Saturday, February 18, 2023

To Inhale Their Presence

 Good literature is often fictional while revealing profound truths about the human experience.

Helen Mirren Will Honor Queen Elizabeth at the BAFTAs

Prince William and Kate Middleton are also scheduled to attend the ceremony.

To Inhale Their Presence

“There is something distinctive about the good bookstore, the loss of which would lead to a loss of a particular way of being in the world.” 

It’s easy to get nostalgic about the bookstores of old, those dusty, chaotic caves stocked with inexpensive treasures and presided over by bibliophilic curmudgeons and a cat. I’m still looking for one. The closest to this romantic ideal in Houston is Kaboom Books, though its owner, John Dillman, is more of a curmudgeon-in-remission. He’s casually well-read, which isn’t always the case among book dealers. On Sunday, as usual, we swapped stories about books – hunting, selling, buying, reading and complaining about them, and I left with two volumes: Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays (trans. Sidney Monas, University of Texas Press, 1977) and Surviving: The Uncollected Writing of Henry Green (ed. Matthew Yorke, Viking, 1992).


I usually enter a bookstore with a two-part list, whether mental or written. The first consists of writers I’m always in the market for, including Mandelstam and Green. Joining them, for instance,  are A.J. Liebling, J.V. Cunningham, Chekhov, Rebecca West and Nabokov. I own volumes by all of them but I’m selectively greedy, always hoping to plug holes in the collection or bag an especially choice specimen. All are on my want-list, kept up-to-date by John. The second part of the list is pure serendipity.


The passage quoted at the top is the final sentence from In Praise of Good Bookstores (Princeton University Press, 2022) by Jeff Deutsch, director of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstores. Wisely, Deutsch’s first sentence quotes a 1963 essay by Edward Shils, “The Bookshop in America”:


“The sociologist Edward Shils wrote, ‘It may well be that we live in an epoch in which the bookshop is an institution suspended between “the dying old society” and the “society struggling to be born.” Would that we were living in an epoch in which the bookshop itself was so clearly the given, as it was in Shils’s.”


It’s to Deutsch’s credit that he so prominently quotes Shils, whose essay is one of my favorites, at once formal and scholarly, and warmly personal. Here is Shils retrospectively romancing bookshops, sixty years ago:  


“My own relations with bookshops began more than forty years ago and they have extended into many countries and to all continents. I have gone to bookshops to buy and browse. I have gone to them to buy books I wanted, and because I just wanted to buy a book, and much of the time just because I wanted to be among books to inhale their presence. My case is an extreme one, and there are perhaps few people in my generation, more or less in their right minds and heavily engaged with all sorts of duties, who have spent so much time in bookshops as I have. I have talked with booksellers of every kind, angular Brahmins, mad Ostjuden, motherly widows, elegant patricians, sweet mice, and cagy and distrustful touts. I have in the course of years read a fair amount on the history of the book trade. From all this, I claim some authority to speak about the state of the retail book trade in the United States.”

The customer standing behind me at the counter while John and I yacked obliviously was polite and soft-spoken when I apologized. He was buying something by Annie Dillard and a hardcover edition of The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman.  He said, "He's my favorite poet."