January 2009 Archives

It was twenty-five years ago this month, almost to the day, that I heard John Updike give a talk about books and reading that resonates with me as if he had delivered it yesterday. The occasion was the annual meeting of the National Book Critics Circle
courtesy Alfred A. Knopf
in New York, and Updike--who died this week at seventy-six--was on hand to accept an award for best work of literary criticism, a wonderful collection he had titled “Hugging the Shore.”

Updike was very gracious that night to the assembled book critics, who all looked up to him, I must say, as visiting royalty, which as America’s outstanding man of letters, he pretty much was. His talk, which lasted no more than ten minutes, was directed at what he called the “casual readers” among us. After taking a mild whack at the fickleness of literary fame and the unfairness of bestseller lists, he concluded with a plea for everyone to seek out from time to time “the underpublished wall flower on the edge of the dance floor and giving her a twirl, by reminding ourselves that literary delights are rarefied delights, that today’s blockbuster is tomorrow’s insulation, that books are at best a beacon in the darkness but at second-best a holiday that lasts and lasts.” The New York Times published the full text of his remarks a couple weeks later;  those interested in savoring it all can read it at this link.

Updike was always on my short list of authors I most wanted to interview for my weekly literary column, but he had a reputation for not talking too much to journalists about his writing, especially if the subject dealt with his many works of the imagination. His feeling, quite correctly, I think, was that fiction should pretty much speak for itself, though he did, from time to time, give some outstanding interviews, one, of particular merit, early in his career with the Paris Review.

But in 1996, I got my chance, and leaped at the opportunity offered by an Alfred A Knopf publicist. Updike had just published a charming little book of essays and magazine pieces he had written over the years about golf--the one abiding passion he had away from his typewriter. We met in Boston for lunch, had a splendid conversation, and I got my story (which is posted on my web site); true to form, I also brought along some books for him to inscribe--the book we had met to discuss, of course, “Golf Dreams,” but also “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Trust Me,” a collection of short stories. I have to say that what delighted me most of all about the ninety minutes we spent together was that he knew my book, “A Gentle Madness,” which had been published the previous year, and that he had enjoyed the brief segment I had written about his wonderful continuing character, the fictional novelist Henry Bech, “who had his friends, his fans, even his collectors.” (See AGM, pp. 54-55.)

I was already a serious Updike collector at that point, but I became even more determined after that, and am pleased to say that I have all of his trade books--and we are talking well over forty published volumes--except for that still elusive first book of his, “The Carpentered Hen.” What easily is my favorite Updike item, however, not any of these books, nor many dozen limited edition fine press titles he has authorized over the years, but a piece of ephemera I got on December13, 2001--for me, it was a lucky Friday 13th--at Boston Athenaeum, one of the world’s great membership libraries.

The occasion was a reception arranged by Luke Ives Pontifell, owner of the Thornwillow Press, to announce the forthcoming release of a limited edition book he was publishing of three Updike stories, to be be printed by letterpress on hand-made paper, bound in leather, and issued in an edition of 250 signed and numbered copies--$650 each if ordered in advance of publication, $850 afterward. A prospectus with all of the salient information printed on beautiful paper was stacked on a table near the lovely hors d’oeuvres that had been spread out. I helped myself to a couple of them, and walked up to Updike, who was enjoying a glass of red wine by himself in a corner of the room. “Ah, the bookman,” he said with abundant good cheer, and wrote a lovely inscription on one of them, which I share with you herewith.

There is a poem in Tuesday’s New York Times, “Requiem,” taken from Updike’s forthcoming collection, “Endpoint and Other Poems,” to be published by Knopf. “For life’s a a shabby subterfuge,” he writes: “And death is real, and dark, and huge.”
Richard Yates, the author of the critically acclaimed novel “Revolutionary Road,” died in 1992 at the age of 66, a good three years before Amazon.com sold its first book online, and redefined forever the way people around the world would go about shopping for so much of their bookish needs.
Richard Yates, photo by Thomas Victor

As of 11:30 this morning, Amazon ranked  the special “movie tie-in” paperback edition of “Revolutionary Road” (Vintage Contemporaries, $14.95) at 46 on its list of top sellers--a list that includes, by rank, millions of available titles--and pegged the just-issued one-volume hardcover edition of “Revolutionary Road, “The Easter Parade,” and “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” (Everyman’s Library/Knopf, $26) at 656. Sales figures for paperback editions of Yates’s other books are equally robust, a circumstance that would undoubtedly have caused this man universally admired during his lifetime as a “writer’s writer” to smile with wry amusement at the fickleness of it all.

I’m sure, too, that Yates would smile at the success of the film version of his 1961 novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and while he might grouse over a beer or two at his favorite haunt in Boston’s Back Bay--the Crossroads Irish Pub at 495 Beacon St--about the movie’s being snubbed this week for an Oscar nomination, he would quickly point out that he didn’t write the filmscript, somebody else did.

Much has been made in recent years of the fact that not one of Yates’s books ever sold more than 12,000 copies in his lifetime, a circumstance regarded as especially egregious for a man who contemporaries such as William Styron, Alfred Kazin , Robert Stone, and Andre Dubus looked up to as a model of perfection. This irksome paradox, in fact, was one of the central points of a discussion I had with Yates on Dec. 17, 1981, in Boston.

We got together that day to discuss the recent release of “Liars in Love,” Yates’s seventh book, and his first collection of stories since “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” had been published some twenty years earlier. In the newspaper column I later wrote, I riffed at some length on such concepts as literary respect and commercial success, and quoted a piece from Saturday Review that had described Yates as a writer with “astonishing skill and a robust intelligence,” a craftsman whose “prose is urbane yet sensitive, with passion and irony held deftly in balance.” How was it possible, I wondered--and I asked Yates this directly--that so many critics and authors held him in such high esteem, while the buying public, for the most part, had no idea at all who he was.

Yates thought for a few moments and took a sip of his beer before answering. Being called a “writer’s writer” pleased him a great deal, to be sure, but “I’d much rather be known as a reader’s writer, and I don’t mean for the money or the fame,” he said. “It’s having the reader that counts. It is indeed painful not to have as many readers as I’d like. If you asked me how to go about writing a best seller, I’d say I haven’t the slightest idea. What I do when I write is to sharpen a lot of pencils and do the best I can.”

We covered a lot of ground in that interview--in fact, I’ll be getting the entire piece posted on my web site later in the week, so check back in a couple days, if you’re interested in reading it--but the final quote I used as my kicker is the one that lingers with me. I asked him what it was about the human condition that drove him to develop so many sad and lonely characters. “Perhaps,” he said, “because sad and lonely people are more interesting than happy people. Loneliness does not mean just physical loneliness. I would think it means a sense of being separated from the main stream of the world.”

yates_inscription.jpgTowards the end of our long liquid lunch I asked Dick Yates to inscribe my copy of “Liars in Love,” which he did most generously, and which I include herewith.

Needless to say, I very quickly became a zealous Dick Yates collector, and given the relative disinterest in his books at the time, had no trouble acquiring first edition copies of all of his books in fine condition, and at very good prices. His best known effort remains “Revolutionary Road,” which was shortlisted for the National Book Award given in 1962 for work published in 1961, along with Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” J. D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” Bernard Malamud’s “A New Life,” William Maxwell’s “The Chateau,” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories,” and the winner that year--in my view one of the truly outstanding years in the annals of American fiction--Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.”

For the record, I paid $50 for my copy of “Revolutionary Road.” A search of abebooks.com this morning shows four first edition copies available for sale: one, inscribed, is going for $6,500; two good-plus copies, without signatures, list for $800 and $900 respectively. Now that kind of approbation, I assure you, would please Dick Yates in no small measure.
Much has been made over the past couple of weeks on the matter of two presidents--one being sworn in tomorrow, the other heading back to Texas after eight years in the Oval Office--and what they have read, or what at the very least they are said by others to have read.

Barack Obama arrived in Bozeman, Mont., for a campaign rally in May 2008 carrying Fareed Zakaria’s “The Post-American World.”
Doug Mills/The New York Times
The most penetrating piece thus far, by the Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michiko Kakutani, appears in today’s New York Times, and focuses on the books that have helped to shape the character and inform the evolving convictions of Barack Obama. She cites specific works Obama has discussed in his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father”--the writings of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, the Bible, Shakespeare, Melville, Toni Morrison among them-- as having been particularly influential. “Mr Obama tends to take a magpie approach to reading,” Kakutani writes, “ruminating upon writers’ ideas and picking and choosing those that flesh out his vision of the world or open promising new avenues of inquiry.”

Quite apart from this, of course, has been the widely discussed influence of “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the way Abraham Lincoln selected a cabinet of independent thinkers, on Obama’s own policy of reaching out to former opponents to staff his inner circle, a circumstance that has propelled a book published four years ago back to the top of all major best seller lists.

On the matter of George W. Bush, there has been, in the waning days of his administration, a determined attempt by Karl Rove--the former chief adviser to the 43rd president and the proclaimed “architect” of both his presidential victories--to depict his former boss as a voracious devourer of books with whom he maintained a running competition to see who could read more. “There is a myth perpetuated by Bush critics that he would rather burn a book than read one,” Rove lamented in an OpEd piece for the Wall Street Journal. “Mr Bush loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.”

My 2005 book, “Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World,”  examined what important and influential people have read through history, and included an extended riff on presidents; I write, for instance, about how much we can learn about John Adams--according to David McCullough, the greatest presidential reader of them all, superior, in his view, even to the outstanding “bibliophile president,” Thomas Jefferson--by reading the copious annotations he carefully penned in the margins of his books, which are now housed in the Boston Public Library, and which were the subject of a fabulous exhibition there a couple of years ago. (A Fine Books & Collections column I wrote about this is included in “Editions & Impressions.”)

To mark the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln next month, I will have in the forthcoming issue of the FB&C newsletter an appreciation of the books this most famous of self-educated Americans used to prepare himself for greatness, most notably one work in particular he walked twelve miles to acquire as a young man in New Salem, Illinois. I call the essay “Honest Abe’s Book of Grammar.”

Whether we are what we read is a judgment we must all make for ourselves; I, for one, subscribe to the old saw wholeheartedly.
The National Endowment for the Arts has released a new survey with the exciting news that “literary” reading in the United States has gone up 3.5 percent over the past seven years, an encouraging disclosure that reverses a trend first identified in 1982, and supported by findings in several subsequent reports.

Aptly titled Reading on the Rise--the last report in 2002 was called Reading at Risk--the new survey shows the most dramatic improvement among young adults aged 18-24, with a 9 percent spike over the previous period. “This jump,” according to the report, “reversed a 20 percent decline in the 2002 survey, the steepest rate of decline since the NEA survey began.” That study also showed that adult readers had fallen from 54 percent to 46.7percent.

Among ethnic groups and minorities, reading has also shown dramatic increases among Hispanics and African-Americans, and for the first time in the quarter-century history of the periodic survey, “literary reading” has increased among both men and women.

This is all splendid, of course, and I embrace it with great pleasure, though I do have one quibble, the same one I had when the last survey was released seven years ago, that involving the murky matter of what, exactly, constitutes “literary reading.”  By the definition offered by the NEA, a person can be defined as a “literary reader” if he or she reads “novels, short stories, poems or plays” of any kind--fictional works and works of the imagination, in other words--and this includes every conceivable genre in addition to the kinds of “serious” works that we typically regard as being literary, be they mystery, horror, fantasy, whatever.

While I have no complaint whatsoever with this conceptually-read what you like, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all the same to me--but to suggest that if what you like happens to be, let’s say, a wonderful biography of Charles Darwin or Emily Dickinson, or a penetrating history of the Great Depression, or a trenchant work of art criticism, then it doesn’t track, according to this paradigm, even if the name of the author you admire is David McCullough or Barbara Tuchman, you still do not qualify as a “literary reader.” So does that make a person who prefers nonfiction to fiction any less of a reader than someone who devours romance paperbacks they pick up at the supermarket, or more to the point, does that offer a balanced report card of a nation’s reading habits? I don’t believe so, which is why I think these surveys should look more thoroughly at the kinds of books that people read on a regular basis, and not just as a subset of what’s passing out there these days as “literary” works.

Other than that, how can you knock a finding that discloses a “slight majority” of American adults--113 million people--now reading literature? All in all, this is a great report for Dana Gioia, the outgoing chairman of the NEA, whose Big Read initiative has brought reading programs to millions of people throughout America. They’ve been a stunning success.
A book I chose last month as one of my Nick’s Picks for 2008, Timothy W. Ryback’s Hitler’s Library, finally got noticed a few days ago by the New York Times Book Review--long gone are the days when America’s newspaper of record reviews newly issued books of importance in a timely fashion--and the piece, published some three months after the book’s official release, has occasioned a sudden flurry of comment among members of the ex libris news and discusssion group, an online forum made up mostly of librarians, booksellers, collectors and other assorted book people, and an essential window, in my view, into what’s going on in the book world.

Of initial interest to the contributors was surprise among so many of them not only that several thousand of Adolf Hitler’s personal books had survived the destruction and looting of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II, but also that a good number of them are housed today in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Early into the thread, one contributor mentioned my book, A Gentle Madness, and the profile I wrote of Walter Pforzheimer, an extraordinary bookman and lifelong Central Intelligence Agency officer who died in 2003 at 88 (see New York Times obit, or far better yet, read my take on him in AGM, pp. 362-368.)

Pforzheimer’s name came up in the ex libris thread by virtue of an admission he made to me in a 1990 interview I had with him concerning five books he said he had taken from HItler’s Chancellery office in August 1945. He told me he gave one of the books to the Army officer who had cut his orders for the assignment to Berlin, donated another to the Grolier Club in New York, of which he was a grateful member, presented a third to his alma mater, Yale University, where several notable collections he built are now housed, and kept the remaining two for himself, one of which--Robert Allmers’s Kampf Battle Um Thurant--he showed to me, and which I photographed. (My guess is that these two volumes from the shelves of Pforzheimer’s remarkable Watergate apartment--the floors had been reinforced to his specifications with extra steel beams to support the heavy load of books--went to the Beinecke Library at Yale along with the 15,000-volume “spy” collection he gave to the university, arguably the best of its kind anywhere.)

Without getting too specific here--those who are interested in the various arguments being put forth should check them out on the ex libris site--I would like to address briefly a question that has been raised regarding the propriety of Pforzheimer having taken a few books from the chancellery, and his justification for doing so. I went back to the tape I made of the interview, and Pforzheimer is pretty clear in what he said to me. (As a condition of granting me the interview, I might add that he insisted on seeing what I wrote about him before publication, something I very rarely agree to do, but did so in this instance, given the highly sensitive nature of our discussion--and because I really wanted to talk to him about his collecting.)

Pforzheimer told me that each of the books he took were not works of any apparent rarity, that all bore the personal bookplate of Hitler, and that most contained a personal inscription to Hitler from the authors--meaning that they were not the property of the defeated (and by then defunct) Nazi government, but the private property of the deceased former dictator, a subtle yet significant point, I think, in this context. “I was in this fellow’s office in Berlin, and a few of these things were lying around,” Pforzheimer said, dead-pan. “I didn’t think the Fuhrer was going to be needing them anymore,” and so “I took five out with me.” End of story.

As a coda to the story, I should note that none of these books were ever sold on the open market, and other than the volume that went to the officer who cut Pforzheimer’s orders--of which we know nothing--it can safely be said that all are now in institutional collections. “I was acting instinctively,” he explained, “that’s all.”

It’s always pretty sad when we note the passing of a great book store, as happened to be the case in 2007 when the Gotham Book Mart, long a cultural landmark in Midtown Manhattan, took its last breath, ending a tradition that went back to 1920, exiting, finally, with what appeared at the time to be a quiet whimper.

It wasn’t a pleasant sight to watch, the slow, agonizing demise of an institution that had welcomed thousands of bookseekers over the years with a sign above the door that proclaimed, wonderfully, that “Wise Men Fish Here.” Founded by the legendary bookseller Frances Steloff, the Gotham occupied a number of locations over the years, all of them within  a two-block area bounded by West 45th and West 47th Streets. In time it became the haunt of such literati as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, Dylan Thomas, Salvador Dali, J. D. Salinger, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Stephen Spender, Elizabeth Bishop, John Updike--the list is endless.

In 1967, Miss Steloff sold the store, by then a literary salon in the grand tradition, to Andreas Brown, a bookseller, like herself, with a deep passion for authors and literature, but she very much remained a presence until her death in 1989 at the age of 101. I became a regular parishioner in 1978, the year I started making the first of many annual trips to New York for meetings of the National Book Critics Circle and to attend awards ceremonies of the National Book Awards. My hotel of choice in those days, of course--where else?-- was the Algonquin at 59 West 44th St., a three or four minute walk from the Gotham, and thus a requisite stop whenever I was in town. Before long I developed a nodding acquaintance with Miss Steelof, who was always seated on a stool behind the counter. (I also became a pal of the famous Algonquin Cat, an urban feline who patrolled the lobby of the hotel with as much elan as the many celebrity writers who held court in the cozy bar, but that, as they say, is another story.) 

The painful tale of the store’s wrenching decline need not be recounted here in any depth. Google it, if you wish, it’s all there for the finding, but very much old news, as far as I’m concerned. What is new, and what is truly exciting, and perhaps even unprecedented for an antiquarian book store is the report that the 200,000 books and related materials from the store’s general stock representing a veritable treasure trove of twentieth century literature have been purchased by an anonymous buyer for $400,000 and given to the University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Among the treasures en route to Philadelphia, beginning this week, are items from the personal libraries of Anais Nin and Truman Capote, but most exciting of all are the surprises that will reveal themselves as the boxes are opened, cataloged, and made available to new generations of students and readers. According to an announcement made by the university, the gift includes uncorrected proofs, advance reader’s copies, publicity material, photographs, posters, broadsides, publishing ephemera, and postcards.

“The collection is so big that no single person from the university has really seen it,” Penn curator of rare books Daniel Traister told the Philadelphia Inquirer. David McKnight, director of the library, agreed. “It’s our New Year’s baby,” he said. “It’s going to be accessible to Philadelphians. Our doors are open.”
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