Archive for the 'Shelf Life' Category

Messing about in books

Mara did not jump into a love of reading at an early age. Being read to, sure, and being told stories…always and without end. But not reading on her own. This is something I’ve had to work hard to accept as a parent, and especially as a parent who, in the days before dishes and laundry whelmed my life o’er, was once an avid reader. Mara can read very well when she wants to, and in the two or three months since Angela gave her a booklight her normal bedtime behavior after lights out has gradually shifted from playing in the dark with dolls and horses to reading books. It’s so quiet in there we think she’s fallen asleep, but she’s reading. At various times in the past she has occupied herself in bed with books, but mostly it was looking at pictures. She never liked slogging through big blocks of text. Her favorite books were the critically acclaimed graphic novel series, Bone, by Jeff Smith. Lots of evocative imagery (much of it rather scary for a seven- or eight-year-old, I’d have thought), and minimal text, all of it dialog. While the Bone books will always occupy a revered place on our bookshelf (I fell in love with them after an initial revulsion based on a quick flip-through), Mara has lately moved on to Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and other text-heavier books.

One day recently I felt like sitting and relaxing. I considered checking my social pipeline — email and facebook, blogs — because it’s easy and it’s what I do almost without thinking. Then I thought, my daughters almost never see me sit and read during the day, during their day, when they are awake and busy and in the house. There is probably not a picture in their heads of “dad reading a book”, even though the image of “dad’s attention being sucked up by the computer or the smart phone” is doubtless permanently branded on their brains.  How will they ever develop a love of just sitting down with a good book if they never see what that might look like?

Mara was working on her new Ravensburger 300-piece puzzle of puppies, kittens and hamsters. Miji (yes, Emilia’s nickname continues to evolve) was at her Legos on the floor. Angela was busy answering work emails. I went and fetched Timothy Egan’s biography of photographer Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, one of the books I’ve been picking at for months, and settled onto the couch for a spot of good old-fashioned reading. In a trice, Mara left her puzzle, fetched her copy of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid*, and cozied up next to me. Angela was quick with the camera. It was a moment that I’ve waited for for a long time.

A little parallel book time on the couch

A little parallel book time on the couch.

Mara may not become one of those teenagers that’s always slouched in a chair upside down reading a book, or one of those people who read while walking along sidewalks and crossing busy streets. That’s okay with me. She’s not playing computer games all day or watching TV. She likes to run, climb and hang from things. She’s a healthy kid in all ways. But sitting there side by side, I reading my biography of Curtis and my daughter reading (silently, not sounding out words or whispering or mumbling, which would have been okay, too) about the travails of the wimpy kid… well it just felt like a little piece of heaven.

*I actually disenjoy some of the attitudes expressed in the Wimpy Kid books, such as references to certain boys “getting all the girls”, which, when I was reading out loud to Mara, forced us to stop and have a conversation about what she thought that might mean and whether or not that was a constructive way to approach society. Nevertheless, the books have the right picture/text ratio and Mara seems engaged by the protagonist’s plight, and anyway I prefer discussion over outright censorship, which is not to say that I don’t reserve the right to exercise the latter at any time and without having to justify myself. Selah.


Joseph Mitchell, my favorite Beatle

The only analogy I can think of for what today was like for me is what December 4, 1995 might have been like for Beatles fans, when the surviving Fab (which then still included George Harrison) released the first song that all Four had performed on since “The End” in 1969, despite John Lennon’s having died fifteen years earlier. That song was John’s “Free As a Bird”, which the three living Beatles pulled out of a heap of unreleased demos and added their own voices and playing to (here’s a video of it that for good or ill tacks “The End” on the end). That was a great day whose air I felt privileged to breathe, and I was never even a devoted fan. To witness the release of a new song by the Beatles, and all four of them at that, was to feel the wind from the rushing wheel of history blow the forelock from my brow.

Informed last week by a friend that a never-before-published work by Joseph Mitchell — this boy’s fave — was about to be published in The New Yorker, and informed today that indeed the event was upon us, I rushed out to buy the annual anniversary issue. I couldn’t even wait until lunch. I padded up Post Alley, the back way to the Farmer’s Market, and emerged from the cobbled lower level of Pike Street at the corner of First Avenue, where I found a fresh, thick bunch of the new issue faced out in the front row at First and Pike News, and carefully lifted out the second one back.

Not since I was two.

Not since I was two.

“BY JOSEPH MITCHELL” the cover flap read. His byline is in the table of contents for the first time since 1964 (five years before the Beatles’ last released album hit the shelves…think about that!*). Friends, you know this about me…I love the man’s writing, and even though everyone knows that Mitchell was working on something, or many somethings, for the thirty years he continued to go to the magazine’s offices after his last published piece came out, I never really imagined myself actually being able to go and buy an issue of The New Yorker with a new Mitchell piece in it, especially since he had died before I ever even encountered his work.

