Monday, July 1, 2013

Here's Lookin' at You, Kid!

As the fallout from the NSA’s phone record, email and Prism surveillance programs continues unabated, booksellers have witnessed a newfound interest in that most famous of government-run-amok novels, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.  A needed reminder as to how prescient he was.  As Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview in The Guardian, we should not really be surprised by the revelations.  Despite the admonition of FDR more than seventy years ago, we still succumb to fear with regularity.
            The so-called Patriot Act, launched hand-in-glove with the “Global War on Terror” paved the way for governmental clandestine spying campaigns against its own citizens as well as citizens of the world.

            Of course, this is not the first time the government has acted against its citizens.  As Chomsky noted, the principal enemy of any government is it own people—the Palmer raids, Sedition Acts, McCarthyism.  For a detailed exposition of the nefarious us of governmental power read Chris Finan’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act. Not confined to those “non-democratic” countries that our government routinely chastises--Libya; Syria; Egypt; North Korea; Burma; the Congo, et al, the NSA scandal highlights the desire of all governments for control.  As Lord Acton so correctly put it—power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
           What separates the present era from those that preceded it is the technological capabilities of governments (and corporations) to “collect and mine” data.  This is done with impunity, but seems to evoke only limited concern.  The President wants us to trust the government; Congress wants us to trust that it can control the situation; the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the specifics of the NSA scandal, but seems none too concerned with the Patriot Act.  But the reality is that there has been a rapid rise in the government’s snooping activities as well as its almost paranoid concern with secrecy—hence the present administration’s relentless pursuit of “whistleblowers,” who leak embarrassing information it wants to remain hidden.  I am reminded of the movie Sneakers—the subtext was “too many secrets.”

            Sadly, apparently the younger the generation, the less the concern for privacy.  Chomsky calls the present youth culture the “exhibitionist culture.”  This cultural phenomenon—not the sole realm of the young—cultivates publicity.  

            As independent booksellers, what can we do to combat the invasive actions of our government?  My partner and I refuse to keep records of what books our customers purchase.  Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a Draconian interpretation of which led to the current NSA scandals, allows the government to confiscate records from book shops and libraries.  If we are handed a  secret warrant (approved by the shadowy FISA Court—a highly suspect and overrated check on governmental abuse as clearly demonstrated by Glenn Greenwald who broke the NSA story for The Guardian), we are obligated to hand over our store’s records.  We are not allowed to contact an attorney; nor are we allowed to notify people that this action has occurred.  If we did, we would be subject to prosecution. 
            We therefore do not keep this information.  As a business model, we have been told that we are handicapping ourselves, losing a valuable marketing tool.  So be it. 
            To us, our customers are not data.  We value their privacy as much as we value our own.

Happy Independents’ Day.
Shawn Wathen

Thursday, June 16, 2011

One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Czeslaw Milosz

by Shawn Wathen

June 30th 2011 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz. To say that he was influential in my life is to understate things to an astonishing degree. In the field of world literature, 1911 was an auspicious year. Elizabeth Bishop, Max Frisch, William Golding and Naguib Mahfouz were all born in that year, but Milosz was the brightest star. Outstanding in a variety of forms--belles lettres, essays, autobiography--it was as a poet that he defined himself, and as I first came to read his words.
In 2002, The National Book Foundation, Random House and Ingram Book Company asked booksellers to write about a book that changed your life. This is the essay I wrote.

1989. The Navy, then college, I drifted through life. Idly browsing the university bookstore's shelves one day, my eyes alit on a work by an author whose name, with its odd consonant groupings, appeared unpronounceable.

A poet.

Not being a reader of poetry, it remains a mystery how I had wandered into that section. The pink cover depicted a still life by Chardin; the author photo presented a stern-faced man, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Opening it at random, the poem "A Magic Mountain" captivated me. I cannot recall ever reading anything so breathlessly. I was stunned. I stood rooted to that spot, reading poem after poem. I had read books my entire life, but never understood that words could wield such power.

I purchased the book-my first book of poetry-and kept it with me continually. Within a week I had decided to pursue graduate studies in the intellectual history of that poet's native land. What historical conditions could produce such a poet? While studying his native language, I met the woman I love. At our wedding we read "After Paradise," from that same collection. I traveled abroad to further my understanding of this poet and his culture, and met countless wonderful people on my journey--including the poet himself--enriching my life beyond measure.

As a bookseller, I introduce others to the power and beauty of poetry. Poetry matters. Words can change the world. Czeslaw Milosz changed my world with his Collected Poems, 1931-1987.

