HOLT UNCENSORED #128
by Pat Holt
Friday, February 11, 2000:
'ADAM AND EVE' IN YOUR EAR LETTERS
BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB: PART III
'ADAM AND EVE' IN YOUR EAR
And now for an entirely different literary experience that has kept me chuckling in the car and walking with a headset for many delightful hours.
This is "The Diaries of Adam and Eve," an adaptation of two books by Mark Twain, which he wrote within 12 years of each other, claiming he "translated" Adam's diary in 1893 and Eve's in 1905, along with other writings he published about the two "who started it all."
Thanks to a very deft and delicate touch on the part of editor Don E. Roberts, we can figure out pretty quickly in the book from Fair Oaks Press (127 pages; $18.95; buy online by emailing email@example.com ) that someone has woven the best parts together to create "a harmonious narrative" that works best as a playlet.
But it's the charming audiocassette version with actors Mandy Patinkin and Betty Buckley that make this literary experience come alive with all the wonder, innocence and pig-headedness that its two protagonists convey (Fair Oaks Audio; 2 cassettes; $18; buy online at http://www.audiobookcentral.com ).
Walter Cronkite somehow inserts a jovial twinkle to the foreword as he reminds us that Adam and Eve are left "virtually speechless" in the Bible, "an opportunity that Twain was only too happy to exploit."
Any fears you may have (I certainly did) that Adam and Eve will appear as primordial John Gray candidates among the lions and the lambs are immediately dispelled as Eve turns out to be the scientific one, the indefatigable investigator and critical observer.
Looking around on her first day, she wonders about whoever put the whole thing together in seven days. "In the rush of finishing up, the mountains were left in a ragged condition, and some of the plains were so cluttered with rubbish and remnants that the aspects were quite distressing . . . There are too many stars in some places and not enough in others, but that can be remedied presently, no doubt."
But the stars, are not so easily manipulated. "The moon got loose last night and slid down and fell out of the scheme," she observes, "a very great loss; it breaks my heart to think of it . . . It should have been fastened better." She gets a basket and tries to gather the stars that are close to the horizon, but they elude her. She wants to wear them in her hair.
Adam, by contrast, is as Twain saw himself, according to the afterword - lazy and indolent, perhaps, but ready to take over. "[Eve] says it is ordered we work for a living from now on," he muses. "She will be useful. I will superintend."
Betty Buckley's little-girl voice could be a bit too Betty Boopsy if she weren't so gifted at kidding us and convincing us at the same time. Her experiments are hilarious and practical as well: Enclosing a cow in a pen to see how it's able to give milk after eating grass all day (surely someone is feeding it milk at night, they both think), Eve decides the next day that clearly, milk is "condensed from the atmosphere through the cow's hair." Adam is unable to take part in the experiment because he's busy inventing a multiplication table and has only gotten "as far as 6 times 9 are 27."
We do get a glimpse of their classic differences. "I love to talk," Eve tells us. "I talk all day, in my sleep, too, and I am very interesting."
Adam: "I wish it would not talk. It is always talking."
Eve: "Something tells me that eternal vigilance is the price of supremacy. (That is a good phrase, I think, for one so young.)"
Adam: "It goes out in all weather and stumps right in with its muddy feet. And talks."
Mandy Patinkin's knack for comic timing is perfect in this role. Twain, of course, has a lot of fun toying with the obvious pratfalls of human sensibilities, and the "kangaroo" or "bear" Adam believes they have created (whom Eve has named Cain) is wonderfully comical after The Fall.
But this is a book of questioning about destiny as well - about the purpose of life, the separation of humanity from the natural world and even, as the centuries and millennia pass and Adam finds himself watching a mother and child in Central Park, the spark of wonder that connects humanity with "the newest thing I have seen in the earth, and the oldest."
BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB: Part III
HARRY W. SCHWARTZ BOOKSHOP, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Now why is it, do you suppose, that an independent Milwaukee bookstore featuring four locations on its busy website would encourage readers to visit a "fellow independent" bookstore in Scotland? We do not know. It's one of the many unusual aspects of the Harry W. Schwartz four-sided website, and indeed, when we do click on the John Smith & Son Bookshops website in Glasgow, we are rewarded to find "the oldest continuously trading bookseller in the world" (founded 1751) and today one of the most inviting sites for worldwide export on the Web.
