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Have You Heard? Have You Seen? Have You Read?

John Berger (photo: Ji-Elle)

These questions are an integral part of my New Year's resolution. They look forward. They engage. They prompt both replies and infinite follow-up "Have you...?" questions from others.

Why these in particular? Maybe because the second day of 2017 began so badly, with news of John Berger's death. His writing and art have been in my life for a long, long time. In November, I'd written a column to celebrate his 90th birthday. Just after Christmas, I watched the new documentary film The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger. He had an extraordinary life by any measure, but his death still hit me hard.

On Monday, Simon McBurney, the actor, director and founder of British theater company Complicite, tweeted: "Listener, grinder of lenses, poet, painter, seer. My Guide. Philosopher. Friend. John Berger left us this morning. Now you are everywhere."

In a 2014 BBC Radio interview, McBurney spoke of how Berger's And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos had influenced his theatrical work with ideas of connection, memory, narrative and mortality, noting that Berger "digs in the vulnerable earth of human experience, and joins the fragments he uncovers with an eye as sure as an astronomer, a gesture as gentle as a carpenter."

This particular new year demands a sensory adjustment. As it happens, I just had one. On Wednesday night, I saw McBurney's extraordinary new play The Encounter on Broadway. In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley wrote: "The great privilege of being there, in person, to witness The Encounter comes from seeing a performer, in the sweaty flesh, and a team of technicians working hard to put on a show that somehow transcends what they're doing in plain view.... Let yourself go, if you dare, and you enter a world beyond borders of regimented thoughts and senses, one in which the ear sees more than the eye."

I can't begin to capture the magical blend of visual and aural effects McBurney employs to re-imagine Petru Popescu's nonfiction book Amazon Beaming, which recounts the adventures (much too tame a word) of Loren McIntyre, an American photographer who became lost in a remote area of Brazilian rainforest in 1969 and experienced a life-altering encounter with the Mayoruna tribe. (To note that the audience wore headphones during the performance is just a hint at the immersive nature of McBurney's staging of the tale.)

Have you seen it? Have you heard it? Have you read it?

Maybe those are just questions that lead to this one: Have you read A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by British artist Tom Philips? This book has been following me around for awhile. I've written about it several times, including a brief Tin House essay in 2004, and a 2012 Shelf column after the fifth edition of this ever-evolving art/fiction/poetry/time travel project was published. 

Next week, the sixth and final edition of A Humument will be released by Thames and Hudson here. I'll buy that one, too, and shelve it next to my volumes two, four and five. They are as similar and unique as siblings.

For the past 50 years, Phillips has been acquiring used copies of W.H. Mallock's overheated Victorian novel A Human Document and "treating" the pages with his art while leaving selected words from the original text exposed. In the process, he has become Mallock's consummate and all-consuming reader by creating an illustrated narrative in verse that merges the contemporary with the 19th century.

Have you heard that Phillips was recently named to the panel of judges for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, along with Colin Thubron, Sarah Hall, Lila Azam Zanganeh and chair Baroness Lola Young? The Guardian introduced Phillips as "a polymath who has painted Iris Murdoch, collaborated with film-maker Peter Greenway on a TV series based on Dante's Inferno and designed album covers for Brian Eno and King Crimson--[He] made his literary name with collage works, beginning with his cult 1970 classic, A Humument."

I think he's an excellent choice. A love for words and literature infuses his art ("After Henry James," "Curriculum Vitae," "Samuel Beckett," "A TV Dante"). Phillips, who read English Literature and Anglo Saxon at St Catherine's College, Oxford, has observed that he loves "the smell of a library and the feel of books. Most of all I love the serendipity and the aleatory quirks of browsing.... Every book, however unpromising, will turn out to have its day."

Have you heard (and seen) him discuss A Humument in a recent video?

Writing about the new edition, Allison Meier noted: "Yet one of the last challenges of this edition related to Mallock himself. Phillips finally tracked down an image of his grave, and it's his name carved in its stone that concludes the ultimate edition of A Humument. Over the tomb wind these concluding words that give tribute to their long posthumous collaboration: 'by whose/ bones my bones/ my best,/ perpetuate/ your grave in mine fused/ page/ for/ page.' "

Which leads me back to John Berger. "Now you are everywhere," McBurney wrote on Monday. And from the stage of the Golden Theatre Wednesday night, he whispered in our ears, with the telepathic voice of a Mayurama headman, "Some of us are friends."