In April of this year, Robert Gray wrote in ShelfAwareness of being a casual reader of poetry throughout the year, not only during National Poetry Month.

On June 30th, pour yourself a glass of excellent Polish vodka--I recommend Belvedere--read some Milosz, and toast the poet and our great fortune at having his words to nourish our souls.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Confessions of an Unapologetic Indie

I’m not an economic priest. My bookstore is not a confessional. I’m tired of handing out “Hail Locals” to guilt-riddled shoppers. If you bought a Kindle as your sole reading device, you have cut out your local bookstore when there are options for e-readers that don’t eliminate indies. It’s your choice, but don’t come whining to me that you really want to shop local, but you have to be “smart about your money.” I agree, you should be smart about your money. You should know that local businesses hand out thousands of dollars worth of donations and items to schools, organizations, and clubs throughout your community every year. Maybe shopping local isn’t a priority for you. Fine. Talk to Amazon about donating a silent auction item for your son’s school trip to D.C. and ask for a discount on books purchased for your school district. I’m sure Wal-Mart would sell your dance recital tickets or put a bucket on the counter for summer camp applications. Maybe Costco will supply the food for a fund-raiser, but I doubt it. If your local businesses dry up, so do your local newspapers and along with empty store-fronts, your organizations will lose supporters. The whole conversation seems silly because it just makes sense to keep your money in your community, no matter what your political views are. I know that I can’t help everyone who walks into my store. Sometimes people want books at a price that I can’t afford to give them, but when a customer tries us first, before online or big-box stores, I feel like maybe there’s a way for us all to survive. This little rant isn’t meant to be the end, either. I’m just proposing that we think about the bigger picture and what kind of community we want to live in.

~Mara Lynn Luther
Chapter One Book Store
Hamilton, MT

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

First, plain speech in the mother tongue.
Hearing it you should be able to see,
As if in a flash of summer lightning,
Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road.

And it should contain more than images.
Singsong lured it into being,
Melody, a daydream. Defenseless,
It was bypassed by the dry sharp world.

You often ask yourself why you feel shame
Whenever you look through a book of poems
As if the author, for reasons unclear to you,
Addressed the worst side of your nature,
Pushing thought aside, cheating thought.

Poetry, seasoned with satire, clowning,
Jokes, still knows how to please.
Then its excellence is much admired.
But serious combat, where life is at stake,
Is fought in prose. It was not always so.

And our regret has remained unconfessed.
Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.
--Czeslaw Milosz, A Treatise on Poetry

I came to poetry relatively late, at least consciously. Reading The Odyssey, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” for Jean Steele in high school did not at first appear to crack the surface of my indifference. Years passed before I, for no apparent reason, pulled a book of poems by a Polish poet from the shelf in a university book shop. Now at least half of what I read is poetry.

My tastes are quite specific. I look to poets who address those battles where life is at stake—they are out there. As such, Europe’s poetic tradition calls to me, most specifically, those East Central European poets for whom History matters.

Others look for the wit of Wilde, Nash, and Parker; or to the macabre of Poe; or the succinct rhythms of Dickinson; the genius of Whitman. The genre is wide; the tragedy is that poetry is a tough sell in this country. I attended a poetry reading in 1992 by Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. I doubt that more than a hundred people attended, yet that night remains one of the highlights of my life. The power of words, words read aloud, as poetry is meant to be, resonated throughout that hall.

Beginning with the great epics of Homerus, poetry has an illustrious pedigree. Dante gave us an unforgettable tour of Hell. Through Shakespeare’s pen the beauty and power of the English language achieved it pinnacle. In Poland, the poets were the bards that kept alive the idea of a dismembered nation. Akhmatova gave voice to those stricken mute by the terror of Stalin.

I had the great fortune to have a friend—Lorraine Sizer—for whom poetry still mattered. We bonded over Whitman fifteen years ago. In her last years, afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease, I rarely saw her, but she would call me at the shop. We would talk of everything, but poetry was, to the last, what gave our friendship a depth unimaginable without it. She was able to recite verse from memory, encompassing works from a wide variety of poets from all over the world. I read her my favorite poets, she recited from hers. She died last year. Whenever I read Loren Eisley, Edna St Vincent Millay, or John Masefield, I think of her.

The torch of Whitman is flickering. One does not have to be an insatiable consumer of poetry. It is, as Robert Gray wrote in Shelf Awareness, perfectly acceptable to be a casual reader of poetry. One just needs to recognize that certain ideas, specific emotions, the power of words, can only be expressed fully in verse. Anyone who has read a prose translation of The Odyssey understands the loss.

