This is already old news, but last week Jessica Stockton Bagnulo announced she had signed the lease and Greenlight Bookstore now has an official address: 86 Fulton Street in Fort Greene. If all goes according to plan, the store will officially open in September.
It’s great to see this finally happen . . . For as long as I’ve known Jessica, she’s been working on her plan to open her own bookstore. She’s worked at a number of indie stores in New York, wrote extensive strategic plans (which even won her some cash), and thought this all through very, very carefully.
I have complete faith that Jessica will do everything right in terms of launching this store (like displaying a lot of Open Letter titles, right Jessica? Right?), and from what I’ve heard she nailed down the perfect location. Congrats to Jessica and be sure to check out the Greenlight Bookstore blog for further updates.
In stark contrast to Jessica’s wonderful news comes this statement from 3P favorite, Karl Pohrt:
On the advice of my accountant and my business manager, I am closing Shaman Drum Bookshop June 30. Despite a first rate staff, a fiercely loyal core of customers, a very decent landlord and my own commitment to the community of arts and letters in Ann Arbor, it is clear to me that the bookshop is not a sustainable business.
In spite of the downturn in the economy, Ann Arbor continues to be an excellent book town. There are wonderful independent stores here (Crazy Wisdom, Nicolas’s Books), fine specialty book stores (Vault of Midnight, Aunt Agatha’s) and great used bookshops (Dawn Treader, West Side Books, Motte & Bailey). They need your support.
Over a year ago we began a process to become a non-profit center for the literary arts. I am decoupling Shaman Drum Bookshop from the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, which should simplify and streamline our IRS application. I will pursue this new venture after we close the store.
Shaman Drum Bookshop has been here for 29 years. We had 28 good years. Thank you for your support. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be a bookseller in Ann Arbor.
We live in a world in which the community of Ann Arbor—Ann freaking Arbor, the home of one of the best universities in the country—can’t support an independent bookstore. As Karl wrote, it seems like a perfect storm of things went wrong to sink Shaman Drum, but still . . . If there’s one city in the Midwest that should have enough intelligent readers to support an indie store, it’s Ann Arbor. My faith has been shaken . . .
Karl’s a close friend, and I know that he’ll come out of this OK. Very interested to see what happens with the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, but from now on, I know that every trip through Ann Arbor will be incomplete. . .
A few weeks back we mentioned the then upcoming symposium at the University of Michigan on the “future of reading.” Well, the amazing Karl Pohrt was able to attend and wrote this comprehensive piece on the somewhat bleak gathering.
Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age is the title of a symposium held today at the University of Michigan.
New Fate of Reading? Uh-oh . . .
The event announcement features an illustration of books rendered as if they are a flock of birds flying above the reach of a group of young people standing in an open field. The image is ambiguous. Are the books flying toward the people or away from them? Are people greeting the arrival of the books or are they ecstatically waving goodbye? In both instances I fear it’s the later. This might be due to my anxiety about the precarious economics of the culture of books these days. Or perhaps it’s just my bad attitude, something that surfaces now and then despite years spent practicing hardcore zazen.
The text accompanying the picture poses some key questions: What new literacies are generated in the digital era? What happens to the cultural practices associated with the traditional book? How are institutions responding to this new situation? Bookstores are specifically mentioned, along with libraries, publishers, and newspapers. And finally, moving from the descriptive to the prescriptive: How ought they _(to) respond?_ This is what I’m really interested in. What is to be done?
The symposium, sponsored by the Michigan Quarterly Review and the Rackham Graduate School, is held in Angell Hall on the U of M’s central campus, and is divided into two sessions. MQR editor Jonathan Freedman tells us the morning panel, New Reading Practices and Literacies in a Digital Age, is devoted to questions of theory and history. The afternoon sessions will examine new institutions.
The program kicks off with a talk entitled “The Aesthetic of Bookishness in Twenty-first Century Literature.” Jessica Pressman, who teaches at Yale, informs us that the role of the book will change—has changed—from an essential format to one medium among many. She says the recent talk about the death of the book is a literary response to the perceived threats of the digital age. The theme of the death of the book has become a source of inspiration for writers, despite the fact that literature was never about information delivery. Book bound content is now associated with the literary.
She cites The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall, as an example of a new literary form in which the novel itself exists as a character.
“_Shark Texts_ begins with the main character reading himself back to life from near death,” she says.
Pressman describes an aesthetic of bookishness in which books are viewed as a haven from the increasingly threatening digital age. This position is most certainly retro because “we now live in a world in which the text no longer exists just on the page.”
Within the bookish aesthetic, bookstores (“spaces for bound books”) are like sanctuaries or churches. They provide a safe location from which readers can network with each other and critique the digital culture. For bookish folk, bookstores are “shields against the shark.”
Frankly, I never thought of bookshops as lairs of a bound-book Ancien Regime, but I take her point.
“The book is a reading machine and data mutates across discourse networks,” she tells us, channeling William Gibson or William S. Burroughs.
Obviously the practice of reading and the bookish experience have changed in the digital age. Nostalgia for the world of print doesn’t cut it anymore in our multi-modal world.
Click here for the complete article.Read More...
The collection—which came out from New Directions earlier this year—covers Cardenal’s entire career, and Vincent has nothing but positive things to say about the book:
Readers of English, thank your gods: the breadth of Ernesto Cardenal’s amazing poetic career is now available for your consumption thanks to New Directions and the recently published Pluriverse. Spanning fifty-six years, the book presents Cardenal in all his guises: revolutionary, spiritualist, chronicler of man’s inhumanity to man, chilling visionary, and cosmic quasi-historian. The poems in this collection are often long, deceptively assessable, and quite dazzling.
