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A David Markson Reader

"Als ick kan. Which Novelist finds himself several times repeating, even while not even sure in what language--is it six-hundred-year-old Flemish? And uncertain as to why he is caught up by van Eyck's use of it. That's it, I can do no more? All I have left? I can go no further? Als ick kan?"--from The Last Novel

I wrote the following brief note for Tuesday's edition of Shelf Awareness: "David Markson, 'a revered postmodern author who rummaged relentlessly and humorously through art, history and reality itself,' died last Friday, the Associated Press reported. He was 82." The AP quote contained key words that showed up in many other obits and tributes this week, like the inevitable "postmodern" tag as well as "revered" or other polite synonyms meaning "largely unread."

I'm sorry I became a devoted Markson reader so late in the game. He is the best author I've "discovered" in the past couple of decades at least. I should have read him earlier and recommended his work throughout my bookselling career rather than during the brief time I had remaining at the bookshop once my addiction was fully formed. He deserves a larger audience, but I found him some readers while I could.

I was introduced to Markson's brilliant and irresistible work about four years ago by a friend. I read Wittgenstein's Mistress first, then quickly devoured Reader's Block, Vanishing Point, This Is Not a Novel and, when it became available, an ARC of The Last Novel. I have others on my shelves now, but I tend to reread rather than move on. There will be time. Once you're hooked, Markson's novels draw you back again.

It was not difficult to handsell Markson, especially Wittgenstein's Mistress. I told potential readers that the protagonist, a woman who believes she is the last person on earth, is so convincing that once you succumb to her voice--an easy task--the possibility that she is not mad at all seems quite likely. I even handsold the novel to a psychotherapist who agreed.

"So that quite possibly the whole point of the novel might be that one can just as easily ask for Modigliani on a telephone that does not function as on one that does."--Wittgenstein's Mistress


I first met Markson about three years ago at a launch party for a friend's novel. The event was held at an Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, and in the crowded space, a few of us who knew one another gathered in a corner to talk, creating one of those social islands that are a survival tool at such functions. This wasn't the sort of venue Markson liked, but he was there and we were introduced.

I was already his reader by then, and one moment from the night stands out. We were all discussing the etymology of a word that can't be repeated here, and after it was clear no one really had an answer, I noticed Markson pull an index card from his shirt pocket and scribble something on it. I was certain he would soon know where that word came from, and the card would join what I imagined must be hundreds of other fragments that had accumulated over the years, destined to be carefully placed somewhere in the precise mosaic of his novels.

"Author had been scribbling notes on three-by-five-inch index cards. They now come close to filling two shoebox tops taped together end to end."--Vanishing Point

I will always read Markson because he observed--or imagined--and recorded, it sometimes seems, everything.

"Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman went to Dodger games at Ebbets Field together."--Reader's Block
"Samuel Beckett once sat through a New York vs. Houston doubleheader at Shea Stadium."--This Is Not a Novel   

I spoke with Markson months later in a small Greenwich Village restaurant, and then one last time during the spring of 2008 on a college campus in Vermont. I recall two things from that final meeting. A New York City guy at heart, he was struck by how green everything was; and at some point in a conversation with several people, he quoted William Gaddis from memory.

Markson is now gone, but his words remain. Do yourself a favor. Read him.

"What is Hamlet reading, in Act II Scene ii, when Polonius inquires and Hamlet says Words, words, words?"--This Is Not a Novel

And words again at the end of The Last Novel, only this time as a declarative sentence, a wave goodbye, rather than a question: Als ick kan.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1206.


An Impressionist at BEA

Even though BookExpo America is, logically, all about the books, some of my lasting impressions of the trade show are not. I remember walking on the sands of Miami Beach during my first ABA convention in 1993, wearing a suit--pants legs rolled up, carrying my shoes and socks--and wondering if I could possibly look less cool and more bookish if I tried.

For BEA 2010, however, the impression that will stay with me is about the books, or more precisely the booksellers. It happened Thursday on the exhibition floor when I saw Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting of Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., and realized this was the first time either of them had attended the show as bookshop owners.

It was a special moment. I've known them for several years and have watched as they carefully built Greenlight from a great idea into a great indie bookstore. At BEA, we chatted briefly and then went back to work because, well, we were working.

