Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, January 8, 2002


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Here we are at the Celebrity Author Giftwrap Desk on a bustling Saturday during the holiday season of yore.

In what usually functions as the Author Event Room at Book Passage, the bookstore in Corte Madera, Calif., where my partner Terry and I often work, customers line up to choose among the great rolls of Christmas, Channukah,foresty, bookish, snowy, mappish and children's wrapping paper while chatting with their favorite author-on-duty.

It's the second year of the Celebrity Author Giftwrap, and, as before, Rachel Naomi Remen ("Kitchen Table Wisdom," "My Grandfather's Blessings") has been a guiding light behind the project. Whereas most authors sign up to gift-wrap for an hour or so, Rachel is back there ripping paper off the slicers and tying festive ribbons like Mrs. Claus on a roll from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Well, you know how it is at the wrap desk when things get slow - people start telling stories, and Rachel, it turns out, has a bunch of new ones from a 20+-city publicity tour that took place after the events of 9/11 for the paperback edition of "My Grandfather's Blessings."

Within a few weeks, Rachel experienced two airport evacuations - a brief one in San Francisco International and a longie in Atlanta, in which thousands of unhappy travelers stood in the rain for hours without food or bathrooms.

But her toughest experience was an emergency evacuation at 11:30 p.m. from a hotel near the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Working on a speech for the next day, Rachel shot off the bed in alarm when a thunderous voice exploded over unseen speakers to announce, with lights flashing and buzzers sounding, that guests had to evacuate their rooms immediately and race down the stairs to the lobby no matter how high their floor, which in Remen's case was the 17th.

"There was so little time to think that I missed taking several essential items," Rachel says, so she later composed and memorized her own List of The Top Five Items to Grab When Evacuating a Hotel Room just in case. These are 1) Glasses; 2) Blanket; 3) Plane Ticket; 4) Money; 5) Shoes.

Blankets are high on the list because Rachel forgot hers, much to her sorrow after running out the door in freezing weather. "A very gracious man invited me to share his blanket, and I think it saved my life," she recalls. The two shivered and talked for hours under that blanket. "I had to smile," she says - "when we were finally allowed to return to our rooms, the man asked, 'Excuse me, aren't you Rachel Remen?' "

Not so oddly, I guess, the best advice that M.D. Rachel Remen says she's received about the aftermath of 9/11 has come from her patients. Most of them have cancer or other life-threatening diseases and have told her that "the impact of 9/11 felt very much like the impact of receiving their diagnosis," she recalls.

"Many of the same feelings they had when they were diagnosed - fear, sadness, grief, disbelief, numbness, a sense that what they were experiencing was not real - hit them again as they watched the attacks on the World Trade Center.

"But there was one big difference: They felt terribly alone when they found out they had cancer. They thought other people could not imagine what they were experiencing. It was as though they were seen as 'lesser people' and were now separated from the whole human race."

The attacks and the aftermath of 9/11, however, felt like a "national diagnosis," Remen says. "The feelings of sadness and grief and numbness they had experienced were the same, but now they also felt we were all in it together. So instead of feeling cut off from other people, these patients felt connected to others, even to strangers, more deeply than ever before."

Rachel has written as well about her own experience going through that "one-way door." Diagnosed with the life-threatening intestinal condition known as Crohn's Disease 48 years ago, she was not expected to live to middle age. Yet after eight major abdominal surgeries, she continues to live an active and full life.

At our lunch break, she talks about the way her patients sense what many people facing personal catastrophe have learned, "that there is a potential - perhaps a seed of unknown potential - even in the indescribable agony of terrible loss."

"I find a certain hope in my long experience of disease," she says. "Loss diminishes us, but over time it may also deepen and enable us to recognize what is important for the first time and, and then to refocus our priorities.

"A chronic life-threatening illness can shuffle your values like a deck of cards" she says. "Sometimes something that you have carried on the bottom of the deck for years turns out to be the top card. As a doctor I'm no longer surprised that the top card rarely turns out to be productivity or perfection or power or prestige - that most often, the top card is love."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks as usual for your insights, which I follow regularly.

