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Thomas Merton, Reading

"I am reading..."

Those three words recur, as a kind of litany, throughout the writings of Thomas Merton, whose birth centenary is being celebrated this year. Although many people know him as the "famous" Trappist monk (a contradiction in terms, I know, but not inaccurate) and prolific author, I was struck from the beginning of my four decades-plus engagement with his books by the literally catholic range of his reading life. Open to any random page, especially in his journals and letters, and you'll discover something important about him as a reader.

Merton's official birthday was January 31 and events have been occurring worldwide, including a discussion at the Brooklyn Public Library hosted by New Directions, which has long been associated Merton's work. On the publisher's blog, Mieke Chew wrote: "I recently found the address of Gethsemani in a rolodex at New Directions. It has been many years since James Laughlin and Thomas Merton exchanged letters, but the evidence of their shared interests and passions can still be found in our archives and in each of the books they worked on together."

Last Saturday at Canio's Cultural Café, Sag Harbor, N.Y., community members were invited to read "a favorite excerpt from Merton's work, creating a Merton "mosaic"--diverse representation of the vast ways in which Merton's work has touched our lives."

I attended a similar event on Sunday at Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y., where Stanley Hadsell hosted the bookstore's fifth annual Merton birthday party. Although Stanley and I have talked about Merton many times previously, we just realized that we had originally discovered him in a similar manner. I was raised Catholic, but my initial encounter with his writing occurred during the early 1970s, when I began reading books by Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki. Soon I found Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite and The Way of Chuang Tzu, which eventually led me to his classic autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. The rest, as they say, is reading history.  

In the 1990s, Merton's seven-volume journals began appearing, one book at a time, and I learned the value of heightened anticipation as well as patience. Occasionally his name would come up in conversations, and it was like I had encountered another traveler on my reading pilgrimage.

One of those conversations occurred when I was working as a bookseller and answered the phone, fielding a simple customer question: "Do you have any books by Thomas Merton?" I said yes, and what followed was a long conversation with author Jon Katz, who had recently moved to the area and was working on a new book that would eventually be published as Running to the Mountain: A Journey of Faith and Change.

"I am reading," Merton wrote again and again, followed by all those names: James Baldwin, Matsuo Bashō, Boris Pasternak, Federico Garcia Lorca, Czesław Miłosz, Margaret Randall, Graham Greene, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Meister Eckhart, Gabriella Mistral...

There is a moment in volume five of the journals, Dancing in the Water of Life, that eloquently speaks to the power of a reading life. In June of 1964, Merton received permission to fly from his monastery in Kentucky to New York City for a meeting with D.T. Suzuki, who was 94 years old. Merton wrote: "He read to me from a Chinese text--familiar stories. I translated to him from Octavio Paz's Spanish version of Fernando Pessoa." The words of a legendary Portuguese author, shared with a Japanese Zen scholar via a Mexican poet and an American monk.

One of the many impacts Merton has had on my life is the way he embodied the ideal of reader and re-reader, never ceasing to look for the next book, the next author, while valuing and revisiting those that had come before.

And we all can understand this moment from The Seven Storey Mountain: "One day, in the month of February 1937, I happened to have five or ten loose dollars burning a hole in my pocket. I was on Fifth Avenue, for some reason or other, and was attracted to the window of Scribner's bookstore, full of bright new books."

Or this journal entry (later collected in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton) from 1968, the last year of his life: "Lesson: not to travel with so many books. I bought more yesterday, unable to resist the bookstores off San Francisco." Always, everywhere... Thomas Merton, reading. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2438.


Reading Between the Goal Lines

"Shoat said it was too bad we would have to miss it but the Super Bowl halftime show was going to be even more spectacular than the pre-game show.... He said there would be a water ballet in the world's largest inflatable swimming pool, a Spanish fiesta, a Hawaiian luau, a parade stressing the history of the armored tank, a sing-off between the glee clubs of all the military academies, and an actual World War I dogfight in the sky with the Red Baron's plane getting blown to pieces." --Dan Jenkins (Semi-Tough, 1972)

In his 1973 novel North Dallas Forty, Peter Gent described football this way: "There's no greater display of everything that's magnificent about sport in America and everything that's wrong with culture in America." Many of the current, "shocking" headlines about the sport were anticipated by Gent and Jenkins.

In case you haven't heard, the Seattle Seahawks are playing the New England Patriots Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX. Does the book world care about the biggest day in sports? I suspect that's a multiple-choice question, with the following options:

  • Yes! (This includes some of my Shelf Awareness colleagues in our Seattle office.)
  • Yes, with reservations.
  • No!

