Monday, October 25, 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls

A few fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been on exhibit at the Science Museum in St. Paul for the past seven months, but for some reason, we waited until the last day of the show to see them. (Maybe it was the stiff $28 entry fee.) We might have missed the exhibit entirely except I was helping friends lay a limestone walkway through another friend’s back yard on Saturday morning. At one point Fran came walking by with a slab of stone about 1 by 2 feet in dimension cradled in the crook of her arm. I said, “Fran, do you know who you look like? Moses.”

“Yes, indeed,” she replied, raising an eyebrow. “And judging from what I see written on this tablet, you’re in deep trouble.” Then she brought up the subject of the scrolls. Weren’t they leaving town soon?

—a gray Sunday morning when we probably should have been in church. To tell you the truth, I haven’t been to church (except for weddings, funerals, and Christmas pageants) for a very long time. There were few people out on the street in downtown St. Paul at that hour. (Maybe everyone else was at church.) The line at the museum was modest. By 9:45 we were being ushered into the first room of one of the most interesting, informative, and well-designed exhibits I’ve seen in recent years.

My very sketchy understanding of the scrolls incorporated an extreme sect, the Essenes; a specific locale, Qumram; and a collection of texts that were found in caves above the Dead Sea by shepherds in the years immediately following WWII. I had no idea there was such radical disagreement among scholars as to the actual connections between these aspects of the story.

For example, some scholars believe that the town of Qumram wasn’t a religious community at all, but rather a pottery factory, a military garrison, or an aristocrat’s estate. Some scholars think that the Essenes wrote the scrolls, while others, with greater cogency, I think, find it impossible to believe that a collection of scrolls numbering more than nine hundred, all but a few of which are in different handwriting, were produced by a single small community.

That leaves open the possibility that the Essenes gathered the scrolls from many sources, or that the scrolls were hidden away by temple priests from Jerusalem (a scant thirteen miles way.)

Most of the exhibit was devoted to providing background to the discovery. For example, in one video display the successive empires that ruled over Jerusalem were graphically depicted by waves of color oozing across a map—the Hittites, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians (Alexander the Great, don’t you know?), the Romans, the Ottomans, the Caliphate, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Seljuqs, and so on. Another video screen offered a bird’s eye view of what an individual approaching and entering the Temple in Jerusalem in its heyday would have seen every step of the way.

There were exhibits about the work scribes do, and displays of 2,000-year-old fabric, sheep sheers, perfume bottles, and tall clay jars of the type many of the scrolls were found in. One large diorama made clear how the fresh water flowing in various directions off the hills above the Dead Sea was channeled to good use by the residents of Qumram. Another explained why Jewish sects who built their religious year on different calendars—solar or lunar—got into trouble as they all tried to make use of the same temple for holidays. One large display made it easy to follow the track of the scrolls from the time they were discovered, offered for sale, and latched onto by covetous and proprietary scholars, to the moment decades later when they were finally made available to the world at large.

Finally, two hours after we’d entered the exhibit hall, we found ourselves in the room containing the scrolls themselves. I wouldn’t say that it was disappointing. But the lighting was very low, and the five fragments on display were in heavy cases faintly illuminated by inset florescent lights. All of them were small—about the size (and shape) of an orange peel. But when you bent over to get a closer look, the light from inside the case began to shine in your eyes, making the writing even harder to see.

I’d don’t read Hebrew or Aramaic, so I guess it doesn’t matter whether I could see the lettering well or not. A young couple wearing purple jerseys with Favre on the back were leaning over (and on) one of the cases, and I heard the man say, “Look here, honey. If you read it upside down it says kick.”

One of the reasons we went to the exhibit, of course, was to see the fragments themselves, in the flesh. Otherwise, we’d spend the rest of our lives saying, “I can’t believe we never went to see them.” Information is easy to come by: I have a few books lying around on the subject of the scrolls that I haven’t read. But to see one of the scrolls themselves. Right there in front of you. I was hoping for a moment of frisson, as the centuries fell away and the sheer presence of an artifact that Jesus or Paul or one of the disciples might have read or touched made itself felt. It came to me in a flicker or two, like a bulb that’s about to go out. No matter. The really significant thing about a scroll is that it preserves thought via language.

