Cleveland when I was growing up there was the sixth-largest city in the United States. By the last census it had dropped to 33rd, and with all those people have evaporated all the bookstores of my youth. One of my regular downtown haunts hung on until not long ago as an online business, and now it too has gone extinct. During my recent five-day stay, I didn’t visit even one bookstore because virtually none exists. As a consolation prize my brother gave me his three-volume edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson – the fourth to sit, redundantly, on my shelves.
Back here I visited one of the shiny chain stores, and not for the first time thought of Peter Kien in Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé:
“It was his custom on his morning walk, between seven and eight o’clock, to look into the windows of every book shop which he passed. He was thus able to assure himself, with a kind of pleasure, that smut and trash were daily gaining ground.”
Finding satisfaction in the decline of everything is a dubious pleasure, the self-indulgent folly of the middle-aged. In the library a book caught my eye because of a single word printed in white on the spine: Books. An omen? The author is Larry McMurtry, whose remarkably sprawling oeuvre I have never read, though I saw the film of The Last Picture Show a long time ago and enjoyed the Hank Williams soundtrack. I don’t intend to read Books cover-to-cover but I opened it at random to pages 136-37, the way people used to consult the Bible in search of signs and portents, and found this:
“I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support – reading – is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one.”
I saw McMurtry’s observation confirmed Tuesday morning when I took the boys to a free showing of The Tale of Despereaux, a movie in which a mouse reads tales of chivalry and, like Don Quixote, is inspired to begin a quest. Unlike anyone else in the theater, the three of us had brought books to read before the film started – standard operating procedure in our family.
Back home I found an e-mail from a reader who had just read Guy Davenport's story “Veranda Hung with Wisteria” (collected in The Cardiff Team and The Death of Picasso) and wrote excitedly that it “contains four worlds in one paragraph.”