Good words... for a new year. As I said at the beginning, I've decided to "celebrate" the start of 2017 with questions instead of resolutions. Have you heard Kamasi Washington's album The Epic? Have you seen Jim Jarmusch's film Paterson? Have you read Will Schwalbe's Books for Living?

Go ahead, ask me questions.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2911


Digital Ghost of a Bookseller's Christmas Past

Dec. 17, 2005
6 p.m.: Still standing, but I wobbled occasionally today. Just heard a customer say: "I want to get a book for my uncle. Have you read this (holds up copy of Bad Dog)? He doesn't have a dog, but..."

Dec. 23, 2016
I posted the previous entry on my then year-old blog, Fresh Eyes: A Booksellers Journal, during my final holiday season rush as a full-time bookseller at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt. As that Christmas week began, I had decided to chronicle life on the hectic sales floor with a series of entries headlined "Where the Holidays Take Me: Counting Down."

Now, 11 years later, I'm feeling a little nostalgic. There are, I suspect, two primary catalysts for this. Last June, I celebrated my 10th year as an editor at Shelf Awareness, and in September I attended a dinner marking the Northshire's 40th anniversary. As I considered what I might write about for the final column of 2016, I kept coming back to those two signature events. That led me to explore ancient online archives in search of what I might have been thinking during Christmas week 2005, as I transitioned out of one job and into, after a few stumbles, my new home at Shelf Awareness.

Northshire Bookstore: Inspiration for Every Age was published in September by Shires Press to commemorate the bookshop's 40th anniversary. A considerably younger version of this column's author is pictured above.

And I did find something. In the spirit of the season, here are a few excerpts from my own Digital Ghost of Bookseller Christmas Past:

Dec. 16, 2005
3:13 p.m.: The snow is still falling, but many brave souls have fired up the ol' SUVs and braved their way down the mountain to the bookshop. I don't sense true gifting desperation yet. Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, there is still a kind of delusional confidence exhibited by shoppers today because they think they have more time left than they actually do. I suspect the shopping window will be narrow this afternoon and will close with a thud when darkness descends in an hour or so. This town has a medieval relationship with the night. The streets empty as the skies darken.

Dec. 17, 2005
1 p.m.: Wow. three-and-a-half hours have flashed by since my last entry. Guess it's busy, huh? It's hard not to be amazed at the STUFF people buy for holiday gifts. Books, sure, but also games and calendars and toys (TOYS! in fact, heaps and mountains of toys) and neckties and computer games and DVDs and CDs and... Well, let's just say the feeding frenzy is at optimum level today thus far. I sometimes think that my time here has turned Christmas into a spectator sport for me. You can only watch so much of this (with full realization that it's what keeps this store in business) without questioning your own approach to what George Carlin calls, and I paraphrase, this great old pagan holiday.

Dec. 21, 2005
7:28 p.m.: I'm back home after a full shift at the bookstore, which seems like a minor miracle given how sick I was a couple of days ago. We were VERRRRYYY busy today, the genuine holiday gift madness kicking in full steam. I never stopped moving from one task to another, my colleagues reminding me again and again about my "lame duck" status. Funny.

Dec. 22, 2005
8 a.m.: I will be a Northshire Bookstore frontline bookseller for three more days. People ask me what I'm going to call myself in my new venture, Fresh Eyes Now. It's a logical question. For a while, I used the dreaded word "consultant," but lately I've been reverting to a more accurate description: "Bookseller." That is what I will be in my new life. It's probably what I will be until I croak.... During my years at this bookshop, I've had no personal goal bigger than to elevate the visibility of the frontline bookseller, and I was doing this long, long before I ever considered writing about it in a venue like this blog...

Dec. 23, 2005
Wow! Details tomorrow.

Dec. 24, 2005
4:30 p.m.: It's over. We won.