So there it was in my hands. I paid for the number and hied back down my cobbled lane like one of those burrow spiders who only emerge to catch a small bird or a vole, then drag it back down into their hole. At great peril to my life, given the delivery trucks backing up to the brewery and the Four Seasons Hotel, I flipped through the magazine to find the story and, not finding it because of the stiff inserted ads, consulted the table of contents — page 62 — then opened the spread and saw my literary hero in his Brooks Brothers suit and fedora, standing in front of Sloppy Louie’s restaurant.

That’s when the significance of what I was about to do — what thousands have no doubt already done in this past few days who have received their subscription copy, like my friend James, or signed in as members online — hit me like two cymbals clanging on the sides of my head. I was about to read material that, from everything I’ve read and been personally told by folks who knew him, Joseph Mitchell had not considered ready to be published, i.e. that he did not wish people to read.

Is there such a thing as reader's block?

Is there such a thing as reader’s block?

The piece, called “Street Life”, is apparently one of three excerpts from a memoir that was incomplete when Mitchell died in 1996. Thomas Kunkel has been writing a biography of Mitchell (for too many years than Mitchell fans eager to read it are happy about) and the excerpts are among the Mitchell papers to which Kunkel has access through Mitchell’s estate. Mitchell famously quit publishing his work after “Joe Gould’s Secret” came out in 1964, but he never stopped writing and his fans never stopped hoping.

I shut the magazine and walked back to my office, disturbed a little. Would it be wrong to read these newly unearthed Mitchell pieces, these treasures from his pyramid? Did I really want to be that kind of person? I’ve written a lot of posts that I have never published because I didn’t feel they were quite right or I wasn’t able to finish for one reason or another. I can understand from my own experience how the more Mitchell wrote the more he became dissatisfied with his work. The perfectionist blossoming into stillness. I wondered whether I would feel betrayed if someone posthumously posted my drafts or whether I would feel honored, only a little anxious because they weren’t fully baked.

Fortunately I didn’t have to answer the last question, because it suddenly occurred to me that I’m not Joseph Mitchell. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Nicole Noone’s delightful word-to-the-unwise Flynn Carsen in the movie “The Librarian: Quest for the Spear”, comes to mind about now: “Hey, let’s stop for a moment, and consider. I’m way out of your league. Way out. If your league were to explode, I wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days.” We’re not talking about my little screeds here. We’re talking about unpublished work by one of the finest writers in American letters. It would be a sort of crime against humanity for Kunkel not to give these pieces to TNY and likewise for TNY to refrain from publishing them.

And once published, they must be read. So I’m going to read the piece. Of course I am. But I’m not going to do it while walking down the alley dodging trucks. I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. I’m going to sit down with the magazine and consider the history, the privilege, even the theft. I’m going to keep in mind that the author likely would never had allowed this work to fall under my eyes if he had been able to prevent it. And then I’m going to savor every word.


*As I don’t need to tell you, “The End” comes from the last recorded album, which was not the last released album (Let It Be was recorded in January 1969 but not released until after Abbey Road, which was recorded in April). And a snippet of the medley, a little ditty called “Her Majesty”, was cut out and then stuck on the end, after “The End”. So even though “The End” was the last song the Beatles recorded together in the same spiritual plane, it was not the last song on the disk nor was its album the last one fans were introduced to.

Sinbad and us

She is probably the only teacher I had whose name I cannot recall, which is a pity because she brought me together with hands down the best young adult mystery book I ever read. Her classroom at Enatai Elementary in Bellevue was at the south end of one of the halls and on the west side. She was an older woman with a pile of gray hair and glasses and she didn’t laugh a lot. I don’t remember her as unkind, just serious. This was sometime during fifth grade, I believe, and it may be that by that time we had a homeroom teacher and then got shipped out for particular subjects. If so, this grand old dame was my “language arts” teacher. Her name might have been Smith.

The way I remember it I was having trouble choosing a book to read for a particular assignment, and Mrs. Smith, if that was her name, assigned me Sinbad and Me by Kin Platt. I remember that the first thing I thought when I went to the Bellevue Public Library to check the book out was that it was intimidatingly thick. I was lazy and didn’t want to read that much.

But Mrs. Smith had read me right, and Sinbad and Me turned out to be thoroughly my book. It had everything I wanted in a story: a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old mystery, the ghost of a sea captain, a spooky old house on a cliff, pirate treasure, secret passages and secret codes, riddles written on gravestones, a friendly but sad old lady with a secret past, a dangerous tidal cave, and invisible ink! And the hero was a twelve-year-old boy. Actually the hero was his pet English bulldog Sinbad. They solved the mystery together.

An old friend.

The edition I read was a hardback with a library binding in which the jacket illustration had been pasted or laminated permanently on the front. The illustration showed a caricature of a boy who reminded me of Ron Howard — Opie from The Andy Griffith Show — hunched over an old tombstone writing something on a notepad with a big bulldog at his feet.

Years later I wanted to find that book again, for auld lange syne, because I’m sick that way. After the Internet came out (“the Internet! Is that thing still around?!” — Homer Simpson), but long before I had children — even before I was married — I looked it up on the pre-Amazon Bibliofind and discovered that it was out of print. Way out of print, like if you could find a ratty paperback you’d pay sixty to seventy-five dollars, and if you wanted the hardback copy with a tattered jacket you’d have to lay out upwards of three bills. Too steep for me.

