Diary: Sue Halpern and Her Town Build a Library (Part Two)

[Read Part One of this post here!]


In anticipating opening our town’s first library, we had ordered five hundred library cards. There were around two thousand residents in the township’s six hamlets, and we expected that it would take a year before those five hundred cards had been handed out. Three weeks after we opened, we had to order five hundred more. We went through those in the next six months. By year’s end, fifteen hundred people had library cards.

If the story ended there, it would be inspiring—a box office hit, with Kevin Costner as Arnold Stevens. But, of course, once you put books into the hands of children, once you provide a warm, comfortable place to sit and read a newspaper or a magazine, once you put people in close proximity to each other, the story goes on and writes itself. Before long, our library had a preschool story hour cosponsored by Head Start. Then some library patrons started a book group. We began showing movies and having different members of the community lead a discussion afterward. Then some regulars at movie night started a play-reading group.

I want to emphasize that this was a hardscrabble town, rich in natural beauty but short on ways to make a living. What work there was, was largely seasonal—logging, running the lifts at the nearby ski area, cleaning the condos of the tourists who skied there. Many of the buildings on the one main street were boarded up. Most people were living at the margins. So maybe not the sort of place that would have a book group or a movie group or a play-reading group—except that it was. Here was the empirical proof that culture—for lack of a better word—is not the exclusive province of the wealthy or well-educated.

We did have one fabulously wealthy man on our library board. A man who had retired to the mountains after running the company that makes all the fragrances in your candles and soaps. And when he came to movie night and saw people crammed into the back of the town hall, and after he joined the play-reading group, which hoped, one day, to mount a performance, he and his wife decided to build, and to endow, an arts center across the street from the library.

Then the daughter of one of the construction workers there asked that man for a loan to build a coffee shop and bakery in one of the boarded-up buildings. So now we had a library, an arts center, and a café. Not long afterward, our board was approached by the children of a woman who had grown up in our town, in a cabin with no running water or electricity, reading by the light of a kerosene lantern. She had recently died, and when they were cleaning out her house in New Jersey they saw that she had saved my New York Times op-ed, and they told us that in her honor they would fund an addition to our library.

That one-room library at the back of the town hall is now a three-and-a half room library. It has forty thousand items on its shelves. Books, board games, puzzles, maps, magazines. It hosts over 130 events a year. The book group survives, and now there’s a knitting group, too. And in keeping with our original intent to serve our particular constituency, in the winter, in addition to checking out books, and CDs, and movies, you can check out snowshoes.

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When people ask me why I wrote a novel set in a library, I say it’s because of what I learned there and what I know: libraries are transformative. They change lives. They change communities. Andrew Carnegie knew this, and he, too, knew this firsthand. When I was writing Summer Hours at the Robbers Library I had two libraries guiding me: our small, Town of Johnsburg Library, in the Adirondacks, and the first Carnegie library, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, which I happened to visit when I was working on a piece for the New York Times Magazine.

That library, which is august and a bit moth-eaten, not unlike the library in Summer Hours, is an architectural lesson in Carnegie’s desire to have spaces where people could exercise mind and body. There is a tunnel running at least half a mile, from Carnegie’s steel mill to the library, with showers and lockers, so steelworkers could come directly from work. There are rooms full of books, of course, but there is also a gymnasium, and a swimming pool, and a 964-seat, velvet-curtained theater and music hall. Libraries are transformative. They can turn someone who has just put in ten or twelve hours tending a blast furnace, someone who may be an immigrant like Carnegie himself, into a basketball player, a reader, a patron of the arts, a performer, a citizen.

And it has occurred to me in recent years—and maybe to you, too—as the Trump Administration’s proposed federal budgets have sought to eliminate funding for public libraries, that our politicians know this, too, and it scares them. Libraries are where people who are new to this country go to learn and practice English. It’s where people go to take citizenship classes. It’s where people go to find jobs, to come in from the cold or from the heat, to do their homework, to learn history. And it’s where they go to read novels, and in so doing develop empathy—empathy that might, for instance, prompt them to react in horror to separating children from their parents and putting them in cages.

I think sometimes of the man who said “libraries are communist,” and I know what he means. Libraries promote the ethos of sharing. They promote community. They are welcoming. They are welcoming to everyone. And if this is not threatening enough to those who benefit from our mutual isolation, there’s also this: Libraries are repositories of our collective experience—they enable us to understand where we’ve come from and where we are and where we might be going. And that shines a light on what is true and what is real and what matters. 

