Two weeks ago I placed an order for three books, among them a volume I wished to give as a Christmas present, with Amazon.com. A prompt e-mail informed me my books would not be delivered until late in January, so I cancelled the book intended as a gift and bought it from a chain bookstore in Houston. On Wednesday I received another e-mail from Amazon.com saying one of the books I had ordered for myself, Time's Covenant: Selected Poems, by Eric Ormsby, could not be shipped:
“Though we had expected to be able to send this item to you, we've since found that it is not available from any of our sources at this time. We realize this is disappointing news to hear, and we apologize for the inconvenience we have caused you.”
“Disappointing,” yes, but also baffling. Time’s Covenant was published in October 2006 by Biblioasis, of Windsor, Ontario, Canada – that is, south of Detroit, in a much-touted era of free trade and globalization. It remains in print. Ormsby is an American and long-time resident of Canada now living in London. He is also among our finest living poets. I reordered his book from Amazon.ca (the Canadian cousin), and they expect to ship it between Jan. 16 and Jan. 30.
Edward Dahlberg was a formidably bookish writer, and his bitchy, acerbic letters are collected in Epitaphs of Our Time. On Dec. 2, 1958, Dahlberg wrote to Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago (where he abolished the school’s football program) and founder of the Great Books Curricula:
“Since publishing became luxurious see what has happened to bookshops. They are infamous greeting-card stores, littered with trash. The only decent and civilized people left in the books business are those who have shambly stores on Fourth Avenue. Do I want La Rochefoucauld, Saint-Simon, La Bruyère or Dio, and I am being literal, I have to go to used-book dealers. Should I desire to procure Strabo or the elder Pliny or Alexander von Humboldt, do you imagine I should have the least luck in buying these on Fifth Avenue? Suppose I desire Whiston’s translations of Jewish Antiquities by Josephus, where do I get it, in a meretricious book house which looks like a Greyhound bus – or in the shabby stalls on Fourth Avenue? I have found a rare Guerrera, a fifteenth-century Spanish monk who did some marvelous chapters of Heliogabalus and Otho, in an immense loft glutted with all sorts of volumes that would entice a fevered brain. You can’t even get literary staples in the new, gimcrack bookshops, Ruskin, Burton, Coleridge’s Letters, Sartor Resartus, the City of God by St. Augustine.”