Dec. 25, 2005
Christmas morning. The day after my last day as a full-time frontline bookseller at the Northshire. It's been an incredibly busy week, the pace increasing dramatically as the weekend approached and reaching hyper-warp drive proportions yesterday. So many people buying so much stuff (some of the stuff even included books, thankfully) and heaping these piles of stuff on one of our eight checkout counters....

I need a week to heal and rest, so this will be my last post until the new year. Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of the blog and my new venture, Fresh Eyes Now. Despite my Scrooge-like relationship with the season (forged from more than 30 years of retail experience), I do hope your holidays are safe and joyful, and I'll see you next year.

Dec. 23, 2016
...and to all a good night.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2907


A Christmas Carol: The Book... 'to Begin With'

Marley was dead: to begin with.

It is one of my favorite opening lines in literature, though I hadn't read the classic holiday season tale by Charles Dickens in years, perhaps decades. Recently, however, I was inspired to revisit his world by 1) the publication last month of the fascinating A Christmas Carol: The Original Manuscript Edition (Norton), with a foreword by Colm Tóibín; and 2) a visit to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan last week, where the treasure itself--the one-of-a-kind manuscript--is displayed every year in Pierpont Morgan's paradisiacal library.

I'll admit, however, that my bookseller's soul was also touched (perhaps just a little Scrooge-like) when I learned about the Dickensian path this unique document took to reach its hallowed place under glass, near a monumental fireplace tastefully decorated with green garland and red ribbon. In his introduction to the new facsimile edition, Declan Kiely chronicles the book's journey to its recent meeting with me (well, not quite that detailed) as I sat for a long time on a cushioned bench, communing (not too strong a word, as it turned out) with an open book, its legacy and its ghosts.

After the printers had done their work in 1843, Dickens arranged for the loose manuscript pages to be bound in red morocco as a gift for his solicitor, friend and creditor Thomas Mitton. Five years after the author's death, in 1875, Mitton sold the manuscript for £50 (about $62) to Francis Harvey, a London bookseller who quickly found an eager buyer in Henry George Churchill, a private collector. Churchill decided to sell it in 1882 to a bookseller in Birmingham, where "crowds reportedly gathered there for an opportunity to view the manuscript before it was sold for £200 to the London booksellers Robson and Kerslake," Kiely writes. Soon after, Stuart M. Samuel purchased it for £300 as an investment, then he sold it in 1890 to London booksellers J. Pearson & Co. for £1,000. 

And now the retail plot reaches its final chapter. Sometime before 1900, Pierpont Morgan acquired the manuscript from Pearson. After his death in 1913, he bequeathed it to J.P. Morgan Jr., who subsequently established the Morgan Library in his father's honor.

On December 12, 1923, the New York Times reported: "Among the various kinds of riches in the Morgan Library on East Thirty-sixth Street, there is, kept very carefully, a particular treasure. It is not very old and it is not at all beautiful, but it is a very significant possession, for which its owner paid a high price, and on which he sets a high value. It is written in a well-known, scratchy hand--on sheets of yellowing paper, the manuscript of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol....

"Mr. Morgan's original manuscript is, of course, a well-nigh priceless treasure. And it is so less because it is the writing of a great work by a great novelist than because it is, in its genuineness and its intimacy, something that for nearly three-quarters of a century has been part of the thought of Christmas cheer, and that throughout the English-speaking world men and women and little children have loved."

As I communed in the library, I thought about this book as both a singular art object as well as the original container for a story that has been told worldwide for nearly two centuries, spawning myriad editions, illustrations and film/TV/stage adaptations. A Christmas Carol is a fundamental tale we share again and again, hoping to learn something new, or at least to remind ourselves of an important lesson about being human that seemed so obvious when we were children.

We... tend to forget.

The Morgan displays its bound manuscript open to just a single page. This year it is the end of Stave I. After his frightening encounter with Jacob Marley's ghost and the promise of more terrors to come, Scrooge watches the specter float away to join "the mournful dirge" outside. (Apparently "dirge" was not a frightening enough word for Dickens. You can see his insertion of the adjective "mournful" on the page.) Scrooge looks out of his bedroom window and sees:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

When the vision ceases, Scrooge attempts to say 'Humbug!' but stops at the first syllable. His redemptive journey has begun.