I have a doctorate in democratic theory. But librarians—librarians have advanced degrees in democratic practice. Libraries were created in this country to supplement public education. They were seen to be essential to the democratic—small d—project. If you are going to have a democracy for, by and of the people, you need an informed electorate. This has always been true, and seems to become more important every day. Which means that in addition to everything else librarians do, they are actively engaged in sustaining our democracy. They are not just on the front lines—they are the front line.

In Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Kit, the protagonist, who is a librarian, realizes how her soon-to-be former husband, a neurosurgeon, thinks of her profession when he says, during a court proceeding, “I had my career, and she had her job.” And then Kit says: “I realize no one thinks being a librarian is as awesome as being a neurosurgeon, but I always thought I was doing something valuable, putting books in the hands of readers. Books—and libraries—can save lives, too. I really believe that.”

So do I.

Read our Notebook on the threat to funding for libraries.


This essay is adapted from Sue Halpern’s presentation of the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction for the American Library Association (ALA). Sue Halpern is the author of six books in addition to Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, on subjects as diverse as memory, solitude, and butterflies. She has also written extensively about the impact of technology on contemporary life. She is a contributing writer at The New Yorker.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing short and well-made book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to receive our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape. Coming soon: Wyatt Mason on Garth Greenwell; recently: John Guare on Elaine Stritch.

Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, in Cleveland, Ohio, is Book Post’s current partner bookstore. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 there during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.

Image: Scenes from the Town of Johnsburg Library

Diary: Sue Halpern and Her Town Build a Library (Part 1)

I suspect that every writer has a library story. Probably more than one library story. When I was a child I made my parents sign me up for three different libraries—I think because they all had contests where you could win prizes for reading the most books. When I was a teenager, I made regular visits to each of those libraries, checking to see if J.D. Salinger had published a new book.

As an undergraduate, every time I stepped into the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, with its cathedral ceilings and stone archways, I was reminded that, for some of us, education is a secular religion. In graduate school at Oxford, I had to sign a pledge not to “kindle a fire” in the Bodleian Library before I could use it.

But I didn’t write my dissertation there. I moved back to New York, and, every afternoon before my graveyard shift as a proofreader at a law firm, I’d go to the main reading room at the New York Public Library. I’d sit at one of those long wooden tables and read and take notes and work out my thesis—how it would be possible to attain democracy in fundamentally fractured societies. And every afternoon, around 4 p.m., a couple of panhandlers would come in, order up catalogs of rare coins, and spread that day’s collection on the table opposite me, looking to see if, maybe, just maybe, their luck had turned. And it seemed to me then, and even more so afterward, that, between us, we represented the hopefulness that attends public libraries.

I say “more so afterward,” because a few years later my husband and I moved out of New York City, to a remote hamlet in the Adirondack Mountains that sits at the corner of the three poorest counties in New York State. That hamlet is part of the largest township in New York by area—over three hundred thousand acres, and one of the smallest by population—around two thousand.

The township was served by an aging bookmobile that came through the mountains once a month, and when it was finally unfit to drive, the regional library consortium couldn’t afford to replace it. There was a ballot initiative in the township spurred by a member of our town board, a man named Arnold Stevens who worked at the lumber yard. For less than $10 per person, he figured, we could have our own library.

The ballot initiative failed. People didn’t see the point. Or they just didn’t have any money to spare. Or they thought, as one man said, that a library was “communist.”

Arnold did not give up, and somehow, a few years later, managed to wrestle $15,000 from the town budget, and the town board asked me and two retired teachers to turn that $15,000 into a library. They gave us a room at the back of the town hall and all the good wishes in the world, because wishes were the only thing that was going to turn that money into a room with books and shelves to put them on, and tables and chairs, and a system for keeping track of what went out the door and whether it came back, and … also … a librarian. Fifteen thousand dollars.

We put a help-wanted ad in the weekly shopper. And, in what would be the second miracle in this better-than-Field-of-Dreams story, it was answered by a young man, Russell Puschak, who had just moved to the area from Seattle, where he had been running a used bookstore in the Pike Place Market. We had our librarian.

We assembled a board of directors. And while they were searching for people to build bookshelves and businesses to donate the lumber, Russell and I spent a month driving every day an hour and a half to the regional library consortium stacks, to pick out the more than three thousand books that would sit on those shelves, to make sure that what we were offering would be of value and interest to our particular constituency, which was one of hunters and craftspeople and children learning to read and homesteaders and homeschoolers and people, like Arnold, hungry to feed their minds.