Back, then, to Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, no youngster itself (founded in 1927), we learn through a delightful photo-history. Schwartz, "accused by many of being an idealist," not only promoted such authors as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner before they were popular but also published a minor work by Faulkner, defended controversial authors from James Joyce to Henry Miller, wrote books of his own and apparently forgave his errant son David who, in 1971, "at war with his father and the world at large, [went] off to a commune in Maine" (browsing this site makes you a member of the family!), only to find "pulpwood cutting less emotionally rewarding than bookselling."
So good for David: After returning the store, he seems to have overseen several expansions, early discounting (in 1979) and a wonderfully committed staff (each store manager welcomes the visitor to his or her location with a personal message). One gets the feeling that things happen at this store: Last year Paul Auster gave "a fantastic reading to a huge audience, [then] told us that would be the last reading he would ever give." Hm. I'm sure his decision had nothing to do with Harry W. Schwartz, but then I'd love to meet Tom, the used book buyer who's filled out the Literary Lounge "from Clancy to Kafka" and every kind of nonfiction book one could find. "Just don't compliment Tom on his taste in selecting books," says the staff. "He has none. Buying books is easy when our customers have such diverse interests and exquisite tastes of their own."
With a searchable database, great staff picks, over 30 titles featured on Wisconsin alone, shameless "Love Me Tender Benders" (I won't tell you! go the site your own self and find out!), this is a store with great heart. "Books embody the ideas that turn us from isolated souls into a powerful community," says the staff, and with a website like this, we sure believe 'em.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re the sales tax issue, as an interested reader based in the United Kingdom, there seems to be one solution that has been achieved here that no-one seems to have mentioned as yet in the debate: to campaign for books to be zero-rated for sales tax. Books in the UK (and newspapers) are not subject to the EU equivalent of sales tax (VAT, or Value Added Tax), and so far any attempt to change the situation has brought cries of protest that to tax the printed word is to attack the principles of education, learning and literacy which are so important to any democracy. Given the low level of practical literacy in the USA (lower, I believe, than any European country) surely every effort OUGHT to be made to stamp out sales tax on the printed word!
Edward James Reading, UK
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Instead of trying to tax yet another business why not rally for a tax reduction? Eliminate all sales taxes from printed material, books, newspapers, magazines? If the argument is that the poor have to pay sales tax on books bought in stores because they cannot afford or do not have access to a computer, that seems to be an argument against having a sales tax on those items. How does taxing Internet sales help the poor? Why should a person rich or poor be taxed to get information especially if that information might help them to become more rich or less poor? The resultant income increase from that information will be taxed so why tax the means? Unless, of course, we think we aren't taxed enough.
A second point is, when I went to school, (which seems like a hundred years ago), I was taught that businesses do not pay taxes, only people pay taxes, the consumer is the ultimate taxpayer. So the idea that Internet sales should be taxed really is saying that the consumer (who is us, by the way) needs to be taxed just because in a lot of circumstances the consumer (us) figured out how not to be taxed. I think we all should want to figure out how not to be taxed. If person A is taxed and person B isn't, our default thinking seems to be how do we get person B taxed rather than getting person A untaxed. I would hate to think there are people who believe the only justice is to tax more, not less.
Arden R. Olson
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I understand the Independent Booksellers irritation with sales tax, but they should be fighting to do away with ALL sales tax, not be fighting for the Internet companies to pay it. Sales tax is a regressive tax that hits poor people the hardest. It is one of the worst taxes we have. NO ONE should have to pay sales tax. The "bricks-and-mortar" companies should be working together with the Internet businesses in a quest to do away with sales tax altogether.
Susan Koopmans Technical Writer
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[This is a letter to Senator Barbara Boxer]:
Although we are members of both the ABA (American Booksellers Association) and the NCIBA (Northern California Booksellers Association), we do not support their stand on Internet taxes, and we do support your opposition to new taxation for Internet businesses.
