Marshall Brooks Talks to Biblioklept About Microlibraries, Indie Publishing, and His New Book, Paperback Island

Paperback_Island_Cvr_RESCANNED_for_Web-330Marshall Brooks’s recent collection of memoir-essays Paperback Island explores the ways that friendship and place influence what we read, how we read, and how we make—and keep—books. Marshall began his career in publishing in 1971, reading manuscripts for Harry Smith at his legendary publishing house The Smith. In 1979 he created Arts End Press. Subtitled Street Bibliography Essays, Marshall’s latest book provides fascinating insights into a world of post-Beat publishing that is slowly slipping away (that is, aside from in memories and books). Marshall was kind enough to talk to me over a series of emails. He was generous and thoughtful, and also interested in my own life—in my kids, in my reading and teaching, but also in the bookstores in my community. It was a pleasure to talk with him. The end of our email exchange found him in NYC, attending a memorial for Harry Smith. Marshall lives in Vermont with his wife and two sons. Check out his website and read my review of Paperback Island.

Biblioklept: Will you tell us a little bit about how Paperback Island came together?

MB: My original idea was to write about the books that a friend and I shared in our youth and on into our early twenties. My friend was a champion reader. I had recently published a piece about this reading friendship. A strictly “about books” piece related to the story sounded like a good idea, but I quickly became bored with just writing about the books alone. In the end, it was not a challenging enough assignment. A recently completed piece about attending Tuli Kupferberg’s funeral and another piece celebrating sub-underground journalist Sid Bernard more ably filled the bill in terms of complementing the first story. From there, the book took on a life of its own. By the end, I was hard put to keep up with its various twists and turns. It was unlike any other writing experience that I have ever had. Owing to my wife’s keen editorial encouragement, I persisted — for the better part of a year. It is really a book about people whose lives are, or were, inextricably intertwined with books. I love books, but I love people more. My journalist friend Bill Ruehlmann pointed this out in his review of the book. He’s right. Ultimately, PAPERBACK ISLAND is all about love.

Biblioklept: The opener about that “champion reader,” Liam O’Dell, resonated strongly with me, as I imagine it will with other people who love books and reading—most of us have had someone in our lives who pushes us to read new stuff, different stuff.

In the same essay, you talk about how the early 1970s was a kind of information age that prefigured the internet. At the time were you aware of a shift in access to information, books, etc., or was this change something you only noticed after reflection?

MB: I was very conscious of the shift at the time. It was intoxicating.

Biblioklept: What was that shift like, as a reader? What sources were most important to you?

MB: Beginning in public school — ca. 1966 – 1971 — new paperbacks were for sale in the schools, courtesy of a special program to encourage independent reading. A lot of Signet books to begin with, and, later in high school, Vintage Books, among others. These books had all been designed (or, in many cases, redesigned) with an entirely new, young hip readership in mind. (E.g., 1984 and ANIMAL FARM.) They were not the drear-looking relics of my parents’ generation. The new, fresh book design suggested possibility to me. Genuine potential, plus limitless variety. Memorable reads: THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS (with cover art by Leo Lionni — Leo’s son, Mannie is a fan of PAPERBACK ISLAND, by the way); Dos Passos’s USA trilogy (with pen & ink illus. by Reginald Marsh); A CONTROVERSY OF POETS contemporary poetry anthology (Anchor Books, 1965, ed. by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly); EXPRESSWAYS, poems by J.D. Reed (Simon & Schuster, 1969, pb ed.); STUDS LONIGAN, by James T. Farrell (Signet). The underground / alternative press was also an important influence (these papers being highly visible in Boston — they were hawked on the sidewalk all over town). The underground press scene dramatically symbolized that just anything could be written about and printed. Indeed, thought. The papers’ contents often made little or no positive impression on me, but the overall freewheelingness of the papers certainly did. Society, obviously, was becoming much more fluid, looser — Richard Nixon or no. Impossible for a teenager to miss. There were also two reliably good sources for small press publications in Cambridge: the Grolier and Pangloss bookshops. The former only sold — sells — poetry. Most of the time, I did not know what to make of the little magazines that I bought. But this was a good thing — something I looked forward to — being another instance of where you had to make up your own mind about something owing to its relative strangeness, its resistance to categorization. I put a great deal by being able to do this.

MB w_ Beard Tomb
Portrait of the Writer Posing by the Grave of Fruitlands Communard Joseph Palmer

Biblioklept: You bring up James T. Farrell here—there’s a fascinating chapter of Paperback Island about how you came to possess a large number of his paperback books. It’s one of several microlibraries discussed in the book. Why are microlibraries important in the age of digital archives?