This week, I've been trawling social media and websites in the book world for Super Bowl-related chatter and events, but it seems unusually quiet. I did find a few notable items:

In Seattle, the Bookstore Bar & Café will be "pouring some cocktails for Sunday's game. These drink specials are ready for the 12th Fan with the Hawks Hottie and the Throat Lozenge. The Hawks Hottie is their take on a hot toddy with butter, brown sugar, spices, dark rum, hot water, and topped with whipped cream. The Throat Lozenge is intended to sooth your vocal cords after an afternoon of screaming with its mix of Ballantine's, lemon juice, Chartreuse, and honey syrup. In addition to the drinks, the Bookstore Bar & Café will have an all day happy hour on Sunday."

In Phoenix, Ariz., site of this year's Super Bowl, Changing Hands is getting its game face on with "Happy Hour prices all day at First Draft Book Bar ($1 off all tap and house wine and beer, plus nuts and olives), plus a screening of the Super Bowl on the big-screens in the Commons." 

Inspired by fictional booksellers Toni and Candace at Portlandia's Women & Women First, staff from Portland's In Other Words feminist bookstore and community center will return to live-tweet the Super Bowl. On Sunday, go to @Portlandia and follow the hashtag #FeministBookstoreSaysWhat.

I also saw the expected reading lists--10 Football Books to Get You Into The Super Bowl Spirit (Even If You Couldn't Care Less About The Big Game); 7 Sporty Adaptations to Get You Ready for Some Football--and noticed that a new trailer for Insurgent, based on Veronica Roth's series, will be released during the Super Bowl pre-game show.

I learned that in 1984, Apple introduced its Macintosh personal computer with an advertisement during the Super Bowl XVIII telecast. The ad invoked George Orwell's novel. I'm still considering the long-term implications of that bit of information.

And then there was a surreal, "bookish" moment this week at the Super Bowl's annual rite of craziness known as Media Day, when New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski read a passage from Lacey Noonan's Kindle novella, A Gronking to Remember: Book One in the Rob Gronkowski Erotica Series.

For the most part, however, I haven't found much commentary from the book world, despite 24/7 coverage (seems like more) of THE GAME elsewhere.

In Salon, Steve Almond, author of Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, observed: "Football, already the most popular and profitable sport in America, will continue to be as big as we make it. This week's showdown likely will draw the largest audience in the history of the game.... But it's a safe bet that more viewers will feel the pangs of their conscience than ever before, too."

Is that why it's quiet out there?

So I return to North Dallas Forty. In his foreword to the 30th anniversary edition in 2003, Gent quoted Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers; it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight... in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world.

Then he wrote: "[I]t hits me that those words describe best the life I once led. In July of 1964, the right to work was all I hoped for when I arrived at my first Dallas Cowboys training camp... That September, Tom Landry gave me a job as a receiver that I kept for five years. They were great years. Terrifying. Thrilling. Happy. Sad. Most of all, they were ultimately satisfying."

But Gent also invoked another kind of reading: "We need to make a new generation realize that North Dallas Forty isn't just a book about football--it remains a prediction of the direction of America by reading the livers, kidneys, and spines of old NFL players."

It's complicated. I'll be watching anyway. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2433


Books & Bookshelves as Infrastructure

"The bookshelf, like the book, has become an integral part of civilization as we know it, its presence in a home practically defining what it means to be civilized, educated and refined. Indeed, the presence of bookshelves greatly influences our behavior.... They are infrastructure." --Henry Petroski, The Book on the Bookshelf

Before shelving commenced.

A miracle is taking place. The books in our house are currently being alphabetized and organized by category--fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art. This is an epic undertaking. There, I said it. My long, un-alphabetized era of biblioshame is finally coming to an end.

The process does feel like bolstering infrastructure, and I'll tell you why. But first, a history lesson: In 2006, I wrote: "My living room is the closest thing I have to a personal library. On my bookshelves, which take up significant space in this large room, are, as you might suspect of a lifelong reader and longtime bookseller, hundreds of books. I've managed recently to get them into a kind of order--fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art--but alphabetization still eludes me."

That "order" was painfully short-lived, but last September, in a different house and city, I noted that we were planning an ambitious bookcase-building project. Several years had passed since the move, and our substantial book collection, while readily accessible, existed in a state of barely contained anarchy. Locating a particular title was often a fraught and disappointing enterprise. "This will change soon and our home will at last be fluent in the language of books," I wrote.

And so it has. There is a new bookcase upstairs for titles currently "in play," and our renovated basement guest room/library features bookshelves constructed to fit an intriguing wedge of space. A year-and-a-half after buying this house, we're beginning to feel that the infrastructure is finally near completion, as we dust and shelve books that have been huddled in exile for much too long.

