in 1998 voted it the 20th century’s best American novel and the century’s second-best English-language novel, behind only—if you can believe it—Ulysses.

Is Gatsby worthy of all the praise? In the immortal words of James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., “oh my yes.”

It’s a novel that works on and in you, that will continue to make you ponder just what was going on in it for a good long while after you’ve put it back on the shelf. I just finished it, and I’d like to re-read it already, and that’s not something I say very often. If I were writing a novel, I’d study it and use it as a model for what a writer can do with plot, a few characters (and there aren’t many) and pacing, using spare, lean language that says more than you think it does, all in 180 pages.

The book was written when Fitzgerald was just 29 years old . One can only marvel at his felicity with language at so young an age:

“The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something—most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning—and one day I found out what it was.”

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”

“The evening had made me light-headed and happy; I think I walked into a deep sleep as I entered my front door.”

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.”

It was a literary feat that proved hard to live up to, much less repeat. Fitzgerald spent the last sloshy 15 years of his life pitifully trying to recreate the magic. He did not know that he had already achieved literary immortality:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Finally: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Those last words adorn Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s grave in Baltimore, a fitting literary blanket under which to slumber, marking two lives that ended much too soon.

What I’m Reading Now: May 15, 2018

In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2016, 417 pp.)

What creates our identity and makes us the person that we are? Our gender? Our sexual organs? Our DNA and our parents? Our country of origin? Religion and History?

Award-winning journalist Susan Faludi received in 2004 an email from her father, with whom she’d barely spoken for 25 years, with the subject line, “Changes.” Her father Steven—at the age of 76—had become Stefanie: “Dear Susan, I’ve got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.”

Her Hungarian father had undergone sexual reassignment surgery, and Susan would spend the next 10 years trying to get to know her father and uncover his long-hidden Jewish past during the Holocaust in Hungary: “As a child I had resented and, later, feared him, and when I was a teenager he had left the family—or rather been forced to leave, by my mother and by the police, after a season of escalating violence. Despite our long alienation, I thought I understood enough of my father’s character to have had some inkling of an inclination this profound. I had none.”

This book is the story of her journey to understand her father’s real identity. The title comes from her father’s fascination with photography, and his lifelong habit of using a camera lens to obscure not only the reality in front of him but also his own murky past—and ultimately who he really was. I didn’t think it possible to mix a study of transsexuality with the history of the Holocaust, but Faludi has done it superbly, uncovering layer by layer pieces of her father’s history.

The result is a fascinating journey into the meaning of gender, sexuality, history, and ultimately identity.  Can we re-invent ourselves and escape who we really are by changing our name and our sexual organs? Is biology destiny? Is that ultimately what creates our identity? Or is the past unescapable, both for individuals and for nations?

Faludi the journalist tells a larger story here as well. As her father reinvents himself, so does modern-day Hungary. She deftly details the rise of the modern authoritarian government there and its quest to “restore” Hungary to its “true” identity, a frightening “pure” Hungarianism that is openly anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT. The clashes on the streets of Budapest reverberate far beyond its borders, across Europe and America.

The questions Faludi poses about identity and history are more pertinent and troubling than ever, both for ourselves individually and for our society collectively. Individually, social media allows us to reinvent ourselves as we choose and present a public brand of our own creation, while collectively we are seemingly at war over the meaning of our own history and the story it tells in the public arena. Some of those who decry the removal of Confederate monuments as “erasing history” applauded when Communist statues came down in Eastern Europe and approve now the erasure of slavery from American history textbooks.

The answers to the questions about history, memory, and identity remain elusive but astoundingly important.  What, ultimately, creates our identity and makes us who we are?

What I’m Reading Now: May 8, 2018

Beat to Quarters: Horatio Hornblower, Vol. 1, by C.S. Forester (1938, Book of the Month Club Edition, 220 pp.)

The theme this week, like last week, is: where have these books been all my life? How am I just now discovering the glory that is C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series?

I well remember seeing the ads for the television series that was broadcast from 1998 to 2003, but I never found the time to watch. I hadn’t even heard of the books upon which the series was based.

