Posted By DMB

My doctor says I can venture out again with a mask and great caution but since the bookshops are all closed I have nowhere I want to go. Our annual book fair has just been cancelled and all the paper shows and the Sunday Market are also in suspension so there’s only the internet if you want books.

Our shop is now open again and can be visited, although we recommend a call first, 10am to 5pm – Monday to Friday. We hope to start seeing old friends again – we continue to buy books every day.

We continue with our email lists, a new on-line bookfair, which seems to be working, and we continue to quote to our regular clients, so business goes on although different from the old days.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about the “old days” I think, probably forever now. Everybody’s life is changed in some ways and permanently too. Better learn to adjust. Luckily for me at my age I have mostly all I want: books to read, my home collections to play with, and am never bored. It’s the young I feel for, all that energy and life bursting out and nowhere to go.

I just bought the DVD of the great documentary The Booksellers a documentary centred on New York booksellers and the New York City bookfair which provides a great view of many booksellers, and collectors. Fascinating and great nostalgia for me, old friends and fascinating unknowns and newcomers since I stopped doing the circuit. Not to be missed.

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A lunch club, of which I’m a member, regularly has the host pose a question which goes around the table where we receive answers, often very witty ones, from the members who include people from every form of book-making in Canada, from writers to booksellers.

I was to be one of the hosts when we were temporarily inconvenienced by the plague and I intended to pose an around the table the question: What book in the last while has most disturbed you?

This question arose with me because of a book I bought at publication in 2017 and still haven’t read, usually getting too depressed to continue somewhere in the first chapter. The book, Edward O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity, got a great review from Bob Fulford. I bought it and shortly thereafter went into the hospital taking it along with a dozen other books as emotional sustenance.

It wasn’t a book for hospitals, and I never got past the first page.

Its essential theme was that in a great evolutionary leap, starting some three million years ago we began ruling the world, our magnificent brains allowing us to create our astonishing civilization. But the downside is that we are still ruled by the emotions of our ancient ancestors which is why, as Wilson put it on page one, “We are both supremely advanced and supremely dangerous.”

I was flummoxed. I couldn’t get past that simple but supremely logical explanation of why the world is such a mess – it’s because we’re so dangerous, operating with emotions we barely have a clue about, our brains merely making us even more cunning in misusing our incredible mental gifts.

It has completely changed my view of the world. I now view all events from that perspective and I must say all events, all the evil and stupidity everywhere, fits perfectly in that framework. And my previous consternation at the depths humanity can stoop to, is now clear to me.

I’ve picked up the book 20 times and failed every time to get very far without dropping it in despair. I’ve just started it again and have managed to get to p68, my most successful foray to date. Whether I will manage to finish it remains uncertain.

My world-view now completely altered, I can only see one way out. We must focus our brilliant minds on the real problem and begin to defeat our primitive animal instincts with the only weapon we have that provides any hope: that superlative brain.

It turns out my constant quoting from that great American philosopher, Pogo, isn’t just a joke after all! “We have seen the enemy and it is us.” It’s true.

 
Posted By DMB

Eighty percent of my library had to go to my storage when we moved from a house. A tragedy for any book person. To not have access to your library is to not have a library. I’ve been sorting the part of my library still at home. This has led to endless browsing, a chapter here, a few pages there, opening and reading in the last part of a book becomes so compelling you have to start again at the beginning; cross-referencing constantly leads elsewhere (here is where the missing library really hurts) all of which demands six other books, etc. etc. I felt like Montaigne is his tower, except I amuse only myself; he still entertains us 500 years later.

But the point here: I’ve also been sorting for filing the neglected papers and part articles and old emails from the last ten years which has brought back memories of those years in a manner I wouldn’t have imagined possible. This has caused a flow of emails to neglected friends, long-distance calls, the beginnings of several new articles. But the most melancholy part is a longer list than I care to remember of the “missing”, the ones gone over the last few years.

