Essays

What’s all this, then?

A preamble to A Republic of Books, portions of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.

There is a wonderful quote from a fabulous movie of long ago, often repeated but seldom fully appreciated: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

Perhaps it’s strange to you that I apply a quote from a movie to the death of the book, which is the greater subject here. Then perhaps you should look more closely at that movie. It was not technology that killed the book—nor the internet, or digital reproduction, or any of those contrivances that you’ve heard complaints about. They were only means. Mere tools. ’Twas beauty. The perfect nature of the book itself, that physical vade mecum of bound pages, whether pulp or rag or vellum, sewn or stapled or glued, covered in leather, or cloth or not at covered at all, that was the reason and cause for its destruction. Such a beast could not be allowed to survive in a fungible world. No matter the subject—novel, or history, or tract—the book was an existential threat. With writers having sacrificed verity in favor of favor, and for acceptance, such a corporal art and the evidence it revealed of their deceit, could not be allowed to co-exist. With the very climate itself having been made political, the ‘author’ had become just another tool as well and the need for the book, that hairy sublime that we had known, was made doubtful. With the advent of the internet and the ascendency of nescience and the fungible labyrinth of the web, the virtual became ‘real’ and the book was at last defunct. The Great Bezos had spoken. read more…

notes on the revolution: an ongoing ramble

Oh, the incorporate me.

 The ‘corporation’ as it has been recreated in modern business and law represents a large portion of our current problem and a significant cause thereof.

Oddly, interestingly, and contrarily, under our code of laws, you may not own a person. That is known as slavery. Yet you may own a corporation, or shares in a corporation, just as you may own a car or a house. However, a car is not currently entitled to vote. Nor a house. Nor a corporation, per se. A person is. A corporation is property. It can be sold. But according to the authorities, a corporation is a person . . . Got that. If you don’t it’s because you are not a sophisticated thinker—i.e., its your own fault. Most importantly, and included in this status as a human being, a corporation has limited liability. Now, if you run out of money, or are the cause of a misadventure, you are liable for your debts. If a corporation runs out of money, tough luck. You can read about this case law in many places, and this status has existed in our country for almost two centuries and has been upheld by no less than the Supreme Court of the United States in 1819 (Dartmouth College vs. Woodward), or here http://www.oyez.org/cases/1792-1850/1818/1818_0/. read more…

Of ‘Children and Fish’

I was just rereading the great Richard Mitchell essay, ‘Children and Fish,’ and thinking it was my favorite of all. It is a difficult choice to make, given my appreciation of the others, but certainly I have read it more often and find myself considering it anew with each reading. The subject of what we make of ourselves was the particular point that hooked my thoughts this time.

One measure of Mitchell’s depth and breadth is that he could read a turgid socialist polemic like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and find something edifying. In this case, it was in the clear representation of a negative: Bellamy’s ruthless idea of human rights. Wading through the weeds of such thought, tiresome and full of poisonous ticks, had kept me from ever finishing the book, but Mitchell, always the good teacher and likely made immune to such foolishness by the annual inoculation of live virus in sophomoric term papers, has extracted the lie that is the very linchpin of the socialist state.

Remember now that Looking Backward was a stunning bestseller in its day. Stunning in all the senses of the word. How this came to be is another subject for another time, but it explains the mind of a certain intellectual strata of the late Nineteenth Century and how the thinking of people as diverse as Margaret Sanger and Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey and Eugene V. Debs might have developed. It was a ‘can do’ age and the idea that people could be educated to be good—as in, to act in a socially acceptable manner—was afoot as well as in a lot of heads. Never mind asking what ‘good’ is.

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The flea is with us

71Ew4KATtbLIn the foreword to his excellent and now near classic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that it was Aldous Huxley and not George Orwell who recognized the greater danger to our modern society. “But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think . . . What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no reason to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” I would accuse Postman of prescience, given the overwhelming onslaught of irrelevance in this age of the internet, if it were not already true, as he well documents, in those tamer times of television and the three major networks. Now, thirty years hence, I fear the damage is wholly done. The flea is with us.

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Stewing on the ambiguities

The American dream may not be what it once was, but it is still there.

Entering small towns, from California to Maine, you may be struck by how similar they appear, displaying again and again the natural gallimaufry of a single culture that spans a continent. But this awareness is even greater when you stop and speak to the people themselves. Some of this continuity is frozen in the outward brass of the chain stores, of course, but it goes far deeper. The culture you can still find beyond the suburbs was not invented by Ray Crock and Sam Walton. Most of these people are conceived and raised to a behavior that is at once sweet and pleasantly sour, churned by the dash to butter as well as buttermilk. read more…

The Old Corner Bookstore

The matter is not that this place is now a Chipotle. The Old Corner Bookstore, as much as ‘Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe,’ was debauched generations ago and made to serve whatever interest was literally afoot at that moment in time. The iconic site, a beautiful vernacular Eighteenth Century brick building on a corner of Boston nearly across from the equally historic Old South Meeting House and about a block from where Benjamin Franklin was born, has long been shadowed on all sides by the assembled monstrosities of Nineteenth and Twentieth century architecture. The fact that a fairly decent chain of Mexican food restaurants has chosen to lease the physical space where Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow once argued the particulars of the New England Renaissance is incidental in the greater scheme. After all, where are the bones of Paul Revere’s horse now?

But Rhian Sasseen picked up the story for The Millions and there it is, photo and all,  and in some visceral way the image begs for our attention. At least it does for me.  The abscess of pain which is the cause of my frequent complaint about the death of the bookshop is instantly tapped. I could go on about the importance of the bookshop to our culture as the key to any sort of livable future as much as a touchstone to the past that has made us. But is that really the matter?

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A Slepyng Hound to Wake

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Hound

Hound

Henry Sullivan has made a simpler life for himself, finding and selling books. There is little room in it for either love or murder.

 

About

I have been informed by trusted authority that the short quip which I have placed here for the last year or so, by way of biography, lacks gravitas. “Over-paid by others for hyphenated jobs such as lawn-work, snow-shoveling, house-painting, office-boy, dish-washer, warehouse-grunt, table-waiter and hotel night-clerk–I’ve since chosen to be a writer, editor, publisher, and for most of my life, a bookseller, and even managed to occasionally pay myself. Hound is my first published novel.” And so it does. It is hard to be serious about so unserious a subject as oneself. But herewith, and keeping the ‘nasty bits’ (Brit expressions are so brilliant) to myself, I offer then, this ongoing post begun as posts at Small Beer Press. If anyone is interested, from time to time I will add something at the end to bring the epic closer to the present moment.

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