Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Michael Powell Interview

Some interesting excerpts from the recent interview with Powell's Bookstore owner Michael Powell in Poets & Writers.

I was trying to calculate how many books I had sold during my life under the Powell's name. I'd like to think it's coming close to a hundred million. You know, in chaos theory there's this idea that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the globe can create a storm in Africa. Well, what about a hundred million butterfly wings? What has it done? You don't know. People hardly ever tell you, "I read a book and it changed my life." Most books are probably sold for entertainment, some are sold for information, and some are sold for inspiration. Certainly some are sold for all three at the same time. But I say to myself, "Well, at least when you're reading a book it's hard to rob a bank." I like to think that some of those books have had a positive impact on people's lives.
And then Powell shatters my fantasy of what it would be like to own a bookstore:

I think everybody--or the uneducated person who doesn't know much about the business--thinks that as a bookseller you sit in a store, read books, and when someone comes in you have a nice conversation and then recommend and sell some things to that person. That you have a stock of books you believe in and know intimately. That you wear patches on the elbows of your sport jacket, and there's a cat somewhere in the window, and there's a fire burning in a fireplace, and there's the smell of coffee and all that.
Well, I've been in many a bookstore, and a handful are exactly like that. Usually small, one employee, used bookstores. On the other hand I've been in some where the owner looks so stressed I feel like giving her/him Ritalin.

My dream is to one day own a used bookstore. But if I can't have the cat in the window and coffee smell, then forget it.

To read the whole interview, click here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Gothic Epiphany

I know I said I would finish Villette this week...but there's no harm in a little Anne Rice on the side, is there?

From The Vampire Lestat:

I realized aloud in the midst of saying it that even when we die we probably don't find out the answer as to why we were ever alive. Even the avowed atheist probably thinks that in death he'll get some answer. I mean God will be there, or there won't be anything at all.

"But that's just it," I said, "we don't make any discovery at that moment! We merely stop! We pass into nonexistence without ever knowing a thing." I saw the universe, a vision of the sun, the planets, the stars, black night going on forever. And I began to laugh.

"Do you realize that! We'll never know why the hell any of it happened, not even when it's over! ... We're going to die and not even know. We'll never know, and all this meaninglessness will just go on and on and on. And we won't any longer be witnesses to it. We won't have even that little bit of power to give meaning to it in our minds. We'll just be gone, dead, dead, dead, without ever knowing!"

But I had stopped laughing. I stood still and I understood perfectly what I was saying.

There was no judgement day, no final explanation, no luminous moment in which all terrible wrongs would be made right, all horrors redeemed.


No, I didn't understand it at this moment. I saw it! And I began to make the single sound: "Oh!" I said it again "Oh!" and then I said it louder and louder, and I dropped the wine bottle on the floor. I put my hands to my head and I kept saying it, and I could see my mouth opened in that perfect circle that I had described to my mother and I kept saying, "oh, oh, oh!"

I love gothic literature. But don't read it if you want to have a sunshiney day.


The chapter titled Vashti from Charlotte Bronte's Villette has a wealth of great passages. At this point the narrator is describing an actress she is observing in the theatre:

For awhile--a long while--I thought it was only a woman, though an unique woman, Who moved in might and grace before this multitude. By-and-by I recognised my mistake. Behold! I found upon her something neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil. These evil forces bore her through the tragedy, kept up her feeble strength--for she was but a frail creature; and as the action rose and the stir deepened, how wildly they shook her with their passions of the pit! They wrote HELL on her straight, haughtly brow. They tuned her voice to the note of torment. They writhed her regal face to a demoniac mask. Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate she stood.

It was a marvellous sight: a mighty revelation.


Where was the artist of the Cleopatra? Let him come and sit down and study this different vision. Let him seek here the mighty brawn, the muscle, the abounding blood, the full-fed flesh he worshipped: let all materialists draw nigh and look on.

I have said that she does not resent her grief. No; the weakness of that word would make it a lie. To her, what hurts becomes immediately embodied: she looks on it as a thing that can be attacked, worried down, torn in shreds. Scarcely a substance herself, she grapples to conflict with abstractions. Before calamity she is a tigress; she rends her woes, shivers them in convulsed abhorrence. Pain, for her, has no result in good: tears water no harvest of wisdom: on sickness, on death itself, she looks with the eye of a rebel. Wicked, perhaps, she is, but also she is strong; and her strength has conquered Beauty, has overcome Grace, and bound both at her side, captives peerlessly fair, and docile as fair. Even in the uttermost frenzy of energy is each maenad movement royally, imperially, incedingly upborne.

Bronte also lays the smack down on Rubens:

Place now the Cleopatra, or any other slug, before her as an obstacle, and see her cut through the pulpy mass as the scimitar of Saladin clove the down cushion. Let Paul Peter Rubens wake from the dead, let him rise out of his cerements, and bring into this presence all the army of his fat women; the magian power of prophet-virtue gifting that slight rod of Moses, could, at one waft, release and re-mingle a sea spell-parted, whelming the heavy host with the down-rush of overthrown sea-ramparts.

On snap!

And in true Bronte fashion, this description is followed by a fire. Always with the fire!

To shed some light on Bronte's Vashti allusion, click here.

Happiness is Not a Potato

I've been reading Charlotte Bronte's
Villette off and on for about...3 years. Travesty, I know. But I'm determined to finish it next week.

Here are some excerpts:

No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage Paradise.


"But if I feel, may I never express?"

"Never!" declared Reason.

I groaned under her bitter sternness. Never--never--oh, hard word! This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope: she could not rest unless I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken-in, and broken-down. According to her, I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pains of death, and steadily through all life to despond. Reason might be right; yet no wonder we are glad at times to defy her, to rush from under her rod and give a truant hour to Imagination--her soft, bright foe, our sweet Help, our divine Hope.

Hello Kafka

Cherry-popping post!

I'm going to start things out with a Kafka quote:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

From a letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27, 1904

It is also what I believe.