Thursday, March 22, 2007
The Penny Press! Atlantic and the TLS!
The prestigious old Atlantic Monthly (of late cravenly decamped from its home ancestral home of Boston) recently acquired our very own semi-feral super-genius Elmo as a subscriber, so their editorial board will no doubt have to look a little sharper in the months to come (we here at Stevereads are except from such precautions, since we were the ones to tempt the entirely-feral Elmo from the fens with a few sugar cubes earning his primitive gratitude ala Androcles and the Lion). The current issue is Elmo's first, so we couldn't help but read it with eyes ever-so-slightly vicariously refreshed.
Not all that an auspicious start, all things considered. The cover article - on who stands to gain financially from global warming climate changes - was no doubt meant to be frolicsomely cynical and on that ground (and all other grounds) falls spectacularly flat. Considering the fact that a) all those land-grabbing opportunities come hand-in-hand with unsurvivable winters all across northern Europe and unsurvivable summers all across the rest of the planet, and b) our own weekend getaway at Montauk Point - not to mention the homes and workplaces of our hapless friends at Boston, Waimea, Venice, San Diego, and Big Pine Key will be uninhabitable - considering these things, one is hard-pressed to divine the laff-quotient in an article that monetarily divvies up the sea-girt, sun-baked remains of a once-gorgeous world.
The piece's companion article on the crisis in Darfur was, unfortunately, similarly unconvincing - seeking as it did to shift the blame for that crisis off the shoulders of men and onto the vagaries of climate change. When you add to all this the fact that the title's most reliable standby, the mighty book-critic Ben Schwartz, chose this time around to utterly waste his precious column inches writing about some idiotic fashion book, well, you don't get a very favorable debut issue for Elmo.
Fortunately, for good or ill, Christopher Hitchens can almost always be counted on to generate interest of some kind, and this time around is no exception. This issue he reviews 'Cultural Amnesia,' a collection of literary essays by Clive James, and a thoroughly condescending job he does of it, too. James, an entirely better and more comprehensive literary critic than Hitchens has been in a good many years, is generously tolerated throughout the length of the review. Hitchens is very patient in pointing out all the ways James could have done a better job, and he ladles on the faint praise:
"In attempting to do this anthology justice, I am running the risk of making it sound more eclectic than it really is."
And how about this little gem, grubbed over by Hitchens:
"But in order to appear ungrudging, he [James] is sometimes hyperbolic, and therefore unconvincing: Is it really apt to write of Camus that 'the Gods poured success on him but it could only darken his trench coat: it never soaked him to the skin.'?"
Well, yes, actually: apt and considerably neater than any formulation Hitchens has coughed up in his last four or five dozen literary pieces.
Having Christopher Hitchens review Clive James isn't exactly like setting a fox to guard the hen-house; it's more like setting a fox to guard a less drunken, more talented fox. Sour grapes on Hitchens' part are understandable, and this review is rank with the fumes.
But worse than that is Hitchens' sniveling, hypocritical cowardice. At one point he writes:
"It is men like Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus whom he [James] envies, while of course never ceasing to wonder (as we all must) how he himself would have shaped up when the Nazis came."
That parenthetical is SO sweet. Considering Hitchens' stance on any number of political issues in the past six years, we here at Stevereads don't consider the question of how he'd have reacted to the Nazis one of life's enduring mysteries. When Hitchens, at another point in the review, makes disparaging reference to 'high-sounding justifications for violence,' the irony was almost too thick to read through.
Irony carries over to the TLS too, and it reaches its sharpest point in the letters page. Recently, James Fergusson wrote a piece about the second-hand book trade, and it garnered this very straightforward, very sad response:
"James Fergusson may well know a lot about the second-hand book trade of yore, but where has he been for the last decade or so? As a bookseller myself, I wouldn't have thought it possible to write at such length on the subject over the last century and include just one cosily dismissive paragraph about the effect of the internet; in the mid-and late 1990s, you heard a lot of that sort of complacent plus ca change from booksellers, but I never thought I'd come across it again. The fact is that, in the half-decade before the millennium, modernity finally caught up with the second-hand book trade, and it took internet technology no longer than five years to liquidate the old order Fergusson lovingly describes. What has emerged is soulless but wonderfully effecient, a golden age for book buyers: instant access to virtually everything you want, a trade composed overwhelmingly of small-time amateurs who don't really need the money, prices in free fall and fewer than half-a-dozen points of sale that really matter, all on the Net. One hopes Fergusson's world of musty shops personal relationships, catalogues and bookfairs will manage to hang on in a few civilized outposts, but personally I wouldn't bet on it."
That's from Peter Lloyd, who writes from - follow along now - Little Bushant, Glascwm, Llandrindod Wells - and if anything he understates the matter, since he confines his remarks to the world of second hand bookselling. When the grim truth of the matter is that ALL bookselling is staring at its doom, in the form of the Internet. Customers in their uncounted thousands discover every day the convenience of simply ordering the books they want online - wait three days, and there they are, boxed up on your doorstep.
There are two factors missing from this new world, Peter Lloyd or no Peter Lloyd.
The first is the odd chemistry of your odd, ungainly, soon to be extinct book clerk. The Internet has no analog to having an obviously knowledgeable clerk gently scoff at your pretentions (be honest now, all you out there: how many of you have felt this particular goad and had it STAY with you long after, maybe even had it change what you read, although of course such scoffing is entirely wrong for the book clerk to do), or the enthusiastic recommendation that cuts through the cant of a dozen bad high school teachers. Really good book clerks (a phrase that sounds strange these days in and of itself) can change the way you read, and that's an entirely magical thing no 'customers who bought this also bought' can even hope to duplicate.
The second thing is serendipity. Plain old serendipity! You're prowling the bargain-carts at the Strand or the Brattle, you're crawling along the indoor shelves of ANY bookstore, second hand or otherwise, when you find something you had no idea even existed, something you then pull down and pour over and decide you want very much, in fact can't live without.
Serendipity. All of us here at this website have felt it: the chance finding of one book while looking for another, the gems discovered when you had no idea you were looking for them, and all the other permutations we're all so familiar with. Take away physical bookstores, and you take away that all-important element.
No doubt the idiosyncratic love of book-buying will survive the removal even of that element; perhaps some simula-program will come along that will digitally reproduce the alcoholic free associations of serendipity. We here at Stevereads are inclined to doubt it, but we stand, as ever, ready for posterity to prove us wrong.