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Monday, June 25, 2007

Book Twenty-Seven

The twenty-seventh book we read this year is Bram Stoker's Dracula: The Film and the Legend, by Francis Ford Coppola and James V. Hart. It is what the publisher calls a Pictorial Moviebook, and contains the complete shooting script of the 1992 film, excerpts from the original novel, and more than 160 photographs of the film production. And it was another book we acquired free through BookMooch!

Stoker's book is one of our favorite novels; Mr. Coppola's adaptation is one of our favorite films. It is the version most faithful to the original novel, and incorporates styles and techniques from previous film versions, notably F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), itself a classic. Our interest in this book was not so much for the script as for the literary and historical essays. Also included are revealing excerpts from Mr. Coppola's journal as he worked on the film, as well as behind-the-scenes details about the production.

The script closely follows the plot of the novel and adds a firm historical background. Some of the dialogue is new, anchored by direct passages from the novel done predominantly in voice-over. The script by itself doesn't make a successful story. A good script is the foundation upon which all films are built, but it makes little sense alone. The director becomes a sort of visual chef, envisioning a final product, gathering the necessary ingredients, and then mixing them just right. This book contains information about Mr. Coppola's methods as a director, the costumes, the film-making techniques, the casting, the editing process, and the importance, though subtle in its effects, of thematic cohesion. What we found most interesting is the extent to which verisimilitude is pursued. Every detail necessary--from coins, to letters, to actual sets--is mocked up and then produced, so they are no longer mere props, but assume a reality of their own. Seeing is believing, and film has become a far more effective medium for suspending the disbelief of an audience.

Though there are literary tidbits throughout, this book is geared toward film fans. The wonderful images from the film by themselves are worth a look. It is also easy to read, and if you have never sunk your teeth into the novel, this book will give you a thorough overview of the story and its history.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Book Twenty-Six

The twenty-sixth book we read this year is Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated and with a biographical chronicle by M.D. Herter Norton. We picked this up at a sale on a whim, because once upon a dark and yearning time we had read and enjoyed some of Rilke's poetry and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

This is a collection of ten letters written by Rilke in response to a young aspiring poet who had sent him a letter and a poem for critique. We are shown only this side of the correspondence, though there is a brief introduction written by the aspiring poet. Rilke carefully and justifiably avoids any criticism of the poem, and instead goes on to explain why he does it, and how the poet should live and work.

There is little of a personal nature in his letters. The second half of the book consists of a chronicle that explains some of the things that were happening in Rilke's life during the time he wrote the letters, as well as gives some biographical background. This is a brief book, and easily could be read in one sitting.

We would recommend this book to writers, or anyone with creative intent. It provides a good outline of Rilke's theories on, among other things, poetry, life, God, and, with particular emphasis, the importance of solitude. Rilke did not have an easy life. Though faced often with difficulties, and intent on maintaining his principles, he does not seem to have pitied himself, or stopped pushing toward his goal of artistic creation. He appreciated both sides of everything.
And in fact artistic experience lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight.
Though the subject is not addressed in these letters, Rilke even made a conscious effort to embrace death.

In these letters, as in his poetry, Rilke wrote in a manner that Norton describes as
uncompromising and courageous and truthful, charming and kind....
Rilke strikes us as one of the most honest writers, and one who is wholly original in his observations. His description in later life of his experience writing prose in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge provides a nice example of his style:
In writing poetry, one is always aided and even carried away by the rhythm of exterior things; for the lyric cadence is that of nature: of the waters, the wind, the night. But to write rhythmic prose one must go deep into oneself and find the anonymous and multiple rhythm of the blood. Prose needs to be built like a cathedral; there one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help: on scaffoldings, alone with one's consciousness.
We believe there is a place in art for criticism; Rilke did not. He shares the most basic part of his reasoning in this quote, which we read more significantly as the reason art transcends all:
With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: ... most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious experiences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Book Twenty-Five

The twenty-fifth book we read this year is The Footnote: A Curious History, by Anthony Grafton. We picked it up because it sounded like an interesting subject, what the publisher describes as the weapon of pedants and the scourge of undergraduates.