In a foreword to the facsimile edition, Colm Tóibín observes: "The word dream has been transformed, has been taken from its dark, cold, lonely, fearful place and, instead of being a watchword for frightful imaginings, filled with mockery and unbearable visions, has come to mean an opening of the self, a way of reimagining the world. And so, with that change, from nightmare to sweet reality, from miserliness to giving, from misery to merriness, Christmas came into being. Courtesy of Dickens, we live in its shadow still and on one cheery, idealized day of the year, as we force Scrooge to appear as merely a distant warning to us all, we become the happy, jolly Cratchits."

'Tis that season: to begin with.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2902


Decorating an Indie Bookstore Christmas Tree

I love Christmas trees, but only as a spectator sport. In other words, I love other people's Christmas trees, which are now everywhere--posed fully decorated in house and store windows; strewn undecorated and for sale across parking lots like pop-up forests; or strapped triumphantly to the roofs of passing SUVs.

river's end bookstore's "book tree is trimmed!"

And in bookshops, of course, where you can go traditional like Paragraphs on Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island, Tex.; or new wave, as the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y., did: "Our book tree is trimmed! And our gift wrappers are standing by (or sitting). We have our holiday catalog full of beautiful gift ideas (books!). And in the days to come we look forward to seeing you in the bookstore!"

Many bookstores have variations on the Northshire's Book Angel Program, featuring a tree decorated with paper angels that customers can buy to make a book donation for a child recommended by area schools and organizations.

This year, I'm trimming a monumental imaginary Christmas tree (Rockefeller Center would be jealous), its decorations handmade from the festive ideas, displays, events and pics that indie bookstores are publicizing nationwide. To find raw materials for these decorations, I went rummaging through boxes in my Internet attic. Here's just a sampling of what I found there (And the season is still young!):

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.: "O.K., we know the holidays have officially arrived here at the Fairhaven store because--drum roll, please--our book tree is up!! Lovingly crafted by our own talented staffer, Laura, this darling decoration can be admired by all down at our used-book counter. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-lovely!!"

Bridgeside Books, Waterbury, Vt.: "Star Night @ Bridgeside Home! #starbrightstarnight" And: "Our giving tree is filling up beautifully! So many generous donations of amazing books for the Children's Literacy Foundation!"

Downtown Books, Manteo, N.C.: "First Friday! Music--wine--friends--dogs in Christmas sweaters--and Vivian Howard's cheese ball!!"

Viewpoint Books, Columbus, Ind.: "Three great ways to get in the holiday spirit today at Viewpoint Books: 1) Get 20% off all gifts purchased for Toys for Tots (donation box is here in the store!) plus 20% off one item on your shopping list for kids, too! 2) Advent calendars are still available and it's not too late to start! 3) Help us fill the Pajama Bag!... Thank you for joining us in celebrating the season!"

Let's Play Books, Emmaus, Pa.: "Almost ready to host our first event on the 3rd floor (or the CATtic)! We are looking forward to our Journey to the North Pole at Let's Play Books."

Brazos Bookstore's #bearddecorations

Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.: "Are y'all ready for our holiday open house tonight? We couldn't get merrier if we tried. #maxiumyuletide #beardbaubles #christmasbros #houstonevents #hipsterbeard #bearddecorations #booksellerlife #christmasparty #holidayparty." And: "When The Nutcracker comes on the holiday playlist and you just gotta dance... #bookseller #retaillife #christmasmusic #holidayplaylist #nutcracker #nutcrackerballet."

Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City., Iowa: "Prairie Lights Gift Certificates make people happy. They may be redeemed in the bookstore or the cafe, and they NEVER EXPIRE..."

Titcomb's Bookshop, East Sandwich, Mass.: "Today is our annual Holiday Open House, come have a cup of hot chocolate and some holiday treats!"

The Book Shop, Hayward, Calif.: "The Christmas Art Display in our window is presented by the Flying Phoebe Cloth Doll Club! This gingerbread village comes with a scavenger hunt in poetry form. Feel free to stop by and spend a few minutes with the display, then come inside and warm up with a book!"

House of Books, Kent, Conn.: "Santa Claus will be arriving by Fire Truck to House of Books at 10 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 17th! So stop by and get your picture taken with Santa and find the perfect gift for everyone on your Holiday List!"

