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Diary: Geoffrey O’Brien, Paris—Dream of book lovers

Often I daydream of a city awash in bookstores—not just in one or two neighborhoods, but emerging on the most unexpected streets and alleyways—bookstores with histories, some around for many decades, some dating back more than a century; in a few copiously stocked establishments, a huge range of books—popular, literary, scholarly, obscure—promiscuously sharing the same shelves; in other, smaller spaces, books meeting a multitude of specialized tastes and interests, acquainting you with the products of ever more esoteric publishers and the writings of authors perhaps unknown to you who here receive the veneration due to classics. With each step—each fresh book cover—you find yourself initiated not only into new releases but whole new fields of knowledge—or old fields of knowledge, in dimmer interiors where antique volumes fill every available bit of room, sometimes simply piled up on the floor as in someone’s overcrowded apartment. When the daydream becomes too persistent, I figure it is time for Paris again.

Paris is many cities but for a reader it is most indelibly this city of bookstores. A full charting of them would uncover multiple enfolded realms of intellectual history. Since the time I had the good fortune to study there briefly as a teenager, Paris has been the place I had to keep going back to, simply to find out what is new, what has been coming out since the last visit, what fresh approaches have been tried, what unsuspected information has appeared on the table—and to find out as well what new retrievals have been made from a past apparently limitless in its capacity for redefinition. It seems almost inevitable that there will be another Alexandre Dumas novel rescued from oblivion, another addition to the canon of Marcel Schwob, another neglected libertine author of the sixteenth century, another crucial yet curiously unknown document of early modernism, another previously untranslated manuscript of Fernando Pessoa.

Always there is a sense of surprise, accompanied by the frustration of not having enough time—or, early and late, enough French, and enough different kinds of French—to take full advantage of the feast on display. There could be no greater inducement to sharpen one’s skills. The profusion has seemed to embody what culture is supposed to mean, not just French culture but world culture, since one of the signal aspects of French publishing has been its restless curiosity about what is being written in other languages. In a fashion that puts the Anglophone world to shame, Parisian bookshops make available the works of Asian and European and African writers—as well as American writers unjustly ignored in their homeland. I remember years ago longingly contemplating French versions of romans noirs by hard-boiled Americans David Goodis and Jim Thompson that were at the time out of print in English.

Just scanning the titles of books spread out on the tables and shelves of, for example, La Hune—the bookstore that was patronized early on by Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others, and that for some fifty years exercised a radiant influence amid Café de Flore, Aux Deux Magots, and other legendary haunts of bohemian Saint-Germain-des-Près—provided an instant update on the emerging ideas and fascinations of the moment, whether in art or politics, ethnology or philosophy, cinema or poetry. La Hune means “the crow’s-nest,” and the perilously winding staircase connecting its two levels was itself an indication that to roam through the store was to participate in a voyage of reconnaissance. It was always my first stop in Paris. When it closed in 2012, replaced by a Louis Vuitton outlet, it seemed as if the end was at hand for a unique culture no longer resistant to the machinery of capital that had ravaged its counterparts elsewhere in the world. In fact it reopened around the corner a few years later, only to mutate into a more narrowly defined establishment specializing in photography books. The new venue, heavily damaged in a fire last year, seems now to have remade itself as a gallery. In the meantime the neighborhood’s bookselling credentials are sustained by the spacious L’Écume des Pages (174 Boulevard Saint-Germain), whose stock ranges comprehensively across genres and disciplines, with a good selection of art, photography, and travel books, an ideal place to browse were it not that its top shelves soar beyond reach and almost beyond sight.

Parisians lament that the city’s bookselling culture is not what it was, despite government policies that have helped shore it up, notably by restricting discounting. The inroads of Amazon and other on-line sellers cannot be kept altogether at bay—one need only watch Olivier Assayas’s new film Non-Fiction (which opens in the U.S. in 2019), set in the publishing world, to gauge how the same inexorable forces, from digitization to declining readership, now afflict Europe as well as America. There is no question that the number of distinctive specialized bookshops in Paris has dwindled. Yet for a New Yorker who in recent decades has witnessed the swift decimation of the city’s once glorious array of independent bookstores to a hardy few, Paris continues to dazzle with the range of its offerings. Not only are there many places to find books; you find different books in each of them.

Books seem to be everywhere, not only in bookstores, as if to underscore that Paris is in some sense the city of the book. A florist places two books in the center of a window display: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and Les Paradis artificiels. The bouquinistes whose bookstalls line the Seine are a familiar postcard image, but it is still possible to come upon the out-of-print oddity you were looking for, whether a 1930s fashion magazine or a lurid true-crime periodical of the Belle Époque. In crowded little antique shops along Rue Notre Dame des Champs you can find, alongside ottomans and Art Deco lamps, choice clusters of gently used volumes of Gallimard’s comprehensive series, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, whether your taste runs to the maxims of La Rochefoucauld or the nouveau roman experiments of Nathalie Sarraute. In one of these I was delighted to find the Pléiade’s illustrated Album Balzac, before being informed that the asking price was 86 euros: “Everyone is always looking for the Album Balzac. It was the first in the series.”

Large department stores like Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marché house book sections that anywhere else could be free-standing destinations—not to mention the third-floor book section of the cavernous FNAC (136 Rue de Rennes), which makes up for its lack of intimacy with the sheer quantity of its holdings. In the Marais, La Belle Hortense (31 Rue Vieille du Temple) is a “bar littéraire” where you can browse an elegantly tended selection of literary volumes while sampling the wine list. The lobby of the live theater-and-cinema complex Lucernaire features a stock of theater books; the gift shop of the Musée de l’Orangerie offers an abundance of recent books on art, photography, and film.            

Notebook: Year-end book lists, the way we read now

From Ann Kjellberg, editor

From where we sit …

There’s something about the bombardment of lists at year-end in the book world that gives us here at Book Post a sinking feeling. Of course anything that brings attention to books is good, and the volume of what’s published, and the general cacophony, leave us all needing our hands held a bit as we enter into the forest of contemporary written culture. Granted: the lists based on raw numbers are illuminating as a snapshot of our reading life (we don’t usually link to Amazon; consider this one for reconnoitering purposes only); and the “ten [or twenty, or fifty] best” from lofty roosts like the New York Times offer their own sort of national self-portrait. Some lists, like the one that came out of the publishing site Lit Hub, are pleasingly eclectic and personal. David Grotowski, who operates a blog under the nom de plume Largehearted Boy, does us a service by compiling all the year-end lists, great and small, in one handy place, letting them triangulate off each other.  National Public Radio offers an alternative in their Book Concierge, guiding readers by interest through hundreds of books tapped by their correspondents. But we know that our own year in reading is as individual as a fingerprint, and by necessity any effort to make a last call for the nation of what each of us needs in a book is pretty likely to miss the mark. The lists mostly deepen the book-world version of the divide between the commercially successful and everyone else. The best way to find a book for yourself or a friend of course is to walk into a bookstore and look at some of them and talk to the people who work there. If you can’t make it to a bookstore, the Indie Bound web site, mounted by a consortium of independent booksellers, offers a peek at what’s going on in them.

As we scrolled warily through the daily emerging lists and highlights looking for a bigger picture one thought did emerge. There seemed a concentration among the books in the spotlight of origin stories: books that take us into parts of the American experience that have felt, in these days of mass mutual incomprehension, under-observed, or at least under-represented in the printed-and-bound record. The phenomenal success of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, depicting a childhood from which books and ideas have been emphatically excluded by the author’s radically self-isolating rural parents, which shows up on nearly every list and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for forty-two weeks (currently at Number Two), seems a case in point. (Educated also gets plaudits for its sympathetically dramatized audiobook.) Another frequent guest of the lists is Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, which also brings us within sympathetic range of a world isolated from the national conversation by rural poverty and the exhaustion of work. J.D. Vance’s controversial Hillbilly Elegy, which On Homesickness author Jesse Donaldson considered in a recent Book Post, remains on the Times’s bestseller list after nearly two years. In Book Post we featured the work of Meghan O’Gieblyn, whose recent book of essays Interior States considers her migration away from the Evangelical Midwest of her origins.

From another angle, Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy, also appearing on a number of these lists, has struck readers with his candor, about himself and others, in facing the struggles that stood between a childhood of poverty and racial exclusion and his adulthood as a respected author and teacher. Casey Gerald’s There Will be No Miracles Here and Michele Obama’s new memoir also portray African American childhoods where their authors’ eventual staggering prominence seemed well out of reach: in Obama’s case, nurtured by carefully tending parents, and in Gerald’s emerging in spite of their flaws and failures. Two fictional variations on the genre are also showing up everywhere: Tommy Orange’s There There, which follows a group of contemporary Native Americans traversing the streets of Oakland rather than the epic plains, and Nico Walker’s Cherry, actually written from prison, in which a war-shattered veteran is propelled behind bars through addiction and trauma-numbing criminality. A number of these books have been hailed for arriving at truly original and bracing literary language to convey their book-virginal experience.

One thing many of these books have in common is that they emerge from places that are themselves bereft of books, often suspicious of them, places that get little attention from those who write books, so the author’s passage into the world of reading and becoming the maker of books themselves becomes part of the subject, resulting in the book we hold in our hand. Though some describe experiences that are very dark, there is something hopeful, especially now, about the very act of attention and illumination that these books’ arrival, and our witnessing them in the glow of our year-end moment, portends.  May they herald a year in which we learn to read each other better.


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Announcing our December partner bookseller: Greenlight!

Sarah at Greenlight makes it official.

Every month Book Post teams up with a indie bookstore to link to our pieces and highlight local book communities. This month’s bookselling partner, drum roll please, will be Greenlight, of Fort Greene and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn! Greenlight, was founded in 2009 when two bookselling and publishing veterans, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting, left their cubicles behind and enlisted the help of neighbors and friends and book-industry supporters to bend their labors to building a store in the Fort Green section of Brooklyn. (The Times reported on their quixotic effort at the time.) The nineties had seen a bloodbath in independent bookselling, with the number of independent shops falling 40 percent nationally in one five-year period, and New York City was in the midst of a rout of the great bookselling institutions that had contributed to its reputation as a literary capitol. But the twenty-first century has seen a spirited revival in independents, around the US and in New York; and Greenlight caught and nourished the currents that have made Brooklyn an oasis of literary life. Even though Greenlight is only a few miles from the haunts of corporate giants, it remains steadfastly a neighborhood place, committed to nourishing the reading life of Brooklynites of all sorts. And, by the way, it anchors a constellation of NYC bookstores founded and operated by women: Greenlight, McNally Jackson, Books are Magic, the Astoria Bookshop, and Bronx bookstore-in-the-making, The Lit Bar. Plus its logo was designed by the legendary book-arts shop, Purgatory Pie Press; half of which (we won’t say the better), Esther Smith, has done so much to preserve and update the art of bookmaking. We’re offering Greenlight shoppers who spend more than $100 this month a free one-month subscription to Book Post! Icing on the cake! We’re happy to extend the offer to Greenlight’s online shoppers: just send us your receipt at info@bookpostusa.com.

Speaking of gift-giving: Why not give the gift of Book Post! People have too much stuff anyway, eh? Surprise them with something new, both a pleasant little morsel of reading in their day and a share in a project supporting writers, bookselling, independent publishing, and restoration of a common culture. You can still give a year’s subscription at our discounted launch rate; or—a give little one-monther as a great little bon-bon for that friend to whom you want to send something small. Spread the word.

Happy holidays to you all, dear readers, and thank you for supporting Book Post. Wish us luck in the year ahead!

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Diary: Spencer Reece, Reading Hopkins

I was forty-five when I decided to be a priest finally. Committing to a religious life, I hesitated still. How would my sexual and spiritual life play out? It reminded me of what Gerard Manley Hopkins had said about Walt Whitman: “I may as well say what I should not otherwise have said, that I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined I will not.” Was I a scoundrel? Rubbing up against a religious vocation it felt more likely. Someone might take issue with who I was. Could I be out and in?

For Seminary I moved from Florida to New Haven, where the alleys were splotched with wet newspapers smelling of morning mouths. Seminarians crammed the week. Morning prayer started in Saint Luke’s chapel at 7 AM: a motley throng of the pious, Southerners who had grown up on Bible bingo, androgynous organists smiling like courtesans, and young balding men with crumbs on their cheeks who talked of early Church Fathers, and then, well, whoever I was.

I took my straw-woven seat, genuflected, knelt on the Oriental rug, embraced the other hopefuls during the peace-be-with-you. Psalm 34 went: “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” I began to taste and see in that chapel. On the wall, a Byzantine icon dedicated to Tim Dlugos, an American poet. In 1987, Dlugos tested positive for HIV. In 1989 he was diagnosed with AIDS. He’d come to this same chapel wanting to be a priest but was unable to complete his studies due to illness. Dlugos died in 1990. The icon was of Saint Luke, the healer. I stared at that icon. The icon stared at me.

In my spare moments I picked up a biography of Hopkins by Robert Bernard Martin, A Very Private Life. Hopkins’ spirit came back strongly to me in those days. During his time as a Jesuit priest celebrating the mass, Hopkins faced the altar. The bread snapped like a light switch and he saw no one. The lonely celibate priest in the sacristy lurked in my mind as a likely paradigm. Towards the end, Gentle Hop, as Hopkins was called by his Jesuit colleagues, wrote the sonnet, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” He was forty-one years old. Six in all, “the terrible sonnets,” as they are known, were written, to use Hopkins’ words, “in blood.” He felt confined “in a coffin of weakness and dejection.” The sonnets came to be known as terrible because, according to his friend, Canon Dixon, they crystallized his melancholy:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

From the outset “feeling” and “falling” are yoked together, a terrible echo chamber of isolation, a search for God. I hoped I’d left such loneliness behind me, but loneliness is a patient thing and has a habit of waiting. Then the lines grow ecstatic; when he writes further on, “Hours I mean years, mean life,” time bends, speeds. He slashes his “I” into the paper, unable to acclimate himself to Ireland where he’d been sent to teach classics to large classrooms of diffident Irish students, cut off from his family, his workload heavy; he worked past midnight in a room at the back of a house off Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Migraines pounded in his temples. Estranged from family and himself, bound up by his religious calling, being a Catholic in a family of Anglicans, denying, displacing, repressing his attractions to men, he’d orphaned himself countless times.  

Hopkins died in 1889. He was forty-four years old. Four years before he died, as if to solidify the conviction of his self-repulsion, England criminalized unspecified acts of “gross indecency” between men, in the act known as the Labouchere Amendment. This amendment led to the love that dare not speak its name being fog-horned in the Oscar Wilde trial ten years later. Could I have an illuminated personal passionate life and be a priest?

In my second year, a movie star came to my seminary. He wanted to ask permission to film my poem, “The Clerk’s Tale.” He wanted to make a short film, fifteen minutes, a film in miniature. He came in a black limo. Suddenly, from the stacks and from the large wooden tables, we, the dandruff-ed theological students looked up, we pushed our greasy hair away from our temples, and we glued our eyes on him the way we usually did obscure Biblical criticism.

“What is this like for you, this fame?” I asked him later as we sat in a restaurant. The nervous hostess put a screen in front of our table so no one would see us. As she stretched out the screen, fame encroached our peace: this made me protective, something in the neighborhood of paternal feeling.

“It’s crazy, crazy,” he said, looking caged.  

Meaty and intelligent and fifteen years younger than I, he had spent his life yearning to be captured on screen and had succeeded. His smile was large and unzipped his face with pizzazz, a mouth that had stretched across buildings and screens and multiplied itself in glossy magazines.

He was curious about my decision to enter the Episcopal priesthood. I still had a hard time articulating why I was becoming a priest. But I pushed my brain. I pushed my tongue and my teeth. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” So what was that mind that I was hoping now to graft to mine? Herbert would say it was a mind of love. I hadn’t known much about God’s love in my youth, but the forgiveness and compassion that had worked me over in midlife gave me some awareness of its measure and weight.

The choice to become a priest came from some place beyond words. Becoming a Christian had to do with unlatching my own cage. Somewhere below the crucifix around my neck, near the gut more than the head, lay the answer, a hunger. I wasn’t changing my accent or speech, but I was adopting a way of existence. I scarcely knew what I thought, why I’d been called to poetry or the priesthood.

There I was becoming a priest before the eyes of the professors, though I was being largely ignored. Hopkins must have often felt this peculiar isolation. According to his biographer, Paul Mariani, Hopkins had “a pronounced tendency to overelaborate, to go on at too great length, and so lose his audience.” Despite graduating with a first from Oxford, Hopkins had barely passed his theological Jesuit exams, which prevented him from rising in the Catholic hierarchy. Painfully there is a story that the Jesuit Fathers snickered knowingly during one of Hopkins’ sermons to the point that Hopkins lost his place. Ignored, laughed at; yet maybe these slights were hidden blessings, they gave him space for the poems. That was true for me as well.

When Hopkins died of a virulent form of typhoid fever his parents came over on a boat from England, barely understanding who their son was: there had been much estrangement. The air smelled of rotten eggs from all the sulphureted hydrogen coming out of the factory stacks. The Jesuit priest gave Hopkins last rites and Hopkins said, “I am so happy, I am so happy.” I’d outlived Hopkins now a few years. Happiness, that elusive emotion, was near.

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