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Because Hostility Has No Place Here

  • Posted on: 27 October 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Some of you may be wondering why I haven't yet commented on the recent shut down of the U.S. Government and the near debt ceiling debacle. To tell the truth, I've been wanting to talk about it, I mean, I've talked to myself about it endlessly, ranted about it in the car while driving, screamed about it, shouted, cursed, all of that. But privately, you know. And the reason is not because I fear I will offend any Republicans who still shop at the bookstore-there are a few, I'm sure, who do, and I applaud them all for their courage and fair-mindedness-no, the reason I've said nothing thus far is because there's some part of me that just doesn't like to pile on.

Other folks have been hammering the GOP and their mad Tea Party contingent so hard, and with such righteousness and glee that whatever scornful words I could come up would just be more froth on the cappuccino, you know. Let's stipulate that they deserved it, okay. But who needs it? And what good would it do?

My hope, of course, is that those elected to high office have learned a valuable lesson-that even if, as Ronald Reagan used to say, government is the problem, no government at all is an even worse problem, an unthinkable calamity, and so perhaps we'd better rewrite the first notion. I would put it this way: since government can sometimes be inefficient, i.e., a problem, what we want is a smart government, a government that tries to solve problems, not sit on its hands, a government that cares about all its citizens, or at least a government that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number.

Republicans could sign onto this idea; it wouldn't be too large a leap. They would not have to abandon their private God or even their reluctance to pay taxes. The only thing they'd have to do is relax long enough to trust that President Obama is not the enemy, that their Democratic colleagues also want a prosperous and successful country, that while change is inevitable, it isn't necessarily a bad thing, and if we work together it can be managed intelligently, and for the benefit of everyone. That's what public service is about, after all. That's why we still bother to vote.


Property is Theft

  • Posted on: 19 October 2013
  • By: readersbooks

After many years of living in the same sprawling four bedroom (plus) house, our circumstances changed, and now we are ensconced (more or less) in a lovely two bedroom condo. I say "more or less" because having just moved, we are still unpacking boxes and running back and forth to the storage unit where much of our old life remains.

The irony is we have pretty much all that life requires right now. We don't truly need the other forty or fifty boxes of ancestral China; we can do without the giant buffet and the vases and paintings and floral bath mats, not to mention the books. I bring up the subject of books with some trepidation because, like everyone else in the world, we have read almost all of them and, next to our children, still think of them as bosom companions. Also, being in the book biz of course, you might imagine that I'd be the very last one to advocate getting rid of books. Moving a whole household can have an enormous impact on one's perspective, however, not to mention one's shoulders and back.

I now think that I probably need no more than one tall bookcase for the rest of my days. I say this knowing my wife will vehemently disagree, also sensing that one bookcase is just a ballpark figure. Given the ongoing outpouring of wonderful literature I could be wrong; maybe two bookcases would suffice.

Of course, I also have a slight advantage in this matter: owning a bookstore means you never have to keep a specific book in your house. You can always get a copy pretty quickly and at cost. This is the argument I'm going to make when we get down to the nitty gritty and start unpacking all those well worn volumes. I don't know if it'll fly; in our old house we had so many stacks of books they sometimes served as structural supports for the living room ceiling. But I'll tell my wife this new ceiling we have is just fine, that the books are not necessary, that change is what keeps us fresh and alive, that less is more. She used to be a Buddhist as I recall. Maybe she'll buy that.


If You're an Armchair Historian, You Need to Get Up and Move Around

  • Posted on: 12 October 2013
  • By: readersbooks

In the midst of the flurry of events surrounding the apparent change in U.S.-Iranian relations I couldn't help but notice the inevitable: a letter to the editor in which the writer harkens back to Munich and the naïve agreement made between Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, the "peace in our time" episode, which armchair historians love to yammer about to this very day. Those who can't remember history, the writer lectures us dutifully, are bound to repeat it.

