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Sunday
Apr272014

All the World Book Night's a Stage

"Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those/ that are fools, let them use their talents," Feste says in Twelfth Night. He is, I confess, a role model, though I've generally found more practical applications in my life for foolery than wisdom. That said, a belated Happy Birthday wish goes out to William Shakespeare, who turned an ever-wise and ever-foolish 450 years old Wednesday.

Although World Book Night was originally scheduled on April 23 precisely because it is the Bard's birthday, so much WBN news is being made that Will sometimes gets lost in the wings. So it seems only fair to give him--yes, I'm going to say it--his hour upon the stage.

Garrison Keillor at the World Book Night kick-off at the New York Public Library.

As Garrison Keillor, author and proprietor of Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn., observed on the Writer's Almanac this week, Shakespeare "created some of the most unforgettable characters ever written for the stage, and was a master of the language of various social classes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, he coined 3,000 new words, and he has contributed more phrases and sayings to the English language than any other individual."

Or, as @MelvilleHouse nicely summed it up: "How to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday? Perhaps by living our entire lives within the language he more or less created. Thanks, buddy."

Shakespeare was, as might be expected for a birthday boy, more ubiquitous than usual during this year's World Book Night festivities. Those attending the WBN launch event at Skylight Books in Los Angeles Tuesday night were among the first to receive a free copy of Dover's Shakespeare's Complete Sonnets in a special WBN edition. On Wednesday, Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, Utah, proclaimed: "Today's #WBN2014 (World Book Night), #Shakespeare450th, & the anniversary of Sam Weller's birth. There's no better day to read a book!" Books Inc. in Alameda, Calif., agreed: "World Book Night? Shakespeare's 450th bday? Booksellers at Books Inc. Alameda? Yes, yes, and yes. Come down and join the fun!"

Books Inc. in Alameda, Calif., brought the Bard into Book Night. The players: (l.-r.) Adrienne Reiter, Tom Galleguillos, Nick Petrulakis; (kneeling) Gene Kahane.  

In Louisville, Ky., Carmichael's Bookstore welcomed "our friends at Kentucky Shakespeare for an early celebration of World Book Night," with performers reading sonnets and "even grac[ing] us with a performance or two in honor of the Bard."

The California Shakespeare Ensemble in Pasadena, Calif., "which has been partnering with Pasadena LEARNS to 'facilitate' the John Muir High School after school Drama Club," worked on Shakespeare's Sonnets Wednesday with students as part of their WBN celebration, Hometown Pasadena reported.

Innisfree Poetry Bookstore Cafe, Boulder, Colo., featured members of the Shakespeare Oratorio Society presenting " 'Venus and Mars,' an exploration of the complicated and ever-changing relationships between women and men as seen in Shakepeare's plays."

I stopped by Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Wednesday night for their "William Shakespeare Birthday Celebration for World Book Night," featuring Skidmore College students and actors from Saratoga Shakespeare reading sonnets. The audience received copies the WBN Dover edition to keep and share. Even the Bard himself, looking surprisingly spry for a 450-year-old, was in attendance.

In New York City, copies of the Complete Sonnets were placed on theater seats during Wednesday's performances of Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, Matilda the Musical, Newsies and The Lion King. Broadway World noted that "curtain speeches and letters in the books will encourage audience members to give their book to someone who may not be a regular reader."

In addition, the Broadway League is teaming with WBN U.S. to distribute free copies of sonnets at national Family First Nights events for students and families, Kids' Night on Broadway programs throughout the country, and to students participating in the Broadway League's high school internship program.

"We are thrilled to be partnering with the Broadway League and all the great work they do," said WBN U.S. executive director Carl Lennertz. "Obviously, we share a love for the words and work of William Shakespeare, and the Broadway League is committed to increasing awareness of the arts as we are of reading, so this is a wonderfully natural fit. Theater and books bring joy and light into many lives."

I've had the good fortune to see a few magnificent productions in recent years, including Shakespeare's Globe and Mark Rylance's Measure for Measure at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn (2005), as well as Twelfth Night and Richard III last fall at the Belasco Theatre; and the Royal Shakespeare Company's As You Like It in a stunning replica of its Stratford-upon-Avon Theatre, constructed within the Park Avenue Armory (2011).

