Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

July 27, 2009

Visiting from the Land of Books

My maternity vacation is over and I have been back to work at the book room for two weeks now.

I have to confess that I have been cheating on my all-Canadian reading diet.  One of the great hazards of working in a book store is of being distracted from the task at hand by any number of new, wonderful and enticing books sitting on the shelf.  So while I do have Therese and Paulette sitting on the shelf behind me, 60 pages read, I haven’t been very faithful to it.  I keep passing little curiosities, flipping them open and thinking, “well, it is only 150 pages.  I can read this before lunch and then go back to something else.”

Most avid readers will tell you that they read four or five books at a time.  Me, I try to focus on one.  If I don’t apply some discipline then I will play favourites, tending to ignore the harder books I’ve undertaken.  But then, a consequence probably of the fact that the harder or more boring books can sometimes take me months to get through, I don’t read as much as some people do.  I certainly don’t read as much as I’d like to.  In a good year I will read 40-50 books, in recent years (I blame knitting and child-rearing) I’ve barely read more than 20.

Two of the books I have read since being back at work, Books:  A Memoir by Larry McMurtry and The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar & co. feature autodidactic protagonists whose reading habits are described in the same terms as their hedonistic drug habits (well, maybe not McMurtry’s).  They binge, they read obsessively, they escape for weeks, months into libraries and stacks.  The great writer is the great reader, end of story.

Having modest aspirations to writerhood myself I am therefore critical of my reading habits.  Should I read more books?  Better books?  Am I better served by spending three months slogging through, say, Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent (my nemesis) or by reading back to back 6-8 shorter, more varied titles: some poetry maybe, essays, some more sparse novels?  I go back and forth.  And I cheat. Most ridiculously, I feel guilty about it.

Scattered and undisciplined as book store life makes me, however, it has its benefits.  Customers, not unreasonably, always expect me to have read every book in the store.  Is this any good?  Have you read this?  How does it compare to this?  If I didn’t engage in little episodes of literary philandering I wouldn’t be able to bluff my way through these little interrogations quite so well.  Customers who know me ask me my opinions without hesitation; they really do assume I’ve read it all.  This isn’t as good as having read it all but it is flattering.  The reading hasn’t reached full gestation and burst forth in a great literary creation yet but I am an awfully good bookseller.  Maybe there’s something to be said about my destiny there.

So am I making excuses for dabbling and cheating and reading little bits all over the map?  Probably.  This is how I maintain my balance after all, but swinging back and forth between a disciplined assertion that good reading should hurt and a freer spirit of impromptu inspiration.  In the end I get both done.  Is it any wonder that our great writers (and readers) were all crazy or drug-addled?  A person’s reading habits are a case-in-point expression of their neuroses.  Does anyone read in a careful and measured way?  Maybe that’s what casual readers do.  Back at the book store torn between reads like a woman with too many lovers it occurs to me that even when I can’t squeeze many books in my reading is anything but casual.  What to read entertains as much of my thinking as the read itself.  Good lord.  But I’m in good company, I’m learning.

As for blogging, by the way, it is and will be a more sporadic activity from here on in.  Between work, reading, school, toddlers and living it has to exist between activities.  My apologies if you prefer regiments and reliability!  But I’m not gone, and continue to welcome your visits.

July 6, 2009

Review: Frank Newfeld’s Drawing on Type

I will say this about Frank Newfeld’s memoir:  it is gorgeous.  The cover was designed by Newfeld himself in types he also designed, while Porcupine’s Quill founder Tim Inkster takes credit for the interior.  The paper quality is comfortable, the binding is solid and careful and even the endpapers are well-chosen.  This was what originally drew me to the book:  its look.  Flipping it over and finding the author described as “…one of Canada’s more colouful book-world characters…” clinched it.

Frank Newfeld is an illustrator, book designer, art director and all-around expert in the look, design and feel of a book.  He was art director and subsequently a vice-president at McLelland & Steward under Jack McLelland as well as a co-founder of the Society of Typographic Designers of Canada (now the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada). Me, I best knew him as the illustrator of Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie & Garbage Delight, as well as being the guy who judged The Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada.  But what becomes evident over the course of his memoir is that he is decidedly not a writer.

I was a little torn about how to approach this review because of that fact.  Newfeld has a lot to offer the reader in wisdom, anecdote and experience.  That it hasn’t been rendered by a master storyteller doesn’t detract a lot from those elements.  His delivery is simple and doesn’t pretend to be more of a stylist than he is, but nevertheless some parts of the book do suffer. The first half of the book is taken up with the first 25 years of his life, most of it spent in the military in Israel.  Though he takes some first tentative steps towards his later career as an artist there, the vast majority of this part of the book is a fairly dull, two-dimensional rendering of places and names, the significance of which is not really given to the reader.  Names are introduced three to a page, none of whom warrant any character-building.  It reads a bit like an acceptance speech, where the aim is to recognize and thank all the influences in a life without giving the rest of the audience any hint of who these people were.  This treatment of “characters” lasts for the rest of the book.  Almost invariably if someone is identified with a full name it is to “name drop” them and give some laudatory praise, but no description.  People who Newfeld is going to speak less well of are discretely identified only by first name, or title.

