Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Books in the Mail

I have loved bookstores since the B. Dalton opened at Rosedale Mall back in 1966. (Just a guess.) It was ten miles from my house, which was closer than St. Paul Book and Stationary downtown. I can remember buying paperback copies of Hesse’s Siddhartha and Sartre’s Nausea there. (Both had black covers. I must have been in a bad mood.) Also a book of critical essays by Robert Penn Warren, one of which was titled “Pure and Impure Poetry.” As I recall, in this essay Warren contrasted the somewhat abstract verses of Wallace Stevens with the dark incomprehensible images of Hart Crane and Warren’s old friend Allen Tate, and concluded that something wrenching and enigmatic was worth more than something blandly musical and formally precise.

Such disputes seem quaint today, yet the fact remains that the New Critics (of which Warren was one) were the last bunch to take literature as something important in itself. Succeeding schools have been content to view literary works as mere symptoms of something else. That’s wrong-headed, and sad.

Most readers care very little about the views of critics in any case—especially academic critics. We’re all critics nowadays, writing eloquent testimony on Amazon to the matchless quality of the books we like—even those written and published by our friends. I am a huge fan of the New York Review of Books, but its reviews are so thorough and insightful that often, having read one, I no longer feel the need to read the book itself.

The word “Amazon” brings me back to notion I was hoping to expand upon before I lost my way. Bookstores are lovely and hallowed…but it’s also a lot of fun buying books on line.

In the first place, it’s so easy that you find yourself making impulse purchases. A few days later, you get the email announcing that a book has been shipped, but you can’t quite remember what it is. If you do read down the email to the fine print and come upon the title, it may mean nothing to you. (A subtitle would have helped.) But that merely heightens the sense of vague anticipation, as if you were about to receive a gift from a thoughtful friend. What could it be?

I have had this sensation several times recently, due to a $75 birthday check I received from my dear in-laws not long ago, which I felt honor-bound to dispose of as light-heartedly as possible. As opposed to paying off the water bill, for example. There are times when "things of the spirit" must come first.

The first book I ordered (and received) was The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders & American Expansion, by Jay Gitlin. Not a genuine page-turner, perhaps, but we all ought to learn a little more, don’t you think, about the men and women who maintained a flourishing Francophone civilization in the Mid-Mississippi Valley (upper Louisiana in those days) for decades after France’s territorial claims in North America were all but defunct. I am not anti-American by any means, but I find it interesting to read about those regions and eras of our history during which the landscape was largely inhabited by Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Brits—not to mention the Choctaw, Menominee, and Fox.

The second to arrive was a mass-market copy of A Fatal Grace, by Canadian mystery-writer Louise Penny. I read Still Life, the first book in the Three Pines series, a few weeks ago, and liked it well enough. Inspector Gamache is a sort of French-Canadian Simenon, more interested in people than crimes, really. The rest of the characters seemed a little sketchy to me, but I suppose I’ll get to know them better bye-and-bye. (I might save this one for our upcoming canoe trip.)

And then, just today, I received a package from Labyrinth Books, the scholarly remainder outlet, containing two fine hardcover books: The Library of America anthology of Audubon’s writings and drawings, and a slim volume by the Polish travel-writer Ryszard Kapuścinski called The Other. Kapuścinski’s star as the most daring of all journalists, witness to 88 revolutions, etc, etc, has gone slightly into eclipse now that it has been surmised he made a lot of it up. Still, I like his style and hope this may be a book short enough (92 pages) for me to finish.

On the first page of Audubon’s Mississippi Journal, which starts off that book, he shoots 30 partridge, 1 woodcock, 27 gray squirrels, a barn owl, a turkey buzzard, and an immature yellow-rumped warbler. He makes it a point (still on page 1) to criticize the mis-identification of this bird by his famous predecessor Alexander Wilson. On page 2 he shoots four young grebes with a single shot, and remarks: “This is the second time I have seen this kind, and they must be extremely rare in this part of America.”

With all of this cultural wealth streaming in from the post office, I still have $12.50 in my birthday account. What next?

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