Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Strand Bookstore

My browsing life

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The author's library, temporarily unshelved

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 16, 2013.

I’m grateful for a lot of things in life, but if there’s one blessing I could stand to appreciate more, it’s that owning a home full of books is still a socially acceptable form of hoarding. If I were addicted to buying kitten statues or cartons of discount detergent, I’d look a little crazy, but keeping more books around the house than I could ever possibly need just makes me look cultured and smart—or so I’d like to believe. I’ve bought maybe five to ten books a month since I was old enough to spend my own money, and the number has often been much higher: back in New York, when I lived only a short train ride from the Strand and its amazing dollar bin, I probably bought twice that amount, and occasionally even more. And I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that I love buying books for their own sake, and not necessarily because I intend to read most of them cover to cover. (It’s an urge that can only be satisfied with physical books, the older and dustier the better: after more than a year and a half, I don’t think I’ve bought more than ten books for my Kindle.)

Looking around my office now, I’d say I own about a thousand books. This a rough estimate, based on the assumption that I have fifty shelves with twenty books each, which almost certainly undercounts the true number. It also doesn’t include my wife’s two hundred books or so, which live in a separate room: even after close to four years of marriage, we still haven’t integrated our libraries, and we probably never will, given my own obsessive tendencies. The number used to be much larger, too. Before my move to Chicago, I forced myself to reduce my library to what I could fit in six large boxes, meaning that I donated or gave away something like five hundred books. How those six boxes multiplied to fill fifty shelves in less than four years is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve, although the fact that I’ve bought a hundred books a year in the meantime might be a clue. And while my acquisitive tendencies have been slightly reduced by the birth of our daughter—I just don’t have as much time to go to bookstores—it isn’t hard to foresee a future in which the house has been totally taken over by books, a prospect that fills me with delight, although my wife seems a little less enthusiastic.

The author's library

As for how many books I’ve read—well, that’s another question entirely. Even under the most generous assumptions, it’s unlikely that I’ve read more than a couple of thousand books in my adult life, and I obviously acquire books at a greater pace than I could ever hope to finish them. I’m reading all the time, but my browsing tendencies are evident here as well: at any given moment, I usually have one big literary novel I’m trying to finish, a paperback thriller, and four or five nonfiction books in various stages of completion. (These days, for instance, I’m halfway through Infinite Jest, The Fist of God, Inventors at Work, and the letters of Maxwell Perkins, and I’m still technically reading Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation.) Most of the books on my shelves have been read at least in part, and I take comfort in the fact that they’re always there to be browsed through again. I’ll often pull a random volume from the shelf and leaf through it for a few minutes to relax, and I try to make some quality time now and then for my eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The bottom line is that I’m clearly more of a browser than a reader, and I’m comfortable with this. You see it in every aspect of my life, from the small to the large: it’s possible that I became a novelist mostly as a way to rationalize my browsing. As a result, I’ve become very protective of it. Browsing is an art form, like loafing, that has been compromised by modern technology: it’s properly done in a comfortable chair, with a cup of coffee or something similar, with a book—or a stack of them—that has already passed through the hands of many other readers. Ideally, the book should be a little tattered or yellowed, which makes it seem happy for the attention, even if it’s never going to be read straight through. It requires a fine appreciation of opening a book to a middle and seeing where it takes you, or flirting a bit with a few tempting prospects before committing yourself to an after-dinner read. Above all, it demands a love of the arcane, the obscure, the obsolete, and the useless. And while it’s satisfying enough when done for only a minute or two, it expands to last a lifetime.

Written by nevalalee

May 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

My browsing life

with 5 comments

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

I’m grateful for a lot of things in life, but if there’s one blessing I could stand to appreciate more, it’s that owning a home full of books is still a socially acceptable form of hoarding. If I were addicted to buying kitten statues or cartons of discount detergent, I’d look a little crazy, but keeping more books around the house than I could ever possibly need just makes me look cultured and smart—or so I’d like to believe. I’ve bought maybe five to ten books a month since I was old enough to spend my own money, and the number has often been much higher: back in New York, when I lived only a short train ride from the Strand and its amazing dollar bin, I probably bought twice that amount, and occasionally even more. And I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that I love buying books for their own sake, and not necessarily because I intend to read most of them cover to cover. (It’s an urge that can only be satisfied with physical books, the older and dustier the better: after more than a year and a half, I don’t think I’ve bought more than ten books for my Kindle.)