I do wish, however, that you would distinguish between half.com and the few resellers who use the site for their business (evidently by getting their "stock" from a distributor directly). There are many, many individual sellers getting rid of their own used books via half.com. What is wrong with that?

I have sold nearly 200 books from my own personal shelves via half.com. In a few cases these are new books that I have read once and passed along via half, rather than just taking them to my local used bookstore for trade. In most cases they are legit used copies that I've had around and finally tired of. In a few cases they were highly unusual and hard to find used books.

For books that are still in print, my listings on half mingle with listings from the same few large resellers. These guys usually describe their books as new and unread - in effect, they're using half.com as an advertising and sales channel for their web-based businesses. They claim to get their books from distributors, WHICH MEANS THAT THE AUTHORS ARE GETTING ROYALTIES unless the distributor is cheating.

So don't condemn the thousands of individuals who sell their excess used books on half.com. Condemn fountainhead and A1Books and CrazyPrices and one or two more sellers of their ilk, if you must. But condemn them because they take sales away from independents, NOT because the author gets no royalties. Condemn Strand books, who are clearly cheating.

And now about bookcloseouts. Maybe I am naive, but they claim to get their stock from the publishers as remainders or stock reductions. I have NEVER seen anything very new on their list, although I've seen lots and lots of books that are still nominally in print. Are they not telling the truth about the source of their stock?

Jessica Weissman

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just got word that my friends at UglyTown publishing were written up in the Times, and it makes my little heart swell to see the Times recognize the Indie presses. Check it out if you can: http://latimes.com/features/lifestyle/la-122701uglytown.story

Edwin Allen Bish

Holt responds: Gad, I haven't heard of a credit-card-financed independent press for 20 years, yet this article shows us that with their passion for publishing and zeal for finding their audience, an independent press can make the struggle worthwhile for everyone.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks so much for reporting on Isabel Allende....oddly, as my own daughter lay dying, I sat reading Allende's book about her daughter's death, "Paula." It gave me great comfort, perhaps knowing that another mother felt so deeply the pain I was feeling and survived it. I was amazed that she could write at such a time - I have failed to revive my own writing since Erin died. Somehow, it was even more comforting to know that this strong, brave woman also lost her writing impetus after her daughter's death. I feel less fragile, knowing that she recovered even that.

I have told those who inquire that I am refilling the creative well...gradually I am feeling the "urge" to write even though the follow-through is yet to come. Meanwhile, I have explored art as another creative medium - one that requires much less conscious introspection.

Should you talk with Isabel again, tell her that Paula - both the book and the person - continue to live in grateful memory for me even as my Erin remains very alive within me. I gained great strength from that book and from the very live and real experiences expressed in it, even as I struggle to regain my faith in the goodness of life.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for your columns on Isabel Allende. Particularly poignant were her comments about how it feels to experience "a dictatorship of language, as well as government, overtake the culture." What we are experiencing now, however, is different from the takeover of Chile, for it isn't just a takeover of our government or our country: it's the takeover of our globe. We can't move to another country to escape this new kind of dictatorship. We in the publishing business know that already. We were the "canaries in the mine," as it were, experiencing the first slow and subtle takeover of our words by the corporate publishing phenomenon. Increasingly we are experiencing how a global economy based on "supply and demand" shrinks the choices available to us and promotes our dependence on a handful of powerful corporate alliances that have loyalty only to the bottom line. Watch what is happening to energy and oil. (We already know its impact on publishing and book selling.) This control of choices by a shrinking number of corporate interests is insidious, to say the least. It creeps into everything from our books and news reporting, to our clothing, food, medical services, and energy...and now into the right to speak out. And make no mistake, America is leading the way. John Trudell said we have to start facing the reality that our freedoms are under attack, and we have to "stop making excuses for America." Democracy once meant religious and political freedom. It has come to mean the right to buy whatever we want...from the choices offered. The trouble with the "excess of patriotism" Allende warns us about is that it all too readily becomes the norm. We buy into it one freedom at a time. Hal Zina Bennett

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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