One friend who died a couple of years ago had a few emails which were so compelling that I realized he was far more important – to me, but also to our shared vocation – then I realized at the time. I had my assistant track and print our entire email correspondence going back 10 years and am now reading it in full. This led to the researching of quite a few obits and tributes to fellow booksellers, friends and acquaintances in the trade, a growing literature of loss, and many animated views of my time in the trade.

In all, a fascinating experience. If you live long enough your past melds into history and becomes significant in a very different way than just our own petty concerns.

So, of all my recent readings this has been the most important.

Of course, as I’ve pointed out many times, one of the unexpected gifts booksellers receive is a very different perspective of history. If I might have spent all day yesterday researching a book from 500 years ago and then went on to read Tacitus and Catullus, then skipped to Montaigne, then maybe Jim Harrison or another recent contemporary, all history eventually becomes a continuous sequence where timelines became blurred. Like our expanded view of the universe, when we learn that all those bright gleams in the sky are not “stars” but billions of suns just like ours.

I just read two days ago, since I’m also back reading the Romans, that the ancients believed that the stars were actually holes in the firmament which allowed us to see the glories of celestial heavens behind. If I hadn’t been expelled from Grade IX science I might not have needed to wait sixty odd years to discover this.

Time becomes short and booksellers know that more than most. It’s perhaps a pointless gift to have except now, in this plague year, it turns out to be very useful in what I do a lot: putting history, my life, and my so-called career in a better perspective relative to its parallel history.

Reading and rereading Nick Mount’s wonderful book Arrival: The Story of Canlit (House of Anansi Press, 2017) which gives us the first evocative account of the birth and rise of the true Canadian literature was a revelation for me (besides being a clever and truly witty page-turner). As I read, I found it paralleled my life as a bookseller and my own experience of that period. As with all booksellers, especially used ones, I was more often on the sidelines, observer, but seldom participant except in my personal relationships with some writers and other actors who made that history. But on every page of Mount’s book I found venues I frequented, or events I was at, or people or events I’d known, where I could add comments to Mount’s account.

Canadian literature, and in fact much of modern Canadian culture was emerging from the shadows of our British heritage and the seemingly overpowering weight of our American neighbours. For that reason, much of it appears negative. We seemed to be always reacting against something foreign, but our responses – maybe not noticed by most of us – was a Canadian response. The “difference” which all Canadians know exists but often can’t precisely explain was there emerging on its own and defining us through our separateness. The results will be clearly apparent in a hundred years. If you want to see the beginnings go read Mount.

I continue to study this period which so clearly mirrors my own life and my column in CNQ usually tries to illustrate or emphasize an aspect of it.

 

 

 
Posted By DMB

Looking back through my early Blogs for a misremembered quote I realized that I now spend, like many of the aged, half my time looking for mislaid items; only to find half-way through that I’ve forgotten what the mislaid item I’m searching for is. So…, misremembered, mislaid, and forgotten; old age in a nutshell. But luckily as I read Epicurus he reminds me that it really doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is sitting outside in the cafés in the sun, eating olives, drinking a glass of wine and talking to old friends.

After questioning myself about what I miss most in this enforced solitude, I began questioning those friends I speak to on the phone. I found that all my friends said the same thing. What we all miss most is sitting in cafés with old friends, talking over food and wine. Everyone said that, without prompting.

Then I finally found the missing quote – it was Epicurus, from that marvelous philosophic study by Daniel Klein I read a few years ago. Here it is again from my Blog of October 2016:
October 18, 2016

The “Book of the Month” for this month is Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein (Penguin). A marvelous mediation on old age wherein we learn that Epicurus was not an Epicurean. He believed in simplicity in food and drink. And that what was important was not what you ate but who you ate with. He also believed that old age was not to be avoided – by pretending that seventy was the new fifty, but that it should be embraced as not only an important stage in life but the most important age. For only the old can dismiss all the pointless vanities and stupid ambitions which drove us in our youth. And embrace the important things, which are companionship, conversation over food and drink with friends and simply embracing the beauties of life which are there for all if we only slow down and look. All obvious, even trite – except Klein makes it fascinating, so much so that I read a page and think for half an hour before going on. And finishing it once, and having bought a dozen copies for friends, I’ve started it again.