I knew when we began this stage of the process there would be pleasure in seeing our books take on a less amorphous organizational shape, but there have been a few other surprises as well:

Shelving books as an amateur: For years, shelving was part of my job description as a bookseller. Bookcarts constantly emerged from the receiving area and finding time to shelve was a daily challenge, as well a matter of ongoing negotiations with colleagues. Now, however, I'm shelving as an amateur and it has been fun, which is a little shocking.

Unanticipated memories: My mother long ago gave me a four-volume, leather-bound set of Oscar Wilde's works, which had belonged to my grandfather. He spent his life working in Vermont marble mills. I have no memory of him reading... anything. But I have the mystery of these beautiful books, which I just rediscovered in a box.

Shelving in progress.

Stunning inventory gaps: As the alphabetical infrastructure gradually filled in, I asked myself more than once: How can we not have a single title by ______? You fill in the blank. I'm too embarrassed.

Discovery: There it suddenly was, a book--almost in tatters from page-flipping and awash in marginalia--I hadn't seen for years and had long given up as MIA. I'm not going to tell you the title because you have some of these, too. Just imagine losing, and then finding, your book.

Loss: Even the discovery that a book I was certain had traveled along with us for years is no longer part of the herd can be a source of bittersweet pleasure. The realization provokes new questions: Where did it go? Should we get a new copy?

Javier Marías observed that "although the various apartments in which I've lived in various countries have always been very temporary and not, of course, mine, I have never been able to feel even minimally at ease in them until I have acquired a few books and placed them on the shelves, a pale reflection of that childhood bounty. Only then have I begun to think of the place in question, be it in England, the United States, or Italy, as habitable.... the walls need to be totally covered so that the books can speak to me through their closed mouths, their motley, multicolored, and very silent spines."

"Reshelving in the bookstore is never done," Granada Books, Santa Barbara, Calif., recently posted on Facebook. The same could be said for reshelving in the home, but we're getting closer every day. Our new bookcases, and the books gradually lining their shelves, have become a key part of the infrastructure that supports this house. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2427


When a Frontline Bookseller Retires

Many of my favorite bookseller stories begin, "There was this customer who...." Here's one: There was this customer who regularly came into Manchester's Northshire Bookstore looking for fiction recommendations, and for a brief period took some of mine. She was a brusque, intense New Jersey lawyer who owned a weekend getaway place in Vermont. "I liked this one," I'd say, launching into my 25-words-or-less bookish moment of passionate intensity. Then she'd lock her steely, cross-examination courtroom eyes on mine and demand, "Well, did you like it or did you love it?"

Though I managed a few successful handsells, she quickly discovered that her reading tastes were more closely aligned with those of Louise Jones, a colleague of mine the lawyer was also consulting about great reads. It was only a matter of time before the attorney acted in the decisive manner you would expect, and even though we continued our friendly bookish banter for years, Louise became her handseller of choice.

Louise Jones
(photo: Mary Allen)

I was thinking about that customer Tuesday night when I returned to the Northshire for a party celebrating Louise's retirement after more than 30 years as a bookseller. In addition to current and former staff members, the guests included many longtime customers for whom Louise has played an important role--equal parts friend and reading guru.  

In the bookstore's e-newsletter recently, Northshire co-owner Chris Morrow observed: "As many of you know, Louise's specialty was mystery books. She has turned generations of visitors on to the latest mysteries--whether mainstream or obscure. But Louise's impact is much broader than that. She helped train countless booksellers in the art of master bookselling, she wrote and edited many of our newsletters, and she steadfastly advocated for excellence. Please join me in thanking Louise for her dedication to the bookstore and the community for these many years."

Hired by the Northshire in the spring of 1992, I was one of the countless booksellers Louise trained. During my interview process, someone explained the absurd concept that customers would expect, even demand, book recommendations from me. As a customer at many bookshops, I had never asked for such a thing and wondered why anyone would want to know what I liked to read. Fortunately, I kept those reservations to myself and was hired.

How, then, did I make the substantial transition from skeptic to passionate handseller so quickly? I watched and learned and emulated. From day one, I saw how Louise turned conversations into sales without pushing; how she condensed the essence of a book into an irresistible paragraph; how she could handsell a suspense novel, cookbook, historical biography or book about fishing with equal adeptness (and sometimes to the same customer); and how she moved across the sales floor taking care of business while always being available for customer interaction. I learned that bookselling was not just a retail job. It could be a vocation, even an art.

During Louise's retirement party, Ed Morrow, co-founder (with Barbara) of the Northshire, said, "A bookstore is really a culture and a society of like-minded people. Louise has been an example right from the start of the epitome of bookselling. She helped the bookstore to grow and to create a culture."