They told me you were in love with another man
and then I went off to my room
and I wrote that article against the government
that landed me in jail.
You can read the entire review by clicking here.
As you can see on the right side of the page, our featured indie bookstore for the month of April is Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Karl Pohrt and I are good friends (he’s actually on the advisory committee for Open Letter as well), and worked together to help launch the Reading the World program.
Although Karl and his store have been mentioned on Three Percent dozens of times, I really wanted to specially feature Shaman Drum this month to bring attention to a few different things, both good and frightening.
First off, as you may have heard, Shaman Drum has run into a bit of trouble. Back in February, Karl wrote a letter to the Ann Arbor Chronicle detailing the plight of the store and the fact that textbook sales were down $510,000 from the previous year and that the store might not survive.
After a trip to Nicaragua, he wrote a second letter saying that he would do all he could to keep the bookstore going.
During that trip he met Ernesto Cardenal, whose Pluriverse came out earlier this year from New Directions. Cardenal is going to be in Ann Arbor later this month, and we’re planning on running info and interviews from that event here on Three Percent.
Also in terms of good news, not everyone knows about this yet, but it looks like instead of a traditional Reading the World program this year, we’ll instead be having a RTW party at Idlewild Books in NYC on Thursday, May 28th in honor of Karl. Soo Jin and Declan from New Directions have been working on this, and I’ll make a special post with all the details in the near future. We’re hoping to have someone interview Karl about his life in bookselling, and we’re also planning on having a raffle to benefit Shaman Drum, RTW, and Idlewild.
In addition to linking all book titles to Shaman Drum’s online catalog, we’re hoping to post more information about the store, its history, employees, etc. Since this is one of “those stores” that people remember fondly for years and years, if any of you have any stories about S.D. that you’d like to share, please e-mail them to chad.post at rochester dot edu, or simply post them in the comments below.
In response to two open letters from bookseller Karl Pohrt to the Ann Arbor community, a loose coalition of booklovers is coming together to save Shaman Drum bookstore from closing its doors. In a letter sent out to Shaman Drum’s e-mail list Friday and discussed on the front page of the Ann Arbor News the next day, University of Michigan English professor Julie Ellison warns that the 29-year-old booktore is “dying.” Ellison and the letter’s co-signers, who include former poet laureates Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, bookseller Richard Howorth of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., plus 40 Ann Arbor residents, propose solutions meant to turn the bookstore into what she calls a “humanities commons.”
Ellison’s proposals include the University of Michigan changing its current textbook policy to include a statement on the benefits of buying textbooks from local booksellers; individuals buying shares in the bookstore’s nonprofit arm, the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center; the University of Michigan Humanities Center making space available for arts center classes; the university using the bookstore as a site for teaching students about consumer behavior in the digital age; and students and faculty in the university’s Nonprofit and public Management Center and the School of Information assisting the bookstore in developing a new business model and writing grants to support it.
We really hope some good comes out of all of this, and that they find a way to keep Shaman Drum alive.
In my opinion, Jan Kjaerstad’s The Conqueror is one of the best books we brought out in our first season. Compelling and engaging, with a brilliant over-arching structure, it’s a novel that’s very literary and very readable, and one that we were really hoping would take off. (Especially since this is part of a trilogy, and we’re bringing out the final part in the fall.)
Well, although there haven’t been a ton of reviews (yet), we’ve been getting a lot of comments from readers and booksellers about this book.
Karl Pohrt from Shaman Drum called me a while back to tell me how impressed he was with this novel. And since then, I’ve heard that one bookseller wrote a staff pick about how The Conqueror forced him to rewrite his “desert island” list. And just today we received a postcard from another New York store about how The Conqueror was a “amazing and wonderful reading experience.”
Back a couple months ago, we gave away a few galleys of this book. And earlier this week I heard from one winner about how effing good this book is . . .
It is the second part of a trilogy—the first part is The Seducer, which came out from Overlook a couple years ago—but the books really do stand alone. If you’d like to know more about the first volume, Michael Orthofer has a really comprehensive review at Complete Review.
I’m mentioning all this now, because we’re in the process of preparing Jan’s U.S. tour. He will be in New York for PEN World Voices, and in Rochester (with Mark Binelli, author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!), and possibly a few other places as well. I’ll post all the details as soon as they’re finalized.
Last week, Shelf Awareness ran a short bit about the precarious state of Shaman Drum Bookshop’s finances. This was based on a letter that owner (and Open Letter advisory board member) Karl Pohrt wrote for the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Rather than rehash what was said, or speculate about the Shelf Awareness piece, here’s the full text of Karl’s letter. It’s pretty bleak:
This fall and winter Shaman Drum Bookshop went into a steep financial decline. Text book sales declined 510K from last year. We managed to cut our payroll and other operating expenses by 80K, but that didn’t begin to cover our losses.
There was some good news. Our trade (general interest) book sales on the first floor were actually up in December from last year by 10%, which is extraordinary given what many other retailers were reporting. And trades sales in January were up 15%. Still, this hardly compensates for our losses in textbook sales.
The evaporation of our position has been astonishingly swift. We had been holding relatively even financially until September. Suddenly we’ve moved into the red.
I sort of saw this coming.
In July, 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published Reading At Risk, a report detailing the decline of literary reading in America. This was followed by a second report in November, 2007, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, chronicling “recent declines in voluntary reading and test scores alike, exposing trends that have severe consequences for American society.”
Around the same time the NEA reports came out, I audited a UM course on the History of the Book in which I learned that every 500 years a major technological shift occurs. Five centuries ago Gutenberg invented (or perfected) moveable type. Now, with the digitization of print, we find ourselves in the middle of another sea change. I recall wondering what the new business model for bookstores would look like, and I worried that our industry would suffer from the same chaos roiling the music world.
