HOLT UNCENSORED #58
by Pat Holt
Friday, May 7, 1999:
A BOOKSELLER 'TEACHES' JAMES JOYCE
THE TITLES, THEY HOT:
'THE STAKEHOLDER SOCIETY'
'THE EARTH SHALL WEEP'
'LLOYD: WHAT HAPPENED'
A BOOKSELLER 'TEACHES' JAMES JOYCE
Here we are in the back room of Modern Times Books in San Francisco, sitting in a circle of about 15 people and listening to bookseller Michael Rosenthal discuss the meaning of a particularly shocking passage in James Joyce's "Ulysses."
Broken-up boxes from the day's incoming books are piled on the receiving table, while in front of us, Modern Times T-shirts stick to the wall with (gradually loosening) tape. An authors' podium has been draped in a colorful Mexican serape that befits the setting of a bookstore located in the Spanish-speaking Mission District of town.
But our minds, our imagination, our very sights are not here. Thanks to Michael's careful direction, we have been transported to Dublin, Ireland, where our street maps and text notations and opinions and deepest awe (and confusion) follow the seeming wanderings of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom through a single day, June 16, 1904.
Michael first got the idea of creating a 10-week discussion group on "Ulysses" a year ago, when he put a note in the window of the store asking customers, "Have you always wanted to read James Joyce's 'Ulysses' but been afraid to try? Did you start the book and bail halfway through?"
"I thought it would be me and about 6 others discussing the finer points of the book," he says, looking back. But the phone was ringing off the hook when the staff opened the next day. Twenty calls, 30, and 40 before noon kept everyone busy filling a sign-up sheet.
"There seemed to be a hunger out there to learn difficult material in a nonacademic setting," Michael says in what might be the understatement of the year. The calls kept coming - 50, then 75, then 90, then 100. "We had to cut it off there," he says. "This wasn't going to be a lecture series. We had to sit in a circle as a discussion group or it wouldn't work."
To say it worked magnificently is another understatement. Michael created two sections, charged no fee and didn't make a profit on books sold - many brought their (barely opened) books from earlier attempts years before. By the end of the 10 weeks, he asked people in both groups this question: If they were to sign up again, would they pay a fee?
Many said no, not at the beginning; but now that they knew what "Ulysses" meant in their lives, they'd pay almost anything.
That is something of the way we feel already, sitting in Michael's third discussion group a year later. We've heard the astounding praise from last year and have willingly paid $60 each. Many in the group have bought the book at Modern Times to give Michael some kind of operating profit. But clearly he's a bookseller who loves literature - loves this book - so much that his reward lies in discovering the words on the page with his customers.
And therein lies the magic, we believe (though some credit is given to Joyce). Michael is a guide, not a teacher. "One reason 'Ulysses' is so intimidating is the sense it's such an unscalable peak, that you need all kinds of special knowledge to read it," he says. "Look at it not as a masterpiece or a deconstruction of the English novel but as a story about people, their issues and emotions, their time."
Michael is convinced that "Ulysses," perhaps the most impenetrable work of fiction in the English language, can be read compellingly as a novel, with a story we can follow and characters we care about. And it can be read and understood right on the surface: Every word in these 783 pages before us is relevant to every other word, with thousands of criss-crossing references and subplots webbing the whole thing in seemingly indecipherable layers.
But Michael believes that if we read every word, even when we're hopelessly lost and confused, our collective wisdom (and a few hints from him) will allow us to crack it open in an absorbing and enjoyable fashion. Along the way we'll find that "Ulysses" not only has the capacity to shock, it can be hilarious, tender, prophetic, beautiful and, of course, dazzling in a way that Joyce himself once said would keep English professors busy for the next 300 years.
Such thinking flies in the face of much of the scholarship about "Ulysses" that has been piling up for nearly a century. How does Michael and this stalwart group pull it off? See you for Part II next week.
THE TITLES, THEY HOT: 'THE STAKEHOLDER SOCIETY'
Now here is one of the best or lousiest ideas to hit American society in years: Why not give ALL Americans an equal chance at success by handing those who reach 24 a big wad of cash, say $80,000, to spend however they wish?
That way nobody gets stuck in the back of the economic bus, say Yale law profressors Bruce Ackermann and Anne Alstott, and everybody gets to take part in what these authors call THE STAKEHOLDER SOCIETY (Yale; 296 pages; $26).
