It surprises me how many of our customers in the store talk fondly about their e-readers, some even producing them so that I might see how wonderful they are. My somewhat theatrical revulsion and thorough unwillingness to touch the critters surprises them. And there we stand, looking at each other across quite a divide. It makes me happy then to think about books I’ve shelved that either can’t, or simply won’t, become fodder for the e-reader. Here are three examples of books that (perhaps) won’t get digitized.
First up, from the commercial yet still adventurous press New Directions, is Nox, by Anne Carson. Antigonick, her most recent New Directions book, also seems unavailable to the screen thanks to its use of art on translucent pages in collaboration with the text. But Nox is extra-strength un-digitize-able. The book is a boxed accordion-fold epitaph (her word) for her dead brother. It is moving in a number of ways, gorgeously reproducing a collage she made from family photos, text from family letters, along with her recollections and a word-by-word translation of a short Catullus poem. The vulnerability of the piece itself, the fragility in hand when one unfolds an accordion book, contributes greatly to the strong emotional experience of the work. And she’s an astounding writer, drawing the reader into Nox with a surgical efficiency:
“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains plain, odd history. So I began to think about history.”
Anne Carson is a unique authorial force, and her books deserve to be published in a way that cannot be reduced to the 1’s and 0’s of code. It is utterly delightful to believe (please, don’t let me be wrong in this) they have.
The next example is Texas Wildflowers by David Lee. It’s a 40-page chapbook printed and bound about a mile from our store by Wood Works Press, meaning Paul Hunter, working on a hundred-and-some-year-old platen press in his basement. David Lee has a much-deserved following, with a number of collections published by highly regarded Copper Canyon Press. This book, quite reasonably priced at $11 considering the labor involved and limited press run of 570 copies, is a collection of three narrative poems, yarns actually, sharing characters and a rural Texas setting. Each piece is funny but with grand dark elements, sort of an “aw shucks Greek tragedy” written in beautifully careening vernacular. Here’s what happens after the broke protagonist, an amputee whose first prosthetic “laig” was unacceptably ill-fitting, has had the contents of his storage locker auctioned off:
Charles Huffman said he
seen this barbeque grill
looked like it might have some work
left in it he paid two dollars for
took it home and put it out back
in the yard under a tree
when he opened it in the summer
to see if he could make it cook
about had a brain spasm
It was a laig laying there inside
on top of the grill
like it was waiting to be supper.
We carried Paul Hunter’s books on consignment for awhile; now we pay up front. He’s a renegade in his adherence to old-school practices, and we like supporting that. And his books sell.
The last example is a self-published book called Ode to Finnegan by Jessica Wagenseil. I normally tolerate self-published books at best, but the set of three Finnegan books (Finnegan is a much beloved cat) the author/maker brought in got to me. The production is marvelously DIY, with masking tape binding the pages, and what appears to be gift wrap glued to boards for the covers. The color-xeroxed art is complex, cartoonish and filled with puns. Her writing, done on a typewriter with the requisite punched-through letters, is as charming as the book—rhyming couplets featuring child-like earnestness and otherworldly vision:
“Through the window he watches squirrels and birds,
He ponders the question: is existence absurd?”
These books are utterly one-of-a-kind. It took Ms. Wagenseil five days to replace two copies we sold—different gift wrap, of course! While most of the self-published books we’re offered stand quietly beside their commercial cousins, the Finnegan books seem like a vibrant gush of creativity in the cloak of a book.
Hoorah for the quirky book, the object that—either through its complicated structure or its restricted commercial appeal—won’t be translated to a screen. They keep me great company on this side of the digital divide.
John W. Marshall, along with Christine Deavel, co-owns and operates Open Books: A Poem Emporium, the seventeen-year-old poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. He publishes poetry under the name J.W. Marshall because the late, lamented Seattle Post Intelligencer had, as its book editor, a John Marshall whom this John Marshall was not. He won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, and his first book, Meaning a Cloud, was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press.