Jessica later shared her thoughts about being at the Javits Center this time: "It was so interesting to talk to folks like Chris Morrow and Carol Horne and Rick Simonson and Steve Bercu and others this year at BEA as a peer, rather than just an aspirational frontliner. Our stores and our challenges and triumphs are so distinctly different, but there are so many common threads. It's like we're all the captains of different ships. Paul Yamazaki and Rick came into the store the other day and I was kind of star-struck--it will take me a little while to feel really like an equal to people like that, but I'm honored to be among them."

There were many other moments at BEA that made an impression on me: observations, comments, statistics, even the unique scent of eau de Manhattan that hung in the 85-degree air Wednesday afternoon as I elbowed my way back to my hotel near Broadway amid the matinee throngs.

I don't know if this qualifies me as a word impressionist, but I did fill (product placement alert!) a Moleskin notebook with verbal sketches from the show, and I'll share a few of those here.

"There is some cannibalization going on," said Kelly Gallagher, Bowker's v-p of publishing services, while offering an early look at BISG's third fielding of "Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading." That word "cannibalization" came up a lot during education sessions in reference to whether e-books are displacing print books, especially hardcovers. May I suggest another word as a possible solution? "Exophagy," which is cannibalism outside a tribe or family.

Gallagher also said that in Japan mobile e-books, which are read by 86% of high school girls, are "re-growing the print market," and noted that 10 of the bestselling Japanese print novels in 2007 were based on cell phone novels, with each selling around 400,00 copies while "growing new readers in Japan."

At an education session called "Community Social Networking: A Guide for Retailers and Librarians," business book authors Charlene Li (Open Leadership) and David Meerman Scott (The New Rules of Marketing and PR) spoke about the now accepted fact in business that "it's all about relationships and sharing."

When considering where best to focus efforts among the cacophony of online options available, Li advised, "You have to start from your place of strength and build up."

"What I see is all of us are trying to generate attention," added Scott, who explained that before the Web, the three primary ways to do this were buying (advertising, etc.), begging (press releases, media relations) and hiring salespeople. With the increasing role of the Internet, however, a fourth way has emerged--earning attention. "I think that every single organization in the world, every person, is now a publisher of information."

He also advised booksellers and librarians to take advantage of free author-generated content for their websites. Writers "create lots of free content--blogs, free e-books, videos--and we are thrilled when somebody wants to syndicate our content. It's interesting how few people ask us for that kind of content."

Todd Stocke, v-p, editorial director at Sourcebooks, mentioned something to me that has also become one of my lasting impressions of this BEA, and perhaps signals where we're headed as well. He said that a few years ago, Sourcebooks altered its approach to booth design for the show. "We made the choice to have a less elaborate booth and room for more people," Stocke observed, emphasizing the importance of conversations, both scheduled and unexpected, on the exhibition floor. "You never know when just the right person is going to come by."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1201.


BEA Conversations & Words that Matter

"There will always be books. There will always be conversations about books. The way that conversation happens is what will continue to evolve."--Rick Joyce, chief marketing director, Perseus Books Group, speaking at BookExpo America in New York City this week.

BEA is all about the conversations. Some of them occur formally in scheduled meetings, but most just happen naturally as we meet old friends or make new ones. So words always matter here, whether they are air-, print- or digitally-borne. For all of us in this business, the need to talk about books and the book trade ranks a very close second to our collective obsession with reading books.

You already know that.

I'm writing this while still in my New York hotel. The show has just ended. Over the next week, it will be dissected by experts worldwide analyzing the switch to midweek, the change to two floor days and an almost infinite number of other issues. For a few precious moments tonight, however, it's a pleasant blur of fresh memories. Call it BEA afterglow.

I'm still trying to filter the dozens of conversations I had during the past few days, but for now I'll share a first impression I found particularly striking. It has to do with my completely unscientific measurement of tone in the voices of the booksellers I spoke with, ranging from industry veterans like Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Books, San Francisco, Calif.--who is celebrating his 40th year with the store--to Sarah Carr, who opened Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., with Jamie Fiocco and Land Arnold less than a year ago.

I heard it again and again in quick chats with great booksellers like Roger Doeren of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan.; Neil Strandberg of the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo.; Susan Novotny of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.; Betsy Burton of the King's English Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah; Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., and so many others.

That tone was a distinct blend of curiosity and fighting spirit, reflecting a passion to adapt and innovate rather than merely survive. It sounded good to me.