Well, er, okay, but first, let's back up a minute and get our history straight. Let's remember it's 2013. The United States and Iran today are in no way comparable to England and Germany in 1938. And let us further stipulate that it's always a bad idea when talking about current events to inject Hitler into the discussion. Hitler, we all agree, was a no goodnik, and yes, there are other no goodniks out there still. But comparisons are problematic. Was Ghadafi another Hitler? Castro? Ho Chi Minh? Saddam Hussein? In my book, no. Cheap imitations. You could make a case that Stalin or Mao were statistically on the same level as Hitler--they murdered millions of people, after all, but mostly they were their own citizens. Hitler, on the other hand, was a global menace, a hurricane, he was like, I don't know, Genghis Khan. Hitler was after the whole ball of wax, which puts him into a different category altogether.

The guy who wrote the letter to the editor blithely compares Obama to Neville Chamberlain and the president of Iran, Mr. Rouhani, to Hitler. You'll excuse me if I beg to differ. Obama has shown himself to be pretty savvy, even ruthless, when it comes to dealing with terrorism. Yes, he's pulled us out of Iraq and is trying to extricate us from Afghanistan, but that's not because he's squishy when it comes to combat; he just doesn't care for wars that are stupid and unwinnable. As for Rouhani, I don't think we know much about him, other than the fact that he was elected as a reformer--whatever that connotes in Tehran--and that he has offered to talk with our side to try to work things out.

Maybe we'll be able to mend our fences with the Iranians, maybe not. But it seems to me that it can't hurt to talk. After so many years of silence there is a lot to talk about, a lot of painful history on both sides that needs healing. The worst thing we could do, however, would be to lapse automatically into tired old stereotypes before anyone has even opened his mouth.


Yo Heave Ho

  • Posted on: 28 September 2013
  • By: readersbooks

I've written so many of these essays now that I honestly can't remember if I've talked about this before. Probably so, but I don't care, surely it's worth another shot. Anyway, I want to speak about what we do at Readers' Books, and what I mean by that is not the lofty, civilizing tasks we engage in, like saving the planet and, with the help of literature, lifting our dispirited selves out of the primordial muck; that's all fine and good, and no one in his right mind could argue against it. No, the work I'm talking about, the real work, is far more mundane. What we do, day in and day out at Readers' Books, quite frankly, is schlep. To "schlep" is a Yiddish word. It means to tote or drag or haul, and if you know anything at all about the book trade, you know that, next to bricks, books are perhaps the heaviest things in the world; also, that we schlep them relentlessly.

My dad was a master schlepper. During his time here he dutifully unpacked the books, checked them in, processed the returns, and hauled them in boxes-twenty, thirty, forty pounds each, to the post office. He did this for years and never took a penny in wages. That kind of worker is hard to find, let me tell you. We were impressed, so impressed in fact, that we once bought him an honorific sweat shirt with the words, FIELD MARSHALL IN CHARGE OF SHIPPING & RECEIVING, which is really just a fancy way of saying CHIEF SCHLEPPER. It didn't fit (too tight around the chest) but my dad was a sport and wore it anyway.

Today I schlepped some twelve boxes of books to the post office. A few of them were books that people had ordered and needed sent. One was to someone in prison. Sending books to folks in prison can be problematic: on the one hand you're dealing with a captive audience; they have to pay for the book in advance and they're unlikely to be dissatisfied, no matter what you send them. On the other hand, the wardens at prisons sometimes act like Roman emperors. We've had books refused at prisons for no ostensible reason. And I once got a call from some clearly deranged cop in a high security lock up in Oklahoma who threatened to have me arrested for sending an inmate a book on Buddhist meditation. Did I know that books could contain knives or drugs? What were you thinking, boy? But that's another story. Most of the books I hauled up to the counter were returns, titles we'd taken a chance on, titles that no one in Sonoma had bought, worthy products whose authors had labored over for umpteen years, only to have them gather dust and eventually schlepped into oblivion.