A word to the wise – from Epicurus, one of the truly wise ones.

 

So this book whose wisdom so impressed me that I quoted it four years before this terrible plague – turns out to be what I and all my aged friends have discovered on our own as a result of the plague.

And for me another thing which it so clearly illustrates is the edge that all readers of books have: the open door we share, where all the thoughts and feelings and wisdom of our forebearers is stored for us to discover and benefit from. “Books fall open and we fall in,” goes the old children’s poster I’ve never forgotten, that wonderful description of the world of reading.

So what’s become clear to me is that while we all need some solitude and reflection we humans also need the company and presence of our fellows.

As McLuhan pointed out, movies and TV are passive time-fillers compared to the active engagement which is reading. It’s not hard to conclude that all these electronic means of communication we’ve developed are, like TV, passive things to fill time. We humans need to engage. We need to read to engage our minds with our world and our past. And clearly, we need other humans to engage our whole beings.

That being true, we must today be losing some essential sustenance that our souls need, without which we must be threatened with some essential part of us dying by atrophy.

That, of course, is what the mental health practitioners warn us of in times like this. We’re missing something essential and we don’t know what it is so we become a bit crazy, anxious or depressed, and bad things occur.

This plague is affording us an opportunity to re-examine our lives and make some corrections. I’m back rereading Klein’s wonderful book which is full of clues from Epicurus.

All us readers have that great gift: we can seek answers in the books. 

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Interviewer: “What then would you say is the source of most of your work?”
Dorothy Parker: “Need of money, dear.”


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Posted By DMB

I am vindicated in my long-held and widely trumpeted opinion that Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here is the first great Canadian novel by this quote found in an old column by Adam Gopnick,
“… makes me want to praise Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here as the greatest and still not adequately appreciated of all Canadian novels.”

To be vindicated in my view by someone of the statue of Adam Gopnick makes it even sweeter. I’ve read it four times, soon to be five. Read it slowly.

 
Posted By DMB

I continue my private study of the books in the backdrops of the homes of our public commentators as they inform us on TV. Second in interest, but no less telling is the art they choose to hang on their walls. But I’ll leave that for others to comment on.

The books are as expected, almost always rows of tilted paperbacks and not very many of them. So far, I’ve seen two who made a respectable showing – one very impressive, two shelved rooms full denoting the lifelong serious reader. Our Prime Minister – Mr Dressup – has four small shelves and another four adjoining ones gradually filling and pushing the knickknacks along. If he stays in power much longer, he may fill them eventually, meaning he’ll have around 150 to 200 books in the end. Some thousands less than his father would have had but hardly surprising given what we’ve seen. Still, I voted for him too (“give the kid a chance, why not, maybe I’m wrong…”), so I share the blame.

I’ve been studying how our society uses books for many years – which reveals through the clues how we really feel about them. One day I shall publish here or in my column in CNQ some of the results. Just because you and I have spent our lives immersed in books doesn’t mean the rest of them have.


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It’s become obvious by judicious reading and watching how the pandemic is going to go and it’s not good for me and my age group, especially all of us who smoked all those cigarettes for all those years.

We old ones with other health problems can look forward to very limited freedom until a vaccine is found. Almost all group activities will be about five times as deadly for us until then. The rest of the world will learn to take their chances with much smaller odds for death and even smaller ones for a serious bout of the disease.

Gradually the world will adapt, for humans are marvelously adaptable as history teaches. So innumerable tricks and ploys will emerge, and life will go on.

Many things will change permanently and I’m most interested in what will certainly change permanently in our minds. The psychological consequences of this pandemic will affect everything from our mental equilibrium to the sanity of many. Some events will bring horrible effects, hence horrendous consequences, not yet foreseen. Many of our young will learn that death exists and many others will learn how thin the line is, while us old ones may find were not as philosophical as we pretended to be. I would guess our writers are already speculating in their work on some of those consequences and we can expect to see some of them in books and movies in the next while.

