Once & Future

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

April 28, 2010

Reading the “Romance” Pt. II

Disclosure: I am a religious, fanatical, avid and loyal reader of Romance novels.

That Alexandre Dumas is worshiped in my household as a sort of hearth-god should have been your first hint; that I’ll blather for twenty minutes uninterrupted about War and Peace to anyone who gives me an opening should be the second. I have space in my heart for Walter Scott, Robert Lewis Stevenson, – maybe not Ryder Haggard -, Hardy and George MacDonald.  If a book has conspiracies, chases, sword fights or similar swashbuckling, oaths, irrational acts of honour, betrayals, daring escapes or rescues, I am very likely to read it and love it.  Any confusion between my Romances and the Romance novels pulped out by Harlequin can be settled with an assurance that my darlings are also terribly romantic, so the word can be interpreted either way if you like.  Or at least they are terribly romantic to me.

I complained a while ago about the lack of romance novels out there for those of us with half a brain.  As it turns out there’s plenty of brainy romance available for those of a particular romantic disposition, unluckily I am differently disposed.  I said this in front of a room of romance readers recently and they immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was looking for something kinky. This isn’t the case, and I’ve had some trouble putting it into words until now.  But my recent reading has clarified the issue.

Queen Margot, the 1994 film - admittedly, some of the best eye-candy ever put on film.

I’ve been reading what are collectively known as The Valois Romances, three novels by Alexandre Dumas set in the late 16th century and the Louvre of the Valois dynasty (Francis I through Henry III, roughly).  The individual volumes are known by a variety of titles depending on the edition or translation, but the most famous of these is probably the first, known best as Queen Margot.  It is best known, probably, because of a very well-received recent film of the same name, La Reine Margot (1994).

The differences between these books and the film align very well with the differences between my expectations of a romance novel, and the Rest of the World’s expectations.  The plots of both are similar, if not identical: Marguerite of the Valois, youngest sister to the king, Charles IX, has been given away in a political marriage to Henry, King of Navarre.  The kingdom is, at this point, destabilized by conflict between the Catholic institution and the Huguenot population, and Marguerite’s marriage to Henry, king of the Protestants, is supposed to create some kind of stability.  It is a loveless marriage, with both parties agreeing to turn blind eyes to the other’s love affairs.  Amidst a storm of politics, massacres, and intrigue, Marguerite falls in love with and carries on a passionate affair with a Protestant nobleman named la Môle.  As in all of Dumas’ novels, nothing ends well for anyone.

La Môle’s devotion to Marguerite in the novel is complete.  Marguerite, in typical Romantic style, is flawless in every way, a paragon of femininity and queenly-ness.  At first blush the feminists here roll their eyes, but the Romantics were more fair to their heroines than we are today: Marguerite is cunning, calculated, educated, intelligent and in control, and these are all considered virtues.  She is, after all, the Queen of Navarre, and Queens are second to no one.  La Môle describes himself as “first of her subjects” and by this he doesn’t mean “the best of them”, he means “first in line to serve her”.  And that’s what he does, up to the minute he is killed (sorry, spoiler – but as I say, no hero of Dumas ever escapes this fate!)

The Marguerite of the film is a more complex woman, certainly, but the means by which they’ve “problematized” her are off-putting.  Flaws abound.  Marguerite is known as the whore of the Louvre, and has been sleeping with (or raped by) all three of her brothers.  Unable to secure a lover on her wedding night, she wanders the streets of Paris in a mask posing as a prostitute and eventually “picks up” the film’s la Môle, who boffs her in an alley.  She’s uninterested in politics except in so far as they endanger her life, but becomes hysterically moral (and ecumenical) in the wake of  the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (the Marguerite of the novel is indifferent to the massacre, except in so far as it has shaped politics).  But never mind, because the massacre has reunited her with her back-alley-romp, la Môle, with whom she is now smitten.  Her past sexual promiscuity is somewhat explained by la Môle’s poetic insight: “She loves as though she is seeking revenge.” In a scene which spoke volumes to me, Marguerite muses that la Môle is now her “subject and Master”.  La Môle has a little emo moment over this, and eventually proclaims he is not her subject.  This seems to please her, and they go on making love. (???)

What has happened here is the nature of the romantic relationship has been completely upended.  In the novel, la Môle worships Marguerite and ultimately gives his life up for her cause.  His only desire is to belong to her.  In the movie, Marguerite needs a strong hero to save her from her victimized past and la Môle seems is happy to take command of the situation in his strong, usually bare, arms.  She belongs to him.