And a few years ago the University Library held a conference on Digitization. I was invited to be a panelist and I defended the traditional book as still the most efficient technology for delivering information. I also said I was worried about collateral damage during our forward march into the joyous digitized future. I’m no Luddite, but everyone there seemed to me to be hypnotized by the new technology. Of course, it is dazzling.
In my own retail neighborhood I’ve watched the collapse of Schoolkids Records, an awesome independent record store, due largely to the impact of digitization, and it looks like I’ve got a front row seat on another sad decline. Borders Bookshop, which I think at one time was the best general interest book chain in the English speaking world, is a shadow of its former self and seems headed for oblivion.
Early this fall I told a group of booksellers that our industry (including the publishing sector) had a business model that didn’t work very well for any of us. A few of the booksellers said they didn’t think this was true, the others were silent.
Two weeks ago I met again with booksellers and publishers from around the country at the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute. Now everyone seems to agree that the book business is in trouble. The disintermediation resulting from customers migrating to the internet coupled with the frightening economic crisis makes it terribly difficult for us to see a way forward.
The crisis at Shaman Drum Bookshop is due to our loss of textbook sales. This fall the university introduced a program which allows professors to list their textbooks online, which effectively drives a significant number of students to the internet. It is impossible for local textbook stores to compete under these circumstances. I don’t think there are any villains here (well, maybe some greedy textbook publishers), but this is one of the consequences of the university’s policy.
The efficiencies of Amazon—even given the clever algorithms that bring us if you like this, you’ll like that—are no substitute for browsing in a bookshop.
In 1942 the economist Joseph A. Schumpeter said, “Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. . . .” This is our system and Schumpeter is undoubtedly correct, but there is a countervailing fact that is equally true: Stability is essential for a civilized society. The second truth is what I’ve learned selling books in this community for forty years, being married for thirty-seven years and raising two children.
It also seems to me that if we are witnessing the collapse of Big Capitalism, the way to revitalize the economy is through supporting locally owned businesses. If you agree, please lend your good energy to Think Local First, the movement supporting locally-owned independent businesses in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.
What Is To Be Done?
Shaman Drum Bookshop is around one hundred steps from the central campus of the University of Michigan, one of the top ten public universities in the world. I believe the university community and Ann Arbor citizens who love literature need a first rate browsing store for books in the humanities in the university neighborhood. This is what we aspire to be.
However, as I mentioned earlier, it has been clear to me for a while now that the current model doesn’t work. In March 2008 I announced my wish to give the bookshop to the community. I hired Bob Hart, a recently retired Episcopal priest, to research the feasibility of forming a nonprofit bookshop. We wrote up a careful business plan, met with a good lawyer, filled out the IRS forms and submitted our papers in July. In November the IRS notified us that our application was still under consideration. The review is taking longer because a for-profit business is a component of the project.
The new entity is called the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, whose mission is “to develop excellence in the literary arts by nurturing creative writing, providing quality literature and fostering a literate public.” We’re already hosting two classes in the store. If we do not survive this downturn, I hope the Great Lakes Literary Art Center will continue under other auspices. It is a good idea.
Last week I consulted a lawyer and a financial advisor. They both felt the store could manage the debt load with some temporary help from our friends and a bit of luck. My landlord, who is a decent man, will allow us to keep our first floor space, vacating only the second floor of the building.
The issue now is this: After we scale back the store, do we still have a viable business? I asked my business manager to crunch the numbers based on our projected sales for the next two years. He reported back that we do not have a sustainable business model. Given our current sales projections, we will continue to lose money.
This means very simply that we would need additional revenue sources/streams to make the store viable.
For many booksellers-certainly including me-this is our darkest hour. I know this sounds melodramatic, but that’s the way it feels to me in the middle of the night when I’m trying to figure out how I can possibly make this work.
If I can’t figure this out, the most realistic and responsible thing I can do is shut the store down and move on.
The question then becomes: What is the next version of a bookstore? This is something worth thinking about carefully. Like you, I want to live in a community that has many good bookshops. But then I’ve been spoiled living in Ann Arbor.
Whatever happens, I am filled with a sense of gratitude for having been able to sell books in this town for the past 29 years. It’s been absolutely wonderful.
—Shaman Drum Owner, Karl Pohrt.
For those who are interested, a pdf of the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center strategic plan is available online. And Karl can be reached at pohrt at shamandrum dot com.
Weeks ago, I mentioned the idea of interviewing a number of booksellers on the state and future of independent bookselling and book culture in general. My goal is to talk from a wide range of booksellers, managers, owners, and buyers, to get as many different viewpoints as possible from the people who are at the “front lines,” so to speak.
Chad W. Post: How did you get into bookselling?
Karl Pohrt: I recently came across a sentence by Orhan Pamuk from Other Colors: “To carry a book in your pocket or in your bag, particularly in times of sadness, is to be in possession of another world, a world that can bring you happiness.” The book, in this formulation, is an emblem or icon of solace. That’s always been true for me.
In Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf argues that it’s important to read to children because they will grow up associating being loved with reading. Both my parents read to me and my brothers when we were young.
For years I believed that one day I’d open a book that would explain everything. I trace this directly to my early religious education (Presbyterian), but I bet many of us share this fantasy. Jews, Muslims and Christians are, after all, People of the Book.
When I was in elementary school I frequented the neighborhood branch of the Flint Public Library. I also purchased comic books at the local drug store (Uncle Scrooge, Classics Illustrated) with my weekly allowance. Books, comic books, and later bookshops (along with movie theaters), were portals to a wider world.