Criminals will change their pleas from child abuse to “the virus made me do it.” After our lengthy lockdowns we will better understand when our incarcerated say, “Don’t you get it? It’s being locked up.” We are learning that the real punishment of being locked in is the loss of freedom. And when we’re allowed out again we will learn the equally horrid lessons which come from constantly monitoring all our actions to not make missteps, something all prisoners do every day.

So, life will be harder in lots of things but no less interesting.

Still, people my age, at least thinking ones, know that much that was not long ago taken for granted is finished for us. At the very least until they find and test completely an effective vaccine we can forget about large crowds. Meaning all sports, theatre, and the arts in general where audiences attend.

Thinking on all this there arises for me what is the greatest advantage for the elderly – I don’t want most of what I’ve obviously lost. I can see much of sports and the arts on TV or video and while it’s filtered experience it’s still got some good points. Watching reruns of Toronto’s two World Series at least stimulates memories of what it was like to actually be in the stands. It’s not the same but then neither are most other memories of our youth.

What I think I will miss most is talk. The long leisurely talks with friends in restaurants, over food and wine watching the small dramas of the world around us. The loss of all that hurts a lot to think of. The greater loss for me is book venues and the buying of books. I’ll never run out of books to read but for one such as I, who well knows the true significance of buying books, it is painful to contemplate that.

But aside from that it seems not so bad. My greatest pleasure now, in isolation, aside from reading and cleaning up old messes which long offended me, is thinking. So much so that I no longer refer to my status as isolation, now I call it solitude. Which allows me to call myself a philosopher.

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“You don’t need to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

                                                                                                                        Ray Bradbury

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Posted By DMB

Last Saturday at a Queen’s Park demonstration – large, with a profusion of signs demanding Government action – I saw what has to be the most radical demand I’ve ever seen – and I go back to the sixties.

The large hand-painted sign read “I WANT A HAIRCUT”.

 
Posted By DMB

We are all adapting in our own ways to this modern plague, learning daily new tricks to outwit boredom. Those of us who read books have a huge edge these days and we have been transformed from curious nerds into people who have barely time to chat on the phone with our desperately bored friends who’s houses are empty of books. They still don’t understand. But we continue what we always have done reading, reading, and rereading. I myself am rereading the entire oeuvre of my favourite authors from 20 to 40 years ago.

My cousin Liz Warrener, a retired librarian, tells me she and her book club are reading the whole of Jane Austen and are currently having heated online arguments about Northanger Abbey.

I wear the same clothes for a week getting seedier every day. Instead of grooming myself for the world I’m reading different chapters of eight history texts over coffee.

I write less, but longer emails to various friends world-wide, to my mind the greatest benefit of our new electronic reality (except for ease of research for us book people). I walk around the block every day. The world seems more peaceful, if more distant, and I’ve been watching more free movies many of which I didn’t know existed.

While baseball didn’t announce another spring, I’ve had complete replays of both the World Series from 92 and 93 bringing back wonderful memories. And even last year’s triumph of the Raptors has been shown in full.

My friend Eric X, ensconced in an undisclosed location, in a house full of books, clocks, and old musical instruments (he’s still leery of book thieves even though I tell him that he’s safe from thieves, because even if they stole his books they’d have nowhere to sell them – except maybe to me – and he knows I would never stoop so low as to buy his stolen treasures. Some are so important and unique that I’d have to keep them myself – I couldn’t sell them for fear of being caught. Why would I buy his copy of Stevenson’s Treasure Island which was Long John Silver’s own copy – it really is, Long John was modelled on Stevenson’s friend W.H. Henley and Eric X’s copy is the very one which Stevenson inscribed to Henley. It’s unsaleable on the open market, perfectly safe I assure Eric.) I mention Mr. X here for the following anecdote: When the horrible plague first descended and we were ordered to stay at home Eric said to his wife, “Gee, we’ll be completely isolated,” whereupon Mrs X replied, “Eric, you’ve been isolated for years.” Eric realized his status wasn’t changing at all. He’s been at home reading ever since he retired. Another gift for us life-long readers!

