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Archive for July, 2011

Goodbye Borders

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

So Borders is done. The nation’s second largest book retailer begins going out of business on July 22. It’s a sad time. And then again, it isn’t, particularly.

My sadness and regret are reserved for Borders’ 11,000 employees. In an economy like ours, losing your job is hardly a small matter. I wish each of them well and am sorry they were undone by management that, in the words of one newspaper, “lost a battle with competitors, with technology and with itself.” As for the demise of Borders, however, I shed no tears nor do I bemoan what this means for the state of literacy, publishing or reading in our nation.

Borders was, at least in its last decade, a bookstore chain that dumbed itself down. Its cavernous display spaces were increasingly given over to books of the least import, to calendars, to gifts, to toys, to a handful of bestsellers. Its stock — once a literate browser’s delight — became smaller and vapid. When e-books came along, Borders was among the last and least to get involved. And throughout it all, too many of the company stores maintained a management attitude compounded of ignorance, arrogance and ineptitude. Borders is now disappearing? That’s neither a surprise or a disappointment to me. Last one out be sure to turn off the lights.

Where there are losers, there will be winners. And this just may be a wonderful opportunity for those gutty independent bookstores that have held on over the last 20 years in the face of the big-box stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble with all the economic advantages publishers lavished on them. Maybe those same publishers will reawaken to the independents; if so, some of those good Borders employees may be able to find some worthy new jobs. I know from personal experience that a few publishers desperately urged the Center for the Book to use Borders for our book sales at author events, at the expense of independents  — even though Borders repeatedly proved either disinterested or unwilling to cooperate with us. That’s ok, too; we like independents.

So, if you’ve got one of those Borders gift cards, here’s some advice: better use it fast. The stores could be closed in less than two months. And while you’re in Borders, say something nice to those employees; they didn’t deserve this. And then go buy a book somewhere. And think of what could have been.

Your thoughts?

The Little Woman Who Made the Great War

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

We’ve been observing the 75th anniversary of the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Gone With the Wind” recently. There’s been a lot of hoopla, and a lot of things about the author and her novel have popped up for discussion. But one of the areas that hasn’t been talked about much figures into a fascinating new book that deserves some attention: “Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America” by the distinguished American cultural historian David S. Reynolds.

We know that Margaret Mitchell had a story she wanted to put down in print, and that she produced a page-turner that became a huge best-seller. But nearly a century before, another female author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, produced a novel that created a national furor even more so, and a book that Mitchell wrote largely in reply to Stowe, according to Dr. Reynolds. At one point, Mitchell wrote to one of her fans, “I am happy to learn that Gone With the Wind is helping to dispel the myth of the South that Uncle Tom’s Cabin created.”

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in fact, remains arguably the most iconic novel ever produced by an American writer. Its influence in the days leading up to the Civil War — the novel was published n 1852 after being serialized the year before — can hardly be overstated (President Lincoln is said to have commented when he met Stowe in 1862, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?”). Her novel nourished the anti-slavery movement in the North and added a powerful morality to the arsenal of belief there as it engaged and enraged slaveholders below the Mason-Dixon line. Two other notable books were published at the same time as Stowe’s — Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” — were neither had anything like the the success or impact of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” then or since, Reynolds writes.

Reynolds examines the sources of Stowe’s book; she said she used slave narratives and other materials. But Reynolds says she could not disclose the truth: that she knew and took stories from men who aided runaway slaves, and whose actions defied the existing laws, men who if publicly identified could be subject to arrest or worse. Her fictional portraits had a basis in real life; and though it infuriated most southerners in the 1850s, she gave two of her southern characters in the novel anti-slavery feelings, openly expressed. She was writing, argues Reynolds, that it was the system of slavery that was evil, not those who were involved in it.

Reynolds traces thoroughly and with some curious sidelights the impact of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the century and a half since its publication, beginning with the “Tom” plays that were produced all over the country in the post-Civil War years, moving to Thomas Dixon’s virulently anti-Negro novels (“The Leopard’s Spot,” “The Clansman”) that were the inspiration for D.W. Griffith’s cinematically important but grossly distorted 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” and even to the cartoons of Tex Avery and Mickey and Minnie Mouse. It is fascinating and revealing, and it will likely come as a revelation for many readers.

Reynolds’ book has just been published by W.W. Norton. You can find it in your library or bookstore. It is a powerful, well-researched narrative that in some ways offers readers another way of interpreting “Gone With the Wind” within a broader historical context. I recommend it strongly.