At that time, 18 years ago, I bought an omnibus edition from the Book of the Month Club that featured the first three Hornblower novels in one volume. When it arrived, I promptly put it on a shelf, and there it sat. Why am I reading it now? Because Jonathan Yardley reviewed this book in Second Reading, which long-suffering readers of this blog will recall I was reading three weeks ago. So what if it took nearly two decades to get around to? When I was finally prepared to receive its wisdom, there it was.

And a ripping good read it is, too. I was introduced to the fascinating grisliness of 18th and early 19th-century naval warfare through Evan Thomas’ splendid biography, John Paul Jones (2003). Anyone who’s watched the opening battle scenes from Master and Commander (2003) knows well the carnage wrought by shot and shell across a warship’s quarterdeck, leaving body parts and severed heads in their wake.

Rigid naval discipline meant that commanders like Jones and Hornblower were expected to stand tall on the quarterdeck throughout the terrifying ordeal of battle, rigid and unflinching, while bloody and mutilated comrades fell screaming all around. Any sign of cowardice brought shame and dishonor, worse even than losing limbs. Courage, discipline and level-headed seamanship under fire counted above all.

C.S. Forester’s knowledge of Napoleonic-era battleships and warfare is astonishing. The granular detail and intense descriptions of battle on the high seas make for gripping reading indeed. In Hornblower, a junior level captain in His Majesty’s Navy, Forester created an historical character whose interactions with his crew, the Lady Barbara Wellesley, and his own internal demons make him a fascinating psychological study in leadership. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is not always the most affable character, but you root for him even when you don’t always like him.

Forester is himself an interesting study, having appeared on a 1956 episode of Groucho Marx’s TV show, “You Bet Your Life,” and he is additionally the author of The African Queen (the 1935 book upon which the movie was based) and a 1942 children’s book entitled Poo-Poo and the Dragons.  Any author who managed to work the words “hornblower” and “poo-poo” into his book titles is worthy of distinction.

Having serendipitously found the remaining twelve volumes in this series at the GHS book sale two weeks ago, I am going to become well acquainted with the further adventures of Mr. Hornblower.

What I’m Reading Now: April 10, 2018

Vincent Starrett, Born in a Bookshop: Chapters from the Chicago Renascence (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, 325 pp.)

“When we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness.” So said Vincent Starrett, the author of this memoir. I agree.

I love books about books—that is, authors who write about their love of books, their collections of books, and/or the authors who wrote them.

I have an entire bookcase dedicated to them—familiar classics like The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, overlooked gems like I.A. Richards’s How to Read a Page, and more recent offerings by Nicholas Basbanes like Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word  to Stir the World, and A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. And no book lover’s collection would be complete without all the works of Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. I’ve got books about libraries, books about book clubs, and even one about the history of the book shelf.

Vincent Starrett was the author of the “Books Alive” column for 25 years in the Chicago Tribune. His memoir, which I first learned about, naturally enough, in Dirda’s Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (2015), is a charming account of his lifelong love of the printed word that began with his birth above his grandfather’s bookshop in Toronto. He was part of the second wave of the Chicago Renaissance (1910-1925) that included novelists Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, poets Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay, and reporters Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner.

Above all else, Starrett revered two things that I also love: books and Sherlock Holmes. He was one of the 1934 founders of that most famous and exclusive of all Sherlockian fan clubs, the Baker Street Irregulars, along with fellow literary critic Christopher Morley—himself the author of the one of the greatest books about books ever written, Parnassus on Wheels (1917). Get a copy and read it.

Starrett collected primarily first editions, like most “collectors” as they are classically defined. I don’t share that love, I’m afraid—I care more about the words inside than I do about the edition itself. Only in the last ten years have I become a hopeless hardback-book snob, habitually “upgrading” anything I have in paper when I come across a cloth-bound volume of the same title. Alas, this is why book-collecting is known as the “gentle madness.” As Starrett famously said, “It is possible that the most misunderstood man upon earth is the collector of books.”

A final word about the quality of this particular volume: In this age of disposability, when our electronics are obsolete in one year and many publishers print their books on pulp paper that soon turns yellowish brown, the University of Oklahoma Press in 1965 could refreshingly proclaim that “the paper on which this book is printed has an intended life of at least three hundred years.”

I’m sure my iPhone and Kindle will both last that long too, don’t you?