We are booksellers, based in California, who sell primarily used, rare and out of print books through the internet. As such, we collect and remit sales taxes on all sales to residents of California; since California is a large and populous state (accounting for about 20% of our sales), arguably a uniformly imposed Internet sales tax would benefit us - just as it might possibly benefit the local stores. Nevertheless, we oppose any expansion of sales taxes on Internet-related businesses.
Sales taxes in general are a regressive form of taxation - and as such, I would prefer to see a reduction in the reliance on them by public authorities - not an increase.
If there are businesses which are not complying with current laws regarding collection of sales taxes in the states in which they are located, that is a compliance issue, not a regulatory one.
As an internet business, we feel that the benefits which we bring to our local community far outweigh the gain a small amount of additional taxes would bring.
Because the internet is our primary method of doing business, we were able to move from an urban area - Sacramento - to a rural area: unincorporated Amador County. We bought a property which was in foreclosure; we built an additional structure on this property using local residents and buying our materials at local stores. We pay a significant amount in property taxes - more than the property was previously assessed for. In addition to our internet business, we also have a small retail location in the county selling both used and new books - and collecting sales taxes. We spend money in the community - at stores and at restaurants. We use local doctors and dentists and other professionals. So far, we employ one high school student on a part-time basis, but we will probably increase this in the future. Yet we have a minimal reliance on and use of public infrastucture.
While I think it is just beginning, internet-based businesses can reverse the decades long decline in population and income of many small towns and rural communities throughout the country. The (local) internet service provider which we use in another example here of a local business brought IN to the community by the internet - they relocated from the San Francisco Bay Area. There are many more.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You need to work on your math. In the latest issue of your newsletter, you said [regarding sales tax], "the same book for which you pay $18 at an independent store will cost $10 on the Internet . . . " Now, the book that costs $18 at your local independent bookstore may cost only $10 on the Internet, but not because of taxes. If an Internet bookseller were required to collect an 8% tax on its $10 book, your cost (not including shipping) would be $10.80, not $18.00.
On the broader issue, I originally subscribed to your newsletter to hear about books and writers, but it has "evolved" to a constant sermon on the evils of chain stores and Internet booksellers. I shop at both, as well as at independent bookstores. Each has a certain value to me. However, I've grown weary of the apocalyptic language you use. Deep down in your heart, do you really believe the success of Amazon.com, Borders and Barnes and Noble is the end of freedom of speech and civilized society? I imagine that early in the last century you would have been fighting the increasing popularity of automobiles on the grounds they would drive local independent buggy whip makers out of business.
Holt replies: Thanks to the many readers who caught my mistake, and apologies to all. As to the "apocalyptic language" about the end of freedom of speech, yes, of course I believe it. I don't know how anyone can NOT see the danger of fewer and fewer people deciding what books will be available.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The point made in your last issue about how the folks most able to afford sales tax are the ones least likely to pay it is an interesting one.
Sales tax on items from out of state is still technically due in virtually every state. So not only are those of us making sales-tax-free purchases not paying into our states, but we're also violating the law, no? Not that compliance is a simple matter, but it's technically illegal, just unenforceable. In my case, I carefully pay sales tax on any item I buy in or out of state that I put into business use. I'm probably the only human being in Washington state to do this, but I feel that it's the right thing to do from a financial and ethical perspective. Because I deduct these same items off my Schedule C as expense, it's only right that WA gets the tax from them as I get my tax deduction from the federal government.
But I want to point out that Andy Ross's irony is not lost on the people who do have the money to pay for sales tax. If it were still more convenient for me to buy stuff from New Hampshire (Outpost.com) and pay sales tax on it to have it delivered, I'd probably do it, even if the price advantage were small. It's economically bizarre that it's easier and cheaper to get stuff shipped 3,000 miles than to drive 5 to 10 miles, but that's how it works out. I'd especially be willing to pay slightly more if sales tax were part of the equation, as I'd know that I was supporting the state's economy in some measure.
