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If You Could Have Dinner With...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there room for one more guest?

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

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

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

Let's get this literary birthday dinner party started.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2892


#NaNoWriMo: Are a Gazillion Books Too Many? 

November is National Novel Writing Month, but that isn't what this column is about. Let it be noted for the record, however, that cool things are happening: Appletree Books, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, has local authors sitting in the front windows "furiously scribbling or pecking out their masterpieces as cars and pedestrians pass by on Cedar Road." And Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago is "putting together its own novella, written by a community of employees and patrons." Owner Rebecca George said "the exquisite corpse method--different writers writing one chapter at a time until the project is finished--has helped ease the pressure of reaching such a high word count while also serving as a community builder."

More than 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, according to the organization's website. These include Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. Last week, bestselling author Brandon Sanderson tweeted: "Stormlight 3 is going well. Hope to finish it this month, for #NaNoWriMo. This is still my playlist for the writing."

Novelist in the window, at Appletree Books

I like the concept of NaNoWriMo, though I've never been tempted to participate. This year, however, media coverage of novelquest has prompted me think not so much about how many books are being written right this second (Can you hear the symphonic keyboards?), but how many are already "out there." I'm like some kind of biblioastronomer, gazing in awe at the mysterious bookish heavens and wondering: In our infinitely wordy, Big Book Bang Theory universe, can there simultaneously be too many, too few and just the right number of books?

A decade ago in a blog post, I wrote: "If a gazillion books published every year seems like too many, maybe a gazillion books stored in digital memory and printed as needed is not too many. Here's the deal: We just don't know. Yet." And I'm still curious.

One logical theory was posted Tuesday on the Facebook page of Full Circle Bookstore, Oklahoma City, Okla.: "Too many books? I think what you mean is 'not enough bookshelves.' " 

We know books defy time, even when they come up against the limits of shelf space. Borges's "Library of Babel" is an infinite universe, while the New York Public Library's collection is a finite and yet, apparently, unstable planet:

In just the past decade, vexingly different figures have been reported--1.8 million in the New York Times in 2009, four million by the Associated Press in 2013. The library and its current president, Anthony W. Marx, seemed content until two years ago to put the number at about three million, although the figure of 3.5 million had long been used, and appears in the lead paragraph of a Times article from Oct. 1, 1905. (Puzzlingly, the headline says 4.5 million.)

I have some questions.

Was it really better when we had fewer books? Well, Atlas Obscura featured a piece headlined "Protect Your Library the Medieval Way, with Horrifying Book Curses." During the Middle Ages, "creating a book could take years.... Given the extreme effort that went into creating books, scribes and book owners had a real incentive to protect their work. They used the only power they had: words. At the beginning or the end of books, scribes and book owners would write dramatic curses threatening thieves with pain and suffering if they were to steal or damage these treasures." To wit:

If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.

How many books are there? Mental Floss took a shot at answering that devilish question recently, noting that when Gutenberg "invented the printing press in 1440, he couldn't have foreseen how his humble creation would eventually lead to a global industry churning out millions of books each year.... After some basic arithmetic, it seems that a low threshold for the number of unique books in existence as of halfway through 2016 is (another drumroll, please) 134,021,533 total. And that's all she wrote--for now, anyway."

Is overproduction a blessing or a curse or neither? Does it really matter? In the New York Review of Books last year, Tim Parks wrote: "How to respond, then, to this now permanent condition of overproduction? With cheerful skepticism. With gratitude for those rare occasions when we come across a book that speaks to us personally. With forgiveness for those critics and publishers who induce us to waste our time with some literary flavor of the day. Absolutely without indignation, since none of this is anyone's particular 'fault.' Above all with a sense of wonder and curiosity at the general and implacable human determination (mine included) to fill endless space with dubious mental material when life is short and there are so many other things to be done."


Where do we go from here? Book people can be a patient species--turtles with no delusions of hare. Last year, more than 400,000 folks participated in NaNoWriMo, and 1,012 libraries, bookstores and community centers took part in the Come Write In program. But this column isn't about that.

Are a gazillion books too many? Nah. Though as Arby's so eloquently put it last week: "We're going to need a lot more sauce... #NaNoWriMo."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2884


A Day for Eugene Mirabelli 

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

--From "Distressed Haiku" by Donald Hall

Grief is a funny thing. I thought about beginning this column with the previous sentence, then decided not to, then decided I would after all because grief is funny, as in perplexing and mystifying and singular. Anyone who has experienced deep personal loss understands this, but an occasional reminder somehow always has the power to stun and haunt anew. This happened to me recently during a bookstore author event.