This difference is epitomized in this example, but seems present in some form accross the board.  In my Romances, heroes fall in love and spend their books performing great deeds for their ladies, and seem happiest when they can be of some service to them.  The women are beyond reproach for anything (except in cases of misunderstandings, which the men with happily flaggelate themselves over later).  The drama exists in the plots, intrigues, battles, conspiracies and wars – events in which the women frequently participate.  In modern Romances, the women fall in love, spend a lot of time agonizing over some dude, and ultimately are happy when they win the right to be “protected” and commanded by said dude.  (At least in my Romances, there’s real stuff to be protected from – kidnappings, assassinations, insults, sword-thrusts…) The women are all kinds of flawed, though the men are not, and the drama is in navigating the relationship.  And maybe most typically, in my Romances the ultimate end for a hero is to be allowed to fall on his sword for his love, while the modern Romance has to end happily ever after.

An easy explanation offered to me was that my Romances were written for men, while the modern Romance is written for women.  But what does that mean?  The women of my Romances are perfect.  Who doesn’t want to be perfect?  And the men move heaven and earth for them (the Duke of Buckingham starts a war just to get to see Anne of Austria, for heaven’s sake) – isn’t that desirable too?  I fail to grasp how nailing down a strong, protective husband beats these as the stuff of day-dreams.

What’s going on here?  I can’t decide who needs the literary head-shrinking: me or everyone else.  Hopefully the answer won’t be democratically obtained…

April 22, 2010

The Culmination of a Long-ish Search

A while ago I made a rather un-grammatically-titled post on the subject of pretty books, which you can find here.  In the year since then I’ve been visiting these artists’ websites religiously, waiting patiently for the volume destined to be mine.  Almost one year to the day after my search began, it has ended.


Meet my new fancy-purse. The volume is, in case you can’t make out the spine, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas,  under the imprint of the “International Collector’s Library”, from Doubleday.  The original book was  one of those cheap reprints designed to look good if you don’t look too closely; apparently the interiors were quite cheap.  But no fear – the interiors here have been stripped and replaced with a vintage Liberty of London print.

Needless to say it will be accompanying me to all my fancy-dress parties from now on.  I now owe a huge debt of gratitude (my huge financial debt being paid) to Caitlin Phillips at Rebound Designs for making me the coolest book nerd on the block.

April 19, 2010

Toronto’s Best-Kept Book Secret?

Despite a childhood lived almost exclusively within the walls of public libraries across the country, I have grown into a woman who really likes to own books. Erasmus supposedly said “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” – and if he didn’t say it, I will certainly take credit. Buying books is a great pleasure of mine.

So, of course, any[1] source of good, inexpensive books is a source I will haunt faithfully. One of the very best of these is the Sale Section at my home-away-from-home, the Bob Miller Book Room. I am not alone in this assertion – more than once I have run into local rare book dealers and book scouts scouring the section. These are people who Would Know.  On the other hand, sometimes I think nobody knows except me and these few dealers.

The Bob Miller Book Room is hazily known to most English students at the University of Toronto and not many other people.  Though it is not a university bookstore, it’s hidden location in the basement of a Bloor Street office building keeps it a virtual secret from anyone except those who have been sent there (i.e. the students) and those who are In The Know.  We specialize in humanities and social sciences books with an unusually large stock of “academic” titles you won’t find elsewhere, which is wonderful in and of itself but what should make the store a beacon to book lovers everywhere is the sale books.

Unlike most bookstores, the Bob Miller Book Room has a sale section based on our regular stock, rather than on cheaply-acquired publisher’s overstock titles.  As of this morning this amounts to eight jam-packed bookcases of assorted titles in no particular order all offered for 50-75% off the cover price.  How the owners decide what gets tossed in this section is a mystery to me.  The titles range from the canon to the obscure, from small presses to large ones, and often includes books which can also be found for full price elsewhere in the store.  What’s not to love here?

New Canadian Library (NCL) titles were scattered all over both sections.  I nearly cried when I found this:  Margaret Ostenso’s Wild Geese for 75% off.  That’s like $2.50!   Where was this book when I was looking for it last month?  Ah well, a prize for someone else to claim.

Small press titles abound, especially from Canadian presses, like Michael deBeyer’s Change in a Razor-backed Season from Gaspereau Press ($18.95-75% = $4.74)

The Bob Miller Book Room specializes in scholarly works, so you can find weird things like these:

Or Nobel and Booker winners like these:

Or “One of Charlotte’s Favourite Books Ever” like this one:

Needless to say I have gone nuts over the last month, blowing to smithereens my “read 5 off the shelf, buy 1 from the store” rule. Among my own buys? Alberto Manguel’s Library at Night, the new Penguin Classics translation of The Tain, Adrian John’s The Nature of the Book, Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, Salman Rushdie’s Ground Beneath Her Feet… and I’m gonna stop listing now because if my husband reads this and sees how many books I’ve smuggled into our already-overflowing bookshelves, he’ll plotz. Suffice to say I have nearly filled an entire shelf. But it was cheap! And what’s a little shelf space? This is, after all, what I live for.

The Bob Miller Book Room’s sale section remains in place year-round, until the books are all gone. And if you drop by, be sure to say hi to yours truly!