I decided to wait until it was reprinted. It would have to be reprinted, right? Why wouldn’t it be? As soon as comments were invented for the Internet (“the Internet!…”), I learned that everyone who ever read the book shared my fondness for it. Everyone asked when it would be published again. People said they had children that were ripe for it and they were desperate to find an affordable copy. By lurking on eBay in the days when I had time to do that, I managed to snag first edition copies of two of the sequel books, The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t (1969) and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street (1980), but these were not cheap, and still Sinbad eluded me.

Life got busy and I forgot about Sinbad for a while, but by chance a year or two ago I encountered a website run by Christopher Platt, son of the author and the inspiration for Steve Forrester, the dog-owning narrator of the story. His posts chronicled the sad tale of his unsuccessful attempts to get his father’s books reprinted. Apparently he holds the rights to most of them (the author died in 2003), but publisher after publisher has turned him down, saying that the Steve Forrester and Sinbad books wouldn’t be big sellers today, despite the apparent legion of people my age who are looking for them and the fact that Sinbad and Me won the 1967 Edgar Award for best children’s mystery. Some good news came eventually from Christopher that some of Platt’s long-unavailable adult crime fiction was going to be reprinted. But that just made the wait for Sinbad and Me that much more intolerable.

Steve and Sinbad at it again. This one I don’t have to return.

I recently did searches in the Seattle Public Library system, which doesn’t list the book, and in the King County Library system, which supposedly had one copy, but as a Seattle resident I am ineligible to borrow from the King County system, even if the book were sitting on the shelf. Which it’s not. It’s in some warehouse hold bin somewhere — probably an underground vault watched by armed guards and a three-headed dragon. It’s probably perpetually checked out. I imagine that the book is listed as “missing” on a lot of library databases.

I asked a librarian blog-pal for help (tip o’ the hat to Librarian Girl), and she suggested I try an interlibrary loan, in which Seattle Public Library would send a rider on a fast horse out to all the libraries in the land, asking if they had the book and if SPL could borrow it for a teensy bit because they had a patron with a fever. If the quest was successful, I would pay a fin for their efforts, if not, not.

Five bucks for a chance to read Sinbad and Me to Mara seemed like a good deal, so I signed up right online (“the Internet!…”). More than a month and a half went by and I had honestly given up hope, but the book eventually turned up in the Danville Public Library in Illinois.


Danville was willin’, so a few days ago I got word from SPL that my book was waiting for me behind the counter at the Central branch and that I could have it for a month, no renewals.

I’m reading it to Mara and she loves it. She’s a little young for it, but by the time she’s twelve the book may have completely vanished from the earth. The narrator’s best friend is a girl named Minerva who’s smarter than he is and can run faster, so there’s a good female role for her to identify with, but she would do fine even without that. She has an uncanny ability to absorb the meaning and import of things read to her that many kids wouldn’t be able to listen to for five minutes.

The best part? The version they handed me at the library is a first edition and so has the original jacket on it, which means we get the whole, unadulterated experience. It’s a library book, but even so it’s the most valuable book in our house at this moment. But the real thrill for me is simply having access again to the text of a story that I remember so fondly, and being able to share it with Mara.

I wish I had thought to go back to Mrs. Smith, or whatever her name was, years ago and thank her for turning me on to such a brilliant read. I’m still waiting to hear the news that Sinbad and Me is coming back into print. Meanwhile, once we finish Sinbad and Me, it’ll be on to The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street, neither of which I ever read, even after paying through the nose for them on eBay. Or wait…maybe I won’t say anything about them yet. They’re safe on the shelf, and it might be more fun for the girls to just discover them there on their own.


Update 12/16/2014: I got a bee in my bonnet about this today and asked an old classmate on facebook whether she remembered this teacher, whose name might be Smith. I wanted to find her and thank her for being one of the people in my life who made me into a reader and writer. I thought it was a long shot, but Jennifer C. wrote back this very evening: “Her name was Evelyn Smith, I saw an obituary for her quite a few years ago. She was very kind.”

I went a-googling and found the following obituary from 2004 for Ms. (not Mrs.) Smith, the teacher who knew how to find books for finnicky 11-year-old boys:

GLENDALE, AZ. – Seattle native Evelyn Margaret Smith, of Glendale, AZ, died Monday, Sept. 13, 2004, in Tempe, AZ. She was 93.

Ms. Smith was born on September 25, 1912, to J. Warren and Eva (Taylor) Smith. She graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle, WA and Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.

Ms. Smith was the granddaughter of William Henry Taylor, formerly of Granton, Pictou County, Nova Scotia, CAN. Her grandfather moved from Nova Scotia to Minnesota, US, where he married Ms. Smith’s grandmother, Katie Gallagher. After Ms. Smith’s mother, Eva Taylor, and uncle, Orton Taylor, were born, the family moved to Seattle, King County, WA, US.

Ms. Smith was an elementary school teacher and taught for many years at Enatai Elementary School in Bellevue, WA. She also taught for the U. S. Army in Japan, Germany and France.