November 4 of this year was proclaimed Eugene Mirabelli Day in Albany, N.Y. In her proclamation, Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan noted that in his most recent book, Renato After Alba--a sequel to his 2012 novel Renato, the Painter (both published by McPherson & Co.)--the 85-year-old author "touches upon universal aspects of human existence by creating lovably flawed characters who subtly express the full range of human emotion and experience, from great joy to crushing loss, from deep love of life to rage against the inevitability of death. All written with clarity and cleverness and craft."

As part of the celebration, the Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza hosted an event last Friday, with renowned author Joseph Bruchac interviewing Mirabelli. I stopped by the bookstore to learn more about Renato Stillamare before--and after--Alba, but what I heard was something extraordinary about how one writer mourns... and works.

When I read Mirabelli's two novels back to back not long ago, I was struck by how intricately, and intimately, woven together they were, despite being in many ways quite different reads. Renato, the Painter's narrator is a 70-year-old scoundrel of an artist, still hungry for fame and not particularly averse to temptation. In the sequel, Renato is 12 years older and trying to reorient himself after the loss of his beloved wife, Alba, a striking presence in the first book and a stunning absence in the second. The borderline between these two novels is life and death.

"Anybody who's written a first-person novel knows that you're going to be identified with the narrator," Mirabelli told his audience. "My wife died after I'd written the book that precedes it. She had read everything in that first Renato book. We were about to go down and see the publisher, in fact, when she passed away. And I had a great sense of revulsion against that Renato, the Painter because I knew instinctively that people were going to identify me with him and I hated the idea. I took the galleys of the book and threw them in the garage, which is usually the stop that precedes being thrown away entirely. And it took about a year before the publisher and I got together and went ahead with that publication."

Joseph Bruchac, Bruce McPherson & Eugene Mirabelli

Although he acknowledged that he could have written a memoir after his wife's death, Mirabelli recalled that "for two or three years I didn't feel like writing at all. And my friends said, 'Oh you're a writer, you'll write.' That was the last thing on my mind. I did after a few years come to the point where I wanted.... not to write so much, but I wanted to have the feeling I used to have when I did have a piece of work I was writing. I really liked that feeling and wanted it back again.

"And sooner or later I did write a short story and another short story, but whenever I sat down to write my head was suddenly filled with death, and it became apparent finally that I couldn't write anything unless I wrote something about death. Something about grief. So the question was what.... And one of the things that had happened to me during that early period, very early, was the recognition that what happened to me, which astonished me, was happening to people every day. All over the globe. I wasn't unique at all. Grief is a strange emotion.... But grief is something you've never felt unless somebody you love has died. It's a remarkably unique emotion.... One of the curious things is how similar people's experiences can be while being unique in all the details."

Mirabelli added: "It's funny, or ironic that when I wrote Renato, the Painter, I decided that I wanted to write a really life-affirming book. At the end of that book, everybody who could possibly get pregnant is pregnant. I wanted that. Renato is a deeply flawed, but very creative person. I think it's a life-affirming story.... I didn't intend to write this book. No one would ever intend to write a book like Renato After Alba. But when I did start to write it, it was kind of weird... I went back to Renato, The Painter and there were all sorts of things that I found in the book that made sense in this book. And I don't know how that happened, but it just happened."

His publisher, Bruce McPherson, told me: "I've been working with Gene for about five years, and, for whatever reason, I think he's been an underrated and unjustly overlooked author for too long. Renato Stillamare is a remarkable creation, the literary offspring of a comic tradition dating at least from Fielding's Tom Jones through Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth and Donleavy's The Ginger Man, with a touch of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. But for all of his irrepressible life force and cranky artistic sprezzatura in Renato, the Painter, Renato is most completely realized and fully human in Renato After Alba, where he ultimately overcomes terrible suffering with wonderment toward life and creation. I now see the two books as necessary to one another, a perfect balance."

Grief is a funny thing.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2879


Celebrating & Reading #BergerAt90

John Berger (photo: Ji-Elle)

John Berger is an artist, writer and political activist, though none of those terms come close to defining him. Tomorrow he will be 90 years old. Age can't define him either. Since I often write author obituaries for Shelf Awareness, I thought it might be a refreshing change of perspective to offer a celebration of living instead. This is just a small word gallery about an artist whose work and singular life matter to me:

#BergerAt90: Verso Books is "running a giveaway competition! Open up any Berger book, or listen to any Berger talk, and inspiring and insightful phrases leap out at you. For your chance to win one of five Berger-related bundles, simply tweet your favorite Berger quote using the hashtag #BergerAt90."