We recently had the world's shortest sighted and angriest ballot initiative pass here: I695. It repeals a tax on motor vehicles that works out to a percent or two of the vehicle's market value paid each year. This percentage tax repeal cuts $750 million from the state's budget. But it was driven by the average person who is going to save about $100 per year on their tabs. The folks with $40,000 cars are saving several hundred dollars, but their insurance is several thousand a year. But my friends who had made all their dotcom moolah were all voting against I695 - they thought they should pay their fair share, and they could afford it. (Why everyone was het up about tabs instead of insurance, I don't know. My tabs last year on a 9-year-old car were $108. My insurance - I'm over 30, perfect record, no moving violations - was $700.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The ultimate implication of Andy Ross's attitude is that no one should shop anywhere but locally. Here's why: if sales tax were to be imposed on all Internet sales, I would gain nothing (and lose time, plus shipping costs) by ordering from Cody's or another independent online; that would become my most expensive and slowest option. (I could just erase all those interesting sites you listed last week from my Bookmarks.) Either I'd order from an online store that offers free shipping, or most of my business would be done locally, at (gasp!) Barnes & Noble, the only genuine bookstore in my town.
How does this help independents, I ask? It only means that Cody's whole custom would be in Berkeley, which perhaps is enough for Andy. But doesn't this hurt the independents that do have significant Internet sales? - not to mention the folks, both poor and rich, who live out here in the rest of the world and have little access to "real" bookstores? Look, I used to live in Berkeley, and I know what it's like to be able to stroll down to Cody's or Black Oak, or even Half Price Books. Friends, it's not like that everywhere.
If I buy a duffle bag from Land's End on line, I pay sales tax. If I order from L.L. Bean, I don't. But my purchases are driven more by selection than by the tax factor. B&N has "nexus" everywhere; so does Borders: so tax their sales. That seems the only reasonable solution: never mind Amazon; it's not making money anyway. Andy and the others should stop pursuing a universal sales tax - because, given the breadth of the political spectrum (from Boxer to McCain) plus the American aversion to taxes, that dog won't hunt. Me, I'd like to see all sales taxes abolished and replaced by graduated income taxes, but I know that's not going to happen, either. Better to take the middle way and gain SOMETHING if you can't have everything.
Our is a small religious press (pretty big in our field, but small in the larger publishing world). About half of our sales are through stores, but given the shortage of religious bookstores, the other half is mostly catalogue and online sales. Increased postage costs, not to mention the whopping increase in the price of paper, have really hurt us in recent years. Imagine how much we'd like to have to charge 50+ kinds of sales tax besides!
In short: it's not just the big guys/gals who would be hurt by a universal sales tax; small operations would suffer, too, and more in proportion - just as poor people pay more sales tax, in proportion, than the rich.
If downtown merchants really want to make people want to shop there, they should think of positive ways to do it, rather than just trying to hurt their opponents (a lose/lose scenario). Example: how about free parking?! (Now there's a really utopian idea.)
The Liturgical Press
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your coverage of the panel on "The Future of Main Street," panelist Richard Walker is a professor of geography, not geology . . . And geography these days is not about where some place is, it's about the quality of the experience of a particular place, how that happens, how it doesn't, how we are making both happen and why. It's more like cultural anthropology crossed with urban studies, so you can see why he would be in the discussion.
University Press Books/Berkeley
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re Steven Piziks' request for overseas bookseller sites, there are many independent booksellers in the UK who have websites and who ship to the US. I have had excellent experiences with Premier Books http://www.notjustbooks.force9.co.uk who offer personalized and swift service.
There are more, but this is my favorite. The website features used books, but the proprietor, Margaret Brown, will order whatever you want in the way of new books, too.
Alyce Cresap, Books & Ephemera
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We are an independent bookshop in London, in an area much loved by, and consequently lived in and visited by, Americans. We are close to the American School in London and to the residence of the American Ambassador.
We are frequently asked for books which are only available in the USA, which we are able to supply via Baker and Taylor. As our customers and visitors move to and fro across the Atlantic we are increasingly asked to supply books only available in England. This, too, we are very happy to do. Although we can not afford to keep 'Books in Print' on our website we will usually respond to an e-mail enquiry within 24 hours (may be longer at week-ends) and can fulfill the majority of orders within 24 hours of receipt. We charge postage at cost (no charge made for packing or packaging) and send everything by airmail unless asked to do otherwise.