She is survived by two sisters, Catherine Schmid of Woodland, CA, and Mabel Powers of Peoria, AZ; one niece, Linda Kimura of Woodland, CA; one nephew, Marty Schmid of Hermiston, OR; one great nephew, Jeff Smith of Des Moines, WA and one great-niece, Corri Schmid of Hoquiam, WA.

Inurnment will be at Willowbrook Methodist Church with a memorial service to be held at a later date. Arrangements are by Camino del Sol Funeral Center of Sun City West, AZ.

She gets it about the books

Matt F: “So many books…”
Walkin’ Dave S:”…so few chairs.”

I almost never buy books anymore. So many books have been given to me that I have yet to read, and I have in times past bought so many books that I have yet to read, that to willfully acquire more of them seems sort of obscene. I’m a slow reader, and whereas in my bachelor life I knocked down a John Barth in a delicious week or two of sprawling in various positions across various couches while a variety of cats — mine and others’ — occasionally broke the silence by waking up on the back of the sofa behind my head and beginning to lick their paws, and whereas my helpmeet shares with me a fondness for Reading in Bed, which we indulged as happily as two mice before we had children — I say, whereas all the foregoing, nowadays we can’t read in bed without turning a light on and waking our baby, whose crib is in the same room, and there are none of those expansive days of doing nothing but read, not even in a winter as bleak as this past one was.

So I read on the bus a little (inbound only — on the way home it puts me instantly to sleep) and of an evening after the girls are down I might put off the dishes for awhile and reread a few pages of the book I’m reading in an attempt to find where I quit reading or fell asleep last time. This results in a real page advance of about .72 pages.

Also, my reading adventures are composed of such quixotic investigations into things I just happened to hear about that I am often unsure whether I really want to own a book that I very much want to get my hands on. Case in point: a book I’m fitfully poking at by Albion Tourgée called “Fool’s Errand”, a novel about the Reconstruction period written just a decade or so after the end of the War Between the States. I happened recently to see Tourgée’s name mentioned derisively in the “libretto” of D. W. Griffith’s ridiculous (but historically much praised) silent movie “Birth of a Nation.” Tourgée offers a searingly honest appraisal of “what’s up with the South” after spending years there trying to help in a reconstruction that he eventually decided was a failure. I’ll go to the library for these books, and then if I like them I’ll add them to a list of books I want to buy someday, just to have. 

The Spooky Hares look like they're listening to some whispering of the books.

But none of this is what I wanted to tell you. The fact is, I used to buy lots of books. I bought a lot of books that I had already read and would not read again, in fact. When I got hip to the whole idea of the worth of a first edition first printing with an untorn dust-jacket with a price in the front flap (no price means it’s possibly a worthless book-club edition, which can also be sniffed out by looking for a small sometimes square impression on the back lower right corner of the cloth), I began collecting my favorite books by my favorite authors in out-of-print hardback. I was abetted in this addiction by eBay, which made it possible for me to get some of them very reasonably, and by, which enabled me to find any book instantly, anywhere in the world. It used to be that you went down to Shorey’s Book Store in the Pike Place Market and asked them to do a search on an out-of-print book, and they took your info (on paper, with a pencil), and called you two years later with the jubilant announcement that your book had been found in Upper Volta and that it was waiting for you at the shop. Of course, Shorey’s is now gone and so is Upper Volta. 

Even before this, I loved old hardbacks. I have a few on my shelf that I inherited from my mother, whose family was big on books. These, along with a few of the treasures I collected later, survived the Purges. A few years ago something turned for me and I gave away or sold, in spasms, most of my hardback collection — having to box it all up several times in my adult life while friends helping me move rubbed their aching backs and said things like “what, more boxes of books?” did a lot to help this season arrive. I hardly even notice these old friends anymore (I mean the books), so often has my eye scanned past them looking for something new on my shelf to read, maybe something I forgot to read, or started but found that its time had not yet arrived.

But again, none of this is what I wanted to tell you. I have old books around, I guess is what I’m saying. Mara is not yet able (or willing, perhaps) to read on her own, and we’re not hurrying her. Every day she gets closer. She falls asleep every night amid heaps of both paperback and hardback books that she pulls into her bed and “reads” by nightlight light. She loves stories and loves being read to. She wrote a few simple words on a pad the other day with a pencil, and got them mostly right (“piano” she spelled “PANO” but that is a perfectly rational orthography at her stage, when the distinction between a letter’s spoken name — “pee” — and the sound it makes is still not clear).

Children's, what's left of sci-fi and fantasy, the Barth I couldn't part with (cut me some slack, I got rid of half of it!) and a few other treasures.

A week or two ago she brought me a dusty old hardcover book from a small rampart of old tomes held up by the two Spooky Hares on a sidetable in our living room and asked me to read it. There were some color plates in it that showed children larking about, so she knew it would be her sort of thing, and she was apparently in one of those moods for something new that I can so relate to. The book was “The Little Lame Prince” a book that we had read as a class when I was in First or Second grade at Bellevue Christian School. A decade and a half ago, before you could find everything instantly online, I stumbled on this book in an antique store, and, remembering how magical it seemed to me and how its reading had shaped so strongly the geography of fantasy and fairy stories in my mind, I pounced on it. A few years later I read it and found that it made me kind of gag a little. It was really both saccharine and didactic. I put it on the shelf never bothering to read the other stories compiled in the same volume by the same author, identified mysteriously as “Miss Mulock”.