Little Joe's Books, Katonah, N.Y.: "First Saturday in December means it's time for Holiday books!!!! #getexcited #katonahholiday #westchester #holiday #christmas #Chanukah"

Merry #Grinchmas at Liberty Bay Books

Liberty Bay Books, Poulsbo, Wash.: "We're getting into the #Christmas spirit now! Merry #Grinchmas from us here in Historic Downtown Poulsbo...."

And here's a little holiday music, courtesy of Bookbug, Kalamazoo, Mich.; Main Point Books, Wayne, Pa.; and Sparta Books, Sparta, N.J.

On Monday, I was in New York City for a few days, and took time out for what has become an annual pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit my primary Christmas tree and its 18th-century Neapolitan Baroque Crèche. A few hours later, I was walking down Broadway on the Upper West Side, where every couple of blocks yet another Christmas tree vendor had staked a sidewalk claim. One of them displayed larger trees at the curb, along with a few diminutive trees near the storefront. Above the latter a sign of the times read: "Gluten-free Christmas trees." In with the old, in with the new.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2897


If You Could Have Dinner With...

You've seen, heard or posed the question. The New York Times Book Review's "By the Book" series asks it this way: "You're organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?"

I once considered the question in an essay, imagining a dinner in 19th century Concord with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. But the fantasy came with a reality check: "Given my working-class heritage, though, I'd probably have been serving them soup."

Mark Twain's 70th birthday dinner at Delmonico's in New York City

This week, the birthday of another notable Concord resident sparked renewed consideration of literary dinner parties, and the stakes were raised dramatically when I discovered other potential guests lurking nearby.

Louisa May Alcott turned 184 and C.S. Lewis 118 on Tuesday, just a day before Samuel (Mark Twain) Clemens hit 181 years old and Jonathan Swift a spry 349.

They all still look good for their ages--books in print, myriad biographies and scholarly works available, and perennial international media coverage of their birthdays. If you're a dead author, who could ask for anything more?

I was propelled down this rabbit hole of dead author birthday awareness when Main Street Books, Mansfield, Ohio, shared a Facebook post from Books with a Past, Glenwood, Md., featuring a necklace and Alcott's words: "She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain." I knew it was time to send out the invitations and consider topics for discussion.

Louisa May Alcott
C.S. Lewis (photo: The Wade Center)

In a Guardian piece headlined "Louisa May Alcott: a practical utopian from a divided U.S.," Rafia Zakaria observed that while she "may have balked at or been baffled by many of the conventions of today's America--being the subject of a Google Doodle might have surprised her--the divisions of its politics dominated once again by race and inequality would not have surprised her. The postbellum U.S. into which Little Women was released had been racked by its disagreements over slavery, the southern half couching its support for slavery in the language of economic survival. This year's presidential election, coming more than 150 years after the end of the civil war, pivoted once again on the maintenance of white privilege, cast now in the coded vocabulary of lost manufacturing jobs."

And on Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog, I found this conversation starter from Lewis:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.

Then I went to my own bookshelves for Mark Twain's RSVP and found it in the first volume of his autobiography:

I believe that the trade of the critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value--certainly no large value.... However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden. Meantime, I seem to have been drifting into criticism myself. But that is nothing. At the worst, criticism is nothing more than a crime, and I am not unused to that.

The frosting on this conversational birthday cake was re-reading Jonathan Swift's wicked, brutally satiric essay "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public."

Is there room for one more guest?

Another November 29 birthday celebrant, the late Madeleine L'Engle (a mere 98 extended years old), said in a 1983 lecture at the Library of Congress:

We all practice some form of censorship. I practiced it simply by the books I had in the house when my children were little. If I am given a budget of $500 I will be practicing a form of censorship by the books I choose to buy with that limited amount of money, and the books I choose not to buy. But nobody said we were not allowed to have points of view. The exercise of personal taste is not the same thing as imposing personal opinion.

What a conversation this is going to be. Is there even room for me, sitting silently and in awe, at the table? Well, I did fall down a rabbit hole, after all, so: "The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: 'No room! No room!' they cried out when they saw Alice coming. 'There's PLENTY of room!' said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table."

Let's get this literary birthday dinner party started.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2892