Think it's too easy, too simplistic? Well, the state of things isn't all that peachy to begin with, the authors say. Consider this: "By the mid-1990s, the top 5 percent of American families received 20 percent of total income - a larger share than at any time since 1947," they write. You can guess why - the "trickle down" economy has been a disaster. "Since the early 1970s the average family's income has grown little, and the typical male worker has seen his real wages decline."
Thus what sounds like one o' them wild-and-crazy ideas from a coupla on-the-fringe academics begins to have some merit as the authors explore it here. After all, they say, giving $80,000 to every young American wouldn't be the first time the government staked its citizens. Remember the G.I. Bill? The Homestead Act? If you can give a mule and 40 acres to everybody in one century, you certainly can at least consider giving $80,000 the next.
The fun of this book lies in the authors' meticulous step-by-step explanation ("bear with us," they keep saying, and we want to!) of The Stake. Our first fears, it turns out, could be groundless: Wouldn't this simply up the ante for college graduates, giving them more of an advantage?
No, say the authors: The ones who will most benefit from this money are those who don't go to college or who attend two-year community colleges. Wouldn't "aggressive merchants" descend on kids in high school with offers to "get your Mercedes 'for free!' " by signing this or that contract?
No, say the authors again. Special bank accounts would be established - in fact a whole new set of values would enter the picture, including social insurance, liberal trusteeships, wealth tax and even (no, it's not a balloon payment!) "payback time."
Agree with the authors or not, THE STAKEHOLDER SOCIETY offers a great adventure in thinking about our imbalanced society, its imperfect economy, politics-as-NOT-usual and the many possibilities that await us all in the new millennium.
'THE EARTH SHALL WEEP'
It's too bad that James Wilson named his wonderfully engaging history of Native America THE EARTH SHALL WEEP (Atlantic Monthly; 496 pages; $27). We know going in this ain't gonna be a fun saga and it takes a lotta gusto getting past that title, just to open the first page.
But do exactly that - stand in a bookstore and start reading the Introduction, which begins with the modern-day (1990) trek to Wounded Knee by 300 Lakota Indians hoping "to relive the last journey of Chief Big Foot and his followers a century before" - and you'll feel the hooks setting in.
For one thing, Wilson is a British historian who doesn't mind a little unorthodox dig here and there at American media. News items about Native Americans, he says, "normally have to involve a fatal outbreak of violence or a major scandal over reservation casinos to merit much publicity." Tee hee, that's so true. So when the Wounded Knee journey hit what headlines it did, most of the stories were about the Indian ghosts rising up from the past to make the trek "something not quite real," something "not really contemporary."
To Wilson, however, that historic trip was concretely modern, intimate and inspiring. In the book it is portrayed with such depth of feeling, that one feels a freeing up of history at last, even as Indians must still face what Wilson sees as the Catch-22 of modern society.
"Native Americans are expected to demonstrate their authenticity by vanishing before the irresistible tide of Progress," he writes. "If they fail to vanish, if they change and adapt instead, then, by definition, they are not really Native Americans."
The myth-kicking continues. What looks like a junk-strewn landscape on Indian reservations today is not what we think; those disappearing numbers of Indians are returning ("in the last 100 years they have increased almost eightfold"); don't pity the early nonliterate Indian societies; much evidence exists that at least one oral culture considered itself superior and literacy as "a kind of crutch . . . evidence that Europeans are lost, ignorant and detached from a knowledge of themselves."
It is that angle - considering Native American history from the point of view of Indians today - that starts this magnificent journey in many a chapter on tribal heritage. In the Cherokee section, we learn that "perhaps more than any other part of the United States, the Southeast belies the idea that Native American societies are static and incapable of development."
Although once into the history, Wilson has to make the kinds of cuts in detail that a nonIndian writer trying to stuff it all in one volume has to make, "The Earth Shall Weep" remains a good, readable primer on a subject that seems almost unembarkable for many historians.
Here's another book that a lot of people won't want to read at first glance.
Like many memoirs on breast cancer, NOW BREATHE by Claudia Sternbach (Whiteaker Press, firstname.lastname@example.org; 151 pages; $13.95 paperback; order online at email@example.com) is a great page-turner of a story, so it's hard to put down once you're into it. But since getting into it when you don't have breast cancer is the hard part, read a few pages just to see if the staccato narrative alone doesn't pull you in.
Somehow Sternbach's clipped, hard-edged style can be so expressive and so refreshingly original that it nearly transcends the content of the book itself.
