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The Joy of Reading about Reading

December 8, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

GUEST POST: by Oliver B. Pollak, Ph.D.

Books about the book trade line my shelves. Tick marks and underlining identify references to reading, bookstores and libraries. What follows are some references I found during November 2021 casual reading.

I reviewed the harrowing  Innocent Witnesses (2021) by Marilyn Yalom. She presents the stories of seven friends who were children during WWII. Born in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Indochina, and the United States between 1926 and 1938 they shared their wartime experiences. They endured hunger, air raids, bomb shelters and the temporary or permanent loss of their father. My antennae were sensitive to reading habits in extremis. Four of the seven wartime witnesses penning accounts several decades after 1945 thought mentioned childhood reading habits, perhaps injecting normality and continuity from troubled times.

The Nazi’s perpetrated book burnings, the writing of these survivors ensured they would  not be forgotten. Marilyn Yalom recalls that on December 7, 1941, she was reading one of the three books she checked out every week from Washington DC’s Petworth Library. The French mother of one witness, an omnivorous reader, distressed over the lack of available books. Another French mother salvaged about twenty books of history and biography, “the mutilated remains of the family library.” Finally, the Finnish witness reported that in Rovaniemi, Finland, “There was a German officer’s club, a German bakery, a bookshop and a library.” Not coincidentally the seven witnesses are responsible for publishing about forty books. My mother said she took me to the library in latter 1940s London, I wish I could remember. As a youth the Captain Horatio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester enthralled me. In early adulthood George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series amused me.

The Sunday, November 20, 2021 issue of the New York Times Book Review featured Irina Reyn’s review of Squirrel Hill by Mark Oppenheimer about the October 27, 2018 mass shooting killing  eleven and wounding six Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. Irina wrote, “As a Soviet Jew who emigrated 40 years ago from a country that never considered the Jews truly Russian, I was  reminded once again that some things never change. You can’t out-immigrate antisemitism.” Oppenheimer described the neighborhood containing a supermarket, a kosher shop, corner Starbucks, Asian bakery, cafes, ethnic restaurants and “used and new bookstores.”

In the Wednesday, November 24, 2021 New York Times Food section Brett Anderson wrote about 82-year-old JoAnn Clevenger closing New Orlean’s Upperline creole restaurant which she opened in 1983. Covid and aging are the impetus for closing. She reminisced about her customers including Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Jeff Bezos, Dean Basquet of the NYT and Walter Isaacson the biographer of America’s best known printer, Benjamin Franklin, An American Life (2003). JoAnn “gave a printed list of local bookstores she recommends to MacKenzie Scott, who was then married to Mr. Bezos.” JoAnn knew that Jeff Bezos and Amazon purchased AbeBooks.com in 2008 creating the world’s largest online bookstore.” She said, “It felt really good that I could give them a list of these brick-and-mortar stores he’s on the way to destroying.”

smellofbooksI did not need French Quarter aromas to purchase The Smell of Books, A Cultural-Historical study of Olfactory Perception in Literature (1992) by Hans J. Rindisbacher from a French Quarter bookstore. Rindisbacher earned his Ph.D. at Stanford and teaches at Pomona College. I recently sent a friend a used copy of The Coffee Train (1953) by Margarethe Erdahl Shank. I imagined it would evoke the scent of coffee, it so smelled of pickles she could not get near it, a feature not mentioned in the online product description. Perhaps I should recommend Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography (2016) by John Sutherland.

As reading missionaries we gave friends copies of A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole, published eleven years after his suicide, making it undoubtedly America’s greatest posthumously published novel.

Marilynne Robinson was born in 1943 and published her first novel, Housekeeping in 1980 to much acclaim. The blurbs on the back cover of the early 21st century paperback edition includes Doris Lessing’s assessment, “I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly—this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.” I with Lessing in the 1970s while researching mid-century African labor unions. Lessing’s first novel, The Grass is Singing, set in Rhodesia, appeared in 1950. Lessing received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. My wife and I curated a library exhibition, “The Nobility of Doris Lessing.” One Housekeeping sentence pertinent to this essay reads, “Now and then Molly searched Sylvie’s room for unreturned library books.”

The joy eked out of reading is subject to a baleful lament. Bookstores and libraries once omnipresent are now under attack by those who would fill reading rooms with computers. Our method of obtaining and conveying information has changed. Even getting an appointment requires negotiating with a communication system that does not have a human being at the other end. Newspapers are fewer and thinner. Advertising revenues decline, reportorial staff is cut. The internet replaces paper. The expectation of study, learning, staying up-to-date, and even fundamental research is increasingly laptop linked. The existence of public and private libraries is threatened by the allocation and reallocation of limited space, cutting professional overheads, culling, disposing and reducing public accessibility.

Oliver B. Pollak, Ph.D. is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Nebraska Omaha, a lawyer, the author of eleven books and hundreds of articles and a member of the Book Club of California and The Institute for Historical Study.

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