I was a conscientious objector during the Viet Nam War, and I worked in a hospital for two years in lieu of military service. One of my daily tasks was to transport cancer patients to the Radiology Department for cobalt radiation treatments. This was rewarding but oftentimes depressing work. The patients I worked with didn’t get better. After my shift, I hung out in the bookshops because these places made me feel good.
In 1972, when I finished my stint at the hospital, I started working in a bookshop. After a few years I went to graduate school and I taught English for three years. In 1980 I returned to the book business and started Shaman Drum Bookshop.
CWP: What has it been like running an independent store literally down the road from the Borders headquarters? I have to say, it used to be a running joke with the Borders people I met with that they all shopped at Shaman Drum.
KP: It’s relatively easy to sell books in Ann Arbor. This is a good book town. The flagship Borders store, which is right around the corner from Shaman Drum, is a general interest store. We specialize in literary and scholarly titles. Of course there is some overlap, but the customer base is different.
CWP: What role in book culture do you think Shaman Drum (and/or all independents) plays?
KP: I think independent bookshops are essential for a healthy book culture. Variety is the key to a robust and vital intellectual life.
A climax community ecosystem seems to me to be a good metaphor for the ideal book culture. It’s a system that contains a maximum diversity of life forms. If a disease or predator moves through the community and wipes out a few species, the system will probably recover fairly quickly.
To deliberately reduce life forms by, say, draining a wetlands or clear cutting an old growth forest and then replanting it with just one or two crops makes an ecosystem much more vulnerable. If a disease moves through this community, it’s probably finished.
Category management might work in a supermarket, but it’s not appropriate for the life of the mind. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
This is the big picture. On a more specific level, the independent bookseller retail channel launches books and acts as an early warning system for publishers.
CWP: That’s an interesting metaphor—one that I think is applicable to independent publishers as well. Seems to me that indie bookstores and indie publishers share a certain outlook (and business practices)—do you see a natural alliance between these two groups?
KP: Yes, absolutely. As you well know, many independent booksellers and indie publishers are pals, but we need to create more explicit partnerships and alliances. Maybe the new ABA IndieBound program would be a good vehicle for these projects.
CWP: What are the biggest challenges for Shaman Drum? For independents?
KP: The decline of reading, the shrinking of public space and the lack of leisure time are all terribly difficult problems. You could add to this list an economy in freefall, the rising price of oil and incompetent political leadership (which hopefully will change soon). I fall back to a theological vocabulary in the face of all this. I would describe these as spiritual issues because spiritual is the most inclusive word I can think of.
And the business model for bookstores isn’t very good. We need to think carefully about new business models. We need to figure out how to pay ourselves and our employees adult salaries. Otherwise, we’re asking everyone to commit to lives of voluntary poverty. Of course, this would be just fine if you think of bookselling as a religious vocation, but I find fewer young people out there these days who believe.
CWP: The “war” on the middle class hasn’t made this any easier. And the problem seems to be exacerbated at the chain stores, where there’s a clear financial division between management (enough to survive) and booksellers (not even close). I can imagine that it’s getting harder and harder to find young people interested in staying in bookselling for the long haul. Do you see a younger generation of booksellers coming along that will own and run all the great indie 10-20 years from now?
KP: In the past twelve months Harvard Bookshop’s Frank Kramer passed the torch to Carole Horne and Vromans’ owner Joel Sheldon appointed Allison Hill Chief Operating Officer for his store.
And it is important to note that a number of young booksellers who work in ABA member stores have organized an Emerging Leaders group. Megan Sullivan (Harvard Book Store), Jessica Stockton (McNally Jackson) and Jenn Northington (King’s English) are among the talented young people who are involved in this organization.
CWP: Several of the people I’m hoping to interview as part of this series . . . Going back to your comment on needing a new business model, I know Shaman Drum is becoming a nonprofit (the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center). What is this going to entail for Shaman Drum?
KP: You can read the current version of our plan at our website.. The plan will probably change, so stay tuned.
CWP: This is an incredibly ambitious plan (really—everyone should take a look), and one that would do a world of good for Michigan’s book culture. One of the things that I find interesting is how the store is being incorporated into something larger, and that rather than selling the store, you’re converting it into a nonprofit, and essentially giving it away to a board of directors to use in order to grow the GLLAC. What led you to this decision? And on a broader scale, do you think the nonprofit route is something other indie bookstores should explore?
KP: I’m sixty years old. I love what I do, but it would be irresponsible not to plan for future contingencies. I would prefer to see the bookshop live beyond my tenure here, and I was very impressed when I visited the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis a few years ago. I thought my bookshop might function as a node around which people could organize a center that celebrated the culture of the book. This culture is endangered, so the nonprofit route seemed the way to go.
Booksellers talk about being indispensable to the communities they serve, but is this really true? I thought I’d test it out by giving my store to the community. We’ll see what happens.
CWP: What do you think the future holds for Independent bookselling, 5-10 years down the line?
Given the rapidity of change these days, it is very difficult to speak with any authority about the future beyond a three year horizon. I admire Peter Osnos’ Caravan Project and I’m interested in how that develops. I also believe that what we think of when we use the noun book will be around for a long time because it is still such an efficient technology.
This is just awful:
In Los Angeles, one of that city’s landmark independents, Dutton’s Brentwood Books, will close on April 30. The news comes a little more than one year after Dutton’s closed its Beverly Hills store. Owner Doug Dutton said that he had been trying to save the Brentwood location for months, but had been unable to find a way to keep the business afloat. He added that any chance to reopen at a new location would depend on a real offer. Dutton’s was founded by Dutton’s parents in 1961. (via Publishers Weekly)
This, on the other hand, is quite interesting:
An Ann Arbor literary institution, Shaman Drum does not have a clear successor to owner Pohrt. He thought about selling the store – but instead, he’s decided to give it away.