April has been tagged with the monomer of National Poetry Month, but as Goethe suggested, one ought each day to read a good poem…….

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Faces versus Algorithms

reviewing Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B. Thompson, Jason Epstein, long-time editor at Random House, co-founder of The New York Review and Library of America has penned a thoughtful piece in The New York Review of Books on the publishing industry, and by implication book selling in the 21st century. Fifty years ago, publishers relied, according to Epstein, on independent book shops with a knowledgeable and well-read staff to sell their back list titles. The sale of these titles provided the financial stability to those “Merchants of Culture”. Publishing decisions were made with this back list in mind.
With the corporatization of the publishing industry, books increasingly became viewed, according to Epstein, as commodities, ushering the era of the “big book” or bestseller. This brought a shift in publishing decisions and distribution as retail chains became the sounding board as well as the outlet for publishers accountable to shareholders. What happens when this relationship between chains and becomes unstable?
As the chains struggle to adapt to an increasingly fickle best-seller market—who is the next Stieg Larssen or Stephanie Meyer—publishers are left with unpaid invoices and returned inventory. The absence of a well-read staff means that if books did not sell themselves, they did not sell. It is readily apparent that this publishing model was built on a foundation of sand.
Chapter One as an independent book shop strives to connect readers with books—particularly those titles not backed by huge marketing budgets. The books that frequent the bestseller lists—often camped there for long periods—are ubiquitous and likely known by the reading public. Available from grocery stores to gas stations, it is hard not to see these as commodities.
For those who seek out the unique book store to converse about books, however, they will find on our shelves Vasily Grossman, Tadeusz Rozewicz and Amos Oz. They will discover that Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden has been put into nearly 100 hands due to Mara Lynn’s enthusiastic review. They will learn about the origins of The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha, and about that other book by Antoine Saint-Exupery—Wind, Sand and Stars.
As buyers for an independent book store, Mara and I are able to be flexible, but also adventurous. When a book appears in a front list catalog, we can buy for one person for whom we know that book is perfect, or take a chance on a title which helps define Chapter One as a true independent. No algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, can do that. Our customers and our knowledge of books outside the bestseller lists are where we excel.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New Leaf

The Chapter One blog: hmm....

The first, best and most important Chapter One news for 2011 is that Mara Lynn Luther has become a co-owner of Chapter One Book Store. Her passion for books, her knowledge of them, and her ability and willingness to share these is old news to those who have engaged her at the shop during the past six years. That she will be here for a long-term future is marvelous news for the reading community that haunts Chapter One and for me personally as she is both a savvy business partner and a dear friend.

Less newsworthy, but nonetheless an omnipresent fixture of soul-searching in the bookselling industry is the eBook conundrum. The spectrum of commentary on the issue is breathtaking in scope, as crystal balls are rubbed, polished, and scrutinized. One well-known writer, Simon Winchester, was quoted in ShelfAwareness as arguing that since he no longer used the printed OED, but rather utilized its on-line edition, the book was essentially destined for the rubbish heap of History. Others see e-readers as nothing more than gadgets, with which people grow tired rapidly, and will soon fill our closets and attics alongside Palm Pilots and Walkmans.

A more reasoned assessment concluded that the same debates probably consumed Europe after Guttenberg printed his bible--scribes would soon be cast aside, bemoaning their fate as they cried into their mead--or fabulous beers brewed by Czech monks. As it turned out, those scribes continued to write--for hundreds of years. I wrote the draft of this blog with pencil on paper.

I am a book lover. Reading is a consuming, tactile experience for me--the smell of ink on paper; the texture of the cover; rag-edged paper; stitched signatures. I write in the margins as I debate with the author. I book dart. There may even be a coffee stain or two hidden between the covers. More importantly, I share books with friends. Recently a customer bought a paperback copy of book to give to his friend—a book the customer had on his e-reader, but was unwilling to loan. I am, however, not so egotistical as to think my passion is everyone's. There are many who do not share these feelings for books, but do share a love of reading. A number of our customers embrace both. Eventually, an equilibrium will be reached. In this dual reality, Chapter One will stock thousands of physical books to give those who walk through its doors a unique and unforgettable book shop experience. For those who want the digital version of those titles, a few clicks on our website will allow you to download whatever eBook you desire.

To conclude this initial foray into the blogosphere, as you ponder what to read next, here are a few titles we at Chapter One consider to be the best books of 2010:

The Collected Prose 1948-1998 by Zbigniew Herbert

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz

The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

To the End of the Land by David Grossman

Note Bene: What best of 2010 would be complete without mentioning that SPAIN WON THE WORLD CUP!!!!