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Monday, May 29, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Twenty Two, in which We remember


Take a moment today to remember those who have served the United States and helped to guarantee and secure our freedom to read any book we choose and discuss it openly.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Twenty One, in which Chapter One Hundred Twenty is decoded

Does the critique of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth sound familiar? The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is receiving much the same reaction, now heightened by the release of the movie version.

A recent article in the Sun Herald says "Religion scholars have been whacking The Da Vinci Code like a low-hanging piƱata. The swings have come from the establishment... and from the fringes...." The newspaper goes on to report there are currently forty-four books available at Amazon that claim to debunk the fictional story.

Let us for one moment accept as fact the belief that Jesus never fathered a child by anyone. If Mr. Brown claims otherwise in his book, the only way he can be wrong is if that claim is out of place in the fictional world he has created. If he has done his job as an author properly, then what he has written is true, despite the possibility it is not the truth. If people believe his premise, then he has written a novel of the highest verisimilitude.

The culture of reality television has bled its way into the book world. On the one hand, people are outraged when what is purported to be a memoir is not all together factual, and on the other hand, people are outraged when a novel is believed to be fact. Are fans of category romance the only ones who know reading as entertainment any more? Would people be just as offended if they found out most reality television shows are as carefully scripted and edited as "Seinfeld"?

The only thing Your Bibliothecary knows for certain is there is no certain proof that Jesus did or did not father a child. Those reacting with fury over Mr. Brown's novel seem to betray a fear of things striking a bit too close for their comfort. Does anyone really question the "facts" of Mr. Verne's novel--or Catch-22, or One Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Time Traveler's Wife? Has something about the nature of literature changed, or are some people feeling a little bit threatened? We thoroughly enjoy the controversy, though there is little information, either in support of Mr. Brown's premise or against it, that is new to our experience. In fact, Tiresias, Leander, Erato, and Callisto outlined a novel based on the exact same premise in 1998, with the wild hopes of causing a ruckus at the dawn of the new millenium.

Professor Darrell L. Bock, author of Breaking the Da Vinci Code has called Mr. Brown's book "dangerous." Sounds ominously similar to the mysterious yellow book Lord Henry gives to Dorian Gray, by which Dorian is thoroughly corrupted. Bock has worried that Mr. Brown's "few factual references are heavily interlaced with fiction or outright falsehood." What more can one ask of a writer? In The Last Courtesan, by Jeffrey K. Hill, Lenin is placed in the company of one of the lead characters during an actual visit he made to the opera. Can one bemoan the interlacing of that fact? Surely the provocative leader was not the only person to attend the opera that night. Such is the task of any author, to create a seamless marriage of fact and fiction. Even stories of outright fantasy are crafted to be believable--within their fictional world.

The newspaper report concerning the brouhaha about Journey to the Center of the Earth is fiction, a parody of the Sun Herald report. A few facts are gathered and embellished with fiction in the appearance of being truthful and smart. Only those who do not write could fail to appreciate what fun such writing is.

The Sun Herald article reports that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is so concerned about Mr. Brown's novel that it has created a Web site with official Catholic responses to the issues Mr. Brown raises in the book. But these are Catholic issues, not Mr. Brown's issues. Reverend Timothy Friedrichsen fears Mr. Brown is muddling people's thinking in ways that could shake faith and affect the reputation of real institutions. Such statements sound as if church leaders believe people do not think for themselves, and can be easily swayed into muddled thinking. If these pious people are privy to the truth, why are they not content with it? Why have none of them come out and directly accused Mr. Brown of being Satan's hand-puppet? Is the church fearful of a secret being revealed? of losing power? of losing money? or, despite God's infinite forgiveness, do they truly believe they are concerned only for our eternal souls?

We take no side on these "issues" and have no patience for anyone who believes they possess the One Truth. God bless Us, Every One.

*[editor's note]For any one who is seriously interested in writing the "next Da Vinci Code," we are seeking collaborators. Send us an email, or leave a comment so stating, and we will get back to you with details.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Twenty, in which Fiction is mistaken for Fact

Recently Your Bibliothecary happened upon the following report from a newspaper out of Saknussemm, Iceland, concerning the popularity of the new translation to mark the 142nd anniversary of the publication of Jules Verne's classic Voyage au centre de la Terre.
Experts agree: Jules Verne got most of his facts wrong. Using the ancient Heimskringla (the Chonicle of the Kings of Norway) as his basis of fact, Verne claims his character discovers a Runic manuscript inside. Written in code, it tells how to journey to the center of the earth.

Critics say Verne's book reeks of truthiness and smartiness, the appearance of being truthful and smart without necessarily being either. But the pages are full of factual errors large and small: temperature anamolies within the earth's crust; an interior Central Sea with an atmosphere dotted by clouds; forty-foot mushrooms; a human body perfectly preserved; a herd of mastodons grazing inside the earth being watched over by a twelve-foot shepherd; an epic battle between a fourteen-foot gorilla and a shark-crocodile; and the riding of a raft like a surfboard atop a volcanic upheaval of magma that expells the characters unscathed from the bowels of the earth.

Leading his fellow critics, Professor Jurgen Reschke of the University of Angstadt has been adamant about the importance of tearing down the credibility of the book because he worries many people, mostly ignorant of what is known of the earth's core, accept Verne's fictions as scientific truth.

"This is why
Journey to the Center of the Earth is so dangerous. Many readers assume that all of the... geologic detail is true when it is not. Rather, the few factual references are heavily interlaced with fiction or outright falsehood."
Interesting stuff. The story later quotes Frida Adalbjorg, an historian at the Vilhjalmur Institue at Sneffels, who asserts that Verne is muddling people's thinking in ways that could shake the scientific disciplines and affect the reputation of real institutions.

Unfortunately, these experts seem to overlook the most important fact: Journey to the Center of the Earth is fiction. A novel. It says so right on the cover. That means the writer made stuff up.

We can't help but shake our head at such serious people taking the book so seriously.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Nineteen, in which Reading is back

Time to take note of something wonderful and unexpected. Your Bibliothecary had virtually given up reading for a while. Now, thanks to the many thoughtful blogs we visit nearly every day, we are being regularly excited by new books. Also thanks to the Slaves of Golconda, we are back in the habit of reading. Despite recent duds, Muriel Spark has taken hold of us (an author who, if not for participation in Slavery, we would never have picked up), Kathryn Davis is being consumed, and Proust is beginning to change our life. And there are a lot more books to be read. We have to go now.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Eighteen, in which We contemplate a mysterious Idea

Nietzsche's mysterious idea of eternal recurrance did not become known to Your Bibliothecary until some time in the early 1990s when we read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. The book grows on one. The idea, though never fully developed by Nietzsche, is stunning: in an infinite universe everything will eventually recur exactly as we once experienced it. For those who believe death is the end of a life, the prospect of living once again some time in the future can be a great relief. The details of the idea, though, are problematic, and that is perhaps why Nietzsche never fleshed it out. The idea intrigued us enough that at times we have believed in it, dreamed of it, hoped for it, and researched it.

For the anniversary of our birth we received in the mail P.D. Ouspensky's novel Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. Ouspensky was a Russian philosopher who wrote this book in 1905 as a “cinema-drama,” and first published it as Kinemadrama (St. Petersburg, 1915). It was translated to English in 1947, and reprinted in 2004 by Lindisfarne. The story concerns Ivan Osokin's attempt to correct his past mistakes when given the chance to relive his life, based loosely on Nietzsche's idea.

We were eager to read this, evidenced by it's immediate promotion to the top of the TBR pile. Unfortunately, the idea is better than the book. Osokin is given the opportunity to relive his life by a magician. He returns to his school days, and we learn in boring detail how he repeatedly makes the same bad decisions, even though he knows what the outcome will be. About halfway through the novel the pace picks up, and time passes with the understanding that Osokin continues in his erroneous ways. In the end, when he encounters the magician once more, he learns the only way to escape the wheel of time is not to relive one's life and try to change things--that is impossible--but to live one's life.

Scenes open in a dramatic style, giving a description of the setting in phrases. Though this was written that way by design, to appropriate some of the interest in the new cinema, it is a dry and dissatisfying way to write a novel. We are almost completely in Osokin's head, and through much of the novel he is busy thinking to himself. This new edition is also poorly edited, with missing words and punctuation, and perhaps what appeared to us to be misnamed chapters. We also would have enjoyed an introduction or commentary.

The issue that plagues us now is how one man can relive his life. If his life recurs in exactly the same way, then don't all the lives that touch his recur as well? More specifically, if the magician sends him back in time, does he also send everyone else back in time? And if so, where is the magician left? If Osokin goes back in time leaving Zinaida behind (or in front), then are there parallel Zinaidas, one living in the present Osokin just left, and one living in the past Osokin just returned to? And if there are two parallel Zinaidas, why are there not two parallel Osokins? Can someone please explain to me how time travel can possibly work on an individual level?

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Seventeen, in which is summarized Episode One of the Bookshop Roadshow

Over the weekend we packed it all in and took it all on the road. We did this for the first time in the dark and stormy Chapter One Hundred Seven, but that turned out to be mostly a training run. With the promise of over 4,000 people, this would be the real thing.

This event was held in conjunction with the Morel Mushroom Hunting Festival headquartered at the Marshall-Putnam Fairgrounds. There were indoor and outdoor booths offering everything from hand lotion to decorative wood art, from art prints to kettle corn, from petting zoo animals to working blacksmiths. Oh, and lots of morel mushrooms as candles and shakers and walking sticks and ceramics and so on. The exhibition began Friday afternoon and ended Saturday afternoon.

There was lots of planning and preparation involved, as we conceived of a booth that looked more like a bookshop than a yard sale table with books on it. The appropriate shelving had to be freed from its current use at Mad About Books International Headquarters, specifically the shelves in the back of the third last picture. That shelf was about twenty feet in length, and though we needed that much footage, it had to be broken down to transport. We supplemented with some nice simple knockdown units for the sides, and then added three half-shelves to form a small island in the center.

Next task was the selection and transportation of enough books to fill thirty-six feet of shelving. We took much of the same books that went to our first show, with a sample of most every other category in the store. To those were added numerous boxes of discount paperbacks. And away we go.

We arrived a little later than expected, due to some unforeseen challenges getting the shelves loaded for transportation. Once there, the unload and construction went smoothly. The vendor beside us did not seem too pleased to discover she would have a wall of shelves to the back of her booth, and would need to find another path behind her tables. But we were within our space, and we were not going to look like the other guys. Then the books needed to go back on the shelves. And try as one might to keep the same books together when boxing them up, one inevitably will be left with specific-sized spaces to fill, requiring books of that specific size which may not be in the same category of books already in the box. The result is when unpacking, books still have to be rearranged, and alphabetized, and so forth.

Because of our delayed start, the exhibition opened while we were still shelving books. Friday was an optional day, and designated set-up was any time during the afternoon or the next morning. However, people were already browsing Friday afternoon, and the sudden flurry of activity made finishing the shelving process a bit frustrating.

Now comes the part we have been waiting for--just relax and sell books. Many of the people were mushroom hunters who had arrived early, and had their campers parked on the fairgrounds, with nothing better to do in the small town of Henry, Illinois but to browse the exhibition tables. One of the first gentlemen to stop showed interest in a biography of John Wayne, and then wandered off to consult with someone else. By the time he had returned, only a few minutes later, someone else had bought the book. We had a few more sales and some interest in the store and some conversation with our neighbor vendors. Several commented they had never seen a setup quite like ours. Book sellers at other events were reported to put up one folding table and then take the lids off a bunch of boxes. Though we were inside a building, it was open, and the cool night breezes left us cold and unprepared. Though temperature tried to tempt us into departing early, two minutes before the lights went out for the evening we had our best two sales of the day.

The information we received had a specific timeline for Friday, but only a general schedule for Saturday. When we returned to the fairgrounds just before the start time of the event, the booths were already buzzing with activity. The mushroom hunters had begun arriving about an hour earlier, and so we had missed some traffic. But if we had been hunting for mushrooms that day, we would not have wanted to purchase a book and then carry it around with us (unless, perhaps, it was a guide to hunting mushrooms), so we hoped we hadn't missed any sales. Once the hunt kicked off, traffic died down until the exhibition shoppers began arriving as the morning progressed.

There had been a few people ask on Friday for certain books that we had left behind in the store, and so we brought those along Saturday. Most of those people came back, and some of the books were sold. One gentleman who had spent much of Friday evening browsing with us returned again for more. He had been one of the two best sales made Friday, and swore to limit himself this day to a single book. Immediately he took possession of said book, he spotted another of interest, and groaned loudly. He tried to figure a way out of purchasing the second book, assuming we would not be able to give change for a large denomination bill, but we assured him we could. The transaction was completed. He was done for the day, though promised he would be back for one more book if his wife would graciously allocate more funds to pay for his addiction. A few hours later the hunt was over, and many of the hunters returned with their spoils to shop, and business was mostly steady until the final two hours of the day.

Take down was smooth, though a slow process which in preparation we had spread over several days. We reloaded better than we had before. We turned around to have one last look, where the bustling market had once again become a wide open empty space. Our sales were good, much more than we would have done in the store on an average weekend. Once we considered our costs, though, profits were slim.

Books that sold the best this weekend were history, natural living, ships, some of the discount paperbacks, and, of course, mushrooms. Though our display seemed unusual, and truly stood out beside all the others at this event, our thoughts turn to an even more elaborate setup: an actual miniature book shop with window and door and roof to compliment the shelves. That, however, is an elaborate plan, and our present situation would call for a more stripped down process. To pursue this road to sales we would need some sort of folding shelves that are compact and easily moveable, yet sturdy enough for books. Even better would be cabinets or racks on wheels, so books could be placed on them and then simply rolled back and forth, eliminating the need to box and unbox all those books. Or maybe we should place them in a box and just open the box on the ground. We have much to consider before the next roadshow.