Observing her, I learned the cultural value of being a great frontline bookseller. Gradually, I also came to realize that when the book trade used the term "bookseller," they were most often referring to bookstore owners rather than staff. In 2004, I launched a blog called Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal in part to showcase the important role frontline booksellers like Louise play in the business, particularly since they are usually the only direct point of contact the book-buying public has with the publishing industry.

I think perceptions have changed in recent years, with the growth of social media interaction among booksellers and more publisher awareness, as well as the creation of venues like ABA's Winter Institute. Still, it is often headline news in local newspapers and industry trade publications when bookstore owners sell or close their shops, while the retirement of a gifted frontline bookseller, which can also have significant community impact, receives less attention.

Louise is one of those gifted booksellers and she will be missed. Former publisher sales rep Bill Andrews, who called on the Northshire for many years, summed it up nicely in a Facebook comment: "I guess all good things must end. Congratulations Louise! You are without doubt one of the absolute best booksellers I have ever seen, a true pro in every way, and as nice as they come. Thank you for the many kindnesses you have shown me down through the years. Enjoy the party--such a classy move--and enjoy all those fantastic books that await you in retirement. You are fantastic!!" And she is. Happy retirement, Louise. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2423


Looking Busy, Until It Gets Busy Again

Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven, Mass.
photo: Timothy Johnson/Vineyard Gazette

"Winter is icumen in." Quick, look busy!

Do you still recall those merry, intense times on the sales floor during the 2014 holiday season? Every day, you could feel the momentum as you fed off your customers' energy and soared to handselling performance heights that touched upon retail greatness. Was it really just last month? Now, another cold, bleak January has arrived and far too many of those motivated customers seem to be hibernating. The bookstore is quiet, too quiet, and you're looking for something to do to pass the hours.

That, my friends, is where the art of looking busy comes into play.

I know, I know. You have plenty to do. You can recite, on demand, a long and ever-expanding litany of items clamoring for your immediate attention, like a sword of Damocles--forged from reminder notes, to-do lists and publisher catalogues--that hovers over your teetering stack of to-be-read ARCs.

Ignore all that. The angel on your shoulder may be advising you to get to work, but the devil offers a more tempting alternative, whispering that you've earned a January break. This time of year, a subtle strain of bookseller cabin fever can set in. It's not the good, permissible kind that involves drinking a mug of hot cocoa while reading a fine book next to a blazing fireplace at home after a hard day of work.

No, this version is the devil's counsel: Just look busy. Your boss or staff or customers won't even notice if you do it right. A delicate subject, I concede. On a bookstore sales floor in January, however, looking busy can sometimes be elevated to the level of survival skill, perhaps even fine art.

If you want to do this properly, there is a learning curve. From the customer's perspective, you should always appear occupied, yet approachable. This means no reading books when you're working behind the counter and limited socializing with other booksellers on the sales floor. Stroll whenever possible. Carrying a small stack of books is your passport because it appears you are on a mission. Idly straightening shelves and displays works well as a diversionary tactic. You're a little busy, but available if needed. On the other hand, shelving books as if your life depended on it is frowned upon.

Maybe you recall the old days, when staring at a checkout counter computer screen was a looking busy option? To the uneducated eye, you appeared to be doing something constructive--ordering a book for a phone customer or searching inventory. That, of course, was before social media and the age of cyberloafing. Now, even if you're legitimately tracking comparative section sales on Above the Treeline, you will appear to be checking personal Facebook updates or tweeting about customer fashion choices as they showroom your bestseller list with smartphones.

As might be expected, retail experts (as well as would-be experts) have addressed the "look like you're busy" issue from every angle. Don't go there for guidance. For every well-intentioned "50 Things Retail Employees Can Do When They're Not Busy" ("If you let them just wait for customers, the entire energy in your store will suffer."), you will find a "How to Look Busy When You Really Aren't" ("The key to looking busy is to keep moving, and the faster you're moving, the busier you look.")

It is also recommended that you resist the advice of perennial get-a-life coach George Costanza: "Right now, I sit around pretending that I'm busy.... I always look annoyed. When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you're busy."

Okay, I confess. The art of looking busy is really just a forgery.

Bookstores are expected to be a quiet refuge from life's clamor, but the post-holiday season lull can be a little disquieting. You do need a momentary break, even as you miss those jam-packed aisles and the smart cacophony of cheerful voices as patrons talked--and purchased--books. Their abrupt vanishing act can make your sales floor look as if it has been vacuum-sealed until spring.

Great bookselling requires focus, energy, financial sacrifice and... well, you know that list, too. Sustaining this level of commitment is a challenge, and yet you continue to meet it and to resist the lure of surrendering to routine. You deserve a moment to exhale in January. And if you take a little more time to get the engine revving on these chilly mornings, that's okay, too. Sometimes, if only briefly, it's better to look busy than to be busy.

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