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Can a Book Be Your Friend?


You might think the inspiration for this week's column comes from my being stuck in single-digit Northeastern temperatures while all the cool kids are partying at ABA's Winter Institute in New Orleans. Am I just retreating behind a flimsy veil of literary references for solace?


I mean... No. My interest in the books-as-friends conundrum was actually prompted by a couple of factors, one being Rick Gekoski's piece in the Guardian earlier this week under the provocative headline "Some of My Worst Friends Are Books."

While acknowledging that authors have traditionally been granted the right to be "inhabited by persons and voices," Gekoski considered the comparable experience among readers, who are also "invaded by voices.... It is a heady relationship, and can make our everyday ones seem pale and listless. It is no wonder that people claim that reading provides us with the best of friends. Dickens refers to 'the friendships we form with books,' while Charles Lamb regarded books as 'the best company.' "

Gekoski noted that "an admired writer is a peculiar but superior form of 'friend.' There are a number of senses of the term in which this seems true: someone you can turn to; someone who has wisdom to transmit; who has been a constant and trusted presence; who can share similar experiences with us; who can give without asking anything in return."

That lack of "return" proved a bit problematic for Gekoski, who conceded that a book "is not company. We engage with it, argue with it, carry it around in our pockets and minds, are haunted by memories of it for years. But it doesn't argue back, doesn't engage, never inquires how our day has been, gives only what it wishes. Books are selfish. Everything, every word, is on their terms. That's what I like about them."

But book friendships have their own particular layers of complexity, as well as more give and take than he suggests. My best book friends do argue back (often when I need their scolding the least); they do engage; and I really don't want them to inquire how my day has been. If a book "gives only what it wishes," then why do we find hidden--even unintended--meanings within the pages?

Another contributor to my interest in book friendship is The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer's recently published memoir exploring his long "friendship" (I don't know what else to call it, except perhaps psychological kinship) with Graham Greene's work and life.

For Iyer, the "return" is both tangible and spectral: "Walking through a book by an author long dead is not a comforting experience; I began to feel I was a compound ghost that someone else had dreamed up, and his novels were my unwritten autobiography."

He accepts the oddness of this one-way friendship between writer and reader, noting the irony that "the man who bares a part of his soul on the page soon finds that his friends are treating him as strangers, bewildered by this other self they've met in his book. Meanwhile, many a stranger is considering him a friend, convinced he knows this man he's read, even if he's never met him. The paradox of reading is that you draw closer, to some other creature's voice within you than to the people who surround you (with their surfaces) every day."

The bookcase near my desk shelters a few of my best book friends, some of whom I've known for more than four decades. They ask little of me, but give much in return. "I do then with my friends as I do with my books," a small leather-bound edition of Emerson's Essays counsels sharply, as is its way. "I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.... I will receive from them not what they have but what they are. They shall give me that which properly they cannot give, but which emanates from them."

Can a book be your friend? Absolutely, though I'll concede that a book will never buy you a beer in New Orleans during WI7 and talk for hours about... books.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1646.


Poetry, Community & William Stafford's Birthday

Making these word things to
step on across the world, I
could call them snowshoes.
It has been a snowless winter here in upstate New York, but this morning six inches cover the ground and big flakes are falling as I consider the opening lines of "Report from a Far Place" by the late William Stafford, whose birthday is next Tuesday.

Stafford has, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, become my winter poet. There's a good reason why a weathered copy of The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf, 1998) is now open on my desk. I can thank Tom Lavoie--formerly with the University of Arkansas Press (now retired)--for the inspiration to take this fine collection down from the shelf and reread it. Last week, he told me about the William Stafford Birthday Commemorative Readings series, held each January and sponsored by the Friends of William Stafford, which is based in Oregon, where the poet lived for many years.

"He was well loved. And now the whole state celebrates with Stafford readings," Lavoie noted. "As a recent resident of Portland and a fan of poetry, I was mighty impressed with how the whole state celebrates the birthday of 'its' poet, a long-time teacher at Lewis and Clark College. Commemorative readings and events take place at more than 60 venues, making January one big Stafford poetry fest."