Mr. Grafton places the origin, and current standard, of the modern footnote with Pierre Bayle in his Historical and Critical Dictionary of 1696. Mr. Grafton finds the form of citation expanded by Leopold von Ranke, and then polished by Edward Gibbon. The narrative of this book follows these authors, and a handful of others, through their classic works to highlight the development in style and purpose of footnotes.

Mr. Grafton likens footnotes to anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity. Their purpose, he says, is to offer the empirical support for stories told and arguments presented. A text persuades, and the footnotes prove. As would be expected, this curious history stands upon a firm foundation of footnotes. Unfortunately, most of the footnotes in this book are dry, and Mr. Grafton's prose is usually abstruse, as in this sample:
But the glacial history of practice challenges the dramatic tale of seismic disciplinary changes traditionally proclaimed in prefaces and manifestos and later retold in many histories of historiography.
Can anyone dispute that? Such sentences make it clear this book grew out of a dissertation, and would be better appreciated in an ivory tower than in our comfy chair. Noel Coward spoke for many an average reader who feels like footnotes are an interruption of the narrative when he said,
having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.
Other critics contend that a text with extensive footnotes does not offer the reader the results of research so much as the paraphernalia of learning, producing a display meant to make the scholar appear learned. Voltaire, in particular, often expressed a strong distaste for scholarly details. In 1743, Gottlieb Wilhelm Rabener published a book which consisted entirely of footnotes, because he admittedly sought only fame and fortune:
one wins these not by writing one's own text but by commenting on those of others.
While footnotes force scholars to dig deep into primary sources, there is no guarantee of the veracity of those sources. The history of a king written by a contemporary was as likely to contain myriad inaccuracies, since the author probably lacked insight into the motives of the king. Evidence, particularly in the history of the church, was regularly manipulated, as when Roman scholars, to meet the popular demand for the bones of martyrs, assembled skeletons from the remains in the catacombs, assigned them identities, and produced official documents to verify them. Often, as with the Donation of Constantine or the Letter of Aristeas, footnotes and the direct insertion of source material were put in the service of outright fraud. The most valuable research always includes a comparison of a variety of sources.

The demand for footnotes produces a paradox: one must write an original sentence and at the same time prove it has a source. Though detailed citations may be of extreme value in academic writing, we believe bibliographical references would serve in a work meant for public consumption. We can even appreciate the footnote that
retains obdurate nuggets of source material that refuse to be refined down.
We prefer above all footnotes that are fun and broaden the main text, as those in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Mr. Grafton's best footnote comes on the last page of his book. It is a quote from Harry Belafonte's story of self-education, and leaves us with a laugh. He discovers footnotes while reading W.E.B. Du Bois, and wants to pursue the references.
I went to a library with a long list of books. The librarian said, 'That's too many, young man. You're going to have to cut it down.' I said, 'I can make it very easy. Just give me everything you got by Ibid.'

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Book Twenty-Four

The twenty-fourth book we read this year is Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad, by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern.

The dust jacket calls these two formidable women the "Holmes and Watson" of antiquarian books. Ms. Rostenberg's experience began with an interest in history, and included a five-year apprenticeship in New York with a knowledgeable European dealer. In 1944 she entered the rare book business under her own name. Ms. Stern's experience began with an interest in literature. In 1945, she joined her friend as partner and protege.

Ms. Rostenberg's knowledge was gained mainly in apprenticeship, and she passed this on to Ms. Stern in the same way. This was the traditional method of learning and becoming expert in the business.
We observed too that many French firms were family affairs. ... When we first ventured overseas for books, we dealt, for example, with Clavreuil Pere and with Chamonal Pere. As the years passed, the sons took over. And now, alas, we find that many of the sons have gone, replaced in France by their sons--the grandsons of those who started us on our way.
It is a tradition that is slowly fading away. Peter B. Howard, owner of Serendipity Books and proud father of two nurses who are uninterested in antiquarian books, says that bookstores today are fragile things, and are almost always one-generational.

After the war, Europe offered many treasures to the intrepid book dealer.
The Old World might have been low on food and minus many of the comforts of life, but during the decade of 1947 to 1957 early printed books were available en masse.
Their focus began on the sixteenth century, and as years passed, and such books became harder to find, their focused shifted forward into the seventeenth century, and eventually into the eighteenth century. They were one of the few firms that traveled overseas right after the end of the war, and they became quite well known. Though they still venture abroad, they used diaries and correspondence on their trips during that first decade only. After that, travel and family had changed, and they were no longer alone among book dealers crossing the ocean in search of treasures.

The book is full of the characters of those European bookstores. The women record their impressions of the cities, and their excitement over their acquisitions. They did not record many specifics about the books, but this book includes retrospective narratives that embellish and detail their original writings. One of their diary entries offers a wonderful description of hunting through a bookshop:
The bated breath with which one glances at the shelves--the expectancy of taking down a vellum- or English calfback, the thrill of opening to a Renaissance titlepage with a charming woodcut or floral border--these are so inherent a part of the booktrade & such a pleasant concomitant of it that it is really a pity to buy just from catalogues.
Or, today, just from the internet.

Though they enjoyed the actual hunt, many of their own sales have been done by catalogue. And what they sell they first examine, absorb, and add to their wealth of knowledge, so they know much more than just books. Most sales of such antiquarian items are to institutions, not private collectors, and so with each sale the market becomes thinner and thinner. Many of the best books are now in permanent holdings. Though a thriving antiquarian market still exists, no longer is there the huge opportunity that Ms. Rostenberg and Ms. Stern enjoyed.

This book leaves us with the impression that these women were far more interested in the knowledge they could gain from old books than they profit they could make, though they were certainly able to earn a living at the business. They used that knowledge to write several other historical, biographical, and critical books on a variety of subjects that grew out of their original interests in history and literature. Just as importantly, they valued the knowledge and the friendliness of the dealers they visited, many of them year after year. An excursion to a single shop often lasted for two days and included exclusive access to special books, a guided tour of the bookshop, the owner's residence, the city, or all of them, and the sharing of a meal. The importance of these experiences are emphasized in the final sentence of this book:
The need and the love of books implies the need and the love of booksellers. They were--and, we add gratefully, they still are--inextricably bound one with the other.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Second Anniversary

Today begins the week-long celebration of the second anniversary of Mad About Books in its present incarnation. This has not been a profitable experience, but we are still open for business, and plans are to continue.

Bookselling is a lesson in patience. Some days sales are good, some not so good at all. What is interesting is when a book that has been languishing on the shelf for so many years, passed over by so many readers, can, at any time, become the one book for which someone has been searching for years. There is no way to tell when that time will come. Nor is there any way to induce that time. And one can prepare for that moment as best as possible, read up on all the popular books, know the market, probe the patrons for their preferences, and there will be absolutely no way to tell which will be the next book to be happily discovered.

There is continual discovery when surrounded by 20,000 books. At times someone will ask for a certain title, and we will look for it on the shelf, and to our surprise it will be there. Some titles, 1984 for instance, we have sold several times. We have specially ordered books for special patrons. We have donated hundreds of books to numerous places throughout the community. We have met interesting people and listened to hours of personal stories. We have known success and failure. We have considered relocating the business, selling the business, and expanding the business.

Our hope for the third year is that not only our own patrons but everyone incorporate books more fully into life. That doesn't even have to mean reading more: A. Edward Newton wrote,
I know no greater pleasure than to light a good cigar, throw myself in an easy chair, and let my eyes range over a wall covered with books.
Some people will spend three dollars a day on a cafe latte yet complain they can't afford the price of a new book. We say, skip a day and spend that three dollars on a used book that can be enjoyed longer than fifteen minutes--and in our shop get that coffee for free! Keep your old shoes for a while longer and buy a new book instead. Turn off the television and read. Make a habit of buying one book a week. Simply visit a bookshop and marvel at the world at your fingertips. Practise more often the necessary acts of devotion.

We look forward to our third anniversary. Nothing makes owning or visiting a bookshop more worth while than the excuse to go out and hunt for more books.

Friday, June 1, 2007


The June issue is now online, and it's BIGGER than ever. Go read up, and don't forget to check out our column From the Bookshop.