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Apparently, there are rules if your library is going to be an official public library. Who knew? We were a group of rank amateurs. So when we read the requirements for a provisional charter from the State of New York, which we would have to meet to be eligible for state funding, we figured we were confused because we were rookies. Because nowhere did the requirements mention that we needed to have books in our library. We read those rules a bunch of times. No books. They did, however, require that we have two computers. At the time, computers cost about $2,000 each, which meant that if we were to buy them, we’d have $11,000 for our library. And this was crazy.

So I did what writers do, and wrote an op-ed column for The New York Times, arguing that these rules penalized small, underfunded efforts like ours. But, really, it was a plea for help. And help came. Every publisher in New York started sending us books. The Book of the Month Club sent us every new book they were going to publish for a year, which meant that our tiny library suddenly had every bestseller before anyone else. The CEO of one of the biggest database companies sent us the two computers we needed to apply for our charter. He also included a five-year subscription to two of his company’s most popular databases, which meant that our tiny library in the back of the town hall was now a research library.

[To be continued!]


This essay is adapted from Sue Halpern’s presentation of the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction for the American Library Association (ALA). Sue Halpern is the author of six books in addition to Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, on subjects as diverse as memory, solitude, and butterflies. She has also written extensively about the impact of technology on contemporary life. She is a contributing writer at The New Yorker.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing short and well-made book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape. Coming soon: Robert Block on My War Criminal; Recently: Mona Simpson on Lewis Hyde.

By the way, we wrote about bookmobiles last summer. Turns out they’ve had a powerful role in the history of American reading.

Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, in Cleveland, Ohio, is Book Post’s current partner bookstore. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 there during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.

Image: Greeting from the Town of Johnsburg Library

Diary: Luis J. Rodriguez, A Writer‘s Journey (Part Two)

Kids at the Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural Winterlandia festival in December. Photo by Giovanni Solia

[Read Part I of this Diary here]

In writing, as in any artistic endeavor, nothing is guaranteed. You may not get published. You may not become known. You may not even be able to earn enough to pay your bills. But if this is the heart of what you care about, then you have to do it and do it as well and as persistently as you can. It’s about a primary agreement to live out your inner story. Hang on tight to the first agreement between yourself and the universe. This is the source of real authority, the root of “authoring.” This is where you enter the realm of ownership, responsibility, and, ultimately, freedom. There are many obstacles arrayed against the poet, writer, musician, and artist in this society. That’s on society. But if you give up, that’s on you.

A resilient and patient person is what happens when heart, mind, and spirit come together, and these in turn intersect with outside energies and relations. Resiliency is having the capacity to remain essentially intact despite uncertainties, fears, and all manner of struggle. You can avoid dissociating due to trauma and betrayal. Get back into the body, go through the door that opens when you dropped into pain, do not allow anger, blame, and defensiveness to close that door.

What I’m really teaching when I teach writing is not about masterpieces outside of oneself—a great poem, painting, musical piece, or whatever. Yes, these are beneficial. But people who create these works are also in a creative process. They are works of art. Ultimately the real masterpiece is you. Prisons, for instance, where I’ve taught for many years, are compressed and intense microcosms of the world; they can also be powerful schools on how to live, how to become more human, however much we still need actual keys to open up actual prisons, and to find cures and changes outside of industrial incarceration.

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In the Los Angeles where I live the Santa Ana winds scatter dry leaves, and droughts make tinder out of the formerly green brush. Wildfires are metaphor and reality for our internal and external terrains. The city is music but also muscles, a rain dance often with no rain, neon glare and smog-tinged skyline, held together in a spiderweb of freeways. It’s a place where even jacarandas and palm trees are transplants. This is where the city’s buildings are bricked and nailed together with survival stories, war stories, and love stories—the kind of harrowing accounts Los Angeles unfurls at three a.m., when ghosts meander along the upturned pavement or rumble by on vintage cars, and all-night diners convert into summits for the played out, heartsick, and suicidal.

There’s a migrant soul in this rooted city: Skid Row next to the Diamond District, waves of foam against barnacled piers, cafes and boutiques next to botanicas. Ravines and gulleys turn into barrios, rustic homes with gardens dot bleak cityscapes, and suburbs burst with world-class graffiti. Fragmented yet cohesive, Los Angeles demands reflection on ourselves and the unstable ground we call home, where people die for lack of a roof or food or compassion.