I was a bookseller during the golden age of whining that began, or at least flourished, during the rise of the chains and Amazon, and has gradually diminished over time as the bookstores that made it through that perilous gauntlet found ways to stay the course. The book business hasn't gotten any easier for indies. Times are tough. Our industry morphs hourly; the future is a bully threatening to punch indie booksellers in the mouth every day and stealing their lunch money.

But I heard something else in their tone of voice here. I heard the sound of booksellers talking primarily about their vision for the future, exploring possibilities, working hard to figure out what diverse pieces of the changing book environment--digital options, community partnerships, in-store POD sales, shop local movements, etc.--they might be able to thread together to make indie bookselling a business with a viable future; to make the bully use his own damn lunch money for a change.

Adaptation and innovation.

At an ABA Day of Education session called "The New Reality: Alternative Bookstore Models," Chris Morrow of the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., offered the following concise bit of advice about innovation: "Anything you do like this is an experiment and you have to adjust as you go."

I'll write more about that session next week, but the tone of voice filled that room, too. Morrow, Chuck Robinson of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.; and Carol Horne of the Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass., were saying "This is the kind of stuff we're trying to make our businesses better. These solutions aren't everybody's answer. You'll figure that part out yourself for your bookstore, your community. Don't do what we do. Do what you do best and enhance it with some of the new opportunities available. Standing pat is no longer an option."

Meeting the challenge requires not just a willingness to experiment, but an eagerness to do so; maybe even a downright pleasure in punching the future, bully that it is, right in the nose.

And that's what I heard in the voices, the words, the casual conversations and formal observations of indie booksellers at BEA 2010.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1197.


'Step Right Up, Folks' for BEA in NYC

BEA isn't a carnival because it doesn't travel the New York to L.A. to Chicago to D.C. circuit anymore. It's not an amusement park because it has a theme. Maybe it could be considered a theme park, but its credentials there are questionable given that the book show spreads its biblio-wings over a city that will barely know it's in town, what with General David Petraeus visiting the USS Intrepid museum just up the street during Fleet Week and the zillion other sideshows that make New York itself the theme park that never sleeps.

BEA does offer some carnival diversions for our bookish crowd, however, though while social media and digital publishing may be speeding up some of the industry's rides, the book world still feels a bit closer in velocity to Carsten Höller's unsettling "Amusement Park," which I saw at MassMoca four years ago.

Describing an art installation in which refurbished classic rides moved at barely discernible speed, museum director Joseph Thompson said the "amusement park--already a site of physiological and psychological confusion, unease, and ineffable strangeness--gets further refracted and warped in Carsten's hands. Although this work is experienced through sight and sound, our staff has been surprised how visceral and physical the effect can be. Your body enters a space of shifting times and places, and your mind follows. Amusement parks have a dark underbelly, which this work embraces. Though foreboding for some, the experience is otherwordly, pleasantly disorienting, and profoundly theatrical."

Sounds like a trade show to me. So welcome in advance to BEA 2010, which will have its own unique brand of attractions and distractions as you move at speeds as fast or as slow as you can handle. What's in store for you?

Don't miss the greatest of all book-themed thrill rides, one that catapults you at unnerving velocity through dark, haunted, rat-infested tunnels. Step onto almost any subway car and you will see more readers than at your average author reading. John Wray even used this ride as a venue for promoting his novel Lowboy. For the less adventurous, official trade show shuttle buses proceed crosstown at the genteel pace of a kiddie ride.

On the midway at the Javits Center, you will see:

Clowns dressed as your favorite children's book characters. They pose for photo ops with adults the way Mickey Mouse stands with kids at Disney World. Well, to be honest, you also see clowns dressed as all manner of unrecognizable book characters, but you'll have to sort them out for yourself.

At BEA, fortune tellers unceasingly predict the future during education panels, in casual conversations on the midway and over drinks late into the evening. Scratch the surface of any of us and you will uncover a literary soothsayer.

Barkers and pitchmen (pitchpersons?) call for your attention as you slalom through the crowded aisles. They want you to meet authors who are signing new books in their booths "right now!" Step right up. Everybody's a winner. You, sir; you look like a man who loves books about (fill in the blank).

Food queues. You wait in long lines for coffee in the morning, vacuum-sealed sandwiches at lunch and more coffee during the long afternoon. But where's the fried bread dough and cotton candy?