"Got home from a beautiful family dinner at my sister's house," she begins. "Kira [her daughter] spending the night with Katy. Settle into bed to watch a Woody Allen movie. Bored by the movie." In her boredom she begins a breast exam and finds a lump. "Know it will be nothing. Good to check though. Stop watching the movie halfway through. Sleep hard."
Oh no, you might think: Is the whole book going to be like this, with its cut-off first-person pronouns, its seeming false bravura? No, it's not: The "I" voice winds in and out like a snake, depending on the action and emotion of each moment. Meanwhile, the hard-edged form, which seems so narrow, so unyieldable, must, like the body of the narrator, learn to open, to yield, to surrender to something larger.
Small bits of humor help - just before surgery, she meets the anesthesiologist. "I ask him if he is really good at what he does. I tell him that I have read 'Coma.' "
That all her vulnerability comes out in a you-won't-frighten-ME narrative is a credit to Sternbach's talent as a writer. Everything is revealed - the loss of esteem, of sexual feelings, of friends, of energy, and the constant love of husband and daughter, always on the edge of loss as well.
Claudia Sternbach makes enough mistakes throughout the book to reveal herself as a first-time author, but then who could face a terminal disease without incidents of mawkish sentiment and irritating whine? That's just part of it.
Overall, NOW BREATHE has an honesty and character all its own. Near the end of her radiation, an exhausted Claudia and her husband take their daughter and friends to see "The Phantom of the Opera."
"Pouring down rain. High winds. Dinner out. Frontrow seats. Throw up in the women's bathroom. Incredible performance by the understudy. Kids sleep like curled sow bugs all the way home.
'LLOYD: WHAT HAPPENED'
Here's a novel that should have been a huge bestseller when it was published in hardcover a year ago, but who can figure these things. Everybody raved, nobody bought. It's still a crap shoot out there, but buy this paperback version (Vintage; 398 pages; $15) by the dozen, give 'em away to everybody you know who works in the business world and you'll be thanked for life.
"LLOYD: WHAT HAPPENED" by Fortune magazine writer Stanley Bing is the hilarious and caustic story of an up-and-coming corporate executive named Lloyd. He is no dumb bureaucrat but a happy and engaged (admittedly Kafkaesque) executive who is in love with his wife, capable of deep emotion and able to stand up to his boss.
However, one senses that Bing, having waded through the fatuous bravado of the business world for many years, has planned his revenge with relish.
At Lloyd's company, Omnivore, Inc., corporate players discuss "impactful" solutions and scheme to wear each other's "garters for lunch." They write memos to themselves during meetings that say: "cut Finance in half" and "buy Time Warner," knowing these notes exist only to "codify [their] indecision, confusion and underlying despair."
What happens to Lloyd is explained by the conventional story and the use of pie charts, bar graphs and slide presentations that help us understand the full complexity of Lloyd.
Take the bar graph of "Business Intoxicants" that follows Lloyd's career from the 1960s to the 1990s. Beer, Amphetamines and Money make up the first bar (the 1960s), which grows taller in the '70s with the addition of Cocaine, Cruelty and Martinis. The next bar leaps to nearly double its size as Lloyd adds Fine Wines in his upwardly mobile years, and it nearly soars off the table in the '90s with the introduction of Ostentatious Cigars.
If you give this book to a spouse, say goodbye to your partnership for at least three days. But take a look at it yourself even if you're not in the corporate culture: A secret, a romance, a conniving assistant and the possibility that Lloyd actually has a spine make the pages turn by themselves until the big surprise at the end.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Once I was a child, and I thought like a child. I have now, however, put away childish things, and had my first appointment with Amazon.com.
I confess, before I dish the dirty details, that I rolled my eyes when you e-mailed us your shock that entering a word in Yahoo brought up the "Buy Books On..." window. Of course, Ms. Holt! That's marketing. We knew and dismissed that from our minds a year ago. I rolled them again when you reported that some of the placements on the front page were coop items. Of course they were, Ms. Holt! What's wrong with you?
My guess is that, in the end of most things, you are proved uncomfortably right. I met my buyer at Amazon. We looked at the page together, and she explained how she needs cover art, content, etc. (although Amazon sold nearly a million dollars' worth of our books last year). She described how people signed up for "amazon eyes," which e-mails them when a book of their interest comes in (and chided me for mentioning that some people are privacy-minded!). Then she welcomed my publishing house to participate in the "eyes" program, which includes being highlighted on the front page of her section (four levels down from the front page). The price (according to my notes) is only $2,000 for three days. To highlight a bestseller is $5,000.
I felt worse than the day I was given my first chain store, and was taken aside and told, as my rite of passage, that chain stores get a deeper discount than independently owned retail stores.