What I also love, however, is the way Shakespeare's words feel so at home wherever they are spoken, even when we don't know we're speaking them: "a fool's paradise," "dead as a doornail," "come what may," "forever and a day," "love is blind," "night owl," "wild goose chase," "into thin air."

Sustaining this tradition, World Book Night has become great international street theater for book and word people. Shakespeare would approve. In fact, at the WBN kickoff celebration in New York City Tuesday, he was even seen wearing a book giver badge. Happy birthday, Will, and many happy returns to the stage.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2237.

Sunday
Apr202014

DIESEL's 'Close Readers of Beautiful Writing'

Pick a poem, any poem. Well, not just any poem; pick one you have lived with a while. Now, read the poem aloud. How does it sound? Record your voice reading that poem. Add complementary video. Imagine dozens of people doing the same thing.

As it happens, you don't have to imagine this because for the past five years, California's DIESEL, A Bookstore has been releasing a new videopoem daily during Poetry Month. While booksellers are usually the featured readers, DIESEL occasionally invites a guest. Last year, even I got in on the videopoem action with my signature monotone rendition of Gary Snyder's "Hay for the Horses."

DIESEL's co-owner John Evans told me the bookstore has "always had an extra special emphasis on poetry and art. We believe they are essential parts of great local independent neighborhood bookstores like ours. I am a poet and have an M.A. in Poetics (of all things) and so want poetry to be widely, easily available and visible at our stores. We have cultivated poetry reading, and writing, at our stores from the beginning."

That said, technology is no stranger to DIESEL's mission either. "We've embraced technologies, but insisted that they further good aesthetics," Evans observed. "We created a website in 1991 and, I must say, it was beautiful. It's a challenge, as platforms change--sales gets integrated into what was originally a communications tool--to keep the aesthetics going. It's a welcome challenge. My partner, Alison Reid, has said that a good slogan for DIESEL is 'if you bought an ugly book, you didn't buy it at DIESEL.' "

Evans

When they decided to produce more book-related videos about five years ago, "we just started naturally also reading from them and then thought, What about a whole month of reading poems for National Poetry Month?" Evans recalled. "Most of us were absolutely excited by it, and some were a little more tentative. After all, hard as it may be to believe, not all booksellers regularly read poetry. But all booksellers have read, and loved, some poetry. Since we try to open things wide, we encouraged people to just read whatever poems they wanted. We were startled by the results the very first year. Several of us--me, Jon Stich and Grant Outerbridge (both very artistic booksellers)--decided to shoot some video to match with the read poems for those who didn't want to be filmed reading and out of a curiosity as to what we could come up with."

During the first year, DIESEL mixed videos of booksellers reading with some videopoems before deciding the video versions were generally more interesting. "Since then, Jon has shot most of the video and added the audio clips," Evans noted. "Pretty much all of our booksellers have contributed readings each year."

Positive feedback has come from customers, friends, publishers, other booksellers and authors, "all praising us for our commitment, for specific poem choices and for particularly effective readings," he said. "Some people look forward to the one-per-day reveal, while others listen to them in groups and a few wait until the month is over and then binge on them. It's a great annual ritual: for each of us; for all of us at the store; and for all of the other readers, of poetry or not, who enjoy getting words in their purest forms."

Evans cited two of his all-time favorite videopoems, which "come to mind every year, largely because of their combination of great reading and eerily perfect video." One is William Butler Yeats's "Lake of Innisfree," read by Nell Arnold, and the other Kay Ryan's "The Material," read by Colin Waters. He also praised Brad Johnson, "who does our blog and is a poet himself and a great reader of poetry. He floored me with his reading voice--like a young Orson Welles! I love to hear him read, but particularly love the first videopoem of his that I saw/heard: 'Sentences' by Lyn Hejinian. My favorite so far this year? Herb Bivins, who works in the Larkspur store, "beautifully reads one of my favorite poems--'The Waking,' by Theodore Roethke--and Jon intuitively marries it to an amazingly appropriate scene. The wind and Herb's breathing, and wonderfully timbred voice, bring forth so much of the incantatory magic of this poem, it just leaves me smiling." The Roethke videopoem is my favorite thus far this year as well.

"One further thing which I've really only full appreciated this fifth year: I really enjoy the sounds of my co-workers voices transposed into this intimate register of reading poems which they care about and so, care for," Evans observed. "This is not the voice of the bookseller with our enthusiasm for books and expert helpfulness, but the voice of close readers of beautiful writing and the imaginations conjoined there. It's such a pleasure to know and hear my fellow booksellers in this way."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2232.