Stafford was born January 17, 1914, and died in 1993. His annual "birthday parties" are now held throughout Oregon and Washington; in California, Nevada, Ohio, New Jersey, Vermont, New York City; and overseas in Glasgow, Scotland, and Sapporo, Japan. The events take place in libraries, bookstores, art galleries, college campuses, a national park, a hospital and even a prison. Local poets and organizers create specific programs, and often audience members are encouraged to share their favorite Stafford poems or anecdotes. More than 225 poets, musicians and speakers will participate.  
Paulann Petersen, FWS board member and Oregon's current poet laureate, has been "organizing these events on a large scale for 12 years. 15 years ago, I held one at a public library in the town where I taught high school. The next year, I did the same. The year after that I hosted two events, and both were so crowded (one was SRO to the point that people were literally standing outside in January's cold, trying to hear!), I realized there should be more of these. Year by year, the events have grown in number. Year by year more states have hosted events. For the past few years, we've had international events on the roster. Essentially they've grown in number because I've asked people I know or meet if they're interested in hosting one. Bill has fans everywhere. Sometimes people contact me with an interest to host one."

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., will have a Stafford event next week, as it has for the past few years. "Because of Bellingham's strong poetry community, and our store's relationship with many local poets, we are able to host great events like these, and bring in good-sized audiences to our store," said events coordinator Christina Claassen. "William Stafford's work is important, not only because of his strong, beautiful language and messages, but because of its connection to the region. He may be best known as Oregon's poet laureate, but his influence in Washington's literary community is just as strong. We are honored to continue celebrating his work at our store."

What is it about Stafford's poetry that draws such enthusiastic and widespread response? "Each of Bill's poems is an invitation, an invitation so hospitable and inclusive it seems to turn the schoolish world of reading and writing poetry upside down," Petersen observed. "Here is a voice that invites us to do our own adventuring in literature. Here is a voice that invites us into '...rooms in a life, apart from others, rich / with whatever happens....' This is a voice of accessibility, telling us that poems can be as near as the very center of our lives. Poetry isn't the domain of the select, the elect. Poetry is, as William Stafford assures us, the domain of anyone willing to listen, anyone willing to watch for all that the wide world sends swirling our way."

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

Petersen called Stafford "a mentor. From him I learn compassion, wisdom, the exhilaration of attentiveness. From him I learn to be more of the person I'd like to be.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1642.


Refuge & Prospect in 2012

Q: Does Russo's sell eReaders?
A: No, we'll let the other guys sell you the machine. Our expertise is books, so come to us for great e-book selections, prices and recommendations.

This little q&a appeared in an e-newsletter from Russo's Books, Bakersfield, Calif., last week. I bought the e-book edition of Arguably by Christopher Hitchens from them a couple of days ago. That seems to be how it works for me now. I purchased John Berger's Bento's Sketchbook from Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., last month after receiving an e-mail notice about something else entirely. I wanted the book, and there they virtually were.

"People hold books in a special way--like they hold nothing else," Berger writes. "They hold them not like inanimate things but like ones that have gone to sleep. Children often carry toys in the same manner." I don't hold my e-reader that special way; it's just a tool, maybe even a toy. My home is engulfed in traditional books, which I do handle with care. There's room for both. All part of the adaptation process.

Many of the communications from indies that hit my inbox during this holiday season were inviting their communities to buy e-books for new devices (and old, of course); to explore the new IndieBound Reader app; or to take advantage of e-knowledgeable booksellers on the sales floor as well as in special "get to know your e-reader" sessions hosted by the stores.

Independent booksellers are in the e-game now, exploring the potential of, and finding their place in, this evolving digital book landscape just as they have faced every other challenge that has come their way over the decades.

Maybe "landscape" is the right way to think about it after all. In The Experience of Landscape (1975), Jay Appleton introduced his Prospect-Refuge theory, seen through the lens of our oldest instincts for survival as applied to our aesthetic experience of landscape.

In the prehistoric sense of the term, when we were in caves our survival depended upon how far we were willing to venture out on the open savannah to hunt and gather. It was all about balance. Stay in the cave too long and you died. Go too far away from it and you were prey. The survivors (our great-grandparents to the nth power) found the right balance between the two and eventually became, among other things, landscape architects and booksellers.

A bookstore traditionally provides the temporary refuge of quiet and a cozy space. It offers limitless prospect within the pages of books on the shelves. But I'm intrigued by another way in which Prospect-Refuge theory can be applied to the book trade. The best indie booksellers--the ones who fended off any number of predators on the retail savannah--have always been willing to venture a little farther from their refuge to scout the terrain for opportunities to survive... and to evolve.