These roads, bridges, and alleys contain concertos. Breezes over the ocean’s darkest depths are replete with harmonies, and a howling moon and red sunset serve as backdrops for every aching interlude. Los Angeles is where every step rhymes, where languages flit off tongues like bows across strings, skateboarders and aerosol spray cans clatter in a daily percussion, and even angels intone “We can do better,” while haggling at garage sales.

There’s an ending to our story. Like all endings, it’s also a beginning. Still we have a charge: To make the well-being of every child, adult, elder, family, and community the cornerstone of a new city, and the central quest of a new story. Envision what kind of world is arising, already pulsing through its people, including the poor, the deprived, already beating in their hearts, in their songs, in their best dreams for America and the world. It’s time for us to come home.


Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of the memoir Always Runningand fifteen other books of memoir, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. He was the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles from 2014 to 2016 and is the co-founder of Tia Chucho’s Centro Cultural, bookstore, and publishing house in Los Angeles. This Diary is adapted from his new book, From Our Land to Our Land, newly published by Seven Stories Press.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing short and well-made book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape. Coming soon: Alvaro Enrigue on Samantha Schweblin; Recently: Stephen Kinzer on the Pentagon and Climate Change.

Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, in Cleveland, Ohio, is Book Post’s current partner bookstore. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 there during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.

Diary: Luis J. Rodriguez, A Writer‘s Journey (Part One)

Tititl Ceremony, a dance tradition tracing back to ancient mesoamerica, hosted by Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Kapulli Xochiyaoyotl at the Sun Valley Recreational Center in the San Fernando Valley, California, February 2, 2020. Photo by Giovanni Solis

The day I decided that writing was what I wanted to do I was working as a millwright, maintaining the engines of an overhead crane above four electric furnaces at a Bethlehem Steel mill. I had on a scuffed hard hat, greasy uniform, tool belt, and steel-toed shoes. It was a substantial job. I should’ve been content. Instead, I felt as if my poems and stories were being drained out of me with every pouring of melted steel, every searing blast, every pounding forge. Sorrow came in waves. It struck me that if I didn’t do something about this writing thing soon, I never would. The year was 1978. I was twenty-four. To stay out of the trouble I was frequently in during my youth, I had turned to industry and construction. I learned skills like pipe fitting, rigging, mechanics, welding, and framing houses and warehouses. This was the right thing. But, newly separated from my wife and two babies, I was alone, afraid, unsure, drinking too much. I felt this was my last chance at bringing out what ached inside, before it became a rotting, dead thing I’d carry around.

My own family and most of my friends thought I was nuts. A writer? Who writes? What kind of life is that? You should be happy just getting a regular paycheck. The first thing I did was take night classes at East Los Angeles College: creative writing, journalism, and speech. During the day, to bring in money, I worked as a framing carpenter and later as a mechanic/welder.

Then in 1980 I gambled even that away and walked into the Boyle Heights offices of Eastern Group Publications, on Soto Street near Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). They published seven weekly East LA newspapers, including the Eastside Sun and the Mexican-American Sun. They agreed to allow me to write news and a boxing column and take photos. That summer, the African-American journalists and publishers Robert Maynard and his wife Nancy Hicks accepted me for their eleven-week Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California, Berkeley. That got me my first daily newspaper job, at the San Bernardino Sun, when the city had the second highest homicide rate in the country. I saw far too many dead bodies from murders, suicides, drug overdoses, car accidents, and natural disasters. I also freelanced articles on indigenous and campesino uprisings in Mexico, including takeovers of land and government buildings. And I was in Nicaragua and Honduras during the Contra War—at one point, Contra rebels shot at me with high-powered rifles, and they twice deployed US ordnance bombs in my direction. Somehow I emerged unscathed. I did radio reporting and editing at KPFK-FM (Pacifica Radio) and California Public Radio. I also managed to write poetry and short stories. I took part in the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association Barrio Writers Workshops and reading series and magazine, ChismeArte.

I had a few setbacks: After my first marriage ended, I went to live with my parents for a few days. That’s when I found out the murals I had painted as a teen, and had stashed in the garage, had been thrown away, along with my early writings, which I had carefully stacked in a grocery bag. My mother thought these pursuits were a waste of time. A facilitator in a writer’s workshop around that time turned to me and said something like, “Man, you can’t write for beans!” He was right. But none of this stopped me.

