Haunting the Old, Finding the New
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
I’ve just returned from a month and a half of travels that kicked off with the Frankfurt Book Fair in mid-October. The mood at Frankfurt—which took place before many of the latest gyrations in the publishing industry—was decidedly somber. European publishers were more upbeat than their American counterparts, but the number of big books ready for American publishers to pluck from the branches of German or French or Italian orchards was smaller this year than in the past. One hundred fewer exhibitors dotted the ten cavernous halls at the Buch Messe. Still, I found a few big books and have placed my bids. Among them are Lech Walesa’s autobiography, Günter Grass’s new novel, and Volker Schlondorff’s autobiography.
After Frankfurt, I journeyed to Nashville for the Modernist Studies Association (where I enjoyed the fruits of Music City as much or maybe more than the conference itself), Chicago (where I live) to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, New York City for the launch of one of our books and for numerous meetings, and to Boston for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, where I spoke on publishing and saw many, many old friends. While I was in these various locales, I had an opportunity to visit some of the bookstores I have haunted in the past.
In Nashville, I visited Davis-Kidd Bookstore, in Green Hills Mall, and was sorely disappointed. Once one of the best independent bookstores in the South, Davis-Kidd now resembles any generic chain bookstore in a mall. It is a gaunt shadow of its former self, lacking the charm of the small Southern bookstore it once did. No longer can you find scores of books by Southern authors. In fact, there were no titles from Louisiana State University Press’ distinguished “Voices of the South” series to be found anywhere, and the store used to carry almost all of the titles in the series. The store’s section of regional books is now consigned to a dark corner hidden behind the totchkes and t-shirts. The fiction section is even smaller than a fiction section in a large Borders store, and you can no longer find an author’s backlist titles on the shelves—as you once could—but only an author’s frontlist titles, if you’re lucky. Once upon a time I could never leave this store without an armload of books; this time, I left the store empty-handed. One of the real treats of a visit to Nashville—in addition to a bountiful breakfast at Loveless Café or a night of music at the Opry—used to be a visit to Davis-Kidd. Next time I’m in Nashville, though, I’m afraid I’ll not darken the doors of Davis-Kidd.
I was in New York City for ten days in late November. In addition to my many meetings with publishers and authors, I visited some of my favorite bookstores. I’ve written in an earlier column about some of NYC’s great bookstores. Their numbers, of course, have been greatly diminished. Coliseum, Gotham Book Mart, and all those marvelous used book stores between Broadway and Fourth Avenue, just around 12th Street, are now simply fond memories. I did visit St. Mark’s Bookshop, a funky little independent on 9th Street and 3rd Avenue. Its collections of philosophy, cultural studies, and art books are among the best in the city. The store has a huge collection of journals, and it doesn’t sell coffee or totchkes. St. Mark’s is one of the few sellers of books left on the planet.
Of course, I stopped by The Strand, the cavernous store on Broadway and 12th where books stretch for miles and miles. Every time I’ve been in The Strand it’s shoulder-to-shoulder shopping, and this time—the Sunday before Thanksgiving—was no different. For a song, I picked up a couple of out of print books on Kafka. If you’re ever in NYC, The Strand is a must visit. I was disappointed, though, when I visited one of my favorite book haunts.
Every time I’m in the city—which is less now than I’d like to be—I visit Book Culture, formerly called Labyrinth, on 112th Street, near Columbia University. I can usually count on this store to have those hard-to-find philosophy or literary criticism books, as well as those novels and books of poetry that chain stores simply won’t carry any more. On my recent visit, though, the store was in great disarray. Perhaps it was because it was the end of the semester and the employees were busy stripping the shelves and packing up books to return to publishers, or perhaps it was because the store was still being transformed by its new owners to appeal to a broader audience (Columbia University’s book store, owned by Barnes and Noble, as so many college stores are these days, is only four blocks north of Book Culture), but the shelves were bare in some sections. I had held off buying a copy of a book by Theodor Adorno at the Union Square B&N because I knew I could find it at Book Culture, and I prefer to support independent bookstores, not chains or online booksellers. To my great surprise, Book Culture did not have the book on its shelves (I did buy the book from St. Mark’s the day after Thanksgiving), and I had a difficult time finding much of anything in the philosophy section since books were out of order and there were even novels on the shelves of the philosophy section. Regrettably, the disarray in the store may also be a sign of the continuing economic downturn for publishers and booksellers, and one hopes that Book Culture doesn’t soon go the way of Gotham Book Mart. I’ll likely return to Book Culture when I’m back in NYC, and I’ll do so with a hopeful heart that the store has returned to its former glory.
In spite of these disappointments with Davis-Kidd and Book Culture, I did pick up two books from friends at other publishers that fill me with hope, for these two books indicate that publishers continue their commitment to providing quality literature to readers. James Wood’s How Fiction Works is an update on E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. An elegant writer, and now the literary critic at The New Yorker, Wood resurrects the notion of close reading and encourages us drink deeply from fiction’s well. Mark Harman’s new translation of Kafka’s Der Verschollene is indeed a publishing event. Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod, gave this manuscript, unfinished at Kafka’s death (though it was the first novel he started to write) the title, Amerika, which it has since been known. Harman gives the novel the title that more accurately reflects the German—The Missing Person—and captures in his translation much of the humor and the pathos that the Muirs’ earlier translation missed. Both of these books—about which I’ll be writing at length in future columns—offer some real hope that literary gems can continue to be found in the rough hewn mines of today’s publishing industry.
Books mentioned in this column
Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka, trans. by Mark Harman (Schocken)
How Fiction Works by James Wood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.