One thing the exhibit itself, fascinating though it was, failed to clarify is what new things we’ve learned due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. All of the Old Testament books except Ester were found among them, thus taking us back a thousand years from the ninth-century texts that were hitherto the earliest extant. Yet the texts found in the caves at Qumram are evidently almost the same as the ones we’re familiar with—a testament to the skill of scribes across the centuries, I guess.

Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in any case, are less interesting than the books of the Bible. They seem to be routinely focused on peccadillos of conduct and cleanliness. I know this because that afternoon I pulled a copy of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English off the shelf and started to read through them. Lots of stuff about elders and community organization and hierarchies and punishments. For example:

No man shall form any association for buying or selling without informing the guardian of the camp…

A man who falls asleep during a session of the Congregation shall be punished for thirty days…

No man shall bathe in dirty water or in water too shallow to cover a man…

There shall be one thousand cubits between the camp and the latrine…

… may not touch the liquids of the Congregation, for these render unclean the basket and the figs and the pomegranates if their juices ooze out when he squeezes them…
And so on. There are also beautiful hymns of thanksgiving, benedictions, and other poetic fragments, to be sure, and the scrolls have given Biblical scholars the opportunity to flesh out the astonishing variety of views and practices espoused by contending Jewish sects during the period before the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. Yet I came away from a half hour of perusing these texts with the feeling that the scribes and priests (and later rabbis) who assembled the Jewish canon upon which the Christian Old Testament is largely based did a pretty good job of editing the material.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Unusual Morning

I receive an email at 5:35 a.m. from a physician informing me that he wants to move ahead with his book about health care reform. That’s good news. (And he has some good ideas, too.)

I send off a sell-sheet to Kinkos for a book event to be held later this week at the downtown Minneapolis Library. A hundred copies. I keep thinking there must be someplace that will do it cheaper.

Then I spot an article in the New York Times: “Morals without God?” by Frans de Waal. He seems to have hit exactly the right tone, the right stance, reiterating the position advanced by British moralists in the seventeenth century that people have an indwelling moral sense—and chimps probably do, too. Amid the appreciative comments I see a reference to Plato’s Euthyphro. Something new to explore.

It’s still dark at 6:05, when it occurs to me I ought to go out and see the Hartley comet, which should be somewhere in the vicinity of Capella right about now. I tiptoe into the bedroom to grab my pants and a heavy fisherman sweater in the dark, lift the binoculars from their hook in the kitchen closet, and step outside, picking up the morning paper and switching off the front lamp as I go.

The concrete driveway is cold on my bare feet. The air is cold, too, it’s still quite dark. Orion is spectacular but there’s a swath of haze across the Big Dipper. I lie down on the pavement, shielded by the shadow of a big spruce tree from the streetlight glare. There, well beyond the Gemini Twins, is Capella. But nothing fuzzy. Nothing green. Nothing sporting a tail.

At a certain point, as I lie on the pavement in the dark, it occurs to me that it's a good thing the paperboy has already been here. He drives a big Buick.

Hilary is off until noon today. She had a tough day yesterday—old men arguing conservative politics (or asking her to type a letter!) when she has plenty of more important things to do. My gift to her this morning will be a chunk of silence and solitude. Which is a rare thing if your husband happens to work at home.

I transfer a few files onto a flashdrive, locate my seldom-used laptop, gather up the hard copy of a book I’m editing, throw the headphones and a few CDs into a briefcase along with the latest New York Review and a book called Winter by Rick Bass. But as I’m putting on my socks I notice there are leaf fragments all over the bedroom floor. No doubt I picked them up while I was lying in the driveway. Out comes the vacuum. (Yes, a most unusual morning.)

Light has come to the sky by the time I emerge from the house once again. I hear a white-throated sparrow twardling feebly from the bushes across the street. The tone is weak and tentative, there’s a reedy flutter to it, unlike the sure strong delivery of a mature bird. And to top it all off, he hasn’t quite learned the tune. Yet nothing will hold him back. He sings out again and again like a happy drunk, enjoying his own wayward version.