[1] Any ethical, let me say – you could not pay me to shop at certain used bookstore chains who almost certainly traffic to a large extent in stolen books.

April 15, 2010

The Ecology of Ideas: An Interview with Of Swallow’s Jason Rovito

The media’s narrative goes like this: Toronto booksellers are dropping like flies, with venerable institutions like Pages and David Mirvish Books on Art as well as newer enterprises like McNally Robinson and TYPE on the Danforth shutting their doors.  But not to worry, new bookstores are cropping up all over town; plucky startups like ReReadingGood Egg and Zoinks! are going to try their luck in the strange new world of the internet, ebook and big box retail.

Into this narrative enter Of Swallows, their deeds, & the winter below.  Jason Rovito has become Of Swallow’s figurehead, the latest young entrepreneur to try his hand at redefining bookselling for the 21st century.  But Rovito’s vision of a center for knowledge exchange and an experiment in community idea building is a far cry from the usual bookseller line, and indeed neither the man nor the space fit into the usual roles of proprietor and property.  Traditional and innovative booksellers alike are trying to sell a product; Of Swallows is going to try to become a location of intellectual exchange.

But jargony idealism aside, Rovito’s collective seems to have a sound foundation:  the bookstore sells second-hand scholarly books while the location at 283 College Street (at Spadina) is also home to the Toronto New School of Writingand a 3rd floor office and boardroom are available for rent on an hourly basis to interested parties.  This helps pay the bills but more importantly, drives like-minded users into the space.  For Rovito, whose academic background includes work on urban Marxism and the history of the medieval university, locality, community, and exchange are completely the point of bookselling.  “If you take care of the cultural ecology,” he told me, “the political economy takes care of itself.”  That is to say, if you have a healthy community of eager minds converging on a place, books are bound to sell.

I was intrigued by Of Swallows right off the bat for a number of reasons:  For starters, it is a used, not a new, bookstore.  If the current economy can be said to be unfriendly to independent new booksellers, it is certainly even more so to used sellers who don’t have the benefit of publishers’ marketing budgets and distributors’ returns policies.  Of Swallows’ intellectual predecessor, Atticus Books formerly of Harbord St., recently “went digital”, leaving behind the question of if a second-hand scholarly bookstore is economically viable.  And how could anyone compete with Amazon’s used-book subsidiary, Abebooks.com?

Rovito’s answer to the potential pitfalls of bookselling seems to be to focus on the space of bookselling, not the books themselves, a refocusing he described as getting away from the “fetishization of the object” and moving towards a “life cycle of ideas” instead.  And he’s quite right to do so.  Bookselling, unlike other forms of retail, has traditionally been as much about the bookseller as about the product.  Customers come to browse, relying on a particular seller’s taste in acquiring stock.  They come for advice as well, for recommendations and discussions.  Readers will frequently ask a seller, “Have you read this?”  where a clothing shopper will not ask “Have you worn this?”  There is, as Rovito points out, a “ritualistic aspect to bookselling” which recognizes that the act of going into a bookshop is something many people engage in without, necessarily, a thought about the commodity within.  They’ve come for ideas, the possibility of knowing.

Of Swallows is situated barely a block from the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, a location not chosen by accident.  In fact, Rovito had originally planned to move into a space even closer to the heart of the university, a stone’s throw from the monumental Robart’s Library.  That his customer base would be taken from the academic community is obvious, but Rovito is not trying to become “a University bookstore”.  Rovito, a university lecturer and PhD candidate, has spent enough time within the ivory towers to recognize that the university experience, for many, has become commodified, especially for undergraduates.  It isn’t about learning or edification anymore as much as it is about gaining a degree which (in theory) will get you a better job.  But amongst the hordes of accreditation-seekers are still those people who would have, in the 15th century, flocked to Oxford or Bologna for nothing more than a chance to read books and talk to their peers.  Knowledge doesn’t have to be the product or sole property of the ivory tower, he reasons.  For those people who want to learn, and to explore ideas, and make use of the minds of others, there must be an outlet.

But what will they sell?  Though Rovito is prepared to let the demands of his customers shape the stock, he has some foundational ideas.  Much of his initial stock has been acquired from Atticus from amongst their non-rare books.  Rovito has an interesting (though, he admits, perhaps not viable) idea of a store divided by the medieval divisions of knowledge: the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). More esoteric subjects already emerge from amongst the interests of Rovito himself and his early customer base, such as the “Metropolis” (think Georg Simmel and Fritz Lang rather than Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida).  In my two-second walk through the space long before the doors were to open, I spied Latin Classics and continental Philosophy amongst the paint cans and new lighting fixtures.  Not your usual bookstore fare, for sure.

Of Swallows is slated to open their doors to the public Thursday April 22nd 2010, at noon.  I will certainly be there, and wish the best of luck to a great idea!