Looking around my office now, I’d say I own about a thousand books. This a rough estimate, based on the assumption that I have fifty shelves with twenty books each, which almost certainly undercounts the true number. It also doesn’t include my wife’s two hundred books or so, which live in a separate room: even after close to four years of marriage, we still haven’t integrated our libraries, and we probably never will, given my own obsessive tendencies. The number used to be much larger, too. Before my move to Chicago, I forced myself to reduce my library to what I could fit in six large boxes, meaning that I donated or gave away something like five hundred books. How those six boxes multiplied to fill fifty shelves in less than four years is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve, although the fact that I’ve bought a hundred books a year in the meantime might be a clue. And while my acquisitive tendencies have been slightly reduced by the birth of our daughter—I just don’t have as much time to go to bookstores—it isn’t hard to foresee a future in which the house has been totally taken over by books, a prospect that fills me with delight, although my wife seems a little less enthusiastic.

The author's library

As for how many books I’ve read—well, that’s another question entirely. Even under the most generous assumptions, it’s unlikely that I’ve read more than a couple of thousand books in my adult life, and I obviously acquire books at a greater pace than I could ever hope to finish them. I’m reading all the time, but my browsing tendencies are evident here as well: at any given moment, I usually have one big literary novel I’m trying to finish, a paperback thriller, and four or five nonfiction books in various stages of completion. (These days, for instance, I’m halfway through Infinite Jest, The Fist of God, Inventors at Work, and the letters of Maxwell Perkins, and I’m still technically reading Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation.) Most of the books on my shelves have been read at least in part, and I take comfort in the fact that they’re always there to be browsed through again. I’ll often pull a random volume from the shelf and leaf through it for a few minutes to relax, and I try to make some quality time now and then for my eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The bottom line is that I’m clearly more of a browser than a reader, and I’m comfortable with this. You see it in every aspect of my life, from the small to the large: it’s possible that I became a novelist mostly as a way to rationalize my browsing. As a result, I’ve become very protective of it. Browsing is an art form, like loafing, that has been compromised by modern technology: it’s properly done in a comfortable chair, with a cup of coffee or something similar, with a book—or a stack of them—that has already passed through the hands of many other readers. Ideally, the book should be a little tattered or yellowed, which makes it seem happy for the attention, even if it’s never going to be read straight through. It requires a fine appreciation of opening a book to a middle and seeing where it takes you, or flirting a bit with a few tempting prospects before committing yourself to an after-dinner read. Above all, it demands a love of the arcane, the obscure, the obsolete, and the useless. And while it’s satisfying enough when done for only a minute or two, it expands to last a lifetime.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2013 at 8:37 am

Books as furniture

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The author's library

I’ve always been fascinated by the prospect of buying books by the foot. The Strand, my favorite bookstore in New York, offers a number of packages for consumers looking to furnish a library as quickly as possible, ranging from four hundred dollars per foot for antique leather editions to slightly less for cookbooks, art books, or legal volumes. The intended purchasers seem to be theatrical designers or, more often, interior decorators furnishing a different kind of set, a stage on which clients can buy the appearance of being voracious readers without going through the trouble of acquiring books one by one. And although it’s generally more economical—if less efficient—for me to get my books at retail, rather than wholesale, I’ve occasionally been tempted to order a few yards of reading material, just to see what serendipitous finds I’d discover there.

Recently, I read a post on Apartment Therapy in defense of organizing books by color, which seems to be an ongoing trend in interior design, or at least on home decorating blogs. It’s controversial, I think, because displaying a shelf of blue, red, or yellow books emphasizes their decorative function to an extent that makes us uncomfortable: not only have these books been judged by their covers, but even the words on the spine aren’t particularly important. The article makes some good points—it can be helpful for visual thinkers, it allows us to appreciate books for their visual qualities as well as for their content—but it won’t stop many serious readers from having a visceral negative reaction. For many of us, it parades the use of books as furniture a little too blatantly: it just doesn’t feel like a working library, however often the owner might pull a favorite green or teal volume from the shelf. And the idea of choosing books solely because of how they’ll look seems disrespectful to the authors whose life’s work they represent.