As I leave the neighborhood a Bangra tune erupts from the CD player. That catchy (if repetitive) number gives way to a standard (don't know the name) from a gig Stan Getz and Chet Baker played in Stockholm circa 1984. Mist covers the marshes and valleys on the golf course, and a wisp of white-pink cloud drifts upward from the skyscrapers downtown like a scarf at a royal joust. People are out everywhere, running, walking the dog, headed for work.

I’m out, too, and it feels good.

There are only two cars in the lot in front of Rustica Bakery. I’ve met a client here a few times—I think the barrista might almost recognize me. Her face is framed by bangs and pig-tails, and as I place my order she looks at me as if she thinks I’m about to say something funny.

Finally, I’m settled into a pleasant corner near the window. The laptop is plugged in, the headphones are on, Albeniz’s Iberia is floating agreeably through my thoughts. Checking my emails, I see that my order at Kinko’s is done already.

People thumb through the papers, consult their electronic devices, sip coffee, converse. The parking lot is filling up. The flashdrive sits here on the table, but I don’t feel much like plugging it in right now. That comes from the world I already know. This is the world I don’t know.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Is This Club Straight?

I’m thrown into a quandary when someone asks me if I golf. I could give them a long-winded answer about my two sets of Salvation Army clubs, my very infrequent early-morning visits to the Theodore Wirth par three five minutes from my house (where I seldom shoot anything less than 40), and the time during my university years when I played 33 holes on “the big course.”

Or I could just say no.

But yesterday my friend Dana and I headed out to Mississippi Dunes, a Scottish-style 18-hole course nestled into a curve of the Mississippi River south of Cottage Grove, armed with a Groupon and a very large supply of golf balls. Titlest 1. Topflight 3. I held onto a Bridgestone 2 for eight or nine holes and considered that an achievement in itself.

The Dunes has sand traps that look like submerged missile silos and hills lined with thick wooden planks. It seems that the folks who designed the course had both the military and recreational senses of the word “bunker” in mind when they put it together. It has enough deep rough to keep a botanist occupied all afternoon, and enough water flowing through it to cool a nuclear plant. It’s the kind of course where you can’t see the green until you cross two hills, a small forest, and a stretch of North Africa. The only way you can locate the green at that point is by following the cigar smoke of the foursome ahead of you. It’s a beautiful spread, all the same, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

The golf cart helped. (It came with the coupon.) Nothing brings out the boy in me more, I think, than those marvelous vehicles that jump to life like magic when you touch the accelerator, turn on a dime, and traverse the rolling fairways with ease. But even on wheels, it took us five hours to complete the course. I may have lost ten balls and found three. Dana shrewdly combed a grassy bank 200-yards down on the 18th hole and found five in one sweep.

“By this time,” he reasoned, “the golfers are getting so frustrated by their errant shots that they just say “Screw it!” and head for the clubhouse.”

I made a few long putts, and Dana hit a passing train (intentionally) with a very fine drive. As the day progressed we more consistently hunted up the ladies’ tees. (Why kid ourselves?) And on the last hole, which runs to 395 yards, I was on the green in three. Five putts later I had succeeded in playing myself entirely “out of the money.”

Still, it was a fabulous day. And I'm thinking that if I just keep my head down, and my left art stiff, cock the wrist at the proper moment, follow through... and strike the ball rather than the turf or thin air, everything will finally fall into place, once and for all.

Maybe next year.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Quiet Day at Hawk Ridge

We ventured north to Duluth on Saturday to see the hawks pass above (and sometimes below) Hawk Ridge. The huge kettles of broadwing hawks have moved through by now, thousands at a time, and we’d be more likely to catch sight of individual kestrels,, merlins, and red tailed hawks along with eagles, sharp-shinned hawks, and an occasional goshawk. Many of these birds come from the Yukon and other parts of extreme northern Canada, moving down the southern edge of the boreal forest until it hits Lake Superior. At that point they follow the shore, picking up the thermals rising from the lake north of Duluth, from the heights of which they can drift effortlessly off across Wisconsin for quite a ways.

But the wind was coming in from the east that day (I checked on-line before we left) which is not a good thing. It keeps the birds back up in the hills. But you’re always bound to see something up there—and to learn something from the experts and volunteers who mingle with the crowds on a regular basis.

