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Archive for February, 2013

Recalling 1963

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

We seem to be reveling in another nostalgic moment what with the big to-do over Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday and the accompanying look backs at his remarkable career. In that sort of spirit, I decided to look back 50 years ago to see what was happening in the literary world. I was just finishing up in college at the time and don’t believe that anything literary had much of an impact on my life. My, how times do change us.

For one thing in 1963, William Faulkner was still alive, so that meant that what would become his final novel, “The Reivers,” was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. It wasn’t the biggest bestseller of the year in fiction, however; that honor was shared by a pair of books, “The Shoes of the Fisherman” by Morris West and “The Group” by Mary McCarthy. McCarthy’s name and work survive in some fashion to this day, not sure that many remember Morris West. (If you’re curious, he was an Australian author who died in 1999. And “Fisherman” does have an odd connection to today’s events — it’s about the election of a new Pope.)

The other Pulitzer Prize-winning books of the year were Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of Henry James — a set that remains the most comprehensive account of the author’s life 50 years after it’s appearance — and Barbara Tuchman’s book about World War I, “The Guns of August,” another title that still shows up on current reader’s lists.

The Pulitzer for Poetry went to William Carlos Williams for his collection “Pictures from Brueghel.” But it was a sad year for poetry, because not only was 1963 the year of the death of Williams and Sylvia Plath but also the year that Robert Frost, arguably America’s greatest poet, died. Frost’s death was universally mourned, and half a century after his passing his work remains as vital and read as it was during his lifetime. I can think of no poet whose work has touched me more personally over the years than Frost.


And finally, 1963 marked the debut of a remarkable young novelist about whom almost nothing is known to this day, and no I’m not referring to J.D. Salinger.  The young author is Thomas Pynchon, whose “V” was published that year, heralding a career of great promise — and mystery.

1963 was indeed a most interesting literary year. Sorry if you happened to miss it.



Bookselling News

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Word got out recently that the bookselling behemoth Barnes & Noble plans to close about 300 stores over the next 10 years. That’s about one-third of its outlets nationally. The surprise news set off a new round of teeth-gnashing and chest-thumping from both supporters and opponents of the giant chain. Both responses seem perhaps a little over the top.

First, any news of book outlets closing cannot be considered good news by any stretch of the imagination. Our country has been in a book crisis for at least the last decade with hundreds of stores closing, independents and chains alike. Remembers Borders? Remember your local independent? Their loss has saddened those of us who hold the the somewhat outdated belief that a bookstore on every corner is the least mark of a flourishing civilization. And we still believe in dinosaurs, too, most of us.

Second, there inevitably will be the unpleasant reality that people will lose their jobs when these B&N outlets shut down. Since it’s supposed to be a gradual series of closings, perhaps there will be lots of warnings, but even so no one who is employed now and faces unemployment can be cheered by this news. It’s not good for anyone.

Of course, some will point to the aggressive moves of Barnes & Noble in the past, taking over communities where long-surviving independent book shops found themselves pushed out of business, crushed by B&N’s gigantic scale and a certain degree of corporate avariciousness. At the least, this has been unfortunate. And the retort to B&N is simply this: “you’re getting done to you what you did to us.” But while there may be a measure of satisfaction in that, this kind of revenge is hardly very agreeable nor desirable.

Over this last difficult decade, a lot of independent bookstores have learned how to survive. They taken the hard times, grasped them and grown from them, staking out a place for themselves a welcome and necessary position in their local communities. And honestly, many of the ones that have survived so far are far stronger than before. They have adapted some of the good things about B&N, and they are not likely to disappear, no matter what happens to their huge competitor.

Someone suggested that the real bad guy in all this is Starbucks. Why? Well, because it was the presence of the coffee giant inside the book giant that made the chain Barnes & Noble so increasingly desirable a stop for so a lot of people, many of them who cared little for books or magazines or anything else found on the shelves of B&N. There might be something to that; I know that if Dunkin Donuts had placed their shops inside B&N, I would be visiting far more B&N’s than I do these days.

And then there’s Amazon. The online bookseller (and seller of everything else) poses major challenges to brick and mortar stores, without question. Amazon’s sales impact chains and independents alike, though it’s difficult for me to see how the lack of more places to see books first-hand can easily translate into additional online sales.

The bottom line here seems to be not a very happy one. In my ideal world, we’d have more bookstores, not fewer. We’d have more readers, not fewer. We’d have more choices, not fewer. And Democrats and Republicans would get along in a “country first” determination. Call me a silly dreamer.