In addition to the hundreds of authors at Javits, you never know whom you'll run into on the streets of New York. Even dead writers can have their day, as Improv Everywhere proved with their "Meet Anton Chekov" event a couple of years ago.

Unfortunately, you won't see the Hudson River water slide any longer. It's been closed down for safety reasons since US Airways Captain Sully Sullenberger gave it one hell of a run in 2009. He did get a sweet book deal as a prize, though.

You say you want magic? It's everywhere in New York and you are the magician. You can even make a yellow cab appear out of thin air just by waving your raised hand over empty pavement.

I promised myself that I would not invoke P.T Barnum's "There's a sucker born every minute," which he never said anyway. And I have resisted the temptation to compare the hundreds of thousands of books published every year to a midway sucker's bet on rigged games like balloon darts, break-a-plate or bottleneck ring toss.

Guess a number from one to a million titles and win a stuffed children's book character?
Instead, I'm just happy that the show will go on next week once again, and I can't wait to be there. So step right up, folks, safe travels and see you on the BEA midway.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1192.


Read any Good Stories Lately?

May is Short Story Month. As a writer and reader, my love for the short story has been a long-term commitment. I am not the only bookseller, however, who has found that devotion tested on a regular basis by customers on the sales floor.

How long is a short story?

This was one of the first questions I was asked during the late 1990s when I led a six-session discussion group on reading short stories. It was a good question. I wouldn't say we answered it during our time together, but our exploration yielded hints of how great, if not how long, a short story could be. And the group offered me a chance to talk and listen to gifted readers who were also customers of the bookstore where I worked.

We began with resistance to the call of the story. Many group members had taken part at one time or another in a variation of the following conversation on the bookshop's sales floor:

Me: I think you might like Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. [Stage directions: Show customer book. Mention Pulitzer Prize. Use secret, irresistible handselling techniques.]
Customer: It says stories; I don't read stories. When I read a book, I want to be completely involved with the characters and let them take me away. Stories end too soon.
Me: Not if they're good stories.

They were still willing to show up, however, and our subsequent readings and conversations may even have changed--or tempered--a few of their objections to the form.

Strangely enough, the book I used for the discussion group--You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard--became a handselling favorite at the bookstore, selling more than 400 copies before it went out of print.

Butler's collection always sold well, too; as did another Pulitzer winner, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. A few less publicized collections moved occasionally when a bookseller found the magic words to make a particular title beguiling. It didn't happen enough.

I noticed recently that the current edition of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain no longer includes the word "stories" next to the title on its cover. The original edition did. Here's a confession: When asked, I have often advised authors and publishers to resist the temptation to add "stories" (or worse, "a novel in linked stories") to book jackets because it is such a conversation stopper on the sales floor.

I love good short stories because I love good writing. I'm reading two collections now, and in the car last weekend I listened to Alec Baldwin read Steven Millhauser's "The Dome" (from Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories) on Selected Shorts. It became one of those classic NPR driveway moments.

I even love reading about short story renaissances. I was intrigued by a recent Reuters article (via PC Magazine) about Ether Books, which offers "a catalog of short stories, essays and poetry initially via Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch, by authors including Alexander McCall-Smith and Louis de Bernieres."

"The tech press may be slavering over the iPad, Kindle and Sony eReader as traditional publishers leap over themselves to expand their e-book offerings," Maureen Scott, digital director for the company, told Reuters. "But at Ether Books we've made the decision to go straight to distributing short works via our iPhone app to devices people already own, are familiar with and are happy to use when they have 10-15 minutes to spare."

You often hear the argument that short stories should be more popular now than ever because of the limitations on our reading time. It sounds so logical for something that never seems to come true.

Another Short Story Month is in gear and I keep thinking of questions.

Do writers care more about short stories than non-writing readers do?

And this question from Hansen and Shepard in their anthology's introduction:

Wouldn't it be great, we thought, if there were an anthology based upon the stories that other writers feel passionate about?

It was great. And it was even greater still that talented readers among our customers discovered that passion, too, but I wonder what story collection, if any, they read next.

What is a short story?

"Short stories are fierce, tight, imploding universes where every word matters," said Colum McCann in the National Post.

I like that. So, happy Short Story Month. And one last question: What's your favorite short story collection?

--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1187.