For the past several months, Pohrt and Bob Hart of Shaman Drum have been working on a plan to transform the 27-year-old bookselling business into a nonprofit enterprise. The change could happen later this year.
“I like to think in terms of metaphors, that this is a vehicle, and you are stepping from one vehicle into another,” said Pohrt, who is being honored for his contributions to the literary community during a conference March 6-7 at the University of Michigan.
“I don’t think the book business in this country, as a business model, has worked for anybody.” (via MLive)
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop to China to attend the Beijing Book Fair, and give this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s wrote a daily blog about the trip, which can be found in its entirety here.
Karl’s back in the States now, but has a couple of thoughts about the trip that are definitely worth sharing.
Postscript to China Report #2: Deep Literacy
for Paul Yamazaki, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & City Lights Bookstore
I ended my presentation in Beijing with this appeal to our bookseller comrades:
The social, political and ecological issues we all face are absolutely daunting, and we need a literate citizenry with attention spans long enough to honor the complexity and subtlety of these problems. I first heard the phrase deep literacy from my friend Paul Yamazaki, and I believe this is where we begin to solve our problems—with a commitment to deep literacy.
The first question someone asked me following the talk was: “What do you mean by ‘deep literacy’? How can we do that?” I mumbled something to the effect that this wasn’t meant to be programmatic, that the phrase “deep literacy” is richly suggestive.
It was clear to me that my answer wasn’t going to get me a pass with this audience, so I briefly talked about the medieval monastic tradition of Lectio Divina, of reading as a kind of prayer or meditation, but given the baffled looks I was getting, I don’t think this was a satisfactory explanation. Either that or what I was saying wasn’t getting translated into anything that made sense in Chinese.
So I wanted to offer some reflections on the topic of deep literacy in the hopes that maybe we could get a conversation going about this. Maybe we could figure out how to reverse the direction we seem to be headed in, buck the historical trend. Maybe we could start something.
Some synonyms for Deep are complex, focused, discerning, resonant. The opposite of Deep is shallow, trivial, diluted, light.
When we think about Literacy, I believe we tend to think in terms of two stages: Illiterate (stage 1) until we become literate when we learn to read at age 6 (stage 2). This is an impoverished view of a lifelong process.
Here are some books and an essay I’ve come across that I think are particularly interesting:
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf (HarperCollins). Ms. Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts, has synthesized a vast amount of information in this wonderful book about the complex processes that make up literacy. She never loses sight of the miraculous gift of reading.
In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon, Ivan Illich (University of Chicago Press). In 1128 Hugh of St. Victor wrote a guide to the art of reading, which he saw as a moral activity that would result in enlightening the heart and mind. Illich argues that Hugh inaugurated the culture of bookishness from which we have now exited for a new social reality—the culture of the screen. This is a learned, clear and brilliant book.
Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, Michael Casey (Liguori/Triumph). Casey, a Cistercian monk firmly grounded in Benedictine monasticism, has written “a book of instruction” for the practice of sacred reading. Written for a lay religious audience, it is particularly helpful in discussing the difficulties practitioners may encounter in this meditative tradition.
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans). Peterson writes personally and his tone is pastoral. The title comes from a strange and interesting metaphor in Revelations (10:9-10):
I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter.
A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, Alan Jacobs (Westview). Jacobs, an English professor and Auden scholar, has written a smart book about what it means to read charitably. He is very well read—from Aristotle and Augustine to Bakhtin and Ricoeur—and his book is a joy to read.
The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures, Stephen M. Wylen (Paulist Press). Despite Wylen’s linkage of Jewish critical methods of reading Torah with contemporary Deconstruction theory, this is largely a historical description of traditional Jewish interpretive readings of the scriptures. It is a clearly written explication of a complicated subject.
Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, Simone Weil, Waiting for God (HarperCollins). In this nine page essay Weil argues that the point of reading (in fact, all school studies) is to develop our powers of concentration for prayer. She moves beyond the efficaciousness of religious texts to an over-the-top inclusiveness—all reading…”thought of in this way is like a sacrament.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m interested in what you’ve read that you would recommend.
You have undoubtedly noticed that most of these books articulate religious ideas about reading. Judaism and Christianity are both scriptural religions after all, and—speaking personally—it is clear to me that my childhood religious education profoundly shaped my ideas about books. I attended a small Presbyterian church when I was young, and I grew up believing there was a book—the Bible—that explained the mysteries of the world. I fell away from the church, but I continued to believe that there was a book out there somewhere that broke the world open for lucky readers.
The books and essay I mention that use religious understandings of reading are all essential, but maybe the God talk unnecessarily complicates what are some fairly simple propositions:
Reading is an experience—a process really—that changes and deepens as we age.
During a publisher luncheon a few years ago, Christopher Hitchens told me that he thought you have to be of a certain age to read Proust. He’s right. There are books that were closed to me in my 20s, 30s and 40s that have opened now. I find this is one of the consolations of growing older.
We can increase the quality of attention we bring to reading with practice.
In this way, becoming a sophisticated reader is like getting good at sports or learning how to throw a pot.
Perhaps these points are banal and obvious. These are the same things, after all, that I was taught when I was six years old by the librarian at Civic Park Elementary School in Flint, Michigan in the 1950s. But they are worth repeating.
This is a photograph my wife Dianne took in 1992 at the Tikse Gompa, a Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. Note the monk’s intensity. He is reading a Buddhist sutra out loud (just as we’re told Christian monks did in the Middle Ages) from a book whose individual pages are each a single block print of text. This is pre-Guttenberg.
In this religious tradition, monastics go through a long period of preparation before they are allowed to see a religious text, and then they commit it to memory.
What is the difference between the reading experience of this monk and the way you read?