I agree with your correspondents in #127 that service is what will ensure the survival of independents - by all means give ours a try.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
To Steven Piziks . . . both Tattered Cover ( http://www.tatteredcover.com ) and Wordsworth ( http://www.wordsworth.com ) will be happy to order books from the U.K. (and anywhere worldwide, for that matter). Give them a call or log on and you may even be surprised to find they've got what you're looking for in stock.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The controversy over the Harry Potter books has come to a boil in Zeeland, a small community in western Michigan where the school superintendent has banned classroom readings, pulled the books from the shelves of the school libraries and ordered that there must be prior parental permission to borrow the books and use them in book reports.
My group, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, ALA and the National Council of Teachers of English are trying to help local people fight this act of censorship. I am attaching a copy of the letter that ABFFE sent to the superintendent. ALA and NCTE have also written letters.
We are also trying to help find members for a new local group, Muggles for Harry Potter, which will lead the fight. If any of your readers in the area are interested in joining, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 587-4025 for further information.
January 31, 2000
Gary L. Feenstra
Superintendent of Schools
Zeeland Public Schools
Zeeland, MI 49464
Dear Superintendent Feenstra,
I am writing to you on behalf of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, which was established in 1990 to help defend free expression, particularly as it relates to the printed word. ABFFE's members are independent booksellers from around the country, and many of them are enthusiastic supporters of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.
An ABFFE member in Michigan has drawn our attention to your memo of November 22, 1999, imposing restrictions on the use of the Potter books in the Zeeland Public Schools. In the memo, you prohibit school libraries from displaying the Potter books on their shelves and bar the use of the books for classroom readings. You also require parental permission before a child can check the books out of the library or use them to prepare a book report. Finally, you indicate that your school district will not purchase any future Potter titles.
Your memo demonstrates a commendable concern for the rights of the minority of children whose parents would not wish them to be exposed to the depiction of witchcraft in the Potter books. By all accounts, this is a very small minority. Not even all the parents who object to the Potter books would insist that they not be read aloud or made available in the libraries. Nevertheless, your restrictions are obviously well intended.
But we believe that your desire to protect the minority has led you into the same error as those who insist that the majority has the right to suppress speech that it finds offensive. Censorship isn't different because it is imposed at the behest of a minority rather than the majority: both deprive people of their right to read, see or hear something that someone else thinks is bad for them.
In this case, you have denied children the opportunity to encounter some extraordinary books that they may otherwise never know. They can't hear them read in class. They can't pick them up in the library. But it isn't only children who will not get a chance to examine them. Parents normally become aware of the books their children are using in school when they bring them home. By requiring prior parental permission to borrow the Potter books from the library, you have foreclosed the possibility that many parents will have the opportunity to review them and decide for themselves whether they are appropriate for their children.
Yet as mistaken as these restrictions are, the most lamentable part of your policy is the decision not to buy future titles in the Potter series because of your feeling that “controversial” books have no place in the public schools. In 1998, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit pointed out the danger of removing a book from the schools simply because it is controversial. In Monteiro v. Tempe High School, a parent had challenged the inclusion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on a mandatory high school reading list, claiming that the book's depiction of blacks was offensive. In his opinion, Judge Reinhardt asked what literary works would remain in the schools if every group could suppress the books it found objectionable:
White plaintiffs could seek to remove books by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and other prominent Black authors on the ground that they portray Caucasians in a derogatory fashion; Jews might try to impose civil liability for the teachings of Shakespeare and of more modern English poets where writings exhibit a similar anti-Semitic strain. Female students could attempt to make a case for damages for the assignment of some of the works of Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, or Freud, and male students for the writings of Andrea Dworkin or Margaret Atwood.
Removing works of unquestioned literary merit impoverishes our elementary schools no less than our high schools.
ABFFE supports the right of parents to ask that their children be excused from classroom readings of the Potter books. However, we believe that banning their use in the classroom and the library violates the spirit of the First Amendment and is a serious disservice to the children of the Zeeland Public Schools.
We urge you to rescind your November 22 memo.