Friday
Apr112014

Paul Ingram's Lost Clerihews Found

First, a confession: I did not know what a clerihew was until I learned that Ice Cube Press would be publishing The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram July 1 (shipping June 15). On the other hand, I did know that the author is a legendary bookseller at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, where he has worked since 1989. Whenever a list of great indie handsellers appears, he is inevitably on it.

From Ingram's introduction to his collection, I soon discovered the clerihew was first devised by English author Edmund Clerihew Bentley and follows the rhyme scheme AABB, with the first line including "the name of a well-known or ill-known person." Since Bentley's death in 1956, and despite its adoption by poets like W.H. Auden and Anthony Hecht, "the form has seldom been in use."

Until now, that is. Ingram's mischievous creations have been found at last ("And how did they become lost? Many reasons. They are tiny and often find themselves on napkins, old receipts, sugar packets and matchbook covers."), and readers will soon enjoy the pleasure of their company.

Igor Stravinsky
Couldn't convince me
He knew one damn thing
About the rite of spring.

Ingram said he had doubts when he initially toyed with the form 20 years ago: "I believed I just wasn't clerihew material. I just wasn't that clever. But I do all the buying for the bookstore and had hundreds of names going through my head, so once I'd figured out how to do a couple, I figured how to do a lot of them." Although he estimated he has composed as many as 400 ("not 400 good; not 400 publishable"), Ingram noted that "there are plenty that I did not include in this collection because they are pointedly offensive."

Does the clerihew perhaps allow him to vent a little? "I feel I'm generally a way, way too respectful person, but I don't always necessarily feel that way," he replied. "It's just what came out; they come out kind of naughty. I think most of what I have in there now is just this side of printable."

In his blurb for the collection, Richard Howorth, co-owner of Square Books, Oxford, Miss., called Ingram "an extraordinary bookseller who has not only found the lost clerihews; he has elevated the entire form. This book forever shall reside in our guest bedroom so that visitors will either know or wonder what sort of people we are."

How Ingram's clerihews evolved into a book is one of those great tales of the right people converging in the right place at the right time.

"The book's genesis was mostly through Bruce J. Miller, who encouraged me to go listen to Paul tell me some of them," said Steve Semken, founder and CEO of Ice Cube Press. "I listened to Paul recite clerihews and laughed and loved how clever they were. At first they seemed merely funny, but then, when I realized the point of a clerihew is also to make biographical points about the person, I thought, What could be better than laughing and learning all at once?"

Miller, co-owner of Miller Trade Book Marketing, added: "It's been an exciting time. For me the publication of Lost Clerihews represents the fulfillment of my long held wish to help bring Paul's work to a national audience. I asked him from time to time if he had thought about publishing his wonderful clerihews, and this time I was able to help make it happen."

The book is illustrated by Miller's wife, Julia Anderson-Miller, an accomplished artist who has known Ingram since 1987. "When I was asked if I had the time to illustrate The Lost Clerihews, I was so happy!" she recalled. "What an education and variety of inspired situations those clerihews provided for my creative juices. I was only planning to do 12 or 24, but ended up doing 134. And I still do not want to stop--but the book is finished.

"I did not want to illustrate verbatim, so it was fun to wander off a wee bit. I needed research, because I did not know who some of these people were, and I also needed to get the realism of gesture, face or interesting facts. I looked forward to solving difficult clerihews to put into pen and ink. I love a challenge."

"Having an illustrated clerihew book is 'how it's done,' " Semken observed. "Auden's was illustrated, as was E. Clerihew Bentley's clerihew book. This really is a valuable part of the book, I think."

The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram will include a foreword by Elizabeth McCracken and has already drawn accolades from a range of word enthusiasts, including Jane Hamilton, Daniel Menaker, Roz Chast, Elizabeth Crane, Christopher Merrill and Amelia Gray; as well as booksellers like Howorth and Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah.

And what does the future hold for the clerihew? "I would be absolutely delighted to see great clerihews popping out all over," Ingram said. "I'd love to be part of making that happen. I have also discovered, for example, that just about all of them fit in a tweet."