Finally, I want to call your attention to Single-Minded Way, a teisho by the Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Substitute “read” for “cook” in the following:
To cook . . . is not preparation, according to Dogen; it is practice. To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice.
I’m particularly intrigued by the word sincerity here. Isn’t sincerity an odd but appropriate word to use in this context?
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt — owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop — went to China to attend the Beijing Book Fair, and give this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s wrote a daily blog about the trip, which can be found in its entirety here.
Karl’s back in the States now, but has a couple of thoughts about the trip that are definitely worth sharing. Below is the first post. The second one—all about “deep literacy”—will go up later today.
A week and one day later, still jet lagged and sleeping badly, I fly down to Louisville, Kentucky for the American Booksellers Association Third Annual Winter Institute. Sarah McNally, Rick Simonson and Paul Yamazaki are here.
Paul’s report of our trip to his boss Lawrence Ferlinghetti pleased Mr. Ferlinghetti so much that he inscribed copies of Poetry As Insurgent Art for each of us. I am enormously touched.
“This must feel like the ultimate summer camp experience for you guys,” someone tells me during dinner. “You must feel incredibly bonded with the people you were with.”
Actually, it feels much stranger than that. Reentry following this trip has been difficult for me.
It will pass, I suppose.
Rick Simonson is posting a blog of the trip here.
You can read an interview with Allison Hill here.
Certainly we’re not the first western booksellers to visit China, as I was reminded when I saw my friend Tom Hallock, Director of Sales and Marketing at Beacon Press, this weekend in Louisville. In 1990 Tom taught English in Beijing, and he wrote a graceful essay, An American Bookman In Beijing, for the American Bookseller magazine. You can read Tom’s essay here.
This morning is chock full of good news—all via Shelf Awareness:
In honor of Karl Pohrt, founder and owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop, Ann Arbor, Mich., the University of Michigan’s department of English is holding a conference March 6-7 called Writing in Public: A Celebration of Karl Pohrt that consists of a series of author readings and panel discussions.
Panels will address “subjects near to Pohrt’s heart,” including literary publishing, writing in the schools and transforming books into films. Readers include poet Gary Snyder and author Andrea Barrett. Panelists include critic and author Sven Birkerts and author Charles Baxter.
This is fantastic for Karl and sounds like it will be a remarkable event. And based on this and the news about Jessica Stockton, it looks like this is going to be a good week . . .
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop in China for the Beijing Book Fair, where he’ll be giving this speech on independent bookselling in America.
January 10, 2008
“Things develop ceaselessly.”—Mao Zedong
We roll out at 8 a.m. this morning. The weather has turned significantly colder and this was not a Blue Sky Day.
We were scheduled today to visit four bookshops in the greater Beijing area, and on our way to the first store we stopped for photo ops near the Beijing Olympic Stadium. This breathtaking structure looks like a landing site for alien interplanetary spaceships. I prefer the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in Tiantan Park.
Our first stop was the Beijing Shuimu branch of the O2 Sun Bookstore. It’s located on a corner, so the store’s visibility to its customers is excellent. There is a beautiful little coffee shop on the second floor, and it has an interesting stationary section. Our info packets contain the following charming description:
An urban living bookstore calls for ‘pleasant reading’, a café fills with cappuccino, a small resting dak appeases your soul. Whatever intent you come to here with, you can breathe the fresh 02 from the photosynthesis. The bookstore doing books about ‘language, walk, and communication’, and it is also has the yellow sun flower and warm lamplight.
Next stop was the All Sages Bookstore and Thinker’s Café Bar, located on Chengfu Street outside the east gate of Beijing University. This is an awesome academic bookstore, one of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The exterior signage is incredibly minimal, and one would not guess what a jewel is here from the street entrance.
After we look around the store a bit, we’re introduced to Suli Liu, the store’s owner and founder. Mr. Suli invites us to tea in the Thinker’s Café, and we quickly get into a conversation comparing the book business in China and the United Stastes. We are joined by Xue Ye, President of the China Private Book Industry Committee, an organization that sounds somewhat like the American Booksellers Association (if I understand Mr. Xue correctly). Xue Ye is an intense man with a good sense of humor. He vibrates with energy.
Suli Liu has decorated the walls of the Thinker’s Café with photographs of bookstores, and we are all enormously pleased to see a picture of City Lights there. Paul poses with Suli Liu for a photo.
Our packet included the following information:
The name of All Sages originated from the western ghost festival-Halloween, the antetype of the bookstore’s logo, blue devil in Indian devil mask. However, with public’s mouth-to-ear transmitting, the meaning of “ten thousand sages” is more appropriate to the bookstore, “I prefer to understand it as ‘ten thousand sages,’ all these ten thousand sages are authors in All Sages Bookstore’s bookshelves, and I am one of readers who get benefits from these sages,” Xichuan, Chinese poet said. So, the English name of the bookstore changes from “Halloween” previous to “All Sages Bookstore” now.
After lunch, we visit the Beijing Books Building, a huge eight floor state-owned bookstore located in a bustling downtown neighborhood that reminds me of midtown Manhattan. We decide this must be the biggest bookstore in the world, until someone tells us there is a larger store in a southern Chinese city. The store is packed with people and seems to have everything, including most of the recent American bestselling non fiction titles, which have been translated into Chinese.
From our packet:
The prosperous customers flow over a long period, the outstanding sales in the book industry, all these help Beijing Books Building stabilize its No.1 status in the domestic book retail selling market. Its sales plan always becomes the vane of domestic book popularity and the information origin for domestic publishing houses which they have to think a lot of as well.