I used to fret over this process. The hopeful receiving which inevitably leads, after a few short months, to the gloom of return. In between we are supposed to sell these things, to talk them up, give them the gift of life, to make them seem essential to your well-being. Some of them are, of course, but only if you take the time and trouble to read them. And time is what no one has much of anymore.

Before we settled on Readers' Books as the store name my favorite choice was Schleppers. I thought that kind of summed up what we do, but my wife, who is wiser than I will ever be, just shook her head. No one will understand, she said. I guess she's right. Big ideas are not my long suit. Give me a thirty pound box any day.


Show Me the Money

  • Posted on: 18 September 2013
  • By: readersbooks

The other day I read a newspaper article about a small publisher in Santa Rosa who is being sued by an author who claimed that her reputation was tarnished because the publisher allowed 260 typos to be printed in the final version of her book. God knows, publishers, like everyone else, make mistakes now and then, but what irked the budding author, Terri Bruce, was that she caught those 260 typos when she reviewed the final proof and alerted the publisher, Damnation Books, to that fact. She pointed them out and demanded they be fixed, and damn if Damnation did nothing about it. Now her book, with all its multitude of mistakes, is in print for the whole world to see. She has been made to look stupid and incompetent, which she feels naturally, she is not. And worse still, she's been publically and gratuitously humiliated, which, any woman, from Hester Prynne to Carrie, knows is a punishable offense.

We probably ought to leave aside the fact that Ms. Bruce's novel, Hereafter, is a dark tale about a 36-year old bar-hopping woman who dies in a drunken car crash and struggles mightily in her afterlife. Okay, let's just say it's not my cup of tea to begin with, but then I am not Damnation Books, am I.

What's interesting here is that with the many calamities that have befallen the publishing world recently, you'd think they could at least still remember how to spell and punctuate and such. They used to care, after all. Up until the middle of the last century, publishing, like horse breeding, was considered a gentleman's profession. There were folks out there willing to take a new author under his or her wing and nurture them along, knowing full well they probably wouldn't make a dime from the first three novels. They were people of culture, but also people of faith. They believed in the value of good writing. What's happened over time, however, is that publishing, like the rest of corporate life, has largely forgotten its mission. These days it's often not so much about putting out good books that people will want to read, it's about the buzz, the movie tie-in, the merchandising, and of course, somewhere in that land of smoke and mirrors, it's about the money. One sure way to make money in publishing, they've discovered, is to fire your workers-editors, proof-readers, anyone who looks ancillary, just show them the exit. The problem though, with this approach, is that while to the stock brokers on Wall Street your bottom line looks better and better, eventually the products you're churning out look worse. One poor editor cannot do it all, it turns out, and spell check can't work miracles. Inevitably, then, stuff falls through the cracks. Mistakes are made, and voila!-Terri Bruce is suing Damnation Books. I'm not saying Damnation is innocent (how innocent can you be, with a name like that?), but the real problem here is not one company's incompetence, it's the incompetent logic of capitalism everywhere.

Sadly, I have no good answer for this, except to maybe fall back on the words of Bob Dylan-- "Money doesn't talk," he said, "it screams."


Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow

  • Posted on: 7 September 2013
  • By: readersbooks

My dear old mom, who grew up in Savannah way back when, had many colorful-and occasionally off-colorful-- expressions. One of them was, "You can't be in two places with one behind." I always liked that. It seemed so spot on, you know, so Zen. And it surfaced again in my brain the other day when I learned that Senator John McCain was caught on camera quietly playing poker on some electronic device while in the midst of important hearings on Syria. McCain, to his credit, just shrugged it off, saying basically that not only was he not paying attention to government matters, but as to the poker game, he lost.