By the time we arrived on the ridge it was approaching noon, and that brisk east wind was ruffling up Lake Superior something fierce, giving it a deep blue tinge against which the whitecaps were a dazzling white. One or two sailboats were struggling to make headway in the distance and three ore boats were visible out in front of the lift bridge.

An immature bald eagle passed by fairly low overhead from time to time, and a red tail appeared now and again, though the direction of flight seemed to be inland, away from the ridge. The highlight of the morning was the goshawk that one of the experts brought down from the banding station for us to see. She described the bird’s extraordinary tenaciousness—one such bird was observed chasing a rabbit for 45minutes! Once we’d all had a chance to ogle the bird, someone in the crowd forked over $100 for the privilege of releasing it.

While we were standing around in the sun and wind, scanning the northern horizon, I struck up a conversation with an elderly man who turned out to be from Maryland. He’d come for the week to watch the hawks, he was staying in a Motel 6 in West Duluth.

“This morning I drove out to the Sax-Zim Bog,” he said, “I saw some spruce grouse there!” That’s was a lucky sighting, if you ask me.

He grilled me concerning the northern species he might see off in the woods. Black-backed woodpeckers, boreal chickadees, bohemian waxwings, hawk owls (too early in the season). He asked me, “What’s in those big freighters out there?”
“Iron ore, probably,” I told him. He hadn’t been more than a few miles up the lake, and I urged him to drive at least as far north as Silver Bay.

On the day we were up there, 148 hawks were sighted. Rather a feeble result, considering the total for the season stands now at 43,674. (See the whole chart here.) But we’d had a good time, and we also enjoyed smelling the roses at Leif Ericson park, waiting patiently at the lift bridge as an ore boat went by, and watching men in wetsuits trying to get their hang gliders aloft out in the surf at Park Point.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book Convention

The Midwest Booksellers Association Convention (previously known as UMBA), takes place every fall at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, or some other similarly large and un-cozy location. It’s presumed purpose (and who am I to challenge it?) is to allow booksellers to gear up for the holiday season by making direct and immediate contact with distributors and publishers so as to become more familiar with their fall lists. It also allows booksellers and distributors to hobnob with their colleagues and competitors from around the region in a collegial atmosphere. Free books are available in moderate quantities, sometimes signed by authors, who are also often present at breakfasts, luncheons, interview spots, and signings throughout the weekend, at the behest of the convention organizers or their own publishers.

In recent years I have attended quite a few such conventions, for no other purpose than to set up the booth of the publisher I often work for, Nodin Press, or to take it down again at the end of the following day. I usually don’t linger long, but this year I stuck around almost from beginning to end, though I'm neither a publisher nor a bookstore owner nor a buyer nor an author of any reputation myself. It’s not for the sake of the books themselves. It seems that I somewhat enjoy reconnecting with old book buddies and making new ones.

For such hangers-on as myself (of which, let me assure you, there are a sizable contingent at this event), the challenge lies in passing an entire day within the environs or three or four aisles without boring any of the principals overmuch or stealing time from their job at hand, which is to present their new books to genuine customers. Of course, I also spent a good deal of time at the Nodin Press booth helping my friend Norton, who owns the company. It’s always a pleasure to work (and mostly just gab) there alongside Richard Stegal, another former colleague from the Bookmen.

Among the highlights of the morning’s interactions out on the floor I might mention the discussion I had with Erik Anderson of the U of M Press about its new coffee-table book on Finnish saunas. (Also about their attractive new promotional coffee cup, which I gather he had a hand in designing.) Erik’s an affable young fellow with strong connections to the North Shore, whose post seemed to be at the corner of the aisle, deflecting gadflies like me from the more serious business going on deeper within the booth.

I also enjoyed chatting with one of the grand old men of Wisconsin letters, Jerry Apps, about the mixed blessing of having four new books coming out from different publishers in the same year. He has been active at various times in his career in both academia and the publishing world, not to mention a stint as a county agent, and he’s also taught creative writing for forty years. During that time he’s written a sizable number of books about barns and cheese and horse-drawn vehicles, as well a few novels. “I also write poetry,” he told me, semi-confidentially, “but it’s nothing special. I sometimes work it into a novel as the poems a character has written. I’m making fun of it, really.”