Semken may have summed up the Team Clerihew project best when he said: "That Paul works at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and it was through a Midwest sales rep telling me, an independent press in the Midwest, about the idea--I really think all these parts working together prove that real partnerships exist in the book industry, that we all need each other." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2227.

Sunday
Apr062014

The Home Opener

As you read this, Nan Sorensen, administrative coordinator at the New England Independent Booksellers Association, is either preparing to head over to Boston's Fenway Park or is already there, psyched for the home opener of her beloved World Champion Red Sox. Nan is one of the most passionate Sox fans in the book business and I wondered about her game prep because baseball is, after all, a sport of rituals.

"I always wear a Red Sox T-shirt, but most important is I will have a soft ice cream before I enter Fenway," she said. "Regardless of temperature, I always do. Usually I wear shorts and a Fenway Park (I love Fenway as much as I love the Red Sox) T-shirt, but in the heat of the summer I sometimes get brave and wear my pink Dustin Pedroia T-shirt." Would she dare bring a book to a game? "No book. I buy a program at my first game of year. There is always too much going on at Fenway to have a book."

The Red Sox season officially began earlier this week in Baltimore, and even ESPN couldn’t resist a bookish lead in reporting on the game: "No need for Grady Sizemore to embellish his story. It's already just a couple of ticks shy of Roy Hobbs as it is. No need for Jackie Bradley Jr. to embellish his story, either. These days, it seems like Stephen King is ghostwriting it."

Baseball remains the sport that lies closest to our literary souls. Even an impromptu starting lineup card of authors is an all-star team: Roger Angell, W.P. Kinsella, Don DeLillo, Bernard Malamud, George Plimpton, Donald Hall, David Halberstam, Thomas Boswell, Roger Kahn. Creating that list off the top of my head should spark another great baseball tradition: the "rhubarb." What about Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King and David James Duncan and Chad Harbach? Or old school legends like Ring Lardner? Since it's also opening week for Poetry Month, how about Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" or John Updike's "Baseball"?

In other words, books and baseball make a good team:

  • The Baltimore Orioles are sporting a patch on their uniforms honoring the late Tom Clancy.  
  • April 23 marks the 100th anniversary of the first professional baseball game at what is now Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. "Only florists and chocolatiers love anniversaries more than book publishers do," the Tribune noted.
  • Derek Jeter, who will have his own imprint at Simon & Schuster by this time next year, began his Yankee career farewell tour in Houston this week.
  • MLB Network unveiled its new opening sequence, which takes "a page straight out of another American tradition: comic books."

For Nan, however, it's all about the Sox. The team was honored this week at the White House by President Obama, who named Mike Napoli to the newly-created (as of April Fool's Day) President's Council on Beards. Even press secretary Jay Carney "bearded up" for the occasion to celebrate the barbigerous champs--as, by the way, had Nan last season (and we have the photographic evidence), putting on her game face when it mattered.

She did confess, however, that when she was growing up in New Jersey, she was a Yankee fan: "I loved Joe Pepitone!" Later, while working for the publisher David R. Godine, "we used to go to Opening Day at Fenway. George Gibson and Andre Dubus II would buy a big block of tickets and we'd take the afternoon off. That was my introduction to the Red Sox. Now I love Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi (David Ortiz) and Shane Victorino."

There are far too many Red Sox fans among NEIBA members to list, but Nan said that "standouts include Mark Lamphier of Harvard Book Store, Cambridge; and Dawn Rennert of the Concord Bookshop." She also gave high marks to Random House district sales manager Lesley Vasilio, "with whom I go to the games, though sadly not for Friday's game." I couldn't resist asking if there are any Yankee fans hiding out among NEIBA members, and she cited Michael Herrmann of Gibson's Bookstore, Concord, N.H., adding that "he doesn't hide it."

The columnist psyched up for opening day, Little League edition, circa 1959.

Although I'm not a Red Sox fan, I do have genuine Sox street cred. My parents spent their 1949 honeymoon in Boston and saw a few games. Since I was born almost exactly nine months later, you could say I was conceived in the shadow of Fenway Park. And I certainly spent uncounted hours of my youth consumed with becoming a "real ballplayer," as my father, who worshiped Ted Williams, called the good ones.

There may be some lingering effects, so I completely understand Nan's emotions yesterday, when she told me: "Today is like the day before leaving on vacation. Ready to burst with excitement! Glad the gates open early so I can get out of the house and head over. For the past few years I've gone to all the games with Lesley, but could only manage to get the one ticket for this. Going to feel weird, but I'm sure I'll find a few people to cheer with; and sing 'Sweet Caroline' with--one of my favorite parts of the game!"

