On Sunday night in Los Angeles, the literary faithful gathered to celebrate and mourn the loss of Dutton's Bookstore
. After 24 years in business, Doug Dutton is having to close his doors. His eclectic, magical shop was the first place I read in Los Angeles, back in 1993 when I was touring for In a Country of Mothers
. Dutton's was never a typical book store, but a kind of magical entry point, the store spread into other rooms and buildings on a shared courtyard, where people would often sit and read for hours. It was the kind of place you'd just fall into and discover all kinds of things, from the newest voices in fiction to the deepest philosophical tomes to a wonderful children's book room ? where even though the shelves are nearly empty, people were still shopping. At the party on Sunday, there were more people than I've ever seen at a Los Angeles book store, there were stories to share, glasses of wine, a giant cake and wine, and an open microphone ? but despite the attempts at a party, it was inescapably yet another good-bye to an independent bookstore.
And it got me to thinking about the role of good libraries and bookstores in a writer's development. One book leads to the next, one writer's reference to another prompts us to explore, to expand. And as any of you reading this know, books are an addiction, an addiction for which one should never be treated.
My first "grown up" bookstore, meaning one I could get myself to on my own, was the Maryland Book Exchange in College Park, which has been operating since 1936 serving the students of the University of Maryland. I don't remember who introduced me to this place, I'm thinking it must have been through someone's older brother or sister who went to school there, because it was about a 20 minute drive from my parents' house and I would go barreling out there at age sixteen in my mother's 1965 Black Pontiac convertible, a car that had one speed, 90 MPH, and no breaks.
What I discovered at the book exchange were the New Directions Paperbacks (founded in 1936 by James Laughlin, a 22-year-old Harvard Student). I never realized that the book exchange was started in the same year ? no doubt whoever ran the book exchange had a soft spot for New Directions ? because they had all the books. It was there that I discovered Henry Miller's essays, which I still love more than the novels, and ALL of the Tennessee Williams plays ? New Directions published more than 30 of them, along with his short stories and novel. They were also the publishers of Djuna Barnes' infamous Nightwood, Walter Abish's How German Is It, and to this day still publish about 25 books a year, including folks like Anne Carson and the beloved Ferlingettti.
My favorite of Miller's essays is "The Water's Reglitterized," a meditation on watercolor painting. The essay, which is an illumination of the creative process, talks about how we have the most fantastic dreams of what we one day might accomplish and how our work is the struggle to create in reality what we dream and how often the finished product does not match up to the dream ? something that all artists constantly deal with. Curiously, it turns out that this essay also a favorite of one of my favorite musicians, Laurie Anderson.
From "The Waters Reglitterized":
This morning, awake at five o'clock, the room almost dark still, I lay awake quietly meditating about the essay I would get up to write, and at the same time, as though playing a duet, watching the gradual change of colors in my paintings beside the bed, as the light slowly increased. I had the strange sensation then of imagining what might happen to those colors should the light continue to increase beyond full daylight.....Suddenly I realized how it had been with the struggle to express myself in writing. I saw back to the period when I had the most intense, exhalted visions of words written and spoken, but in fact could only mutter brokenly. Today I see that my steadfast desire was alone responsible for whatever progress or mastery I have made...
Book tours are a wonderful excuse for literary side trips. On my last California trip, I drove from Los Angeles up the Coast to San Francisco mostly because I wanted to visit Big Sur where Miller lived for 18 years and where one can stop by and visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
Whenever I'm on the road, I buy books, I can't help it. I buy books and then ship them home to New York. I get such incredible pleasure browsing stores such as Powell's, Elliott Bay, Kepplers, Black Oak, Skylight, Book Soup, Rakestraw, Brookline Booksmith, and Politics and Prose in my hometown of Washington, D.C. One of the things that makes an independent bookstore so special is that each store is really like a personal library, a carefully curated collection with a point of view, a way of looking at the world. And each store is staffed by people who love books as much as I do and who have wonderful recommendations about who and what to read next.
I also have a first edition habit ? several years ago, I found the book I'd been in search of FOREVER: a first edition of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road. It was a hundred dollars, which seemed like a lot to me, so I found the book and then started to walk away from it. The friend I was traveling with said, "Are you crazy? For years all you've been talking about that book and now you're leaving it here. I'll buy it. I'll buy it for you." I shook my head. It wasn't about buying the book, it was about having found it, seeing it in the original dust jacket, holding it briefly. That said, I did buy the book, like I said I have a habit. I also bought a Cheever first and a Capote and a signed Ferlingetti.
Another author I love and love to collect is Shirley Jackson. Everyone remembers "The Lottery," which may be among the greatest short stories of the 20th century. Her novels and short stories are amazing, weird, dark, and so specific in tone ? they could belong to no one but Jackson. I recently read one of her books which charts the family's move to a larger house in Bennington, Vermont, and the difficulty (understated) Jackson experienced as mother of four, faculty wife, oh, and BRILLIANT WRITER. A reporter from the local paper calls to ask her something and Jackson tells the reporter that her new book will be published next week, by Farrar, Straus, Giroux. The reporter so mangles the statement that the local paper prints something to the effect of ? Mrs. Stanley Edgar Hyman [Her married name] visited with Mr. Farrar Straus Giroux in New York.