The Seasons in Quincy: A new film, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, will be released next month on DVD. It is "the result of a five-year project by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe and Christopher Roth to produce a portrait of the intellectual and storyteller." Here's the trailer. In Prospect magazine, MacCabe recalled: "Swinton's and my initial aim was very simple: to give a film audience some sense of what it was to be in John's company; to feel so alive and so lucky. The shooting was an endless intellectual adventure."

First encounter: I came to Berger's work late, but fortunately not too late. I had known about Ways of Seeing (his groundbreaking 1972 BBC series and accompanying book) and that he'd won the Booker Prize for G, but my first direct encounter with his writing did not occur until 1995 with his extraordinary novel To the Wedding. I read the ARC because Michael Ondaatje told me to with the best blurb ever: "In some countries it must still be the writer's role to gather and comfort... to hold and celebrate a moment before darkness. With To the Wedding John Berger has written a great, sad, and tender lyric, a novel that is a vortex of community and compassion that somehow overcomes fate and death. Wherever I live in the world I know I will have this book with me." 

Time travel: Fluid time travel, particularly in the dimension of art, is Berger's specialty. The links he forges from one century to another shatter presumed barriers between past and present. In his essay "The Fayum Portraits," Berger reflects upon these earliest surviving portraits, so old that "they were being painted whilst the Gospels of the New Testament were being written." He explores the embryonic relationship between painter and subject: "The sitter had not yet become a model, and the painter had not yet become a broker for future glory. Instead, the two of them, living at that moment, collaborated in a preparation for death. To paint was to name, and to be named was a guarantee of this continuity."

A scant page later, we are whisked forward through the centuries as he writes of our culture's more diffident approach to both the future and death: "The future has been, for the moment, downsized, and the past is being made redundant. Meanwhile the media surround people with an unprecedented number of images, many of which are faces. The faces harangue ceaselessly by provoking envy, new appetites, ambition or, occasionally, pity combined with a sense of impotence. Further, the images of all these faces are processed and selected in order to harangue as noisily as possible, so that one appeal out-pleads and eliminates the next appeal. And people come to depend upon this impersonal noise as a proof of being alive!"

Berger on Berger: "Reading him is like standing at a window--perhaps a bit like the window of this study--with no one blocking the view," Kate Kellaway noted in a recent Guardian profile where Berger said: "The way I observe comes naturally to me as a curious person--I'm like la vigie--the lookout guy on a boat who does small jobs, maybe such as shoveling stuff into a boiler, but I'm no navigator--absolutely the opposite. I wander around the boat, find odd places--the masts, the gunwale--and then simply look out at the ocean. Being aware of traveling has nothing to do with being a navigator.' "

Ali Smith on Berger: In a speech last year at the British Library for the launch of Portraits: John Berger on Artists, Ali Smith called him "a force of unselfishness in a culture that encourages solipsism, an insister on open eyes, on the recalibration and re-energizing of thinking, feeling, fiercely compassionate, fiercely uncompromising vision in a time that encourages looking away or looking only at the mirror images that create power and make money. Berger, who suggests that the aesthetic act, that art itself, is always collaborative, always in dialogue, or multilogue, a communal act, and one that involves questioning of form and of the given shape of things and forms. Berger, who can do anything with a text, but most of all will make it about the gift of engagement, correspondence--well, I can't give him anything but love, baby, it's the only thing I've plenty of, and that's what comes off all his work for me, fervent and warm and vital, an inclusive and procreative energy I can only call love."

Happy Birthday: Asked by Kate Kellaway about his birthday plans, Berger replied: "Listen, I feel so grateful to have reached 90--it is such an age--and to my friends for wanting to celebrate, but what I've told them all is that what we ought to do on the day is be silent. My birthday should just be a day like any other."

I think it will be a good day to read Berger.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2874


Bookish Halloween: 'All Work & No Play...' 

Begin with Neil Gaiman: "Books are the way the dead communicate with us." I read this sentence recently in his prose collection The View from the Cheap Seats. That moment was, strangely enough, bookended by a visit yesterday to the autumn gardens at Yaddo, the legendary--and purportedly haunted--artists retreat in Saratoga Springs N.Y.; and, in early October, to The Stanley hotel in Estes Park, Colo., a ghostly locale that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining and has been hosting Twin Terror Weekends, including a RedRum Mystery Dinner.