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In 1985, I ended up in Chicago, where I wrote for political and community publications. The stories I covered included police terror, labor strikes, and the undocumented, including how the US government in the 1980s held migrant children in unmarked motels so their undocumented parents would come get them—and be deported. I managed a reporter/writer job at WMAQ-AM news radio on the night shift and weekends, and for a while I was in the printing industry as a typesetter, including for Chicago’s archdiocese. By 1988, I became active in Chicago’s vibrant poetry scene, home of Slam Poetry. I did poetry workshops in homeless shelters as well as juvenile lockups and prisons. After a number of rejections from book publishers, I decided to publish my first book myself, Poems Across the Pavement, which came out in 1989. I typeset the book after hours at the publishing house I worked at. I was thirty-five. In 1993 I wrote a memoir called Always Running that sparked surprising acclaim. I quit all my jobs and toured thirty cities in three months. My world changed with this book, which came out a year after the Los Angeles Uprising. It was one of a handful of publications that spoke from knowledge about LA gangs, which politicians and some media blamed for the destruction that followed the acquittal of the police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. 

Since then I’ve written poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and nonfiction; and audiobooks, e-books, handmade limited-edition art books, CDs, short films, videos, and plays have been created from my stories and poems. More recently I’ve moved into blogging and podcasts. And I’ve become a script consultant on three TV shows, including FX’s Snowfall, co-created and produced by the late John Singleton, dramatizing how crack first invaded the ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles with CIA complicity.

But in the end I’m all about books. Somehow that fading dream in the steel mill found root and soil—even when I received enough rejection slips to wallpaper my house. The best assurance I was on the right path occurred when my mother visited the publishing house and cultural center I run with my wife Trini for the first and only time. This was a few years before she died. She walked in unsteadily, using an aluminum walker. I began to tell her about what Trini and I were doing with this enchanting space that offered a bookstore, an art gallery, a performance stage, arts workshops, and a full coffee bar; when we founded it, there were no bookstores, movie houses, or comprehensive arts spaces in the northeast San Fernando Valley, home to half a million people. Tia Chucha’s, named after my favorite aunt, also drew on indigenous cosmologies from Mexico and US Native peoples, my mother’s heritage. As I talked, to my dismay, my mother began to cry. I stopped and in Spanish asked her, “Amá, why are you crying? I didn’t create this place so you’d be upset.” She then turned to me—keep in mind, I was in my early fifties—and in Spanish said, “I think, mijo, you’re finally going to be okay.” 

[Read Part Two here!]


Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of the memoir Always Running and fifteen other volumes of memoir, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and work for children. He was the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles from 2014 to 2016 and is the co-founder of Tia Chucho’s Centro Cultural, bookstore, and publishing house in Los Angeles. This Diary is adapted from his new book, From Our Land to Our Land, newly published by Seven Stories Press.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing short and well-made book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape. Coming soon: Alvaro Enrigue on Samantha Schweblin; Recently: Stephen Kinzer on the Pentagon and Climate Change.

Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, in Cleveland, Ohio, is Book Post’s current partner bookstore. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 there during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.

Notebook: February 6, 2020

Ann Kjellberg, editor

Super-NOS prize contenders have at it in New York: Moscow critic Anna Narinskaya; poet Polina Barskova; scholar Eliot Borenstein; critic and radio journalist Alexander Genis; scholar Sergei Oushakine; novelist Lara Vapnyar; NOS Prize founder Irina Prokhorova; and moderator Mark Lipovetsky. Pictured: Previous NOS winner Maria Stepanova

If you read no further than the first sentence of this post: please order your books online from this new site, Bookshop, instead of Amazon.

Bookshop is the creation of prodigious inventor of digital reading opportunities Andy Hunter. Hunter first appeared on the scene in 2009 when he announced the creation of Electric Literature, a multiplatform digital purveyor of short stories that (at the time) directed the costs of print publication to the writer. Electric Literature has evolved a lot since then, but it’s still a widely followed and lively source for new writing. With energy to spare, apparently, Hunter went on to found, with Grove publisher and legendary brat-pack editor Morgan Entrekin, the book-culture site Literary Hub, initially as a vehicle for publishers to roll out their wares in a convivial (as opposed to promotional) spirit. (LitHub now also has sub-sites devoted to book reviews and crime writing.) And then he founded, with Koch-family black-sheep literary sibling Elizabeth, the publishing house Catapult, which also functions as a virtual and real writers’ community.