I feel I have matured, and I feel the world is just a bit dirtier than I'd thought. I acknowledge, too, that my employer will never ante up $5,000 to highlight a book on Amazon.com. He often spends, though, $10,000 per title at Barnes and Noble, but he knows where his bread is buttered.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
With regard to the question, "How much does Amazon.com mark up a book when they get it for a customer from an independent bookseller?, the sad truth is anywhere between 200 and 300 percent. A little over a year ago, Amazon managed to find "The Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo" for me. Not only did they take almost a full year to find it, but the book, for which they were charged $9.00, was resold to me for $24.00!
Witness my chagrin and anger when I discovered ABE shortly thereafter, and how many copies of the same book were available for prices far closer to $9.00 than anything else! You live and learn, I guess, but why do it the hard way all the time? I have used ABE on several occasions in the past year, and recent developments are, to say the least, worrisome to me. Could there be grounds for anti-trust law/monopoly violations here, and if not now, certainly within the near future?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Some speculative number-noodling:
The acquisition price for Bibliofind is rumored to be $200 million. For the listings of approximately 10 million books by about 5000 dealers, that comes to $20 per book or $40,000 per dealer. Mind, this is not for the inventory but for the listings. (And the money didn't go to the dealers!). Up to now, the dealers have paid $300 per year to Bibliofind or about $1.5 million in total.
Some reports suggest that Amazon will switch to a transaction fee system; figures of 1 to 4 percent are cited. Several intenet-based dealers have said that think a sales rate of about a book per day per thousand books listed is a good average. Using that figure and making a wild guess of $25 per volume, and assuming that Amazon uses a fee of 2.5% (halfway between 1 and 4 %) , we get just over $2.25 million.
The above numbers suggest Amazon paid way too much if we believe the $200M figure, or that they hope to increase the revenue from the dealers. Most of the dealers already list their inventory on a least one other internet grouping such as Abebooks and can easily move to others that be formed.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I continue to be amazed by reports, as in Holt Uncensored #57, of people like Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes") becoming a pitch man for Barnes & Noble, even as he acknowledges how independent booksellers have saved his books from obscurity. As in politics, we find out why by following the money.
But what amazes me even more is that even as you extoll the importance of independents you yourself list as the exciting new books of the season only those big-name authors, in both fiction and non-fiction, who have been leading the bestseller lists for the past, at least, decade. While there are some excellent writers on your list, they are also the ones that are "championed" by the chains and which have some of the biggest promotion budgets in the industry . . .
Please, can't someone like yourself start bringing some wider perspective to this issue and stop just falling in line with the chain store psychology? Social and political change are brought about not by putting all our energy into competing or doing battle with the mainstream but by continuing to build and strengthen values based on independent thinking.
Hal Zina Bennett
Holt responds: My policy is to begin coverage of the Fall only with known authors so that people can look forward to some of their favorite authors coming back as the season progresses. The plan is then to give fuller reviews to the less known or more literary or offbeat, often on a book-by-book basis, so that those books that might be missed in a list of names will get their full due.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was in LA at the time of the breast feeding incident in Borders. I have no love for Borders, believe me, but they did offer an apology and now have a sign in their store that says you can breast feed anywhere. The lady in question is suing Borders for 2 million dollars. An excessive amount for an affront that was really not that big of a deal. I mean if she lost her breast or something of that order. By the way I heard the story that a customer in the store complained to the clerk, and he asked her if she would mind going into the ladies room.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The independents' criticism of the sales tax moratorium has it exactly backwards. For those independents who are inclined to take advantage of this opportunity, the lack of a sales tax on these transactions (along with the existing lack of a sales tax on out of state shipments) is a huge advantage for those of us who own the smallest of stores.
B&N and Amazon can afford to deal with 51 different tax agencies. I have trouble enough dealing with two (state and federal), and consider myself lucky not to have a municipal tax that would make it three.
As our local community continues to lose jobs (due to those wonderful mergers and plant closings that are supposed to be making this nation's economy oh so buoyant and efficient), mail, phone, fax and internet transactions are the only parts of our business that are growing -- and our only real hope of staying alive.
I'm not averse to a unified national solution to this problem -- but I'm not optimistic that my business' interests will come out on top in any new legislation. Given this, the current no-tax status quo is probably the best I can hope for. One thing I'm sure of: any legislation that forces me to deal with an additional 49 state tax bureaucracies would likely be a death warrant for my store.
Owner, Deadly Passions Bookshop