Even Newfeld himself fails to emerge as a fully-formed personality in the reader’s mind. That said, Newfeld describes the Canadian book trade in very different terms than I think we are used to hearing from those in the know.  Unlike the love-in of glosses like Roy MacSkimming’s The Perilous Trade, Newfeld is critical of newer elements emerging in Canadian publishing in the 1970s-1980s.  That Newfeld is of the generation prior to the Douglas Gibsons and Dennis Lees of the publishing world is quite evident.  There is food for thought for those who would like to question why, if Canadian publishing underwent such a rebirth in the 70s, publishing today looks like a two-player racket pulping out more of the safe and predictable. Food for thought, but Newfeld almost sabotages his credibility with some of his recollections.  In particular I found myself flinching through the long blow-by-blow of his difficulties with Dennis Lee and the publication of the children’s poetry Newfeld illustrated.  Newfeld’s side of the story is, no doubt, just; but his manner of telling it comes off as petty.  He makes nods to being fair and praises Lee when he should, but undermines that carefree tone with smug retellings of some pretty irrelevant incidents.  A full-page quote of a bad review Lee garners from the Globe and Mail for one of his post-Newfeld books was totally unnecessary.   That he continues to harp back to the same incidents for the next two chapters just reinforces the reader’s sense that Newfeld is being defensive.

Newfeld is, however, at his very best when he is describing a project or a process rather than a person or an event.  This, I imagine, is the result of his being (by his account – and I have no reason to doubt him) an excellent teacher who ultimately wound up as head of the illustration program at Sheridan College.  The art of design, typography and illustration comes brilliantly to life under his instruction, and his commentary on each discipline is insightful, measured and utterly authoritative.  I was especially impressed with his very rational assessment of the use of modern technology in the book trade.  I thoroughly expected him to express a curmudgeonly, out-of-date dislike for emerging technologies and found him instead quite open to innovation and experimentation.

This is ultimately what makes the book worth reading  – the expertise and care that shine through when he talks about book design and book illustration.  He is a genuine connoisseur of material book culture, one with more experience and laurels than many other people alive today.  Even when you wonder if he’s being fair to some of the people and attitudes that he criticizes, you see exactly why, formally, he fights these fights.  The man understands books in their entirety and is absolutely right when he says publishers are becoming far too focused on the author (and on the design side, the dust-jacket) to the exclusion of the other elements and people involved.  This is a debate we don’t see enough of in book circles today.  Newfeld is more than qualified to be the one to (continue to) lead the charge and I will, for my part, be taking him to heart in my future academic-and-blogging endeavors.   Drawing on Type is a valuable text – and looks absolutely wonderful on my bookshelf.

July 2, 2009

The Scope of a Collection

I really do plan to be brief, this time. But some administration first: I won’t be holding a book collecting contest this month because I am out of town, nowhere near books in any kind of quantity. Our cottage is newly built and not yet filled to the rafters with summer books, though a new load comes in every week as my family wakes up to this opportunity to clear out some shelf space. In the meantime I am alone with the trees, rocks, lake, rain… and internet.

Enough about that. I wanted to speak for two seconds about the concept of defining the scope of one’s book collection. When I tell people I collect books they often reply with “me too, I have like two whole bookcases of books”. While this is “collecting” in a sense, it isn’t really what is meant when someone who considers themselves a serious collector says they collect. That, really, is hoarding, or owning. Collecting in a more formal sense means to define the bounds of a particular collection, deciding what is relevant and desirable and what isn’t, and seeking out those particular books. A collection can theoretically be completed some day, whereas “owning books” is something which goes on forever.

So defining the scope of your collection really is the single most important thing you will do. Simply put, this means deciding what is in and what is out. Cost, interest, practicality and availability might all factor. For some excellent advice on where to start and how to proceed with defining a collection, check out The Private Library.  In the meantime, here is my current predicament.

I collect Alexandre Dumas (pere).  The boundaries of my collection are intentionally foggy (I do like to surprises) but roughly speaking, I want to collect all of his oeuvre, one copy in French and one copy in English.  I also love adaptations – his works repackaged and possibly reinterpreted for a specific audience. The Count of Monte Cristo as a graphic novel, say, or The Three Musketeers as a play.  I do not collect “sequels” by third parties, or totally derived works (although I once found a website dedicated to someone’s collection who only collected sequels, unauthorized versions, derivations, etc.  I wish I could find it now!).

Sometimes I make exceptions to the rule because it tickles my fancy to do so.  I will buy any “and zombies” mashups that anyone chooses to do of Mr. Dumas’s works (a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).  I refuse utterly to touch any of Disney’s many Musketeers interpretations – I am still offended that they call their little footsoldiers “Mouseketeers”.  But what about this one?

Sometimes something is just ridiculous enough that I don’t know if I can resist.  I mean, this baby even comes with a DVD.  And the idea of Barbie as a character in a Dumas novel is so totally preposterous that I feel I might need it just to… I don’t know, counterbalance or juxtapose something.  Somehow I doubt Barbie and her friends are carousing and scrapping, disciplining their servants and getting imprisoned.  I wonder how Barbie feels about falling in love with fair Constance, then forgetting about her at the first flash of Milady’s milk-white bosom and ultimately sleeping with Kitty, the maid, in order to ferret out Milady’s nefarious plot.  I wonder!

Anyway, the moral of the story is, be disciplined but be creative.  Sometimes the best collected materials are those ones you never thought you’d acquire.  A hundred years from now when your collection is enshrined in a university somewhere (*coff*) you never know what some enterprising young grad student will do with the material.  Personally, I see a thesis paper in here somewhere.  Think outside the box!