Consider a digital ancestor of e-books. During the mid-1990s, Voyager introduced a collection of interactive multimedia CD-ROM products, ranging widely from The Complete Maus and Poetry in Motion to Laurie Anderson's Puppet Motel and The Residents: Freak Show. I was reminded of these during the holidays when I happened to hear Schubert's "Trout Quintet" on the radio. One of the first Voyager discs I tried was an interactive version of this piece.

At the bookstore where I was working then, we carried a full display of Voyager products near the POS counter, as well as a demo computer to showcase them. We were booksellers, but some of us also became CD-ROM handsellers. I don't recall how many we sold, but having them on the sales floor sent a message to our customers that the bookshop was as intrigued by prospect as it was by refuge.

That was at least 15 years ago and the basic rule hasn't changed. The cave feels safe, but we also know we must explore the digital savannah, where some of the fiercest retail predators are roaming about. The best indies are not prey, however; they still look ahead more often than they glance furtively over their shoulders.

"At times, it can feel as if the whole planet is joyriding in somebody else's Porsche, at ninety miles per hour, around blind curves," Pico Iyer wrote in his book The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. That's another e-book I bought last year. It was published in 2000, which now makes his message ancestral rather than dystopian.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1637.


Building the Perfect Bookmas Tree

Books and trees; trees and books. You can have the oddest thoughts when you find yourself standing in the rain on a chilly December evening in Manhattan, alternately watching skaters tumble to the brilliant ice of Rockefeller Center's rink and studying a monumental Norway Spruce with its "30,000 environmentally friendly LED lights on five miles of wire."

I was in just such a position a couple of weeks ago, and for some reason I thought about the many Book Christmas Trees I'd noticed this year. They aren't a new idea (see a few incarnations here), but 2011 seems to have been unofficially designated the Year of the Bookmas Tree, with examples popping up everywhere I turn, including, naturally, bookstores (Murder By the Book, Houston, Tex.), libraries (West Virginia Library Commission) and publishers (Atria Books). GalleyCat offered a virtual "Book Christmas Tree Farm" slide show tour.

We don't usually have a tree in our house, but I did consider making a Bookmas Tree for us. The best I could come up with during some outdoor beta testing, however, was a minimalist, hybrid version I dubbed "A Book & a Nook Tree," inspired no doubt by Charlie Brown's classic underachieving nevergreen.

Then "what to my wondering eyes should appear" in my e-mail inbox but the vision of a 9.5-foot Bookmas Tree that currently occupies the four-story atrium of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. It was constructed using pre-1956 National Union Catalog volumes, "rarely used reference books [that] made an ideal book tree, with their evergreen covers and gold lettering on the spine," according to the library.

Conceived by librarian Erin Fisher, the project was executed by Alden Kamaunu, manager of the center's building operations, and library technician Larry Smith. They created two prototypes before coming up with a workable final design, which took three hours and 348 books to construct (You can watch a Flickr version of that process here).

The base of the tree was made of 10 books placed in a circle, and as the tree "grew," the number of books used diminished to a single volume at the top. "It had to be perfect," Kamaunu said. "It may look simple enough, but most book trees look like pyramids. We wanted ours to look like a real tree. There was a lot of trial and error." Although it has not been weighed, he estimated the book tree would hit the scales at more than 400 pounds.

That's Chase Duhon, a junior majoring in biology, standing in front of the Knowledge Center's Bookmas Tree, which is topped by an unusual, if apt, combo of the school's mascot Wolfie--in a tiny Santa Claus hat--and a Hawaiian-themed decoration. They earned this place of honor because the Nevada Wolf Pack football team will play Southern Miss in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl game on Christmas Eve (and Kamaunu is from Hawaii).

Angela Bakker, the university's communications and marketing specialist, said there have been plenty of "Wow, that’s awesome!" comments from visitors to the Knowledge Center, and many people have posed for pictures in front of it.

"If you think of it, we're returning the books to their original state. We had trees, which we turned into books, and now we're returning them back to their original form--a tree," said Todd Borman, an information technology specialist working at the center's help desk, which is located near the tree.