I’ve been sorting old papers (another blog on that, later) and books. I’ve already found so many books I didn’t remember I’d bought that I have enough new reading for a long time. Along with the recent development where my old man’s natural reduction in memory has caused me to forget what I’ve read – almost before I’ve finished the book I’m reading, has also rendered my entire thriller / mystery section into unread books. This means that I’m safe for a very long time.

Still, I do miss baseball and fiddling around with flowers and plants. And chatting with the neighbours. And playing with my books in the store. But it will pass.

Last note: I now watch once a week Gary Oldman’s magnificent portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour just to remind myself how bad it can get. We’re a long way yet from that. Also, the sports channel, desperate to fill space keeps playing Field of Dreams. I’ve seen it 5 or 6 times in the last month (instead of my usual once a year). We will prevail.

 
Posted By DMB

The plague, having imposed isolation, now includes our TV news people demonstrating the décor of their homes, which I’ve been studying in my ongoing social study of how our society uses books.

Commentators like to use books as a backdrop so we see a section, mostly containing paperbacks on Ikea shelves, the worst modern aberration invented to store our sacred relics. Outsized for books, they have almost everything wrong with them relating to the storage of books. I have come to loathe them. They insult the books most, just as we would feel insulted if we were forced to wear clothes in sizes much too large and in styles which made us feel ugly and distorted out of all proportion.

When I moved my huge storage last year I had lots of extra shelves (very expensive to build especially for young new dealers) and I tried to give some away. I had a dozen or so of those Ikea monstrosities which I had stupidly accepted for free over the years when I bought the books they contained. They are too heavy to move easily due to the weight of that obscene pressed board and the shelves are too deep – for no sensible reason – and ludicrously spaced (as though standard book size was uniformly 18” tall, and prone to chipping easily, making them even uglier. In all, the wrong size, too heavy, ugly white, when books demand the deep shades of browns that lend dignity – an obscenity and an insult to the true booklover. I couldn’t give any of these shelves away so I took to leaving them outside the doors of my storage every day, along with other useful things no longer wanted. Everything free was taken, except the Ikea shelves, which I ended up throwing into the garbage bin. The lesson is that even the garbage scroungers have a greater aesthetic sense than our cultural guides.

Notes about our broadcaster’s libraries will be added to my long ongoing study of how our society really views books (not how they think they do) which I shall eventually publish, at least in part.

With our business shut and me locked up for two months now I have been absorbed with sorting old messes, trying to establish the order I’ve been planning to impose for several years. This has resulted in a couple of remarkable results.

First is, naturally, finding all sorts of books I forgot I owned which has resulted in much reading of the browsing sort – pamphlets, articles – ones I hadn’t read and ones I’d read and kept for eventual rereading – which I now did. All these things caused much searching for other details mentioned in other books, which meant I spent much of every day reading in every direction. Great fun of the sort which ends with everything messy, the day has disappeared and your mind is swirling with ideas and you had a great time.

And the second thing is that by all this sorting and searching I also sorted to file all the emails I’ve printed out. Afterwards I realized I had in fact relived and reappraised the last ten years of my life. I’ve had renewed conversations forgotten, and encountered people who’d disappeared. I sent overdue emails to neglected friends and colleagues, even phoned some and start again lapsed dialogues. All in all it’s been – again – a wonderful example of things and people discarded or misplaced by time and our modern obsession, with getting more of everything while ignoring and enjoying what we already have.

I’m looking at the world and many things in it differently and I’m sure that lots of other people are doing the same.

We all know this pandemic is changing everything, some things irrevocably, but it’s now clear to me that some of these things will be to the good – to our great profit – if we are wise enough to see. For all of us the first trick is to say alive. But for many small businesses including us booksellers, the next is to survive. I will speak more of this in my next blog.

We have sold nothing in two months, not surprising. Books are seen as a luxury by our society it seems. In all the news items I’ve seen about amusing ourselves in isolation I saw not one suggestion about reading until finally a morning talk show host exclaimed, “I might just crack a couple of books. Reading, you know.” Only someone who hasn’t read a book within his memory would talk like that, but his was the only mention I’ve heard. None of my friends who I talk with has experienced the slightest boredom, nor has mentioned any activity – except sorting and clearing old messes like me. Readers are never bored because they have thousands of worlds to enter and explore.

 
Posted By DMB

For years I’ve been making notes for use in various writings, or just for my own amusement, or sometimes just so I won’t forget anecdotes from books I’ve been reading. Many of them have neither use nor relevance to any project I’m working on so it occurs to me that I should put them in this blog with the hope that they might amuse others as well.

It had never occurred to me that this blog might have readers but just in the last month 3 people admonished me that I hadn’t added anything in ages and when was I going to.

So, here’s the first couple completely devoid of any book relevance.


“Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on the weekend.” Woody Allen
 

Making Amends

A long time ago I took my mother out to dinner in a fancy restaurant which had developed a good reputation as one of the best for cuisine minceur. It was at the height of the cuisine minceur craze, but I chose that restaurant not because of that, but because it was owned by a good friend and drinking buddy of mine. I knew my friend, who was also the Chef, would fuss over my mother because I knew he also had a middle-class no-nonsense mother who would also not understand, nor approve of fancy, expensive restaurants. And also, and more important, because at the very early hour we went, I knew he would still be relatively sober.

My mother enjoyed herself but mostly because her son and his friend fussed over her. She was of a generation which almost never went to a restaurant unless it was for a cup of tea after a shopping expedition. I think she didn’t approve of the fashionable décor in spite of the rave reviews his restaurant had been getting in the Toronto newspapers.

Afterwards she said, “It’s was nice enough, but this silly friend of yours didn’t cook his vegetables long enough. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him that. Why wouldn’t his own mother tell him?”

After I got her home, happy but bemused, I returned to my friend’s restaurant where we shared another bottle of wine discussing matters of great importance, such as trying to make amends to aged mothers for all those years of worry and grief we had caused them.

 
Posted By DMB

With the announcement by our landlord that our lease will not be renewed when the current one expires in two years I have decided that it is time for me to largely withdraw from the business.

I have been trying to ease out, unsuccessfully for several years. Unsuccessfully because of our major problems. First, the downsizing by half at the shop, then losing our 6,000 square feet of storage which was moved and reduced to 1,600 square feet. Then, just when I thought everything was rearranged came this. First I offered the entire business for sale now I’m going to try and sell off 60%-80% of my stock and fit into a small office. I plan to leave Debbie and the staff to run it and hopefully devote myself to buying books and other interests, like publishing, scribbling myself, and enjoying the friends who are still with us. I also have quite a few projects, all related to books which I want to fool around with.

We will be having a whole series of sales to reduce our stock and I shall devote myself to that and to some donations of collections I have long been amassing.

Like so many of my friends and clients I’ve long had plans for all the interesting projects for when “I finally have time.” Now, I realize that if there’s to be any time I’ll have to make it.

At present we will devote ourselves to offering entire sections of our stock, en masse, to institutions. Because it is only feasible to sell entire subject areas as a whole, we are unable to offer our private collectors an opportunity (unless, of course, you want to retire and open your own shop). After a suitable time we will revert with the remaining stock to a normal type sale where our regular clients can profit from the opportunity.

But where we can we will offer certain things to clients at once. To that end we are currently offering all our stock of multi-volume sets of authors works at a reduction of 50%. We will be sending out shortly a list of all our sets identifying them and noting the number of volumes and their bindings (re cloth or leather bound).

Anyone who wants better descriptions will get good descriptions and photos.

Shortly thereafter we shall issue a list of collections we have built over the last thirty to fifty years which will also be offered at substantial discounts.

Later, as we can, we shall issue periodic lists of individual items or smaller groups which lend themselves to easy identification or sale.

We intend then, over the next two years, to reduce our stock to more manageable proportions so we can cope with the final move. In the meantime, we earnestly solicit enquires of any sort relating to our stock.

We hope it is obvious why we cannot allow sales of individual parts of subject areas, there is no way we could expend the time to do so. We’re sure our private clients will understand that, but they can be assured that there will be plenty for the private collector before we’re done.

We intend to resort to regular reports of our progress via this Blog as we go.

Yours,
David Mason

 

 

 

 

 

 
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