I didn’t want to read “The Little Lame Prince” to her so I started in on “The Adventures of a Brownie”, which are six tales of the relationship between a passel of farm kids and a strange, tiny brown magical man, sort of an imp. They’re kinda spooky, like old fairy tales tend to be, but Mara has a pretty high threshhold for things that creep other kids out, and also for the kind of Old World language (and subject matter) that one finds in children’s books with color plates in them:

Never were such fine chickens as my last brood!”
“I thought they were ducklings.”
“How you catch me up, you rude old man!…” 

So we read the half dozen adventures and Mara loved them.

Tonight when I was getting her into bed and it was time for books, she asked if we had any more “old books”. If we did, she said, it might be “something that would interest me.” Inside me my heart did a little gleesome flippety flop, and I thought “she gets it”. She’ll grow up in a world of Kindles and Nooks and Direct Hyperverbal Storyness Implantation*, and that’s all perhaps as it should be… but she loves old books. She sees them as special, containing special interest for her. 

An oldie but goodie, and illustrations by Pauline Baynes! Click to see the entire cover larger.

After rubbing my chin theatrically for a moment, I preceded her downstairs to the bookshelf where sit my hardback editions of “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” and “The Gammage Cup” and LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the Bles editions of the Narnia stories and the 1965 first edition (alas not first impression) hardback box set of Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy (with maps) — all awaiting my daughters’ interest in due time, and pulled down Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham”, a thin volume copiously adorned with illustrations by that magnificent expositor of the Narnia tales, the inimitable Pauline Baynes. We took it upstairs and I read her several pages, not quite remembering what parts may require some careful explaining, but anyway journeying again, this time with my daughter, into a land of magic. I have waited so long. 

*I just made that up, but you never know…    

History’s fascinating quagmire

Note: The shape of our lives these days is such that I still haven’t had a lot of time or the energy to cook up anything fresh for you. This too shall pass, I’ve been promised, and I promise in turn that there will be more current posts soon. But for now, here’s one of the many posts I have written earlier and for whatever reason — too many ideas going, didn’t like the flow, wasn’t that posts “time”, etc. — never published. I’ve tied up the loose ends but I left words like “yesterday” in place, even though in this case yesterday was months ago. I do this in order to preserve the original post’s raison d’être, if that makes sense. As a sort of epilogue up front, this was as great a read as I thought it would be.


The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”

— Harry S. Truman

About five years ago on a trip back to Angela’s hometown of St. Louis, someone told me about a book he was reading called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. It was one New Yorker’s telling of the year of nights he spent standing in an alley off of Gold Street and Fulton in Lower Manhattan observing the behavior of rats. It sounded crazy interesting to me, and when we found ourselves killing a little extra time in a small independent bookshop before our flight home, the book found me and I bought it.

It turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. It was not just about the guy’s experience standing in the alley. That’s just the thread that holds it all together. He weaves into his tale the history of the alley, indeed of the rounded hill that still partially (and almost invisibly) exists beneath the tall buildings there and was called Gold Hill before there were streets. He rides along with pest control professionals and records their anectodes and wisdom about New York’s rat problem. All the while I read it, I kept thinking, this guy surely must have come across Joseph Mitchell’s “Rats on the Waterfront” article, and indeed, in the extensive and entertaining notes section, which I read all of despite my long-standing agreement with myself that notes sections are optional and usually not worth trudging through, he mentions Mitchell’s essay.

The book marked a decisive turn in my reading life. I had for years been reading novels, centered around Helprin and Barth, as I’ve told you before. In the few years before reading the rat book, I had begun to feel restless. I started reading ancient works of history, such as Herodotus and Thucydides and the writings of the Desert Fathers. (I also bought Virgil and even Gibbons, just didn’t get around to them.)

I found I enjoyed reading history, something I did not really know about myself. Then I ran into Mitchell, who as you know has become my literary hero. When I read Rats, I found a living author who had picked up something akin to the ball that had been dropped when Mitchell stopped writing — like John McPhee only with more caffeine in him — and it was my impression that he wasn’t even really a writer-type, that he was a plain-talking New Yorker who had a gift for inquiry and expression, and just happened to write a book. Until today, I had even forgotten his name even though his book still occupies an honored place on my bookshelf.

'Vaguely interesting nonfiction about all kinds of subjects' -- the perfect read. Book image (probably) copyright Anchor/Doubleday.

Rats ratified the alteration in course my reading had been making. From then on I looked for books like that, where a topic — any old topic — became the focus of a journey through time and culture and science and “collective memory” (you’ve heard me use that phrase before, yup). Actually, that’s what was so great about the book. It was supposedly about rats, but it touched on the whole world.

One day a coworker of mine saw the book Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-in House by Sarah Messer, lying on my desk. He picked it up, flipped it over, and said, “Is this one of those NPR books?”

