Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"A Place to Curate Ideas and Experiences"

The folks over at the Melville House blog, Moby Lives, are running a marvelous Q&A series featuring some of our country's best indie booksellers. Today's installment spotlights Megan Wade Antieau of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and is a veritable celebration of indie spirit and erudition. Read, and remember why one buys indie!
"... For me, part of why I’m in bookselling is actually about social change; I am interested in the creation and rebuilding of alternative, localized cultures, as well as more democratic, localized economic institutions. Independent bookstores are a pretty perfect intersection of those two things. I come from both a community organizing and an academic background, but feel that most non-profit models and university models are not helping us do the type of grassroots political and intellectual work that needs to happen for real change in this country. A bookstore, on the other hand, is a place to curate both ideas and experiences in the form of books and conversations for a really broad audience, to constantly prod and provoke people in ways they aren’t necessarily looking for. So seeing that type of slow change happen with our customers is part of what keeps me inspired, as well as those moments where we are clearly aiding the creation of an alternative artistic or political culture in face of the national, monopolistic culture; for instance, every time we have a customer come in who is there to talk as well as shop, who brings in their own poetry or comics for consignment at the same time as they’re picking up both a staff recommendation and something from another local author. ..."


Saturday, August 18, 2012

From the Dept. of Cultural Envy: Argentine Writers Granted Literary Pensions

 Some societies regard the work of the imagination as a thing of vital social value. From the New York Times of August 12, 2012:
The city of Buenos Aires now gives pensions to published writers in a program that attempts to strengthen the “vertebral column of society,” as drafters of the law described their goal. Since its enactment recently, more than 80 writers have been awarded pensions, which can reach almost $900 a month, supplementing often meager retirement income. ...
And there are plans to implement the pension program throughout Argentina:
“I’m very optimistic about the approval of our bill,” Mr. Junio said. “There’s a general recognition of the transcendent role that writers have had in forging our society.”
Culture shock! Try to imagine an American legislator speaking to the "transcendent role" of the literary arts in the U.S.
Here in Buenos Aires, the requirements for obtaining the pension are fairly strict. A writer must be at least 60 and the author of at least five books released by known publishing houses, ruling out self-published writers. Authors of tomes on law, medicine or other technical matters need not apply, as the pensions are limited to writers of fiction, poetry, literary essays and plays. …
“We prefer not to call it a pension, but rather a subsidy in recognition of literary activity,” said Graciela Aráoz, a poet who is president of the Argentine Writers Society, which has more than 800 members. “In the end, this is about fortifying the pleasurable act of reading, which prevents us from turning into the equivalent of zombies.” ...

Friday, August 17, 2012

Prime Passages: Kenneth Clark & Henry James on Civilization

From Civilisation, the illustrated companion book to Lord Kenneth Clark's 1969 BBC documentary of the same name:
What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms—yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I am looking at it now [Paris].
… At certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself—body and spirit—which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection—reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium. He has managed to satisfy this need in various ways—through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed on the visible world. … However complex and solid [civilization] seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed. What are its enemies? Well, first of all fear—far of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague and famine, that makes it simply not worthwhile constructing things, or planting trees or even planting next year’s crops. And fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren’t question anything or change anything. The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions, that destroyed self-confidence. And then exhaustion, the feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people even with a high degree of prosperity. There is a poem by the modern Greek poet, Cavafy, in which he imagines the people of an antique town like Alexandria waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack the city. Finally the barbarians move off somewhere else and the city is saved; but the people are disappointed; it would have been better than nothing. Of course, civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity—enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence—confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers. … People sometimes think that civilization consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These can be among the agreeable results of civilization, but they are not what make a civilization, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid. So if one asks why the civilization of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted. And the first invaders of the Roman empire became exhausted too. As so often happens, they seem to have succumbed to the same weakness as the people they conquered. … These early invaders have been aptly compared to the English in India in the eighteenth century—there for what they could get out of it, taking part in the administration if it paid them, contemptuous of the traditional culture, except insofar as it provided precious metals… Civilization means something more than energy and will and creative power: something the early Norsemen hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence. (Civilisation; pp.1-14)
 From The Master, Volume 5 of Leon Edel's towering biography, Henry James: A Life:
New York had created not a social order but an extemporized utility-life that substituted the glamour of technology for the deep-rooted foundations of existence. … Man could create so blindly and so crudely the foundations of inevitable ‘blight.’ … Civilization meant order, composition, restraint, moderation, beauty, duration. It meant creation of a way of life that ministered to man’s finest qualities and potential. Using this standard of measurement, James found America terribly wanting. It was founded on violence, plunder, loot, commerce; its monuments were built neither for beauty nor for glory, but for obsolescence. It put science and technology to the service of the profit motive, and this would lead to the decay of human forms and human values. Older nations had known how to rise above shopkeeping; they had not made a cult of ‘business’ and of ‘success.’ And then James hated the continental ‘bigness’ of America. Homogeneity, rootedness, manners—modes of life—these were his materials, and everywhere James looked he found there had been an erosion of the standards and forms necessary to a novelist, necessary also to civilization. The self-indulgence and self-advertisement of the plunderers was carried over to the indulging of their young. Americans had interpreted freedom as a license to plunder.
(The Master: Henry James, Vol.5, pp.291-317)