The Nodin Press booth sits cheek by jowl with that of Adventure Distribution, which actually sells Norton’s books, and it’s always fun to catch up with Jody about her children’s hockey careers and her husband’s Iowa-based wholesale organic grain business. I also chatted with Adventure’s marketing director Bo about the beautiful National Geographic maps they’ve started carrying, and how difficult it is to make field guides for a state like California, which has such a wide range of environments.

Down at the Minnesota Historical Society Press I ran into another old friend, Peg Meier, who has just come out with a new book about children, Wishing for a Snow Day.

“I hear you’re going to do a book with Gail Rosenblum,” she said as I was plopping myself down on a chair beside her. “How did that come about?”
“I believe Gail made an appointment with Norton, showed him her stuff, and he liked it. She told me it was like a dream.”
I’ve known Peg since the days when Bring Warm Clothes was a hot new title and she would stop by the Bookmen loading dock at least once a week with a fresh supply. She later wrote a lengthy and generous review for the Strib of the first book I edited, O Clouds Unfold! by local literary giantess Brenda Ueland. Our paths often cross at the Twin Cities Film Festival. She’s currently working on another interesting project—editing a diary she found in the MHS archives of a young woman who later donated her house to the state. It’s now the governor’s mansion.
Brett and Sheila Waldman were exuding energy and good cheer from the center of the central aisle throughout the day, and a few booths down the way Bill Roth commanded a lengthy table in front of a giant Ingram banner. Bill and I go way back, to the days when his son Adam (who recently emerged from law school into the cruel workaday world) was an infant in a car seat staring over at the intruder (me) scrunched beside him in the back seat of Bill’s little red Datsun station wagon. Those were the days of $3.00-an-hour wages and a 1972 butterscotch Volvo with four cylinders topped by two very finicky carburetors, which often sat idle on the street in front of our apartment on Bryant Square.

Now here we were, decades later, discussing his wide-ranging (and ever-changing) sales territory. “I lost Montana but picked up Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is a reading state.”
“Well, you’ve got the Tattered Cover in Denver,” I replied, trying to sound knowledgeable. “And I suppose there are some Christian bookshops in Colorado Springs.”
“But Durango!” he said. “There’s a lot going on down there.”
He also offered up a new slant on the Kindle. “When I go over to someone’s house, I like to see their books. It gives me some insight into what they’re like, who they are. If all of your books are on a Kindle, what are you going to see? Nothing!” Bill has been to my house a few times. He knows he’s preaching to the choir.

Rounding a corner on one occasion late in the afternoon, I came upon Marly Cornell dipping the last piece of an oversized pretzel into a tub of mustard. She told me aout a few of her projects that are in the works. On down the way Sybil Smith shared a few insights about the technology of ebooks, on which subject she is now an expert, and Stanley Gordon West told me about his new contract with Algonquin. “They’re going to reissue Blind Your Ponies,” he told me. “I’ve already sold forty thousand copies on my own, but they’re going to redesign it and get it into markets in the South that I haven’t touched.”

Among the more interesting new acquaintances I made that day was that of the rep from Trim Distributors, a tall, elderly gentleman from Chicago whose name I never caught. Trim distributes university presses, and I tactlessly brought up the academic remainder firm Labyrinth; he thought I was talking about a used bookstore in Manhattan, and at that point the conversation really got interesting. I averted my eyes from Foucault’s The History of Madness, a fat red volume lying face up on the display table as a bookend, and we agreed that it did make a good bookend. I expressed an interest in Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry, standing on its side among other titles in the row, and he said, “You’re the only person in this building who would be interested in that.” He agreed to swap me at the end of the day for a Nodin Press title, and we settled on a mystery anthology, The Silence of the Loons.