And is there a connection between baseball and booksellers? "Baseball players, like booksellers, 'fight' everyday for the good of the 'team,' " she replied. Play ball!

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2222.

Sunday
Mar302014

March Madness: 'There Is Method In't'

"Though this be March Madness, yet there is method in't," Polonius almost said in Hamlet. For the record, the poor guy not only didn't make it out of the play alive, he was also defeated in the second round of 2012's Shakespeare Character March Madness Tourney by King Lear ("O, that way March Madness lies; let me shun that").

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, 'tis the season of March Madness and there are brackets, brackets wherever we turn--online, on refrigerators, on bulletin boards, on everything. It's been a long time since bracket fever afflicted only obsessed NCAA college basketball tournament fans.

"Bracketology--the practice of parsing people, places, and things into discrete one-on-one matchups to determine which of the two is superior or preferable--works because it is simple. What could be simpler then breaking down a choice into either/or, black or white, this one or that one?" wrote Mark Reiter, co-editor (with Richard Sandomir) of the 2007 book The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything.

Ben Yagoda, who contributed a "sins against the language" bracket to the book ("I put the phrase in quotation marks to indicate it should be taken with a measure of irony."), observed more recently: "I think we can all agree that March Madness has jumped the shark."

"When did filling out a March Madness bracket become popular?" asked Smithsonian magazine recently, noting that "NCAA bracket madness has also spawned a social phenomenon: The Wire, proclaiming March the 'bracket-iest month of the year,' is rolling out competing brackets each week in a 'tournament of everything.' Even the federal government is getting in on the madness, betting that a bracket will make the Affordable Care Act relevant to millennials. It's hard to turn anywhere on the Internet without running into a bracket of some kind."

The book world is not exempt, of course. Inkwood Books, Tampa, Fla., has its own Staff Pick Madness. Early in the month, Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, Utah, advised: "Looking for your own March Madness? Check out Tournament of Books sponsored by The Morning News. Bracketed book bouts."

Launched in 2005, the ToB has inspired many variations on a theme, including the Tournament of Sidekicks from Half Price Books, Out of Print's Book Madness, the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, Game of Thrones March Madness Bracket, io9's SciFi Versus Fantasy Madness, Picture Book Bracketology, Bracketology for Female Book Characters, and even a Quidditch World Cup bracket challenge contest. The Medina County District Library featured Book Madness, challenging readers "to pick the top winners as the Best Books of 2013 go head-to-head with the Books That Stand the Test of Time."

March Madness also erupts annually in the sidelines department for the lucky few college bookstores whose teams win and progress through each round. Right after the University of Dayton was awarded an NCAA tournament berth last week, the bookstore "reported having between two and three hundred online orders for 2014 March Madness t-shirts." (Sideline sales for the sidelines?) And with the Flyers still in the mix, staff member Taylor Seidl said the retail outlook remained upbeat: "As long as we keep winning we have orders coming in for Sweet 16... Elite Eight." Same story at the University of Virginia bookstore, where executive director John Kates said, "In the thirty years I've been here... I've never seen anything like it."

Speaking of the Elite Eight, there was an unfortunate digital retail slipup on Wednesday when the University of Arizona's bookstore had to issue a public apology for accidentally displaying a page featuring T-shirts that heralded the team's advancement to the next round before they had even played their Sweet Sixteen game against San Diego State last night. They won anyway.

And just so you know, in Las Vegas March Madness means "busy hotels, Bud Lite and bustling books," but not our kind of books.

The endgame of NCAA tournament bracketology is almost always defeat and befuddlement. What began March 16 on Selection Sunday with unsullied brackets and 68 optimistic college basketball teams simply cannot resist the tidal pull of a cresting Shakespearean wave ("The ides of March Madness have come."/ "Yes, Caesar--but not gone."). Maybe it has something to do with March itself, that most confusing of months.

Or, as Polonius sort of put it (anticipating, perhaps, Orchestral March Madness, Tuition Madne$$, Public Media Madness, Mensa Bracket Challenge Champion and even March Madness Meta-Bracket: Which Tournament Is the Best?): "A happiness that often March Madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2217.

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