MB: As you know, children’s books — in traditional book form — remain popular with both children and their parents. In the same vein, I believe that micro libraries fulfill a similar need. The physical surprise quality of the book is married with other special elements and the experience of the book (or books) becomes very much more than simply its contents. In the case of the JTF Paperback Library, Farrell himself is physically detectable. For all that I know, his DNA may well be present (he left enough fingerprints). For some people, myself included, having an author’s library — either whole or in part — can be a stirring experience. Humbling, too. Digital archives have their place, but I don’t think you can savor them in quite the same way that you can a cache of books — a collection you feel privileged to either own or borrow from. I think we all need a form of savor. Bibliophiles, notoriously, know where to find theirs.

Biblioklept: Do you feel antipathy toward e-readers like the Kindle or Nook?

MB: Not at all. My wife just returned from a writer’s conference in Boston  (theme: using social media). The breaking word in Boston was that all sales are up — e-books, traditional books, and so on. If there are more readers everywhere, great. I also think that many books should only be available electronically or are best served this way.

Biblioklept: What kind of books are best served electronically?

MB: To return briefly to the idea of the 1970s prefiguring the internet and related developments, I remember well the 1971 publication of the COMPACT EDITION OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY being hailed as revolutionary at the outset. William Buckley reviewed the, then, space-age OED in the NY TIMES and shared with everyone how he was customizing his copy with Scotch-taped tabs so as to facilitate his word searches. 12 volumes, 150 pounds worth of books, shot down to two crisply printed volumes (slipcased, replete with a high-end Bausch & Lomb magnifying glass in its own drawer). All this via the miracle of offset printing technology. 21 years later, the cd-rom version of the OED arrived. I still have my copy of the two volume OED, by the way, purchased for a dollar from the Book of the Month Club 30 years ago. But I honestly don’t know if the BOMC, itself, still exists. Well, easily enough clarified — I’ll Google it. [Ans.: It exists. M.B.]

It is difficult to imagine the OED not being served well by the latest technology in light of e-media’s enhanced cross-referencing and search powers, for example, or the ability to present a practically limitless amount of information, which, previously, had to be squelched. All sorts of books, could benefit, really, via the e-book format including guilty pleasure reads. Why sacrifice — or recycle, even — wood pulp on their account? But in the instance of Sid Bernard’s THIS WAY TO THE APOCALYPSE, designed by Stephen Dwoskin — who so deftly exploited both “hot” and “cold” type in his design work, and was, later, a noted underground filmmaker as well — I’ll opt for the original letterpress edition over any other. Likewise, the companionably funky, pocket-size 3rd edition of the AMC NEW ENGLAND CANOEING GUIDE (1971), with its map pockets fore and aft within the inside covers. (THE AMC GUIDE — Liam O’Dell’s bible, by the way.) The new stuff can be great — and lead to wonderful things — but let us not disparage good, traditional book design either.

Biblioklept: How did you meet Harry Smith? What were some of your early experiences at The Smith?

MB: I met Harry Smith in June 1971. After having written him earlier in the year inquiring after work — of any kind — Harry offered me a part-time editorial job doing a little of this and that. It was a decidedly free-form proposition. I went to The Smith in lieu of attending my high school graduation in Massachusetts. Located at 5 Beekman Street, in Downtown, NYC, The Smith office was a dream come true. Both atmospherically speaking and in every other conceivable way. Prior to my arrival at The Smith, I had never been in the company of adults whose main objectives in life centered on poetry and writing, exclusively. This was another world entirely. One of good humor, too, I should add. Harry, himself, had a fine sense of humor. He and I laughed a lot together, practically non-stop. All sorts of people dropped by the office. Menke Katz, the first poet that I was ever introduced to. Novelist Clancy Sigal, just in, no doubt, from London (where he was based). Bob Reinhold, who wrote Stanley Kubrick’s first movie script. Harry knew a lot of people like Bob. Obscure writers and literary personalities that only a place like NYC could sustain in bulk. Practically within minutes of our meeting, Harry gave me keys to the amply cluttered two-room office to have copied so that I could let myself in and out; he also gave me mss. to read. I continued to read mss. throughout my time at The Smith as part of my job. (The absolutely infinite variety of typing styles and stationery was fascinating to me, by the way.) I was to put aside anything that might be of interest to Harry. News gathering for the muckraking THE NEWSLETTER (On the State of the Culture) was something that went on all of the time. If you are lucky enough to find copies of THE NEWSLETTER (in a university special collection, say), they form a uniquely excellent record of both mainstream and alternative publishing from that era. Essential, as well as being a tearjerker — that world is entirely vanished.

Biblioklept: I like that you bring up the mechanics, the physicality of working for a publisher — the “infinite variety of typing styles and stationery” — which I think plays a key part of Paperback Island. You talk about your first hand press, and how it allowed you to become a maker. Why do you think the physical experience of reading—of touching the material—has such an impact on some readers?