“NPR books?”

“Yeah, you know — vaguely interesting non-fiction about all kinds of subjects written by liberals.”

He had described my new reading jag precisely.

Yesterday on BLDGBLOG, I became captivated, as I often do, by Geoff Manaugh’s reflections on some books he’d been reading. One was a book about the Meadowlands, a patch of polluted New Jersey swampland east of Manhattan, a wilderness between the world’s largest skyline and the suburbs beyond, criss-crossed by highways and dotted with the occasional warehouse or motel. The rubble from some of London’s bombed-out buildings from World War II lie here just below the mucky soil, believe it or not, as do a vast heap of other interesting stories. When Manaugh named the author, Robert Sullivan, it tickled my memory, and I had a hunch. To my delight I discovered that sure enough, Robert Sullivan was the same author who had written Rats.
The crazy part, or part of the crazy part, is that Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City was written way back in 1999. At the time I read Rats (ca. 2006) I hadn’t realized Sullivan had written anything previously. I don’t now remember where I had gotten that impression. The other part of the crazy part is that between the writing of Meadowlands and Rats, Sullivan came out to my neck of the woods and wrote a book (A Whale Hunt) about the efforts of a local First Nations tribe to embark on a traditional whale hunt, a quest I remember because of the news coverage and controversy the project garnered.

I’m pretty excited to learn that Sullivan is fully in the game as a writer (has been all along), and as you can see, I’ve got some reading to do. As my old friend Walkin’ Dave once said, “so many books, so few chairs.” 

History night at the book store

Last Wednesday night I attended a reading at the University Book Store by Richard C. Berner, whose previously published and now updated book Seattle 1900 – 1920: From Boomtown, Through Turbulence, to Restoration is being published by and printed right there at the University Book Store. Paul Dorpat’s name is also on the cover because he ransacked his collections of old photographs and ephemera to supply the reissued book with dozens of illustrations particularly suiting the text.

Rich Berner, left, answers questions about his reissued book while Paul Dorpat plays the gracious host.

I skibbled over to the University district after work, then nabbed what turned out to be one of the best little burgers I’ve had in a long time at a tiny joint called the Burger and Kabob Hut on the Ave between 41st and 42nd streets. Then I wiped chin and hied the two blocks north to the “U Book Store”. About fifty people had gathered upstairs near the poetry section, where rows of chairs had been set out.

It wasn’t really a reading, per se. Messrs. Berner and Dorpat told a little about the already successful book, which is only the first in a triplet that Rich had published late in the 20th century. The other two will also be reprinted by the University Book Store. Paul told about how he’d come to be involved and with his typical humility gave the gathered throng to know that while his name was on the reissued book it was really all Rich’s work, that he Paul had only supplied the illustrations. In the forward to the book, Rich, who is 90, acknowledges that if Paul had not agreed to toss in with him on the project he probably would not have been up for it. Besides the addition of pictures, the book has been updated with additional textual material.

Paul fields a question from the audience.

I had never heard of Richard Berner, but many there were familiar not only with the man’s history trilogy, but also with what many consider an even greater contribution to our and future generations’ understanding of regional history. As head of the University’s Archives and Manuscripts Division, Rich engineered and oversaw the gathering of a number of collections of records and data into the University’s archives, which he founded in 1958 and in whose navigation and use he spent a quarter century mentoring his students. Though he retired decades ago from his post, researchers continue to benefit from the trove of documents he amassed during his tenure.

A spontaneous award. Louis Fiset presents Rich with a copy of his book. I had a camera handy so they turned toward me.

One such researcher and author was present at the reading. During the question and answer session, Louis Fiset, who has written two books and numerous articles on the experience of Seattle’s Japanese community during the internments of World War II, opened a copy of one of his published books (Camp Harmony: Seattle’s Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009) and read the dedication, which stated that without the benefit of the collections that Mr. Berner had secured, his own book would not have been possible.

After the question and answer period there was the signing of books and, for those interested, a trip downstairs to see the book actually being published by the University Book Store’s Espresso Book Machine. This little equalizer not only enables you — yes you — to publish a single on-demand paperback copy of any of millions of out-of-print books, but it also enables authors to publish their work in paperback form with a binding supposedly at least as durable as those on the books distributed by the industry’s large publishers, without having to pony up for a printing of thousands. Depending on length and other variables, you can test the waters for your book of post-postmodern neo-Euclidian poetry for the cost of a one-time set-up fee ($50 – 70) and about ten dollars per printed copy.  

Get 'em while they're hot! Tera shows us the Espresso Book Machine in action. The freshly minted book appears in the clear plastic chute bottom center.