Hunter always seems to be looking for ways to train the anarchic forces of the internet on nourishing literary value. His new effort, Bookshop, is probably the most public-spirited of them all. His work as a magazine and book publisher made him acutely aware of the threat Amazon’s growing bookselling monopoly posed to the health of writing (a subject we’ve covered here and there). The American Booksellers Association had created an alternative, IndieBound, to drive online sales to bookstores, but IndieBound had not found the right technical formula to match convenience for the reader with support for the bookseller. Hunter set about developing Bookshop, in collaboration with independent booksellers, to offer a more robust alternative in several respects. Bookshop offers a “seamless” (as they say) shopping experience to the book buyer; it distributes revenues to independent booksellers; and, importantly, it offers those who link to it online a share in sales that is more generous than Amazon’s. (You may not know that when you buy something by clicking through a link to Amazon, the outlet offering you that link gets a cut.) Currently these so-called “affiliate links” are a major source of revenue for online media outlets, a growing share of their bottom line as advertising and subscriber dollars shrink. Until now Amazon has managed to corner the “affiliate links” market. But Bookshop allows not only magazines and newspapers, but independent bloggers and writers and Instagram “influencers” and anyone really to get a 10 percent share from the sale of a book they link to online (Amazon offers 4.5 percent), more for Bookshop’s partner bookstores. (Book Post still links to independent booksellers directly, giving them a larger share of sales. We do not collect affiliate revenue.)

The one competitive advantage that Amazon retains over Bookshop is its steep discounts. This is a feature not a bug. Amazon’s discounts are designed as a loss-leader to amass customers and drive its competition out of business, and Bookshop exists to serve independent booksellers (and, with them, publishers and writers). Not only does Bookshop decline to undercut the prices of independent booksellers, it actively promotes them, by sending its customers information about their local shops and participating in various joint marketing ventures. It sees itself as an enabler rather than a competitor for bricks-and-mortar retail.

So this is a great thing, and I implore you, readers, to order from Bookshop whenever you are not buying from an independent bookstore directly and to link to it when you refer to a book online.

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We found ourselves entangled in another ingenious literary invention this week: an American outpost for Russia’s Super-NOS prose competition. The NOS Prize (an acronym for “new prose” in Russian, and also a reference to Gogol’s story about the appendage) was founded in 2009 as an original kind of literary prize, one in which the internal mechanism of the choice would be entirely visible and, indeed, participatory. A panel of jurors (prominent writers and critics) present and argue for their choice of best book from a roster they assembled ahead of time (in another layer of transparency, past jurors have published their disputatious correspondence compiling the list). They are interrogated by a panel of “experts” (in this case, graduate students in Russian literature), and they arrive at an anointee that includes votes from the jury, the experts, and the audience.

The NOS prize is awarded every year in various places, and this year the remote panel in New York selected from ten years of NOS winners to arrive at a “Super-NOS” for the decade, and what a decade it was. NOS prize founder, the publisher and philanthropist Irina Prokhorova, described the rationale for the prize: In Soviet times judgments about what to read were political and unchallenged. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Prokhorova felt, the country needed “new instruments for evaluating literature”; she indicated that open debate in Russian society is still not exactly thriving. She created the NOS prize as an ongoing vehicle for real-life discussion of what it means to have literary merit. For example, the jurors and experts wrestled with the question of whether the decade’s winner should be the book that was the highest literary achievement or one that was the most representative of the moment, or that brought something new into literary language. Prokhorova observed that today’s Russia is “not a pleasant place, not a cozy place,” and needs a new literature to capture this reality. In the end, the book that carried the day, Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard, which has been translated into English by Jamey Gambrell, was almost provocatively grounded in the Russian classics and crafted in a timeless amalgam of styles. The book was just too much of a masterpiece, it seemed, not to win. There was some remorse about this. Some jurors noted how many great books weren’t on the list at all, such as those of Nobel-prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich and novelist Victor Pelevin. But a juror remarked to general assent that Sorokin has described himself as an Orwell for contemporary Russia, and we all need our Orwells. (One interesting feature of the NOS prize is that it covers fiction and nonfiction. The runner-up to The Blizzard was Maria Stepanova’s internationally celebrated reflection on memory and the past, which will be published next year in the US by New Directions.)

After the contest Prokhorova asked some of us if we thought there was space for such an institution in the US. I quipped that we don’t seem to have any shortage of argument, but when I think of some of the controversies now roiling the literary world it did seem like it would be welcome to have some setting in which people of divergent views sit down, face to face, and try to change one another’s minds, and those of their audience, rather than denouncing a faceless antagonist before a faceless crowd on our digital platforms.


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