The author's library

Yet when I consider it more rationally, my instinctive response seems a little overblown. I’ll often organize books by size, for instance, on the theory that a row of bindings of the same height looks better than an irregular skyline of mismatched volumes. And while I’ve never bought a book solely because of how it would look in my collection, I can’t rule out that this might be a subconscious factor in some purchases. I doubt I’ll ever make it all the way through William Vollmann’s unabridged seven-volume version of Rising Up and Rising Down, but I look at it with pleasure every day. The Great Books of the Western World set, which has followed me to every dorm room, apartment, and house since college, was originally acquired because I really intended to read all those books, but these days, it tends to serve the function for which many of its original buyers probably intended it—as a classy decorative note in an office or study. (The same thing, alas, seems to be happening with my Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

But above all, I get a visceral pleasure from looking at the books in my library that can’t be explained by utility alone. Books are furniture, but they’re also the best furniture there is: when I’m sitting among my books, I feel more human, more alive, and more content. Of course, that’s mostly because my bookshelf is also a tangible autobiography. Every book I own represents a choice, or a moment in my life; I can often remember when and where each one was bought, or the interests it reflected at the time. As a result, my library is a reflection of my brain—a way for me to set up a desk and reading chair in my own skull—and it means more to me than it can to anyone else, which is something you can’t buy by the foot. As Thoreau said:

Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where they come in contact with our lives, like the tenement of the shellfish, and not overlaid with it.

And even if you buy a book for the sake of its color, if there are readers in the house, they’ll find it. So there’s no shame in buying books as furniture—it’s the best way there is to cover a wall.

The Strand dollar bin and more news from New York

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Over the past week, New York City has seen three exceedingly rare events: an earthquake, a tropical storm, and a visit by me. And while my recent trip, thankfully, wasn’t something that happens once in a generation, it’s still less frequent than I would like. I lived in New York for seven years, moving there right out of college despite never having spent more than a few days in the city, simply because I figured, as a writer, that it was the only place in the world to be. Perhaps inevitably, it was only after I left two years ago, moving to Chicago to be with my wife, that my writing life finally began to resemble the one I wanted. But I still miss New York and the time I spent there, so it’s always a pleasure to go back.

If there was a center to my New York life, it was the dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore. My own suspicion, confirmed by long experience, is that every book in the world, no matter how unusual or rare, turns up there sooner or later—usually just after you’ve bought it somewhere else. For years, then, on a weekly basis, I would take the train to Union Square and browse in the Strand dollar bin for an hour or so, nearly always emerging with some unexpected find. And although inflation has increased the price of certain hardcovers to $2, my visit last week was as productive as usual: in half an hour, I found a copy of Nancy Arrowsmith’s classic Field Guide to the Little People, a book I remember fondly from my childhood, and, even more remarkably, the anonymous Mediations on the Tarot, a book I’d been hoping to pick up for years.

And while a visit to the Strand alone would have more than justified the trip, it wasn’t the only reason I went to New York. One of my closest friends, the poet and memoirist Katy Lederer, is getting married at the end of the year, and her engagement party seemed like a good excuse to fly out for the weekend. At the party, in addition to Katy and her fiancé Ben, my wife and I got to hang out with Katy’s dad, the legendary Richard Lederer, author of Crazy English, Anguished English and many other classic works on language and wordplay. I devoured his books growing up, and I’m pleased to report that, in person, he’s exactly what you’d hope him to be: funny, garrulous, a fount of jokes, trivia, and sharp observation. I’m looking forward to seeing him again at Katy’s wedding.

On the business side, I also had the chance to catch up with my agent, who had some updates on The Icon Thief and its sequel. Now that the cover art and copy have been finalized, the next step is to go out to readers for potential blurbs, which we’ll be doing in two stages over the next few months. My publisher will also be printing advance readers’ copies soon, which is very exciting. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of pushing forward on House of Passages, the final draft of which is due on September 30, and laying the groundwork for a possible third novel, a tentative synopsis of which I’m hoping to finish shortly. All in all, the next few weeks promise to be exceptionally interesting, with a move to Oak Park, a novelette, and possibly a couple of surprises. Check back soon for more!