Now the Senator from Arizona is a smart (if somewhat impulsive) man and he can no doubt walk and chew gum at the same time. In fact, it might even be beneficial that he was multi-tasking while weighing in from time to time on going to war; I mean, what's the difference between a dozen Tomahawk missiles slamming into Damascus and say, trying to draw an inside straight? Not so much. You're just hoping to predict the odds, after all, trusting your gut and going forward. Think of it another way: If McCain weren't playing poker, if he was listening intently to the generals and the Secretary of State, he might very well get excited; he might want to up the ante-hit'em with everything we've got now, don't wait, then send in the Marines. Whole war could be over in fifteen minutes.

The beauty of today's world is that so many of us are busy multi-tasking-- texting, talking and staring into computer screens while we try our best to drive, eat breakfast, make love, pay the mortgage, whatever. I say "beauty" because doing two or three or ten things at once makes us necessarily slow down, and if we just pause for even a moment, we actually do take time to smell the roses. Of course it is also the horror of today's world, because so few of us seem able to focus on doing a single thing well. When my mom said "you can't be in two places with one behind," my initial, and admittedly juvenile response was "unless you're half-assed."

Now I'm not so sure. It may be that our species is at one of those rare evolutionary tipping points. With the aid of computers and the internet, we may be about to launch a whole new human being. Call it Mankind 2.0, because there's no doubt in my mind that something has changed. We've clearly come down from our perches in the trees. We're no longer just those slow moving, grubby little hunters and gatherers of yesteryear. Fire? Forget about it. We're way beyond the invention of fire. A whole new landscape awaits us. If you ask me, I say consider someone like Senator McCain if you want to know what tomorrow will look like. We have only to embrace it. Now, cut the cards.


To the Ramparts with Captain Underpants

  • Posted on: 5 September 2013
  • By: readersbooks

It's September again, which signals a lot of things to a lot of people. Back to school, and the Jewish New Years festivities (although, let's be honest, we don't really get all that festive..."fastive" is more like it). For booksellers, September traditionally means we're sailing into Banned Books Week, a time to reflect on Americans' time-honored propensity for shooting the messenger.


Turns out, there's a whole New York Public Library's worth of books that some folks have found objectionable at one time or another. After almost a quarter of a century, you'd think I'd know most of the offending titles by heart, but when I checked recently, I found a bunch of books that struck me as just plain bizarre. Beyond the usual suspects--Henry Miller, William Burroughs, James Joyce--beyond the Harry Potter books, which some fundamentalists deem satanic, beyond Fifty Shades of Grey, which, in this age of internet porn is about as racy as Sesame Street, there are a host of unredeemable books you've probably never imagined.


Consider, for example, the ever popular Captain Underpants. This is a series of cartoon books for youngsters, aged 4-8, wherein irreverent subjects like going to the potty, nose picking, nudity, pie throwing, giving people wedgies, and other silliness is discussed at length. Anyone who has ever raised a child through those years knows good and well that that's what interests them, that's what makes them laugh, and that's what they love to read about. In fact, the only adults who might complain about such things are those who've never had children, or perhaps are so stuck in the mud they won't ever admit to picking their nose.


There are other books, too, that surprise and dismay. Would you believe that The Glass Castle is on the list? The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, is a wonderful memoir about someone going through an absolutely horrific childhood and yet somehow emerging triumphant. Her parents are well-meaning but lost in their dreams, so lost they often lose sight of their children and how to care for them. But more than their errors, it's a book about resilience, which is a quality all of us should be storing up in vast quantities. I can't figure who would object to this story; I mean, if you hated this book, you probably would be down on the life of Lincoln, too. He wasn't exactly raised at the Ritz, either.


The list of banned books is extensive, but the good news is that while these books are sometimes pulled from shelves, they ultimately find their way into the public sphere. Many of them are best sellers, and many are required reading for high school and college. Just as the Chinese couldn't stop the nomadic invaders by building a wall, neither can prudes and other self-righteous types stop the spread of books and ideas. That's why Banned Books Week is worth remembering. That's why we do what we do.