MB: Happily, I don’t really know the answer to your question.  What Jessie Sheeler wrote about the “undiscoverable, inevitable prospect” of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting — in her discussion of Scottish poet Ian Finlay’s sea inscriptions — may have to suffice here: “not to be explained, but only acknowledged” (LITTLE SPARTA, THE GARDEN OF IAN HAMILTON FINLAY, Jessie Sheeler). Ever since 1995, when I edited a book about books, people have always 1) asked me what I think the fate of the physical book will be (short ans.: it will survive)  and 2) shared with me how much it means to them to hold a book in hand. When I received the proof copy of PAPERBACK ISLAND I was thrilled to see it at long last, but it also felt a bit off. For one thing, it hadn’t bulked up in quite the way that I had anticipated. Come to find out, 30 or so pages were missing from the book. The corrected version arrived a few days later. I could tell without even opening the package that the book was as it should be — by its weight — it felt exactly right. Corrected, its spine is a good sixteenth of an inch wider. Within that fraction of difference (a 2.25 oz difference in terms of weight) dwells a better book, and not just because the missing pages have been restored. “Better proportions” Joseph Beuys might have said, who in 1964 once proposed elevating the Berlin Wall by 5 cm for just this reason. Beuys’s subversiveness aside, we live in a world where the Golden Ratio and like phenomena appear to count for something deep within us.

Biblioklept: What do you think about contemporary self-publishing?

MB: Regarding “self-publishing” — I am very glad that I came up when I did, when traditional publishing was unquestionably dominant and independent publishing was just about to manifest itself as a bona fide mass movement. (Another phenomenon of the 1970s, the proliferation of small presses. Compare the size of the 7th ed. of the INTERNATIONAL DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES & SMALL PRESSES, 1971-72, some 100 pp., to that of the 11th ed., 1975-1976, which is 304 pp. long. The 40th ed., 2004-05, is 790 pp.) My main concern regarding contemporary self-publishing is that it we may lose sight of the positive chemistry that can, in fact, exist between an author and a publisher. And who, really, keeps the designation “self-publishing” alive these days? I often wonder. Many people and businesses (including schools) who couldn’t be bothered with a small independent press — much less a self-published author — a few short years ago, are only too happy nowadays to service a prospective self-publishing author for a handsome fee.

One of my favorite publishing stories, ever, is as follows. Bern Porter, nuclear scientist, bibliographer, publisher, and promulgator of “founds” . . . for his Bern Porter Books listing in the DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES & SMALL PRESSES, 2004-2005, gave the founding year of his press as 1911 — his birth year. For the number of books his press published, or anticipated publishing: “467 titles 2003; expects 482 titles 2004, 493 titles 2005.” In the end, brilliant publishing is brilliant publishing.

Biblioklept: Growing up in the early nineties, there was this whole undergroundish traffick in zines, some professionally produced, some made via copy machines out of local 7-11 stores; a lot of the zines were connected to indie and punk music, but also comix and poetry and art. I love blogging and other internet platforms that allow for a “publication” of sort, but I sometimes wonder about the local connections that might be lost.

One of the things I like about Paperback Island is the evocation of place, of setting, of how physical places influence reading. The story about Susanna Cuyler letting you stay in her apartment so that you could read her book is really fascinating.

MB: You’ve hit the nail on the head — place is, in fact, important. Who can, for example, think of City Lights Books and not think of City Lights Bookstore and San Francisco? (When I was 16, I took a Greyhound Bus cross country from Boston, to see City Lights for myself. Incidentally, it was the first bookshop that I ever encountered that provided its own map for the purposes of navigating its offerings.) Likewise, Shakespeare & Co. and Paris. And on. One of the main reasons that I began submitting poetry to The Smith was that I was intrigued by its address: 5 Beekman St., NYC. (Quite a place it turns out — just Google it!). I believe that a good book sets you on an endless journey. So, these associative qualities are, in fact, critical. And, it seems to me, form the very foundation for a site such as Biblioklept’s. To come back to something that I said earlier, though, in the end it’s about people. And making connections with people.

As a bibliographic note, a master of celebrating place was Dick Higgins with his Something Else Press. Across bottom of Daniel Spoerri’s THE MYTHOLOGICAL TRAVELS OF A MODERN SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE (1970) the title page reads: “Something Else, Inc. / in New York City, by the Parking Lot of the Chelsea Hotel.” Locales would change from one Something Else title to another, by the way. Earlier, in 1968, the dateline read: “New York / Cologne / Paris.” Time, place, and beyond. Everything is possible. Dick was having his fun, but it was provocative, meaningful fun, too.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

MB: No, I have never stolen a book per se. Certainly not from a bookstore. I do have several library books that were never checked out — once upon a time, decades ago, back in college — for one reason or another (e.g., extreme laziness) and need to be returned. Of this I am guilty. (Guiltier than, apparently, Keith Richards, and his decades-overdue library books, which at least he bothered to check out as a youth. See the NY TIMES, 24 May 2013, p. C2.). I am terribly slow reader, by the way. I am still working my way through ULYSSES, the same copy that I bought in my teens in Liam O’Dell’s company, at the Book Clearing House in Boston.  It took me years to get beyond the first page owing to the arresting Ernst Reichl typographic book design. To this day, I have never seen a display type letterpress “s” to match Reichl’s (full-page in size, as you may recall; appropriately enough, Leopold Bloom, himself, was knowledgeable about printing and the “specing” of type). On a distant note, the loaning of books and records to friends (and vice versa): I can’t think of anything finer. One of Life’s stronger points.