We end our tour at the Beijing Sanlian Taofen Bookstore, another absolute jewel of a bookshop. Rick has friends in Seattle who told him not to miss this place. The info packet tells us:
If you like books about social science and human culture, it is a perfect choice of going to the Sanlian Taofen Bookstore. Beijing Sanlian Taofen Bookstore is one of the most favorite bookstores for many youth who love literature. This bookstore is a best place for free reading, and “reading in stairs” is a specialty of it.
We meet with Zeng Jun, the manager of Sanlian Taofen, a calm and gracious lady who is proud of the long history of the store. Sanlian Taofen has some kind of institutional affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party, if I understood Ms. Zeng correctly. The logo of the store, a stylized image of three workers, is based on a Soviet design.
Although I like nothing more than visiting independent bookshops, sleep deprivation is catching up with me and I begin to feel ill after our banquet dinner. I worry that I’ll vomit on the bus back to the hotel, but I make it. Then I’m sick. Then I go to bed.
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop in China for the Beijing Book Fair, where he’ll be giving this speech on independent bookselling in America.
January 9, 2008
“We can learn what we did not know.”—Mao Zedong
This morning our delegation attended the Beijing Book Fair, which wasn’t all that different from the American Book Expo except that just about everybody was Chinese and all the books were written in Chinese. And the subject categories on the main floor leaned heavily toward the technical, engineering and medical fields. We were split into small groups when we got there, and I walked through the exhibition halls with Sarah McNally and Allison Hill. Kong Deyun was our guide and translator. The place was packed with visitors and publishers.
After a banquet-style lunch we visited the Beijing Baiwanzhuang Book Building and were ushered into a room on the lower level for a meeting with the General Manager. Baiwanzhuang runs both a large publishing company and this big four level bookstore. One third of the books they publish are textbooks and two thirds are trade books for sale to the general public. We were told they buy many international titles and translate them. They also sell the rights to Chinese books on the foreign market. How this all works is slightly fuzzy to me, and I still don’t entirely understand the business model.
I purchased a book that beautifully reproduces the calligraphy of four poems by the great Song Dynasty poet Su Shi.
In the late afternoon, we soldiered on to our next stop, the offices of the Jieli Publishing House, a relatively new company that specializes in children’s literature. The owner of the firm, Mr. Baibing, (who looks a bit like Al Pacino) tells us they publish books “for babies and on up to the time when people are old enough to fall in love!” His laugh is infectious.
Mr. Baibing tells us that children’s books currently represent 7% of the market share in China. He says children’s books account for 20% of books sold in the United States and Europe, so his company expects to grow considerably as the Chinese market matures.
The Jieli Publishing House has made a small fortune on Naughty Boy Called Mu Shautiao, a series of books for elementary school children. There are eighty titles in the series and they’ve published 14 million copies of these books so far. Mr. Baibing tells us they’ve sold 13 million copies of Naughty Boy in China. If you are curious about Naughty Boy, you’ll get a chance this spring when HarperCollins publishes them for an American audience.
By the time we move on to the excellent banquet the Jieli folks throw for us, we’re all exhausted. Allison asks the Jieli Marketing Director, “What did Naughty Boy do to earn his title?” Huang Xinping has difficulty translating this question, so Allison rephrases it: “What’s naughty about Naughty Boy?” Some tasteless jokes are made, but we’re all giddy from jet lag, lack of sleep and too much alcohol. I suggest they print up Naughty Boy buttons, which just might catch on with the older crowd, etc.
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop in China for the Beijing Book Fair, where he’ll be giving this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s writing a daily blog about the trip, which we’ll be running here. Click here for the January 7th entry.
January 8, 2008
“Be united, alert, earnest and lively.”—Mao Zedong
Fortunately, today turned out to be what Beijing citizens call a Blue Sky Day—the sun was out, temperatures were mild, and pollution levels seemed low at midday.
Allison Hill, Rick Simonson and I took the subway (price: 30 cents) to Tiananmen Square this morning. We walked through part of the Forbidden City and across the Square. The open space here is extraordinary. There is nothing like it that I know of in the West, except maybe the Mall in Washington (but that hardly comes close). We arrived at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall at noon, which is when it closes, and missed the chance to view Mao’s corpse. I purchased a Chairman Mao watch from a street vendor at an inflated price.
We took another long walk south of the Square, eating lunch in a small neighborhood restaurant where the food was excellent and our waitress seemed amused by our presence here. For the rest of the afternoon we walked through the Temple of Heaven complex in Tiantan Park. This is another staggeringly large public space with beautiful and strange buildings. We watched groups of people folkdancing, singing, playing card games and smoking. Everyone seemed to be enjoying each others company. Allison commented that she didn’t see anyone using cell phones.
Rick, who had visited Tiananmen Square and Tiantan park yesterday with Paul, was our guide, for which I am deeply grateful.
This evening we attended a banquet in a fine restaurant near our hotel organized by our sponsors, Madame Ou Hong, editor-in chief of China Publishing Today, and a gentleman I took to be the owner of the Xinhua Company. At this point, I was starting to flag a bit, although I did manage to successfully offer a toast to friendship between the Chinese, American and British peoples. I was seated next to “Cindy” and “Julie” (“These are our American names”) on my left and three men on my right who worked for the Xinhua Bookstore Co. and didn’t speak any English. This resulted in a kind of whiplash effect—I had to turn left to “Cindy” who translated what my new pals on the right were saying (“They say you are very good with chopsticks!”). It was great wacky fun and the food was terrific.
Additionally, he’s writing a daily blog about the trip, which we’ll be running here.