Back at the Nodin booth, I got the opportunity to meet Becky Oatman, the author of The Lindsay Whalen Story, who’d arrived to sign some books. We’d emailed each other back and forth perhaps two hundred times in the course of the summer, while trying to whip her book into shape, and it was nice to chat face-to-face at last. We took a stroll down the aisles together and struck up a conversation with Fred Lauing, the sales manager of the University of Wisconsin Press, whom I’d met the previous evening at a wine-and-cheese soirĂ©e. On that occasion we’d gotten into a discussion of why the keys on a typewriter (invented in Wisconsin, don’t you know?) were not arranged in an order to maximize convenience and efficiency, and also explored the interesting fact that all parts of Wisconsin west of Eau Claire might as well be in Minnesota. Fred used to live in River Falls, and Becky currently lives in a very small town east of Eau Claire, so they were in a good position to tackle that issue. But the conversation soon drifted toward the fascinating subject of what living in a small town is really like, what the people there actually do for a living, and how come the produce in small-town grocery stores is so bad. Fred also knows a good deal about geology, and before long he was describing the drumlin fields of southwestern Wisconsin in poetic detail.
Near the end of the day, as people were beginning to pack up, I made a final sweep down the aisles and stopped for the first time at the Graywolf booth, where four your women (two of them might have been from Milkweed) were sitting in a row like unpopular (though far from homely) girls at a high school dance. Two of them leapt to their feet immediately with almost exaggerated energy, as if I’d released them from a fairy tale spell, and came over to chat. My eye eventually fell on the new book by Per Petterson, whose writing I truly admire. We discussed Out Stealing Horses, In The Wake, and why To Siberia didn’t have quite the same appeal (too many Danish street names). Before I had a chance to utter the fatal request (Can I have this?) one of them saved me from that embarrassment by saying, “That’s a display copy, but we’ll be glad to send you one if you’ll fill out this form.” Suddenly they reminded me of the very popular musical duo from Finland, The Polka Chicks.

I didn’t fare quite so well at the Consortium booth opposite, where I immediately got off on the wrong foot by unceremoniously blurting out, “Where’s Bill?” I was referring to another old friend, Bill Mochler, who works for the firm. Ruth Burger, the thin young woman with short, copper-colored hair and a miniscule ornament in her nostril to whom I had addressed that remark, replied, trying to hide her annoyance, “You mean Bill Mochler? He’s not here today.”

Once we’d gotten past that gaff I told her how much I liked the kinds of things Consortium handles—edgy European fiction and poetry. I glanced at a few obscure paperbacks, and then made my second faux pas. “How many of these titles have you actually read?” I asked her.

It was an innocent question. I’m a slow reader myself, and, to paraphrase a remark by Montaigne, “It’s been many years since I spent more than an hour with any book.” Consortium is a distributor, not a publisher, so it could easily happen that a marketing rep might arrive at work one morning to find that her firm had just taken on another “list” and she suddenly has forty new titles to become familiar with. Yes, it was an innocent question, but how was Ruth to know that? She looked at me with a slightly shocked expression, as if she’d been affronted, and said, “I’ve read this one, and this one, and this one,” shaking the individual books vigorously in their little stands on the table one after another, and then looking for further examples.

“Hold off. I’m very impressed,” I said to her. “I can’t imagine how you could keep up with it all. Could you name a current favorite?”

She directed me to The Twin, by the Dutch novelist Gerbrand Bakker. “It’s quiet, but it really sucks you in,” she said.

I stood staring at the picture on the cover for a few minutes—a photo of four distant cows on a very flat landscape covered with water, with white clouds above. The photo was taken with a fish-eye lens, and it exuded expansiveness and silence and perhaps monotony. Even the cover sucked you in.
At that point I took the third strike, as the words came tumbling out of my mouth. “Can I have this?”, though I knew the answer full well already.
“That’s a display copy, but make a mental note of the title, and the publisher,” she said. “They’re issuing a lot of good things in translation these days.” And off she went.
What this little recount fails to convey, I’m afraid, is that throughout our exchange, Ruth was actually trying with all her heart to be nice.

And speaking of nice. For as long as I have been attending these events, the top slot in my heart has been reserved for the duo from the Wisconsin Historical Society, Kate Thompson and Kathy Borkowski. We became acquainted so many years ago I no longer remember the date. Richard Stegal and I were sitting at a table chowing down appetizers prior to one of those fascinating yet tedious writer’s dinners they no longer hold, and Kate and Kathy were looking for a place to sit. I invited them to join us, we struck up a conversation—and although our paths cross only once a year, it seems we’ve been chatting ever since. Their personalities are different, needless to say, but both are bright, considerate, good natured, curious, and wry. They’re also very professional. (Don’t get them started on endpapers: you’ll drive them into a tizzy.) You can see this commitment in the books they produce.

Yet I wouldn’t include Kate and Kathy among those bibliophiles for whom the printed book is a temple of exquisite typography and design, with content a matter of secondary concern. They take the press’s mission seriously: to tell the story of Wisconsin history. Many of the writers they draw upon are professionals, of course, but they’re no less interested in bringing important aspects of Wisconsin history to light through the experience and research of ordinary citizens with something unusual to share. Though these goals are not dissimilar from the ones Nodin Press pursues, to be frank, I don’t think much about such things when I’m at the WHS booth. Kate and Kathy are simply a lot of fun to be around.

As the day winds to a close and everyone starts to “break down” their booths in a state of exhausted relief, the question looms—whether or not to attend the final cash-bar book-signing frenzy where publishers (red badge), book-buyers (blue badge), and hanger’s on (black badge), are all welcome to congregate, chat, and gather books freely from the authors positioned behind the signing tables scattered throughout the reception hall.
It sounds like fun. Yet as I stood in front of the cash bar, I refrained from ordering anything. “First,” I said to the bartender, “I ought to see if there’s anyone here I really want to talk to.” Scanning the room, I saw very few faces I recognized, and none whose ear I hadn’t bent already. It was time to go home.

I had reached the lobby when Norton rounded the corner in the company of mystery-writer Kent Krueger, whom we’ve worked with on a few anthologies. Kent’s new book, Vermilion Drift, is doing well. We shook hands and he rushed ahead to the signing tables. “I saw your review in the Times,” I shouted as he vanished from sight.
Norton, his SUV fully loaded with posters and books from the booth, had found a good parking spot out in front of the Ordway and wandered back to enjoy the convention wrap-up, so I returned to the hall with him. By this time the room had filled considerably, mostly with people lining up in front of the signing tables. I stood in line in front of the bar next to Kathy Borkowsi and while we were waiting our turn I tossed a vague query her way and she began to tell me something about the upcoming Great Lakes convention.
“I don’t want to hear any more about books,” I said. “Tell me something new about you.”
“Well, my partner and I are going to Morocco in a few weeks.”
Wow. That sounded exciting. “My wife and I have been to Spain a few times,” I said, “but I’ve only seen Morocco from Tarifa on the opposite shore. It’s about an inch off the horizon, purple with mountains. Very alluring.”

They’ll be travelling with a guide they found through some chefs in Madison, Kathy told me, staying with the guide’s sister for a few days, learning some regional dishes. Learning how to fluff couscous the right way, I suspect. She was boning up on her French.“I asked the guide how many people were on the tour,” she said. “‘Just you two,’ the man replied.”

When we got to the front of the line the bartender said to me, “I see you’re back,” which might have given my Wisconsin friends the idea that I’d already downed a few. No matter. A few minutes later, Kate, Bill and I were chatting, and I expressed a mild astonishment that so much honest effort had been expended that day to advance the printed word. Kate shot back: “That’s what I like about you. You’re so optimistic.” For a split second I wasn’t sure if she was making fun of me, but she assured me she wasn’t. “I was feeling sort of blue this afternoon at how much this convention has shrunk over the years,” she said, “and here you are, amazed at all the energy.”

I suppose I haven’t been coming long enough see the changes. But it might also be that, for better or worse, I’m not overly concerned about selling books. One book in the right hands is a miracle of communication—though it’s not going to pay the bills.

By the time the event finally ended I’d stood in a few book-lines myself, and I arrived home with my bag moderately loaded. Four of the six I brought home have roots in the north country. News to Me, Star-Tribune books editor Laurie Herzel’s memoir, is set largely in Duluth; both Kent Krueger’s Vermilion Drift and Legarde Grover’s book of Indian tales from the Boise Fort reservation, The Dance Boots, take place on Minnesota’s Iron Range; and Season of Water and Ice, a novel by newcomer Donald Lystra, is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (I’d chatted with Lystra earlier in the day at the signing table about Jim Harrison’s nifty little novel, Farmer, also set in the UP. ) I got the fifth title, A Short History of Wisconsin, in a swap with Kate for my own recent book of tales, Vacation Days. And down there in the bottom of the bag, for balance and contrast, I guess, was The Culture Industry by good old Theodor Adorno.