Books and trees; trees and books. Standing in the rain at Rockefeller Center earlier this month, I suppose I caught just a glimpse of that centuries-old relationship, and its connection to the spirit of a lifetime's worth of holiday seasons.
"Being now at home again, and alone, the only person in the house awake, my thoughts are drawn back, by a fascination which I do not care to resist, to my own childhood," Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Tree. "I begin to consider, what do we all remember best upon the branches of the Christmas Tree of our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed to real life.

"Straight, in the middle of the room, cramped in the freedom of its growth by no encircling walls or soon-reached ceiling, a shadowy tree arises; and, looking up into the dreamy brightness of its top--for I observe in this tree the singular property that it appears to grow downward towards the earth--I look into my youngest Christmas recollections!" Happy Bookmas to all, and to all a good read.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1632.

Knowledge Center photo by Claudene Wharton


The Ghost of Book Christmas Yet to Come

Marley was virtually dead: to begin with...

On the third night, as Scrooge lay in bed, double-checking accounts on his iPad, once again the Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached from deep within the dimly backlit touch screen. When it came, Scrooge tapped furiously, hoping to delete the specter, but to no avail, for in the very pixels through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

"I am in the presence of the Ghost of Book Christmas Yet to Come?" Scrooge asked. The Spirit answered not, but crooked its finger in a ghastly invitation that thrilled Scrooge with a vague uncertain horror, to know that in that dusky screen, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him.

The Phantom moved away as it had come toward him. Scrooge followed in the shadow of its dress, which somehow bore him into this virtual world and carried him along.

The Spirit stopped beside one little knot of businessmen. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Scrooge advanced to listen to their talk.

"No," said a great fat man with a monstrous chin, "I don't know much about it, either way. I only know the printed version of A Christmas Carol is dead.''
"Why, what was the matter with it?" asked one of the gentlemen. "I thought it'd never die."
"God knows,'' said the first, with a yawn. "Though it's likely to be a very cheap funeral, for upon my life I don't know of anybody to go to it."

The Phantom glided onto a crowded street and stopped before a shop's holiday window display. Scrooge looked about in that very place for his own image, but there was no likeness of himself there, nor any sign of Mr. Dickens's books. Quiet and dark, beside him stood the Phantom, with its outstretched hand, which made him shudder, and feel very cold. Was he as dead as Marley now, a mere digital specter himself?

They left the busy scene, and ventured into an obscure part of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before, though he recognized its situation. Far in this den of infamous resort, there was an obscure used bookshop. Scrooge and the Phantom came into the presence of the bookseller, just as a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop.

"Who's the worse for the loss of a few books like these?" cried the woman as she threw her bundle on the floor. "Not a dead man, I suppose."

Scrooge listened in horror. "Spirit!'' he said, shuddering from head to foot. "I see, I see. My life tends that way, now. Merciful Heaven, what is this?'' He recoiled in terror, for the scene had suddenly changed, and now he almost touched a bare bookcase, dusty and shrouded in cobwebs. Scrooge glanced toward the Phantom. Its steady hand was pointed to the empty space.

"Spirit!" he said. "This is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me. Let us go!'' The Spirit was immovable as ever. In his agony, Scrooge caught the spectral hand. The Spirit repulsed him. But then, holding up his own hands in a reader's pose, Scrooge saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed and dwindled down into the iPad's screen, from which Scrooge had somehow emerged.

Opening his Twitter account, he called outward to @bobcratchit.

"WHAT'S TODAY?" Scrooge cried.
"Eh?" returned @bobcratchit, with all his might of wonder.
"What's to-day, my fine fellow?" typed Scrooge.
"To-day? Why, Christmas Day."
"OMG! It's Christmas Day! I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night."
"LOL!!!!!" replied @bobcratchit
"Do you know the Bookseller, in the next street but one, at the corner?" Scrooge inquired.
"I should hope I do," wrote @bobcratchit.
"Tomorrow go and buy every copy of A Christmas Carol they have and give them away in the streets!"
"Great idea IMHO! Merry Xmas!"

Then Scrooge went to his shelves and found his own leather-bound volume of Mr. Dickens's fine story, which had been too long neglected after the introduction of an enhanced digital edition.

"I shall love it, as long as I live!" he cried, patting the book with his hand. "I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its cover! It's a wonderful book!"--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1628.