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2011 at 9:43 am

The end of browsing

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A while back, I wrote a post about intentional randomness as a creative tool, explaining how I sometimes use Shakespeare and the I Ching to generate ideas. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I’ve neglected to discuss the single most useful source of creative randomness, and the one that has given me the most pleasure over the years: other books. In particular, the neglected books, often obscure or out of print, that you discover by accident, when looking for something else or nothing at all—which is when your mind is most receptive to unexpected influences. And the only place where such discoveries can really take place is a great used bookstore.

Jorge Luis Borges famously said that heaven, for him, was a sort of library. For me, it’s more like the perfect used bookstore: musty, crowded, cheap, and only vaguely organized. Libraries are great, but their very rationality, which is otherwise such a miracle, greatly reduces the chances of a spontaneous discovery—although I’ve recently taken to roaming the shelves of the Sulzer Regional branch here in Lincoln Square, hoping that I’ll stumble across something unexpected. To find something really special, though, you need something like the massive dollar bin at the Strand in New York, or the late lamented basement of The Ark in Chicago: a chaotic jumble, a mildewed treasure hoard, a browser’s paradise.

And the discoveries you make are unforgettable. I still remember the moment, something like fourteen years ago, when I first saw The Anatomy of Melancholy at Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley. More recently, I found The Road to Xanadu at Bookman’s Corner here in Chicago—a wonderful bookstore that looks like the remains of another, larger bookstore that exploded. The Portable Dragon all but leapt off the shelf two months ago at Pegasus Books. Even a chain like Borders has its occasional surprises: my copy of David Mamet’s On Directing Film, which faithful readers will know I treat almost as a religious text, was picked up for something like five dollars in the Borders bargain bin.

But even Borders, alas, is closing most of its Chicago stores. And as Noel Murray recently pointed out on the AV Club, the death of such big box stores, on top of the independent bookstores they replaced, threatens to mark the end of browsing, which had already been dealt a mortal blow by the coming of Amazon.com. Every book imaginable is available online, at least for a price, which would have dazzled my younger self, who looked eagerly forward to his monthly trip to Waldenbooks—but it also threatens to eliminate the happy accidents for which I still spend hours at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest and Newberry Library Book Fair. In the old days, you had no choice but to browse; now it’s something you need to make time for. And you should. Because you never know when you’re going to find the book that will change your life.

My fifty essential books

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Just over a year and a half ago, I moved from New York to Chicago, forcing me to figure out what to do with seven years’ worth of books. The prospect of shipping them all to my new apartment was daunting: after years of living a temptingly short train ride from the Strand, all of my shelves were stacked at least two books deep, and additional piles were everywhere. In the end, I ultimately decided to radically downsize my library, going from something like thirty boxes of books down to six. And the experience taught me a lot about which books really mattered to me.

But what if I only had room for fifty books? Or twenty? Or five? Such drastic reduction, real or imaginary, is the most ruthless way I know of building a personal canon—which, really, is nothing more than a series of choices. Do I care more about Borges or Conan Doyle? Shakespeare or Proust? Life rarely demands such stark decisions, but it’s a useful way of creating a self-portrait in books, as if a library were a block of raw stone that had to be carved away, piece by piece, until what remained was something like an image of myself. With that in mind, then, here’s as true a portrait of my inner life as I know how to provide:

1. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William S. Baring-Gould
2. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
4. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth
5. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
6. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
7. The Complete Walker III by Colin Fletcher
8. The Next Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand (editor)
9. The White Goddess by Robert Graves
10. A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by William Shakespeare and Ted Hughes

11. Rabbit Angstrom by John Updike
12. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
13. The Complete Peanuts (1969-1970) by Charles M. Schulz
14. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
15. Immortal Poems of the English Language by Oscar Williams
16. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
17. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
18. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (translated by Allen Mandelbaum)
19. Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
20. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

21. Metamagical Themas by Douglas R. Hofstadter
22. It by Stephen King
23. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
24. Napoleon by Emil Ludwig
25. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
26. The I Ching by Richard Wilhelm (translator)
27. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
28. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
29. The Writer’s Chapbook by George Plimpton (editor)
30. Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman

31. The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson
32. Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini
33. On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson
34. World Tales by Idries Shah
35. On Directing Film by David Mamet
36. The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang
37. Cain x 3 by James M. Cain
38. Atonement by Ian McEwan
39. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
40. The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner

41. The Codebreakers by David Kahn
42. The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea
43. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
44. The Magus by John Fowles
45. For Keeps by Pauline Kael
46. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
47. Ulysses by James Joyce
48. The Apology by Plato
49. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
50. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A few notes: Borges and Conan Doyle switched places at the last second. Dropped at the final minute were the Iliad and Antigone (the last remaining vestiges of a classical education). I’ve limited myself to one book per author, which resulted in surprisingly few omissions. If pressed, I might want to take a few extra volumes of The Complete Peanuts instead of the last several authors. And, obviously, this isn’t meant as a list of the best books of all time, or even necessarily of my own favorites—just the books without which I would find it very inconvenient to live.

Tomorrow, I’ll be doing the same thing for movies.

“Do you have a restless urge to write?”

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On Monday, I was browsing the dollar bin at the Housing Works Bookstore—possibly my favorite bookstore in Manhattan, aside, of course, from the Strand—when I found a paperback copy of Couples by John Updike. (It’s Updike’s trashiest novel, and probably his best, or at least the only one I feel the urge to read again every year.) Inside the book was tucked a copy of the following advertisement. Click on the image below for more detail:

And here’s the other side:

Bennett Cerf was one of the most famous publishers of his time—I still have fond memories of his Book of Laughs—but if the Famous Writers School looks like something of a scam, well, it was. Jessica Mitford, whose American Way of Death is one of the great classics of investigative journalism, wrote a savage takedown of the school in the Atlantic Monthly that is still worth reading today. Basically, and I’m simplifying only a little here, the school would employ salesmen to convince housewives to pay $900 for a correspondence course that they could have obtained at a local college for a fraction of the price. None of the writers pictured in the advertisement ever looked at students’ assignments, which were graded by an overworked staff of freelancers. And the school’s entire business model depended on the fact that few students would ever finish the course.

Yet thousands of people still signed up. And I can’t help but be reminded of this story in light of yesterday’s announcement that the Curtis Brown Agency is opening its own writing school, charging students $2,500 apiece for a three-month writing workshop. The big lure: “Stand-out students will be offered representation.” Of course, there’s no telling how many students will be signed by the agency, or to what extent this workshop is intended primarily to generate revenues at a difficult time for publishing. But even if the workshop is everything it promises, it still raises the question of how useful any kind of paid education is for writers. Is the Curtis Brown workshop, or the Famous Writers School, any better or worse than a standard MFA program?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never taken a formal writing class, despite having gone to a college populated by more than its share of established and aspiring novelists. And my gut instinct is to say that such classes, aside from the professional connections they might (or might not) provide, are probably unnecessary for the majority of writers. What a writer needs, above all else, is readers—a handful of intelligent people who will criticize and praise the writer’s work in appropriate measure. A writer needs to read—the great, good, and indifferent books of all eras, as well as a few of the best books on writing itself. And a writer needs to write—as often as possible, ideally every day. A formal class is primarily useful, it seems to me, in providing a structured setting for these three things, which any sufficiently motivated writer could probably find on his or her own. (Which is why a correspondence course like that of the Famous Writers School, which advertises itself as “a class of one,” is presumably not the best option.)

It might be argued that the same principle applies to any kind of formal education, at least in the humanities: with access to a library, interesting friends, and a lot of personal discipline, a student can receive more or less the same education that he or she would receive as a college undergraduate. (T.S. Eliot, among others, was openly contemptuous of the idea of studying English literature in college, which might be done equally well, or so he argued, in the student’s spare time.) Of course, without the social and professional benefits of an accredited program, it’s going to be hard to find work as, say, a professor of classics. But writing is one of the few professional fields that still welcomes autodidacts—which is one of the things that makes it so interesting, and terrifying.

In the end, every writer, even a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, is essentially self-taught. Which is why I feel that the best way might still be to go it alone. (If you’re serious about being a writer, you’ll eventually find yourself going it alone anyway.)

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