January 7, 2008
“In the Red Army there are also quite a few people whose individualism finds expression in pleasure-seeking. They always hope that their unit will march into big cities.”—Mao Zedong
For the last forty-five minutes I’ve been sitting trance-like watching MTV China. Coltish dancers move through their routines in compelling visual landscapes on the flat screen television set in front of me. I don’t speak Mandarin, but it’s easy to understand what this is about—romance, sexuality, a perky attitude. I’m in a room on the thirteenth floor of the China Travel Service Hotel on the No. 2 Beisanhuan East Road, Chaoyang District, in northeast Beijing. At night the neighborhood looks like an industrial park.
Roughly 23 hours ago I boarded a plane in the Motor City and was slingshotted across the world, emerging from the flight somewhat dazed into the wintry temperatures and particle laden night air of Beijing.
The flights were uneventful, and I passed the time reading, watching movies and fitfully dozing. I brought along The Authentic Confucius, by Annping Chin, and Wolf Totem, a fine novel by Jiang Rong that will be published in the U.S. this March, but I entered a kind of hallucinatory space during the last jump (Tokyo to Beijing) and I don’t think I retained much of what I read.
The invitation for this trip arrived just as I was ramping up for holiday sales in my store, and I didn’t have time to prepare much. I reread Red Pine’s felicitous translation of the Tao Te Ching and an anthology of the writings of Mao Zedong. Both texts offer advice, but I’m at that stage of the life cycle where I lean more toward Lao Tzu than The Great Helmsman. It is probably true, however, that neither is of much relevance in explaining contemporary China. In retrospect, I would probably have been better off reading Donald Trump’s most recent book.
I was met at the Beijing International Airport an hour ago by Kong Deyun, a very polite young woman who efficiently whisked me here. In the taxi Deyun asked if I sold Harry Potter books, and she seemed slightly surprised when I told her we filed them in our children’s section. I did not have time to slip on one of the twenty disposable surgical masks I’d purchased last week after reading a frightening description in the New York Times of pollution in Beijing. The article portrayed Beijing as a kind of 21st century version of 19th century London. In my (admittedly unscientific) opinion, the pollution crisis seems overstated, but then I grew up in Flint, an industrial city, and I smoked too many cigarettes when I was young.
I’m a member of a delegation of five American booksellers invited by Sichuan Xinhua Winshare Chainstore Co., Ltd, and China Publishing Today to attend the Beijing Book Fair. My companions are Allison Hill from Vromans (Pasadena), Rick Simonson from Elliott Bay (Seattle), Sarah McNally from McNally Robinson Booksellers (New York), and Paul Yamasaki from City Lights (San Francisco). I’m sure none of us would claim sage status, but collectively we’ve had well over one hundred years of experience in the book business. Sarah and Allison don’t look anywhere near that old, but after the long flight I’m feeling like a bohemian bookseller version of the stoic sheriff Tommy Lee Jones plays in No Country for Old Men. Paul and Rick look none the worse for wear, but they both arrived yesterday and seem to have already successfully acclimated themselves to the thirteen hour time difference.
We are joined by Bronx librarian Barbara Genco, Ruediger Wischenbart (a German consultant with BookExpo America) and a small group of British publishers and booksellers.
The man who finessed this visit, Lance Fensterman, Reed International Vice President for BookExpo America, thought he would join us, but other responsibilities came up at the last minute. Lance is a man of great good humor and I’d memorized some jokes to tell him, although I’m too addled from the long plane ride to deliver the correct punch lines. I’m sorry he can’t be here.
The Beijing Book Fair is described by China Publishing Today as “the most important event in the Chinese book industry” and around 6,000 people are expected to attend. We’ll visit Chinese publishing houses and bookstores this week, and we’re scheduled to give presentations during a forum on Friday. Despite the wintry climate (Beijing is on roughly the same latitude as Pyonyang, North Korea and Detroit) I am absolutely delighted to be here, especially by the opportunity to meet Chinese booksellers.
That would make a good title for a movie . . . Actually, the title of this post is in reference to the group of independent booksellers attending the Beijing Book Fair right now. As previously mentioned Reed Exhibitions/BookExpo America arranged this cultural exchange and organized a special panel on bookselling to take place at the fair.
Karl Pohrt (owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop one of the best bookstores in the country) promised to write a blog about his experiences in Beijing, and as soon as it’s available, I’ll post about it here. In the meantime, he sent me the text of the speech he plans to give, which is a great overview of the current situation in America, and worth reading in its entirety. He presents an interesting perspective on this profession which features a 2% margin and an incredible set of challenges, and yet seems so vital to culture. In particular, the info on sales at indie stores for the top 300-500 books is very intriguing . . .
THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FACING BOOKSELLERS IN A POST LITERATE WORLD
Xinping posed two questions to us prior to this forum:
1. How do booksellers in the United States balance business demands with cultural advocacy?
2. How do booksellers respond to the challenges of the digital world?
Because I want to respond to both of these interesting topics, I asked Xinping if I might speak about the challenges and opportunities facing booksellers in a post literate world. I chose the term post literate in part because I wished to be provocative, but also because I wanted describe our present cultural moment. Perhaps the term post literate is too loaded. It has a kind of science fiction quality to it, and for some people I think it implies a decline in literacy. In the interest of fairness, it might be better to describe the world we are living in as transliterate, a term coined by Alan Liu from the University of California at Santa Barbara. This means the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.
The first time I heard someone describe a book as an information platform was maybe eight years ago. I was startled by the phrase information platform, not because it isn’t absolutely accurate (it is), but because it implies that the book is just one among many platforms for disseminating information. In this formulation, the cinema, television, ipod, compact disc, and the computer are all platforms for disseminating information. The subtext here is clear: The book is no longer in the privileged position it has held since Guttenberg invented movable type five hundred years ago.
The implications of this shift for everyone is enormous, but it is especially so for those of us who make our living as booksellers. How will we remain vital participants in the cultural life of our society? More importantly, how can we even stay in business?Read More...
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .
In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .