Books All Georgians Should Read

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Archive for November, 2010

Thanks to All

Monday, November 29th, 2010

My mother’s advice never varied: “Don’t ever be boastful.”

So I’m not going to talk about the “official” publication of my new book “Whisky, Kilts, and the Loch Ness Monster: Traveling through Scotland with Boswell and Johnson.” I’ll be doing enough of that next Monday evening, December 6, at 7:15 in the Decatur Library Auditorium. You’re all warmly invited.

Instead, I want to thank some of the people who made the book’s publication possible. For one, there’s Darro Willey, the now-retired director of the DeKalb County Public Library, who helped me get the time off it took to spend several months in Scotland researching the book. And then there are the folks at the Decatur Library, particularly the reference librarians, who put up with all my questions and found some of those rare old books I was trying to track down.

Then there’s Richard Lenz and his staff at Lenz Marketing in Decatur. Richard, who serves on the advisory council for the Georgia Center for the Book, has helped the organization in many measurable and intangible ways, and he endorsed this project from the start. He and his terrific staff — especially graphic artist Matt Tinsley — helped make the book’s production happen in ways I could never have imagined or hoped. Matt cleverly designed the book jacket and the endpapers and the chapter maps, and in the procress he turned the manuscript into a handsome, appealing book. You’ll see what I mean when you pick up the boook (as I hope you will).

Everyone at the university of South Carolina Press did their usual professional job of editing and supporting their author. I’m very grateful to them and to all of the perceptive early readers and the authors/scholars who were willing to praise the book publicly.

Finally, to end this brief thankfest, I’m grateful to the dozens of people around Scotland who welcomed me, a stranger on a bizarre quest, as if I were a long-lost friend. I’d like to think they did it because they were so utterly charmed by me. But the truth is, I suspect, that’s simply and honestly the way most of the Scottish people are. Bless ’em all.

The Closing of a Bookstore

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

The closing of a book store hardly seems worth headlines any longer. There have been so many over the last decade, a lot of them quite publicly mourned, a few folding quietly. It’s been happening not only to the independent stores but also lately in increasing numbers to the three big chains: Borders, Barnes and Noble and Books A Million. The most recent to be shutting its doors is a Borders just outside the 285 Perimeter on Ashford-Dunwoody Road.

I’ve always been a fan of the independents, but I hate to see this happening to any store. I’ve shopped a bit at this Borders. It’s been a rather unremarkable store, with a pretty good backlist (the heart of any good store) and occasional specials that made a purchase seem worthwhile. I’ve never seen a big crowd inside. But the other day during the going-out-of-business sale, it was almost mobbed. I suppose that’s a good thing — people buying books — but when I looked more closely it seemed they really weren’t buying a lot of books: they were purchasing games, stationery, videos, magazines. Almost everything but books.

My observations hardly count as a scientific survey. They offer only anecdotal thoughts; after all, I haven’t been behind the cashier’s desk every day to get a more accurate accounting. But it sure seemed the book shelves were sill heavily weighted with unclaimed books of all sorts. And what I saw wasn’t very cheering for those who worry about a decline of reading and growing disinterest in the printed word. Yes, I know the electronic reading devices are popular now. I hope their growth overrides a decline in reading books, but I’m not optimistic. And I didn’t notice a lot of those devices disappearing from the store, either.

So, should we care about the closing of one Borders store (when there are several others still open around the city)? I know some independent bookstore owners and customers may rejoice — I understand that — but I see it as more of a loss for everyone who believes in and cares about books. It’s one less place to go and put your hands on a printed document. It’s a tactile loss, perhaps. We can all go to Amazon or other online stores, but I occasionally wonder if ultimately they’ll wind up being the marketplaces for the digital word only.

Publishing has always been a shaky business model, never more so than these days when publishers don’t seem to know which end is up and which way they want to go. I fear that closings like this one may hasten a decision affecting printed books that I’m not ready to confront. It’s not a good feeling.

Maybe you feel otherwise.

The South as “America?”

Monday, November 15th, 2010

You can always count on Jim Cobb for an intriguing analysis of history. Jim is one of the finest historians of the American South anywhere on the planet, and his opinions don’t always seem to match up to the so-called “common wisdom.” That’s never bothered him in the slightest, but it has made his books a particular pleasure for those who don’t mind their history being occasionally cluttered and complex. The history of the South is certainly that, and Jim Cobb has written a handful of books pointing out why that’s the truth.

His latest is a wonderfully comprehensive yet concise book, “The South and America Since World War II,” just released by Oxford University Press.  It’s a book all about change. The South of 1945 is in many ways scarcely recognizable in 2010. The cultural, political and economic landscapes have been turned upside down — literally. Jim Crow laws that dominated the region at the end of the war have been, thankfully, dismantled. An agricultural-based economy now bends toward a striking diversity that has fueled phenomenal growth. And the once-solid Democratic south is now almost solidly Republican.

So, from the perspective of 2010, has the South become more “American” over the years, or has America simply become more southern? It’s a question Jim Cobb confronts head-on and which has no easy answers. He writes that while the South has indeed made dramatic progress in many areas, “measured against a great many mathematical averages and other quantifiable national standards, the southern states still appear with distressing frequency to be down in the rankings where it’s good to be up, and vice versa.” And there are still calls for “secession” from figures as notable as the governor of Texas, and instances of racial regression that make one wonder if the South will ever grow up. And yet…..

Jim writes that for all the transformations, the “fundamental reality of Dixie was every bit as “America” in 1941  as it is today.” Finding Massachusetts as deficient in some important areas as Mississippi makes neither less regrettable. and he concludes this way: “Anyone who has not slept through the past forty years and still insists that the South’s shortcomings are  manifestly different in substance, and now largely even in degree, from those of the rest of the nation must be possessed of a steely determination not necessarily to see the South only at its worst but simply to see America only at its best.”  There’s a lot of evidence, he says, that America has been southern for a long, long time.

Agree? I think Jim wouldn’t object to your disagreement. But before you do that, take a close look through the new book. At the very least, it’s full of throught-provoking analysis about who we are and how we got to where we are. It’s not simple. But it’s fascinating. Really.