Visiting most bookstores is no pleasure. The chains, strictly speaking, no longer sell books, or at least books you might actually want to read and own. When I do visit, say, Barnes & Noble, it’s usually to buy greeting cards or gift cards to mail to relatives and friends. They can use the latter online and, with diligence, find something worth reading. Most of the good books on their shelves I already own, usually in better editions, and years have passed since I met anyone in a bookstore who knows or loves books. Either they are nullities who might as well be buying or selling tacos or shoes, or they’re pretentious grad-school types who wish they were buying or selling tacos or shoes. We visited Powell’s last week in Portland and because of its immense volume of volumes, I managed to fill several blanks on my shelves.
I rely instead on the public library, online book dealers, my own collection and the generosity of friends and editors, so I’m seldom at a loss for something to read. All that I miss is the reassuring ambience of a cluttered, unpredictably stocked shop staffed by someone who has actually read some of the better titles he’s selling. Today that sounds like a utopian whim.
In the library on Tuesday I found an anthology, Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2007), in which seventy-five poets choose poems they judge neglected, and write brief essays about them. Few of the poets and the poems they select are worth our time but I was pleased to see Rachel Hadas choose an old favorite, “A Bookshop Idyll” by Kingsley Amis. She writes:
“It is crisp and rueful, knowing about both life and letters, wise and funny and shapely – not a word too long or short.”
Judging by the poem, little in the worlds of books, poems, bookshops and human beings has significantly changed since Amis published his poem more than half a century ago. Leafing through “a thin anthology,” noting the poets and poems included, Amis’ speaker muses:
“Like all strangers, they divide by sex:
Landscape near Parma
Interests a man, so does The Double Vortex,
So does Rilke and Buddha.
“'I travel, you see', 'I think' and 'I can read'
These titles seem to say;
But I Remember You, Love is my Creed,
Poem for J.,
“The ladies' choice, discountenance my patter
For several seconds;
From somewhere in this (as in any) matter
A moral beckons.”
The only change I observe in the subsequent fifty years and more is the blurring of title preferences by sex. Today, a silly-sounding title like Rilke and Buddha might easily be written or read by a man or woman, and the same goes for Poem for J. Amis, as always, anatomizes us at our most hypocritical, vain and posturing.
A happy addendum: Rachel Hadas’ father, Moses Hadas, a classicist at Columbia University and colleague of Barzun and Trilling, was a sort of readerly teacher to me, though I never met him. Growing up, I read his translations of Tacitus, Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch, and I still consult his Ancilla to Classical Reading, which you’ll never find in the chains though you’re welcome to borrow my copy.