Despite the popular notion
of the used book store owner with his nose in a book, mine is
mostly pressed up against the computer screen, doing an increasing
volume of my business on-line, or tapping out stories and features
Between running a business
and practicing my own brand of journalism, I also try to squirrel
time for regular exercise, scan newspapers and periodicals like
the New Yorker, Nation, American Prospect, and Harper’s. Television
shows like West Wing and Ed, and some public TV offerings like
the American Experience and C-SPAN’s book TV, and, occasionally,
a Celtics game also eat into my time, and there are always chores
around the house.
So when do I keep up with
the task of reading books?
Mornings before I open the
book store is one chunk of time, weekends another, and at night
before going to sleep, although I refuse to read when I wake during
So what’s been on my reading
list in the last couple of weeks? The second volume in Worcester
author Nicholas Basbanes’ exploration of the world of books and
bibliophiles was a treat not only for someone in the book trade,
but for anyone interested in people pursuing a passion. Titled
"Patience & Fortitude, A Roving Chronicle of Book People,
Book Places and Book Culture," Basbanes’ newest volume is
a worthy successor to his earlier, "Gentle Madness,"
an anecdotal report on what motivates book collectors who are
highly idiosyncratic, not to say crazy.
Ann and I had the pleasure
of being on hand for a talk and reading by Basbanes at the Odyssey
Book Shop in South Hadley a few months back. His book is a thorough
work of scholarship, but also accessible to the general reader,
given Basbanes’ background as a newspaperman and book critic.
"Patience & Fortitude"
contains references to the book culture in our own Five College
area, including a chapter on the work and art of Barry Moser,
as well as an overview of others toiling in the local book vineyard.
For a change of pace,
I recently read the latest collection of short stories by Canadian
author Alice Munro, who, along with the Irish writer William Trevor,
is one of the very best writers of short stories. Munro’s newest
collection is especially appropriate for someone my age because
she writes with insight about the lives of adults - people who
have experienced life in all its sweetness and all its disappointments.
The final story - about a couple separated by the gulf of Alzheimer’s
- is especially moving.
Among the several writers
I admire and count among my friends or acquaintances is Roland
Merullo, who first came into my shop perhaps a decade ago, and
about whom I wrote a newspaper column when I was cranking those
out. He had just published his first novel - "Leaving Losapas"
- which I enjoyed, even though Merullo and others were disappointed
that the great cultural arbiter, The New York Times, never reviewed
it and thus it did not sell well.
Two other novels followed.
Merullo has also taught part-time at Bennington College and more
recently at Amherst College. He churns out a steady stream of
freelance newspaper articles, criticism and magazine fictions.
He and his wife Amanda and two young daughters live on the road
between Williamsburg and Conway, far from their urban roots.
Merullo’s most recent
book - "Revere Beach Elegy, a Memoir of Home and Beyond"
- has just been published by Beacon Press and it tells me much
more about Roland Merullo and his development as a writer and
person than I have learned during our 10-year friendship. It is
the story of a very young man, who is not now so young, who struggles
to find himself emerging from the twin but contradictory environments
of ethnic Revere, just north of Boston, and private secondary
school and Brown University. There were many instructive and painful
detours along the way, which he describes without flinching, that
ultimately led him to the writing life. What is effective about
the book is the extent to which the author can synthesize the
lessons he has learned that provide his passage with meaning not
only for him but for his readers. I found the book riveting -
it could be read straight-through in a couple of days; Ann was
equally enthusiastic and she’s not a fan of nonfiction.
Finally, because a customer
dumped off about 30 Dick Francis mysteries, I finally read one
of his books, which are always popular in my shop. The book went
quickly and while the writing was not bad, I found that whatever
mystery was involved did not engage me enough to warrant finishing.
I used to feel that, once you started a book you had to read it
to the end, like eating everything on your plate at dinner. No
longer, not at my age. Life’s getting too short.
I used to acquire books
for my library at home in anticipation of the time in my life
when I would have more opportunity to read. There never will be
such a time I have concluded. What is the point of all these books
awaiting my attention?
Just inside the door to
my study is a straight wooden chair on which I have been piling
up books that are next in line to be read, now that the bookcase
in the room can no longer accommodate more volumes.
These are serious books,
which can only improve my mind if I can plow through them. So,
what’s on the chair awaiting the free time I’ll never have?
Pile Number1 supports
a handsome hard cover copy of Robert Caro’s classic 1,246-page
work "The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New
York," first published in 1974, which I read in installments
in the New Yorker when it first came out. Next is "The Crescent
& Star," a recent book by New York Times reporter Stephen
Kinzer about his experiences while based in Turkey for his newspaper;
a biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper called "Full
of Life." Fante was a chronicler of the Italian-American
experience in many novels set in 1930 and 1940s; Tim Page’s biography
of Dawn Powell, a novelist whose work is coming back in favor;
"Remember Me to Harlem the Letters of Langston Hughes and
Carl Van Vechten,1925-1964," edited by Emily Bernard, who
until this year was on the faculty at Smith College; "Titan,
the life of John D. Rockefeller" by Ron Chernow, winner of
the National Book Award; "Sidewalk Critic, Lewis Mumford’s
Writings on New York"; and "Compass Point, How I Lived,"
a memoir by Edward Hoagland, novelist, essayist and natural historian.
On top of pile 2 is "Socialism"
by the late Michael Harrington first published in 1976; "Tucker’s
People," a novel by Ira Wolfert, about radical New York politics
first published in 1943; "The Collected Poems of Paul Muldoon
1968-1998"; "Divided Minds, Intellectuals and the Civil
Rights Movement" by Carol Polsgrove; a biography of Mother
Jones, "The Most Dangerous Woman in America," by Elliott
J. Gorn; "The Selected Stories of Alice Munro," published
in 1996; "The Element of Lavishness, letters of Sylvia Townsend
Warner & William Maxwell, 1938-1978." She was a writer
for The New Yorker; he was her editor. Also awaiting attention
are "Transfigurations, the Collected Poems of Jay Wright,"
a poet who lives in Vermont and whom I have gotten to know, and
"Our Vietnam, the War, 1954 -1975" by A.J. Langguth,
a New York Times reporter who covered the war and whose book was
published in 2000. Last, but not least in terms of size, is William
J. Duiker’s biography, "Ho Chi Minh," a seminal political
figure of our generation.
I’m 65 years old and it
would take me most of the rest of my life to get through just
these volumes. And what about the books by Stendahl, Henry James,
Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Victor Hugo, George Eliot,
Shelby Foote, Winston Churchill and Dostoyevky I have yet to read.
Books are intended to
provide you with pleasure, excitement, and often comfort, but
I’m beginning to get discouraged, to be depressed by my failure
to read more deeply, more voraciously, more quickly.
Yet, I must press on,
however halting, even lamentable, my progress.