I bought my copy and had it autographed by both gentlemen. Incidentally, the whole book (the new edition!) has also been published online on the website Paul shares with his friends the photographers Jean Sherrard and Bérangère Lomont, so you can read it or download it as a group of PDFs there, but Paul pointed out that most of us who enjoy history of this sort are the kind who like to hold the book in our hands. If you’re crazy that way, too, ask for it at your local independent bookstore. [UPDATE 2/23/11: I goofed; the book can be bought for about $15 from the University Book Store (and if they run out, the EBM is right there to print you one on the spot) and from Tartu Publications, P.O. Box 85208, Seattle, WA 98145. Note that after covering the cost of running the EBM, Rich and Paul are donating the rest to] 

Although it was a small and low-key event and the duties (and joys) awaiting me at home prevented me from staying to hobnob, I felt very affirmed by this little gathering. It’s a weird thing to be, in this culture of forward motion and futurism, one of those haunted by things that have come and gone and are no more, by people, places and events whose resonance in the present day may be real enough but are seldom appreciated and even less often acknowledged. I wish I’d had time to get acquainted with some of those gathered. Some of them may be people with whom I have exchanged comments on blogs about local history. But it was enough to have been introduced to a man who has done much for people like me and whom I might easily never have encountered.

Smallcreep: a book (and album) report

If you prevent men from seizing and wielding power over you by force, you do not solve the problem of human freedom. You merely make it necessary for others to acquire power over you by some other means.”

— Peter Currell Brown

In 1980 Mike Rutherford released a solo album called Smallcreep’s Day. In case no one remembers, Mr. Rutherford was (and may still be) the bass player for the progressive rock band Genesis, and latterly the guitar player as well. This is the band from which Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel sprang to successful solo careers performing pop music of a completely different species. Mike, too, released a number of albums, his offerings published under the appellation Mike & The Mechanics, an entity that delivered several hits including All I Need is a Miracle and The Living Years.

Mike before the Mechanics. Image probably copyright Shergold Guitars.

But Smallcreep’s Day preceded the “Mechanics” and was very much a concept album in the style of Genesis. It was his first solo effort and many agree his most creative and certainly his most energetic. I was a great big Genesis fan, and I had the record in my clutch the day it hit the bins. The jacket of this record showed a man, presumably the character of the title, peering down in wonder at something from a catwalk in an industrial setting.

In fine prog tradition, one side of the album was one long suite of songs chronicling the adventures of Pinquean Smallcreep, a man who (the inner sleeve informed me) worked in an enormous factory putting the same component into the same machine day after day and week after week and year after year, never seeing much of the works beyond his own little area until the day he became curious about what they were building and set off to find out. The songs and tunes were wonderfully evocative for me, and the album has remained one of my favorites through the years. The lyrics do not reveal what Smallcreep discovers at the last, but the ending ballad beautifully narrates his grateful return home to his wife and children.

The cover of a minor musical masterpiece.

Another note on the sleeve said that the album was inspired by the book of the same name by Peter Currell Brown. I logged the name in my memory and made a mental note to read that book someday, imagining that the author might have been more explicit about what hulking industrial horror lay at journey’s end. In my mind’s eye I pictured Smallcreep coming upon some collossus of destruction, maybe a giant robot like the one on the cover of The Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot album.

This was in those benighted olden days when you could not instantly know every fact by entering a few words into an online search engine (in fact, this was back when engines were engines and leaked fluids). To find the book, which for all I knew might have been written in the 1920s or the 1950s (1965, it turns out), I would have had to go to a library or maybe a large bookstore — Waldenbooks or B. Dalton would have been the largest, there were not yet Borderses or Barnes and Nobles — and I never got around to it.

In fact I pretty much forgot all about it until recently, when in an idle moment I thought of and googled the book and found that while it had gone out of print in the ’70s, it had been picked up again in 2008 by the British house Pinter and Martin.  It was being distributed only in the United Kingdom. In fact, even P&M themselves would not directly sell it to a Yankee. Their website directed me to an entity called The Book Depository, which promised free shipping to almost anywhere in the world (every country I could think of was listed, but maybe if you live on the island of Saint Helena you would be out of luck — no, just checked, and they deliver to the world’s most remote inhabited place).

A forgotten cult classic reprinted in 2008. Image copyright Pinter & Martin.

The book was shipped by Royal Mail, which caused me to whoop and holler a bit when it arrived, and that precipitated my having to explain my enthusiasm to Mara, who simplified my explanation when she told Angela that “the Queen of England sent Daddy a book!”  

I’m a slow reader, but even so I expected that I would whip through this little book. And I might have. The writing is excellent. I mean it really excels. Brown’s style is fleet, crisp and elegant — quintessentially British, I’d say — and he finds just smashing similes and metaphors for everything. Of a corpse: “He looked balefully up at us like one who has been disturbed from sleep to be reminded of some tiresome duty, and he looked fidgety and worried even in death.” Of men walking swiftly down a stairwell: “They began to clip-clop down the stairs at a great rate, leaning forward even further like ski-jumpers in flight.” And near the apocalyptic ending, when a worker inside a mammoth industrial crane glides high over Smallcreep’s head: “I saw his bared teeth like rows of concrete blocks…and then he was gone, but his shadow came after him like the shadow of an enemy aircraft and touched me, so that I shivered, as if my name had been marked down in a book.”

I've always thought Smallcreep found something like this, from another album in my collection.