If that's not a prelude to Halloween, I don't know what is.

Yaddo's garden five days before Halloween

Yaddo isn't far from my house. If you were here today, we could take a "Ghosts in the Yaddo Garden Tour," during which you'd "experience the Spirits of the Gardens. Feel the energy and creativity of the forces of the Earth. Share in the spiritual intrigue from Native Americans, Edgar Allan Poe, the Trask family and other contemporary visitors!"

In 2014, author Peggy Riley wrote of her time there: "Yaddo is imbued with ghosts: ghosts of four children who didn't survive to inherit a mansion; ghosts of artists who have lived and worked there; ghosts of artists still living and working, who last worked in the chair you sit in, who stared at the walls as hard as you. They are all still there, at Yaddo, haunting the rooms, living in the pages of the books they leave behind, the Yaddo library filled with Yaddo writers: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, etc. etc...."

Although I was an excellent Halloween kid, I've never considered myself an accomplished Halloween adult. I do, however, seem to wander door to virtual door collecting treats this time of year. Like this WalletHub data:

  • $8.38 billion: Projected Halloween-related spending in 2016 ($3.14 billion on costumes)
  • $547.9 million: Halloween candy sales (fourth biggest candy-selling holiday)
  • $300+ million: Annual revenue from ticket sales to haunted attractions (80% of which are charity-operated)
  • 72%: Share of parents who say they steal Halloween candy from their kids.

And I find it hard to resist seasonal clickbait:

I'm also intrigued by the many and varied ways indie booksellers get into the spirits of the season.

Scary reading at Nantucket Bookworks

Nantucket Bookworks, Nantucket, Mass.: "It's getting spooky over at Bookworks! Trick or Treat with candy, hats, trinkets, witch tights, tattoo sleeves, masks, & MORE! Pick up a scary book to read this October while you are at it."

Green Apple Books, San Francisco, Calif.: "Spooky staff picks!... Keep reading to discover which scary books keep our staff up at night!"

Tubby & Coo's Mid-City Book Shop, New Orleans, La., e-newsletter: "The bookstore hosts two Halloween costume parties. Saturday's party caters to adults with games, adult trick-or-treating and Are You Afraid of the Dark-style stories; a child-friendly party Sunday has readings from Goosebumps, trick-or-treating and a costume contest."

Andover Bookstore, Andover, Mass. (e-newsletter): "Kids Halloween Party! On Saturday, October 29th at 2 p.m. we will be having a Halloween costume party! We'll read Halloween themed picture books, decorate Trick-or-Treat bags, have a costume parade around Andover Village Square, and more! It will be fun for all ages. The party is completely free and open to all!"

The Spiral Bookcase, Philadelphia, Pa.: "WITCH WEEK is going strong!"

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, Calif., "has been celebrating Halloween all month, with an array of events that seek to put a little fear or quirkiness in your life. That continues this week."

Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass. (e-newsletter): "I don't know how many folks out there still do handmade Halloween costumes, but between my efforts on behalf of my two kids, and the intrepid seamstresses-and-sters among the Booksmith staff, I know of at least a dozen pairs of hands that have been pricked by pins and needles this week. So, while we won't build your costume for you, we do have a ton of fun and frightful books and accessories for Halloween, courtesy of our kids' booksellers and the Giftsmith. Come in and check it all out, quick, before a zombie eats your brain!"

Halloween, it seems, has crept up on me this year after all, despite my best efforts to keep it at bay. I'm like one of those nice families that decide to stay in their new home even after the walls start to bleed and a disembodied voice screams, "Get out!"

The Shining Ball 2016 at The Stanley Hotel

It was my brother's idea to visit the grand old Stanley hotel a couple of weeks ago. I learned that in 1974, Stephen King and his wife spent a night there as the only guests one day before it closed for the winter. "Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect--maybe the archetypical--setting for a ghost story," he recalled. Disappointed with Stanley Kubrick's film version of The Shining, King became the force behind a late 1990s TV miniseries, which was filmed at the Stanley.

But it is Kubrick's terrifying image of the terminally blocked writer and his only reader, horrified by what she encounters on the page, that haunts me still. If these words don't scare you, nothing ever will: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

Happy bookish Halloween... if you dare.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2869

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