Recently, all the way around the world at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, I had yet another book attack ? I bought some firsts of Henry Miller and copies of Anais Nin's diaries ? FROM THE AUTHOR'S OWN LIBRARY. There is comfort in books, in being surrounded by them, by having them in every windowsill, as a kind of intellectual insulation, protection from the intrusion of the "other real world."
Here's a little piece I wrote ? an introduction to The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson.
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The world of Shirley Jackson is eerie and unforgettable. It is a place where things are not what they seem, even on a day that is sunny and clear "fresh with the warmth of a full-summer day," there is the threat of darkness looming, of things taking a turn for the worse. Hers is the ever-observant eye, the mind's eye, bearing witness. Out of the stories rises a magical, somnambulist's ether ? the reader is left forever changed, the mark of the stories is indelible upon the imagination, the soul.
Jackson writes with a stunning simplicity, there is a graceful economy to her prose as she charts the smallest of movements, perceptual shifts ? nothing pyrotechnic here. Her stories take place in small towns, in kitchens, at cocktail parties. Her characters are trapped by the petty prejudices of people who make themselves feel good by thinking they are somehow better than us all. They live in houses that need painting, in furnished rooms, inside the lives of others ? as though in a psychic halfway house, having lost their footing. They are shy, unassuming folks who for all intents and purposes would pass through the physical world unnoticed. They care about appearances, how they are seen by others, they possess a certain kind of respectability and a healthy dose of small town cruelty ? this is about politics on the most macro of levels. There is great concern for how one is perceived, how one moves through on and does ? or more likely does not ? fit into society ? everyone here is an outsider. Throughout, things are turned inside out, the private is made public and there is the tension, the subtle electrical hum of madness in the offing, perpetual drama unfolding ? something is going to happen, something assumedly unpleasant.
Everything is thrown into relief, lit in a Hopperesque late afternoon glow, the one-sided illumination is both revealing and casts a long shadow. I can conjure the faces of each person Jackson describes; the wear and tear over time is evident ? they become bitter, pinched, they drink too much. These stories chart intention, behavior ? they are an intimate exploration of the psychopathology of every day life, the small town sublime. When reading Jackson, I can't help but think of the stories of Raymond Carver, who had a similar ability to create a sort of melancholy emotional mist that floats over the stories. But Jackson also had the ability to be savagely funny; at one point in her career, Desi Arnaz reportedly inquired about her interest in writing a screenplay for Lucille Ball.
The twenty-six stories in the Lottery And Other Stories ? originally named The Adventures of James Harris, Daemon Lover ? are a generous serving of fiction. The title story, "The Lottery," is so much an icon in the history of the American short story that one could argue it has moved from the cannon of American 20th century fiction, directly into the American psyche, our collective unconscious. And whether it is the drunken guest and the smart young girl in "The Intoxicated" ? young girls always knowing far more than all others, and both understanding and perpetually disappointed at the behavior of their elders, male elders in particular ? or the well intentioned but racist Mrs. Williams "In After You, My Dear Apphonse," Jackson's stories are infused with notions of morality, children being the better souls than adults, of a world where a people are often persecuted for being different. What is brilliant about these stories is that Jackson presents them to us in such a way that we, the reader, can see them with great clarity and insight and yet the author is careful to allow her characters to remain in the world of their own making, to not pop the bubble.
Jackson works with precision ? she sees things as if she's zoomed in and has got life under a magnifying glass. And it's not just any glass, but one with a curved owlish lens, so that perhaps we see and know a little more than usual. Her authorial voice is as idiosyncratic and individual as a fingerprint, and has the ring of god's honest truth.
One of the complications to the critical response to Jackson's work was that most critics couldn't make sense of ? or more likely, accept ? that a woman writer could both produce both serious literary fiction and the far less reputable "housewife humor," that Jackson also published.
Further, Jackson was not interested in being a "woman writer" ? she was just a writer, neither male nor female, in a way that to this day is still not easily accommodated by the publishing industry and booksellers. And yet she managed some version of doing it all; she was a woman writer who did not compromise her vision, her talent, and she was a wife and mother of four and managed not to lose herself in some half-baked definition of what mother and married meant ? in a pre-feminist era. Jackson was true to her craft, her talent and in the face of so much seeming "normality" knew her daemons, intimately, personally and pushed on. Few women writers have been able to manage so much ? along these lines Jackson reminds me of the late English author Angela Carter, who was also not bound by genre, who had no interest in distinguishing or separating horror, science fiction, etc. from "literary." Grace Paley once described the male/female writer phenomena to me by saying, "Women have always done men the favor of reading their work, but the men have not returned the favor." There is a nether land, a crevasse of women writers not writing books for "women" but books for readers.
Mrs. Stanley Hyman ? that was her married name, her husband was a literary critic who taught at Bennington ? the town itself, the model for the town in "The Lottery." I love thinking of Shirley Jackson as Mrs. Stanley Hyman, the writer in disguise, as the faculty wife and mother. Mrs. Stanley Hyman, just the sound of it is so of a time ? and it was the perfect cloak from which she could peer out unnoticed, observe, take notes, work otherwise unseen. Mrs. Stanley Hyman ? this one's for you.
So how does one introduce these stories ? when in fact they require no introduction? They are stunning, timeless ? as relevant and terrifying now as when they were first published. Her work is an absolute must for anyone aspiring to write, anyone hoping to make sense of 20th century American culture ? Shirley Jackson is a true master.