But I discovered right away that the storytelling was of the kind that if I’m honest I must say is not my favorite. I am not especially learnéd, so I can’t evaluate the book within a literary tradition, I can only talk about my own experience with it (which is why this is a “book report” and not a “review”). I was prepared for something a little fantastical, but this was in that vein where things happen that are so bizarre and grotesque, and no one in the story reacts realistically to any of it, which leaves the reader — remember, that’s me — no cathartic vent in the story. Here’s an example. One factory worker is feeding a die stamping machine so quickly that when Smallcreep interrupts him to ask directions the man makes an untimely move and one of his hands is chopped clean off. Far from expressing horror — my the reader’s horror — the man grumbles that he’ll surely catch it from the foreman now, but before the scene is over he gets his other hand chopped off, too, and he wanders off dripping blood muttering about how they’ll probably dock his pay.

I was once charmed by this drastically understated style of storytelling, even attempted it myself, and I’m sure the style has a proper name, which I don’t know. But I get bored with it. Yes, I get it — the company owns this man so completely that his own sense of self-preservation and self-worth are overridden even when the company’s machines are bodily chewing him to pieces. Check. After a few chapters of this kind of thing I began to feel as though I were walking with Smallcreep in a macabre, dangerous, and depressing funhouse where there was no limit on what the author could throw at us. Rules of society, psychology, physics, architecture and even probability were AWOL. I understand that it’s a style, and that some consider it a very gripping style, but I don’t enjoy it. I feel taxed by the need to cobble up some significance for these seemingly unrelated and absurd events. So even though the writing itself was so original, I found myself not wanting to pick the book up. It’s only 205 pages, but I wasn’t even halfway through before my interest had flagged. There seemed no hope, no point in going on just to encounter more absurdity.


Or maybe he'd discover they were building something like this, the largest digging machine in the world.

Except that I really wanted to know the same thing that Smallcreep wanted to know. What were they building there? I am not a book-ending-cheater. Many fine and worthy humans do this, but I do not. So the piper had to be paid. I slogged on. Just past halfway, it gets briefly interesting when Smallcreep is forced by one of a series of misunderstandings to descend below the factory to a vast underground lake of sewage, out of which he is hauled into a boat by Walpole, the company’s lowest paid employee, who is proud that he and his family go without practically all comforts and is happy to do so to preserve the “order” of things. But then it refracts again into inexplicable scenes of barbarism and chaos, and I almost despaired.

Suddenly, however, Smallcreep opens a door into the office of some kind of chief of marketing or sales, and here the narrative suddenly begins to arc upward into a cogent idea, as the salesman tells Smallcreep that our modern society consumes products with the same spooky fervor that mediaeval illiterates consumed myths and legends. Here I perked up, because while a little didactic this thesis was right up my alley. I am the choir for this sermon. And it gets even better when our hero finally ascends to an austere little room in a tower, where the general director sits. This man says amazing things about industry and leaders like himself, delivering himself of such whopping mouthfuls as:

I would not hesitate to say that the blame for a not insubstantial proportion of human misery, yes, and of the bloodshed of the last hundred years must rest squarely on the shoulders of those whose lineage I have chosen to inherit. But lonely as I am, and aware as I am of the fallacy of the concept of human progress, it has been my last untarnished hope that that minority of men about whose shoulders the cloak of true wisdom has come to fall has from age to age increased both in number and in quality of men; for if it is not so I know, and the very knowledge weighs heavily upon me, that the story of man will henceforth be one of retreat, slow but inexorable retreat, into darkness, chaos, terror and despair. Sir, against that despair only I and such rare men stand, sole guardians of all that is of the essence of civilization and human culture.”

Or maybe something like Gustav, the largest gun ever built (thanks Adolph!).

This was the first time anyone seemed to be saying anything to Smallcreep that wasn’t hallucinatory gibberish, but he’s basically telling Smallcreep that the masses are lucky that such a man as himself is in charge of their lives, because the masses themselves would actually prefer to be enslaved by a dictator. Pinquean meekly resists this assertion, reminding the esteemed director that they fought for freedom, to which the GD replies,

I do not doubt your ferocity. But one look at freedom, and you would all shrivel up like worms in a snowstorm…You do not buy freedom because you dare not. In a society of free men you would be forced to face up to the truth of what you really are. In every sense of the expression you would have to do your own dirty work, you would have to forge your very own relationships with those around you.”

I’ll leave it there. It made me wish the book had had more of this and less of women giving birth to babies that died while no one noticed because they could not hear her screams over the roar of a band playing.

In the 1927 movie "Metropolis", the people tend and serve the machines they've created. Maybe that's what Smallcreep saw?

Here’s the final irony and the bittersweet victory of the book, which I recommend for its writing and for many of its arguments but only to those with the patience and stomach for a long dismal journey into the surreal: Peter Currell Brown was a factory worker — he WAS Pinquean Smallcreep — until he wrote a book that is as much as anything else a lament about the death of virtue, integrity and craftsmanship in modern work life, the success of which book enabled him to quit the factory and become an artisan, a sculptor of pottery.  Brown was given a happy ending that he did not vouchsafe to his offspring Smallcreep. On the other hand, I’m sure it was not Brown’s agenda in Smallcreep to make us feel content with the shape of mid-20th-century society.



The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt