Saturday, October 29, 2016

Nine Films About Art

I haven't been to many films since the weather turned warm back in April. Now that the evenings have gone dark and we've revived our Netflix subscription, I thought it might be worthwhile to throw out a few comments about films I have seen recently, all of which seem to have been about music, literature, the theater,or some other type of art.

The Music of Strangers

The famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma gathered together a group of musicians from various parts of the world as a musical experiment. The individuals involved might all be considered to be from places on the Silk Road leading across the desert spaces from China to the Mediterranean.  But would it be possible to find common ground for performance amid their disparate musical styles?

Part of the film is devoted to answering that question, but a larger part focuses on the stories of individual musicians from Iran, Syria, Galicia, and other places who have endured persecution or have otherwise encountered difficulties sharing their talents and promoting their art. (In many parts of the world, indigenous art forms are perceived as a threat to the authority of the unified "state.")

A third strand of inquiry involves Yo-yo Ma himself. The renowned cellist was a child prodigy who attained virtuosity without much effort—or interest. As he works in the film to make sense of these related but disparate musical traditions, Ma is also trying to reconnect to his own musical roots and revivify his passion for performance.

The film, in the best documentary tradition, is a loosely woven garment, held together by threads of rehearsal and performance, but more devoted to stories of individual musicians than to the ensemble which has brought them together.  Yet the musicians do connect with one another, and also with us. It's an easy garment to wear.

The End of the Tour

I have never read the novel Infinite Jest, and I'm pretty sure I never will, though I have read a few tennis articles by its author, David Foster Wallace. This film chronicles the last seven days of a book tour in which Wallace is accompanied by a reporter from Rolling Stone (played by Jesse Isenberg) who also happens to be a budding novelist. The two discuss literature, life, literature, work, fame, celebrity, junk food,  and other things as they travel together from one book event to another, slowly generating a camaraderie that's laced with suspicion and envy, professionalism and need, vanity and self-disgust. The interactions are complex and often edgy, as Wallace pursues the renown that will accompany the feature story while remaining wary of Eisenberg's power to "spin" the article any way he chooses. Whether these conversations offer an accurate portrait of Wallace I have no idea, but they make for an absorbing film experience.

Museum Hours

This film, released in 2012, is probably a cult classic by now. Much of it takes place in the Kunstehistorishes Museum in Vienna, where a tall, middle-aged guard named Johann sits on a bench thinking his private thoughts (in voice-over) as the patrons pass by. Just when we're beginning to think the film is a genuine slice-of-life documentary on the order of Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery, Johann makes an effort to help a stranger named Anne, who has arrived in town from Montreal to visit a relative she hardly knows in the hospital. She has little money, doesn't know the city, and returns to the museum repeatedly as a way to fill her idle hours. Anne and Johann are both gentle souls, lonely but also widely curious, and they slowly begin to open up to one another as the empty days go by.

This plot line—it would be a misleading to call it a romance—never comes to dominate the screen, but serves as a counterpoint to the seemingly random but mildly engaging images the camera draws our attention to both within the museum and also on the city streets, which include bored children and cawing crows, streetcars in the snow, and closeups of Grand Master paintings. At one point we listen for several minutes to a lecture being given by one of the docents about the work of Breugel, and the parallels between his peasant-oriented work and the film we're watching become clear. One remark that she makes could stand as the theme of Museum Hours: a painting's ostensible focus and its actual point of interest are not necessarily the same thing.

Mary Margaret O'hara, a  folk-singer from Montreal, deserves a special note for her whimsical, slightly confused, and artfully understated portrayal of Anne, who often talks in a whisper and sometimes sings to herself, but moves through this difficult and disorienting episode in her life with quiet courage and genuine appreciation of the beauty that surrounds her.   

Eight Days a Week

Ron Howard's tribute to the Beatles focuses on the years during which they toured. It's a fine recapitulation that brings out the band's musical talent and wit, while also highlighting the challenges and drudgery of performing in large stadiums and responding ad nauseum to inane questions from the press. Those of us who grew up during that era will also remember the darkening tone, the groupies and drugs, the acrimony and divisiveness of the group's last years, but you'll hear little about those things here. When Howard was asked about such omissions, he replied with a smile, "I made the film I wanted to make."

It's a good one.

Words and Pictures

It's one of those films that carry you along on the strength of the bubbling plot and the actors' charisma. The absurdities of the plot only ring out later ... and by then it's too late!

The action takes place at a prep school where Jack (Clive Owen) teaches English and publishes the school's literary magazine. He's evidently a good teacher, but he hasn't published anything of note in fifteen years, and the school in on the verge of dropping the publication, which costs a lot to print and seems less than relevant when most of the students are glued to their mobile devices. Jack is also a drinker, and has been tossed out of the swanky local restaurant and gathering place due to outlandish behavior.  The story gets more interesting when a new teacher arrives on campus: an abstract painter named Dina (Juliette Binoche) who suffers from arthritis and hasn't painted much in years. Sparks fly immediately, and Jack turns up the heat by challenging Dina and her students to a battle to determine whether words or pictures have more expressive power.

Little point would be served in identifying the various weaknesses in this scenario as it plays itself out. Better to simply sit back and watch the story unfold.

Miles Ahead

It's difficult to remain "cool" and stay true to your art, without coming off like a jerk. Of course, being a jerk is OK too, if you stay cool enough to pull it off, though the inference is that you don't have time for the squares and the "little people." Which isn't very cool.

Miles Davis was perhaps never quite as cool as he thought he was. He was banned from Bradley's, the premier later-night hang-out for jazz musicians in New York City, because, as the owner's wife once observed, he "felt that he could come in and order anything for himself and his friends without being obligated to pay for any of it."

But be that as it may, it's especially difficult to portray coolness on the screen. Don Cheedle has failed to do so in his conceptually imaginative but cantankerous and cliché-ridden portrait of the legendary trumpeter. It's an exercise in faux-coolness that I found very hard to watch. In fact, I turned it off half way through and dropped the last good album Miles made, Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), into the CD player. Now that's cool.

Herb and Dorothy

Most of us are reluctant to buy original works of art. They cost a lot more than posters and we're afraid that our interest is likely to fade with time. Many who do buy original pieces are inspired by the belief that the works they own will appreciate in value over time, which makes the art seem like a shrewd investment rather than a frivolous purchase, even when it's moldering in the back of the closet.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel were different. She was a librarian. He was a postal worker. They both loved looking at art, owning works of art, thinking about art, getting to know the artists and trying to understand how a given artist's work had developed over time. So they devised a strategy: live on Dorothy's modest salary and buy artworks with Herb's. They went to openings and visited unknown artists in their studios. Over the course of time they crowded their narrow apartment with a collection that's now worth millions.

As it happens, they began collecting in the early 1960s, and took a liking to Minimalist and Conceptual art by Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Christo, and other artists  who at the time were undiscovered or unappreciated.

This is the Vogel's story, told through interviews with the Vogels themselves and the artists they collected. We may remain unimpressed with the art they purchased, whatever its current price tag might be, but this charming couple pursued their passion, followed their instincts, and had a very good time doing so. And it's a lot of fun watching it all happen.   

Love and Mercy

You will meet few people nowadays prepared to defend the position that the Beach Boys belong on the same tier of the rock-and-roll pantheon as the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Neil Young, and a few others. But most of us nevertheless want to know: Whatever happened to Brian Wilson? 

In his directorial  debut, producer Bill Pohlad tells the story of Brian's youthful naiveté and success, parental browbeating, recording studio magic, and subsequent manipulation by a self-serving pharmacological "expert" (Paul Giametti). The story is told in a series of flashbacks anchored by a modern-day love story. John Cusack plays the middle-aged Wilson, Paul Dano plays the youthful wunderkind. It's a complicated, sad, and inspiring tale, with less surfing music than we might have liked, but more depth and meaning.       

The Wrecking Crew

To get a more complete picture of the Beach Boys phenomenon, I would recommend sandwiching Love and Mercy between the surfing documentary Riding Giants (2004) and The Wrecking Crew (2008), which tells the tale of the studio musicians who actually played (and often created) the music we hear on the great Beach Boys hits. This small group of relatively unknown instrumentalists also created the instrumental backdrop to hit by Nat "King" Cole, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkle, the Mamas and the Papas, Dean Martin, Elvis, Cher, and many others.

Clouds of Sils Maria

It's difficult to make a film about a "famous" fictional actress because viewers have no idea how that fame developed or what kind of weight it now carries. Thus we have Juliette Binoche, an aging actress herself, playing an aging actress questioning her talents and struggling to decide whether to take the part of an older woman in a drama in which she made her name decades earlier playing the younger role. Whatever happens, it doesn't seem very important in the grand scheme of things. Everyone might as well go down to the basement of the ritzy Swiss lodge and play Foosball.

Nevertheless, Binoche and Kristen Steward (the young assistant) keep our interest up though a long series of interviews and conversations. One of the chief issue seems to be whether the clouds of fog will rise up through the pass.( Hence the otherwise incomprehensible name of the film.)

Strange but true: I enjoyed the film from beginning to end without caring for an instant what happened to anyone in it.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Trump and the Theological Origins of Modernity

On a Sunday afternoon, following a spectacular road trip down the Mississippi to Red Wing and then back up the Wisconsin side, with a slice of cheese on the plate and a Picardy glass of pinot noir beside it, the time has perhaps arrived to consider whether the Trump phenomenon might be properly explained by reference to the nominalist challenge to Scholasticism that arose in the early fourteenth century.

That seems to be the thesis advanced by Michael Allen Gillespie in his recent book, The Theological Origins of Modernity. One cannot read more than a few pages of this crisply written work without screeching to a halt repeatedly at the specious generalizations, the most glaring of which concerns the concept of modernity itself. Does such a thing as modernity exist? If so, in what does it consist?

The simple answer is that modernity does not exist in any palpable way. We are all cave dwellers, slaves, saints, foragers, mystics, warriors, scientists, artists, lovers, bureaucrats, and heals, and the recent history of our nation reflects that complex and contradictory makeup. The more historically minded among us might sometimes propose that we are creatures of reason and self-assertion who have triumphed over the dogma and superstition of the Middle Ages, and such is, in fact, the case. But only to a degree.

The same thing could be said in reverse, of course. Very few people who lived during the Middle Ages knew the slightest thing about the medieval "world view" so amply elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, and they certainly knew nothing at all about the long-running dispute between the "realists" and the "nominalists." They could be very "modern." If you've read a few bawdy stories from the Decameron (1353) or the even more risque French fabliaux upon which Boccaccio's tales are often based, the similarity between the modern era and the Middle Ages becomes more striking still.

And consider the troubadours, who, nine hundred years ago,  were often filled with "modernist" individuality and  self-assertion. In one of his lyrics Bernart de Ventadorn (ca. 1150) writes:

Of course it’s no wonder I sing
better than any other troubadour:
my heart draws me more toward love,
and I am better made for his command.
Heart body knowledge sense
strength and energy—I have set all on love,
The rein draws me straight toward love,
and I cannot turn toward anything else.

A man is really dead when he does not feel
some sweet taste of love in his heart;
and what is it worth to live without worth,
except to irritate everybody?
May the Lord God never hate me so
that I live another day, or even less than a day,
after I am guilty of being such a pest,

and I no longer have the will to love.

To modern ears verses of this kind may sound naive. In any case, the idea they advance—that preferential amorous love lies at the center of masculine self-worth—is not terribly Christian. Fealty to the local duke or king, certainly; dedication to a life of spiritual exercises and obligations, of course. But on what grounds can personal love be elevated to the highest plane of value? Yet this is what the troubadours espoused repeatedly, and it had the effect of turning life, at least as it appears in the courtly literature of the times, into a series of inspired but also arbitrary, grandiose, and often ridiculous adventures.

The German scholar Erich Auerbach once noted:
When we moderns speak of adventure, we mean something unstable, peripheral, disordered… a something that stands outside the real meaning of existence. All of this is precisely what the word does not mean in the courtly romance. On the contrary, trial through adventure is the real meaning of the knight’s ideal existence.
I look forward to examining Gillespie's analysis of the nominalist challenge to the realist orthodoxy more closely. The arguments bear striking parallels to those we use today to keep the arrogance of scientistic reasoning at bay. But I doubt whether he will hit on the central truth of the matter: the nominalists were right, for the most part. There are many horses in the world, but the thing called "horse" does not actually exist. Another way of putting the same point is that Aristotle's notion of "species," which is still in wide use today, is a fiction—a useful but metaphysically empty fiction. (I have a secret hunch that this is what Gillespie's overriding point will turn out to be. But will I have the patience to ferret it out?)

Matters are complicated by the fact that in a few instances, the realists had the upper ground, and these are the most important ones. Every beautiful thing partakes of "beauty." Every accurate judgment partakes of "truth." Every loving act partakes of that quality. (Ask Bernart!) And speaking more broadly (but also more vaguely), every worthy action of any kind partakes of "god." 

Yet beyond the specific instances, these things—beauty, truth, love, god—do actually exist. We feel them, sense them, strive for them every day.

And that's what Democrats will be voting to preserve and extend on election day. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Indian Summer

It was one of those stunning mornings after an overnight  rain, cool and wet and bright with sun. Yellow leaves on the trees, tending toward orange-red here and there.

I had gone to pick up some vegetables for soup and other concoctions; the store was largely deserted, a seminar was underway in the produce department, and I thought to myself: "That's what I should have been: a produce stocker."

For a split second I even entertained the thought that maybe it wasn't too late! No, it is too late.

When I stepped out into the glaring sun of the parking lot, I was pleasantly reminded of a parking lot I crossed in Apache Junction, Arizona, many years ago on a similarly brilliant morning. There was a cactus wren hopping around amid the litter that morning, and there might even have been frost on the concrete. But the essential quality was unbounded light and joy. Just like yesterday.(And today)

How do we explain this flashback? It might have been because I was listening to a Carlos Nakai CD on my way to the store. Why? Because I'm getting a string of digital images together for a talk I'm scheduled to give on Friday about the National Parks. Earlier in the morning I'd been sorting through a few scenes of Canyonlands. 

No point in talking about the Maze. Few in the audience of fifty-odd retirees are likely to be going there any time soon. But what about Horseshoe Canyon, with its spooky Barrier-style petroglyphs? It's a seven-mile hike there and back down the floor of a deserted canyon, but nevertheless it would be well worth showing some images of the art.

I had planned to cook up some broccoli-wild rice casserole for my in-laws, who are experiencing some mobility constraints, but in the end I decided to make a batch of what I call Beltrami Salad. 

Count Beltrami, as you may know, was an Italian adventurer (but not a count) who hooked a ride on a steamboat with Stephen Long in 1823 up the Minnesota River, then down the Red River of the North. Long had been sent to determine where the border between the United States and British territories lay; Beltrami was confident that he was about to discover the source of the Mississippi River through the back door, as it were. He hired an Indian guide who abandoned him somewhere on the Red Lake River, but Beltrami persevered,  hauling his canoe upstream single-handedly, and eventually arrived at a body of water he named Lake Luisa, in honor of his girlfriend. 

It isn't the headwaters of the Mississippi ... but there's a monument on a hill nearby commemorating Beltrami's near-miss.

Beltrami Salad is part Italian and part Native American. It consists of wild rice mixed with orzo and flavored with sautéed shallots and tarragon—a bit of a French touch. There were some mushrooms in the fridge getting old, and I cooked some of them up, too, and tossed them in.

The smell of wild rice cooking reminds me of wet tree bark. A woodsy, autumnal smell. Hilary cut a handful of parsley from the front garden, and I tossed that in, too.

The day had remained stunning throughout, but as twilight approached I was looking around for something suitable to read—something to sustain the pastoral yet vaguely ecstatic mood. Patrick Modiano, the lugubrious French novelist? No way. Alexander Hamilton: from Obscurity to Greatness? Too political. I finally hit upon something that suited the moment perfectly: Good Seeds—A Menominee Indian Food Memoir by Thomas Pecore Weso. 

In this short book (113 pages of text) Weso describes growing up on the Menominee Reservation, his focus being on the things he hunted, the crops he and his relatives grew, and the berries and nuts various members of the tribe gathered. The book has a quiet tone, direct, honest, charming, and curious rather than edgy or strident. The first two chapters set the mood, with grandmother cooking downstairs while grandfather prays—or "dreams," as Weso puts it—upstairs.  Subsequent chapters are devoted to fishing, hunting, and fruit-gathering, though there are also chapters about German beer and Wisconsin Diner food. Each chapter concludes with a few recipes.

Weso's grandfather looms large in the early pages. He comes across as a leader, a diplomat, someone not only capable of building bridges between whites and Indians, but also aware of how important it is to do so. Weso reports that he was thirty-five years old the first time he saw his grandfather in traditional Indian garb. It was at a peyote ceremony of the Native American church. His grandfather was wearing a headband more intricate and idiosyncratic than any he had seen before, and he speculated that it dated from pre-contact times. He considers it a reflection of how highly esteemed in the community his grandfather was.
"I can now see," Weso writes, "that Grandpa was trying to create a political climate in accordance with a spiritual climate, and I think people expected him to do this in his role as a medicine man. My grandfather talked to white people, black people, Indian people, and he tried to learn how to interact with each equally...  My grandfather never told boastful stories about himself, as he was very modest, but he was a leader."
Probing a little deeper into his grandfather's philosophy, Weso concludes that is was based on the urge to help people feel better about themselves. "If people feel good about themselves, they take better care of themselves, their domain, their town, and their land."

The good-natured tone of Good Seeds is no doubt a reflection of Weso's success at absorbing the teachings of his revered grandfather, from whom he learned that even the simplest daily tasks could carry far more than a merely practical import.
"Part of Grandpas teaching was gardening. We always had a family garden. If any of us went to the garden to do some watering or hoeing, we could see our efforts bear fruit. That reward also had a spiritual aspect."
Good Seeds isn't a self-help book, however, and once having introduced us to this "philosophy," Weso wisely proceeds to describe various food-related activities on the reservation that he thinks might interest his readers. Here are a few typical remarks:
 "When I was young, I thought a deer was a big animal, but it is not, especially on the reservation. A deer is really a big rabbit. It is tasty, and if a deer is available, it is welcome. Venison stew tastes delicious. But comparatively, it is the runty ungulate after bison, then elk. There was this guy on the rez with a huge appetite who could sit down and eat an entire deer. People did not like hunting with him."
"Bears are another source of meat on the Menominee rez, but I was never much of a bear hunter. I was a good shot, and I did not mind killing a squirrel, a rabbit, or a partridge. Even if it had a soul, it could not be a very big soul. I could not, however, bring myself to kill bear. I did kill one as a young man, and that was enough. It was like killing another man."
"Any time a group of people live together, suddenly there is no firewood within walking distance."
"The body of a beaver is about the size of the body of a white-tail deer...Some people like the taste of beaver, but to me it is less desirable—though it does taste better than muskrat or raccoon."
"On the rez are many edible ferns. Fiddleheads, curled-up shoots of ferns, are not that deli­cious. They are slimy, mucilaginous, and furry. The ostrich fiddle- head fern is edible—not poisonous. I could not eat a pot full."
"Generally blackberries grow where bears live, and there are mosquitoes. All in all, the mosquitoes are worse than the bears."
In his youth, Weso was influenced by the writings of Euell Gibbons, like many other outdoorsy types, including me. "I was from that generation," he says. At another point in the narrative he writes, with both humor and candor:
"This was during President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the era when people were expressing their cultural heritage more readily. Headbands had become a common thing. Anyone with one re­cessive Indian gene wore a headband. Those were the days when I always had a pair of moccasins. From early spring to late fall, I wore only moccasins, not as an expression of culture, but because they were very comfortable."
The portrait he paints of reservation life is relaxed and multifaceted. His grandmother, who also looms large throughout the book, worked in a store from six-thirty a.m. till dark, and often served canned sauerkraut at the dinner table. Though she sometimes reminisced about traditional foraging techniques, she was not nostalgic for those days.
"She would say, Do you want to live in a tipi? Do you want to spend most of the day bringing wood home so you don't freeze to death? Yes, it sounds great, but do you want to do that? Do you want to chase a big animal with a spear?"
In the last two chapters, Weso returns to the family and community life of the reservation, the local fair, the powwow, and the challenges of food storage when serving ten or twenty hungry people daily. In the final chapter he even describes the malevolent spirits that danced on the walls and seemed to live in the furnace room of the family home, which had previously been a jail. He speaks fondly of photos taken of himself outside the house as a young boy, sitting on horseback with Hopalong Cassidy six-shooters hanging from his belt—a gift from his uncle Billy, who was as near to being a father as anyone was. Several times he mentions in passing "when my uncle Billy was murdered" but doesn't elaborate, and it gives an unsettling twist to the notion of "spirit" that has carried us through this generally low-key, heartily sincere, and often delightful book.


Friday, October 14, 2016

Heartland Fall Forum 2016

It was a night full of possibility. Kenny Barron, perhaps the world's foremost lyric jazz pianist, was performing in the intimate confines of the Dakota Jazz Club. Renée Fleming, arguably the world's most stylish and well-loved opera diva, was giving a recital at the Ordway. And Wendell Berry, renowned poet, novelist, and Kentucky land steward, was scheduled to speak at the Heartland Fall Forum, a three-day event at which bookstore owners from Illinois to North Dakota gather to attend workshops and get a close look at the new books being offered by both regional and national publishers.

I opted for Renée, on the strength of free tickets and utter confidence that the show would be grand. It was. (If I'd known my old friend Jane St. Anthony was also going to speak at the Forum I might have reconsidered.)

I did attend the Forum the following morning to help set up the Nodin Press booth and say hi to old friends in the industry.

The day started off well. I ran into Mary Lofgren, manager of the MHS bookstore, in the lobby,  and she asked me, "Do you have a new book coming out this year?" I don't, but it's rare and also sort of pleasant to encounter someone who's aware that I've actually written a few. She was probably wondering why I was there.  

"No," I said, "but Nodin has five or six new titles this fall. Did you know that I design his books?"

"I had no idea," she said. "Then you must have designed my brother-in-law's book, Chester Creek Ravine."

"Yes, I did," I said. "That was a lot of fun. Locating the perfect ginkgo-leaf dingbat, arranging the haiku. Your brother-in-law found a very nice woodcut for the cover. I think he was happy with the final look. And he's a great promoter." My ebullience diminished slightly when I found I couldn't remember her brother-in-law's name.

Norton and I got the posters hung at the booth without difficulty, joking as usual about how precious the little metal hooks we use to mount them on the curtains have become. Only later did I notice that I'd hung our most popular fall title, a collection of gruesome mysteries called Cooked to Death, right next to a poster for our neighbor Llewellyn's book Joyful Living.

Our main task competed, we spent the afternoon chatting with passers-by and wandering the floor. A few visitors were bookstore owners, but more often they were old friends of Norton, including Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Kerlen Collection, retired rep Alex Genis, and Stu Abraham, whose distribution empire occupied the four booths next to ours. Later Lisa's husband, Paul, wandered by with a rep from Penguin, and we got to talking about the German novelist Peter Handke, the heavy security required to have Salmon Rushdie on your frontlist, and the strong poetry culture in Minnesota.

The Penguin rep, who's name I didn't catch, told a story about a Robert Bly reading he went to in New York with a girlfriend once, long ago.

"Bly is really into the body, you know. And when we got back to the car, my girlfriend, who tended to be sort of reserved, started taking off all her clothes, right in the front seat!"

He asked if he could have a copy of the new Nodin Poetry Anthology, and I said sure." I'll swap you something," he said. Deal.

My old colleague Joe Riley from Forty Press ambled up with a grin, saying, "I'm glad I sent you that check before I ran into you."

"Me too." We laughed.

I've designed some covers and formatted quite a few books for Joe and his two colleagues at Forty Press—college buddies from St. John's University, perhaps. They all have day jobs and seem to run their publishing firm mostly via email. I've never met the other two, though Joe used to work with me at Bookmen years ago.

"I sometimes miss those times," Joe said.

"I get together with a few people from time to time," I said. Then I said,  "It's fun doing books with you, Joe. But there's just one thing. I've never actually seen a book by Forty Press."

"I'll send you a couple," he said.

Robert Martin scooted us all out of the exhibition space at 6:30 so they could lock up. Many of the attendees were headed for the dining room, where dinner would soon be served, and four authors were scheduled to speak. (My tastes run so far from the literary mainstream I'd never heard of any of them.) Meanwhile, the nearby hotel bar had already started to fill up.

I had accumulated a few drink tickets by chance but everything turned out to be free. I was standing in line with friends when a waitress came by to take our orders. We waited there for quite a while, unperturbed, discussing kitchen remodeling, as she and other waitresses moved past us several times with platters lined with drinks. 

I believe I saw Don Olson and his wife intercept our chardonnays at one point. Well, I guess that made sense. Don owns a small distribution company dedicated to radical labor literature, and he's probably very comfortable with "share and share alike." I got into the spirit, too, and when a waitress came by with a lonely glass of pinot noir, looking for a taker, I grabbed it.

Kathy Borkowski was of similar mind. She had occupied a "reserved" table—not reserved for us—and while we waited for others to join us she told me about her recent trip to Cuba, where she and a friend stayed in an Air B&B. Capitalism has arrived in a hurry. A good deal of her trip was unexpectedly, but pleasantly, devoted to spontaneous conversations with her neighbors, a gay couple who had silently endured Castro's regime for decades.
Traffic on the floor had been light the previous afternoon, probably because many shop owners had been attending workshops devoted to topics such as "How to Write a Blurb," "Introduction to Edelweiss++," and "Romancing Your Sales."

The next morning things heated up a bit ... but not that much. I was pleased to chat briefly with Ann Lewis, author of Ship Captain's Daughter: Growing Up on the Great Lakes, with whom I worked for a while a few years ago. We're both big fans of Duluth (she's a native) and she told me all about her recent stay at newly-opened Pier B Resort, which is located in the harbor rather than facing the lake. This would be especially appealing to Ann, who used to accompany her dad as he piloted his ore boat out of the harbor, past the lift bridge, and along the south shore of the lake to Sault Ste. Marie and beyond. Occasionally, she helped!

While Ann signed books and chatted with the ore boat aficionados who'd come to get a copy, I spent some time with Kate Thompson, who befriended me years ago when these conventions were held at the Minneapolis Auditorium. 

That friendship took on added dimension this year when Kate introduced me to her poised and articulate daughter, Mia. The three of us engaged in an interesting cross-generational discussion of how English, a subject I studied in high school, has now become Literacy. Before we were through I think we came up with a few good ideas for improving the study of literature and language even further!

I asked Mia if she was enjoying the convention. "I am," she replied. Then she twisted her lip and added, "But I had to bring an awful lot of homework with me. Math!" 

By that time Michael Perry had showed up to sign copies of his new book of essays, Roughneck Grace. During a break in the line I wandered over to his table and we got to talking about Bayfield and especially Washburn—a town we're both fond of. "It has a great used bookstore," I said. "And also that theater-bar."

"Ah, the theater's struggling," he said. "I've done some stand-up shows there. I'm not sure they made the theater space big enough to turn a profit."

"I saw a great film there once," I said. "A one-hour documentary called Fifty Lakes—One Island by a guy named George Desort who kayaked every lake on Isle Royale."

"I know that film," Perry said. "The director used some of my music in it. He sent me a copy."

"What did you think of it?"

"To tell you the truth, I never watched it. People send me stuff all the time, which is nice, I intend to look at them ... I have huge stacks of all kinds of things sitting around."

"Well, you might like that one," I said. Then I told him about the scene where George talks into the camera while he's trying to light his Whisperlight camp stove. As anyone who's owned that stove can attest, it's very easy to let in too much fuel while priming the thing, and that's what George did. When he lit it, the flames leapt about three feet into the air. He continued to talk cheerfully into the camera while a minor conflagration burned itself out in the background.

"That sounds pretty good," he said politely. "I'll have to dig it out of the pile."

Only later did I learn that Perry is writing a book about one of my favorite authors—Montaigne.

Across the way I stopped in at Brett and Sheila Waldman's booth, trimmed down this year but as stylish as ever. I knew they'd been sailing recently on Leech Lake, but we never got around to that subject. Somehow, Sheila and I found ourselves discussing back pain. I'd been nursing a bad back all weekend, having jarred it awkwardly playing tennis, and I was thoroughly hopped up on ibuprophen. But Sheila is far too young (or so it seems to me) to be concerned about such things.

At one point during my rounds Eric Lorberer, the madcap impresario of Rain Taxi magazine, whizzed by.

"Thanks for the books," I said.

"Yeah, a two-for-one deal," he replied with a laugh. I had offered to review The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla, for his magazine, and he'd also sent along Lilla's more recent book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction—the one that really needed to be reviewed.

"I'm still trying to scare up that tree book you requested," he said before he disappeared into the crowd. He was referring to The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The book was actually sitting on the table over at Perseus Group, but for some reason they wouldn't give it to him.

Many of the interesting small presses are tucked away at simple tables on the east end of the brightly-lit floor, and it was there that I ran into David Godine—both the publisher and the man. Godine got started as a cold type letterpress publisher in the 1970s, I believe, and though the firm has expanded many fold since then, it's still known for its fine typography and high quality printing.

And there, propped upright in the middle of the table, was a book called Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface by Robert Bringhurst, author of the classic Elements of Typographic Style. I picked it up. 

"That's a good book; best on the table," Godine said.

"And a good font,"  I replied. "Back in the days when a computer came with twelve fonts, Palatino was practically the only one you could use."

"And here's a book about Centaur," he said, pointing to another hardcover sitting on a stand in the second row.

"We recently bought Centaur," I said, considering myself fortunate to have anything to say at all. "Beautiful font. Lots of character."

"It is," he agreed. "Nice ligatures and ornaments, too."

"But," I said, daring to interject a personal observation, "It starts to look a little crinkly in smaller sizes."

"Never use Centaur under 14 points," he advised me in a booming voice.

OK then. (Godine knows his fonts.)

I'm interested in fonts. In fact, I'm currently reading a book called The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography, by Beatrice Warde. That book came out in 1956, decades before the digital age, so I'm not sure how much good it will do me.  Reading about fonts is largely an exercise in futility in any case. A typical passage might run as follows:
The roman and italic are reserved, elegant and well matched. The axis is humanist, the aperture large, and the serifs simultaneously sharp and flat (a feature neither unwelcome nor contradictory in typography). Small caps and the distinctive text figures, with their short extenders, are essential to the design.
Even looking at a font is problematic at best. Most letters look beautiful when viewed at a large size, in isolation.

Only occasionally do font descriptions make reference to the wider world, as in this passage  from Elements of Typographic Style:
It was widely used at Boston and Philadelphia in the 1790s, and remains useful for period design work, as an alternative to Baskerville. Monotype cut a facsimile in 1931, and this version has been digitized. Bell is somewhat narrower and darker than Baskerville, but it too is an English Neoclassical face. The serifs are very sharp, but the overall spirit is nevertheless closer to brick than to granite, evoking Lincoln’s Inn more than St Paul’s, and Harvard Yard more than Pennsylvania Avenue."
Designers who hang out with other designers no doubt talk about such things all the time. They not only know their fonts, but also know the differences between various iterations of the same font by different foundries. They learn from one another. To a journeyman typesetter like me, the only real questions are, Do I have it? and How does it look on the page? I'm ever-eager to try new fonts but usually find myself returning to a few classics—Garamond, Sabon, Caslon, Galliard.

I thought I might tease some advice out of Godine—a shortcut to typographic wisdom, as it were—so I mumbled something about Apollo and Joanna and then asked him what unusual fonts he might recommend. 

"We stick to a few classic fonts," he said peremptorily. "Occasionally Caslon. Minion. And I like Bell."

The floor show was drawing to a close. It's a time at which many exhibitors become more eager to part with books that are on display to avoid the hassle and expense of shipping them back home to Michigan or New York. I had neither the desire nor the intention to collect a pile of books ... but I'm always looking for ways to help out. As a result, I found myself, as the booths came down, in the possession of several interesting books, including For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World's Most Ancient Wine Culture by Alice Feiring. I presumed that the book was about ancient Greece, where an acre of grapes (so I informed the rep from the University of Nebraska) would be worth fifty times more than an acre of wheat.

"Well," she replied diplomatically, "this book is about the ancient Georgian practice of vinifying grapes in subterranean clay pots, and how that practice relates to the current interest in organic products. It's part travelogue, part wine study."

Sounds good to me. 

At Graywolf I mentioned to the winsome reps that I had been studying the design of one of their books, some poetry by an Irish guy...

"Eamon Grennan? We have his latest right here." The man gestured for me to take one.

"What else are you particularly excited about?" I said.

"What about that one?" the woman said, pointed to a small stack of books bearing the title Cabo de Gata. A novel, translated from the German.

"Well, for one thing, I've been there," I said. "Southern Spain, Almeria province. Have either of you...?"

They both shook their heads. I proceeded to tell them about the wonderful rock formations overlooking the Mediterranean, the salt farms, the deserted beaches, and the twenty-mile dirt footpath leading east along the cornice to San Juan.

It was five minutes to closing. Trapped behind their exhibit table, there was nothing they could do but smile.

In the end, it was a weekend full of riches: the people, the books, the conversations. For publishers and proprietors alike, an element of commerce can't help but enter the mix of considerations, but it's obvious to me that a simple yet deep-seated love of books, both in themselves and as vessels of expression, communication, and life itself, is generating much of the heat in the room. Long may it burn.