Read the First Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Forthcoming Novel, Bleeding Edge


(Via; via).


“Samples of My Common-Place Book” — Walt Whitman

“Samples of My Common-place Book” — Walt Whitman (from Specimen Days)

I ought not to offer a record of these days, interests, recuperations, without including a certain old, well-thumb’d common-place book,[18] filled with favorite excerpts, I carried in my pocket for three summers, and absorb’d over and over again, when the mood invited. I find so much in having a poem or fine suggestion sink into me (a little then goes a great ways) prepar’d by these vacant-sane and natural influences.

 Samples of my common-place book down at the creek:

I have—says old Pindar—many swift arrows in my quiver which speak to the wise, though they need an interpreter to the thoughtless. Such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand. H. D. Thoreau.

If you hate a man, don’t kill him, but let him live.—Buddhistic.
Famous swords are made of refuse scraps, thought worthless.

Poetry is the only verity—the expression of a sound mind speaking after the ideal—and not after the apparent.—Emerson.

The form of oath among the Shoshone Indians is, “The earth hears me.
The sun hears me. Shall I lie?”

The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops—no, but the kind of a man the country turns out.—Emerson.

    The whole wide ether is the eagle’s sway:
The whole earth is a brave man’s fatherland.—Euripides.

    Spices crush’d, their pungence yield,
Trodden scents their sweets respire;
Would you have its strength reveal’d?
Cast the incense in the fire.

Matthew Arnold speaks of “the huge Mississippi of falsehood called

    The wind blows north, the wind blows south,
The wind blows east and west;
No matter how the free wind blows,
Some ship will find it best.

Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent.—Epictetus.

Victor Hugo makes a donkey meditate and apostrophize thus:

    My brother, man, if you would know the truth,
We both are by the same dull walls shut in;
The gate is massive and the dungeon strong.
But you look through the key-hole out beyond,
And call this knowledge; yet have not at hand
The key wherein to turn the fatal lock.

“William Cullen Bryant surprised me once,” relates a writer in a New York paper, “by saying that prose was the natural language of composition, and he wonder’d how anybody came to write poetry.”

    Farewell! I did not know thy worth;
But thou art gone, and now ’tis prized:
So angels walk’d unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognized.—Hood.

John Burroughs, writing of Thoreau, says: “He improves with age—in fact requires age to take off a little of his asperity, and fully ripen him. The world likes a good hater and refuser almost as well as it likes a good lover and accepter—only it likes him farther off.”

Louise Michel at the burial of Blanqui, (1881.)

Blanqui drill’d his body to subjection to his grand conscience and his noble passions, and commencing as a young man, broke with all that is sybaritish in modern civilization. Without the power to sacrifice self, great ideas will never bear fruit.

    Out of the leaping furnace flame
A mass of molten silver came;
Then, beaten into pieces three,
Went forth to meet its destiny.
The first a crucifix was made,
Within a soldier’s knapsack laid;
The second was a locket fair,
Where a mother kept her dead child’s hair;
The third—a bangle, bright and warm,
Around a faithless woman’s arm.

    A mighty pain to love it is,
And’tis a pain that pain to miss;
But of all pain the greatest pain,
It is to love, but love in vain.

Maurice F. Egan on De Guerin.

    A pagan heart, a Christian soul had he,
He followed Christ, yet for dead Pan he sigh’d,
Till earth and heaven met within his breast:
As if Theocritus in Sicily
Had come upon the Figure crucified,
And lost his gods in deep, Christ-given rest.

    And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me,
Is, leave the mind that now I bear,
And give me Liberty.—Emily Bronte.

    I travel on not knowing,
I would not if I might;
I would rather walk with God in the dark,
Than go alone in the light;
I would rather walk with Him by faith
Than pick my way by sight


“The Offshore Pirate” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Offshore Pirate” by F. Scott Fitzgerald


This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colorful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children’s eyes. From the western half of the sky the sun was shying little golden disks at the sea—if you gazed intently enough you could see them skip from wave tip to wave tip until they joined a broad collar of golden coin that was collecting half a mile out and would eventually be a dazzling sunset. About half-way between the Florida shore and the golden collar a white steam-yacht, very young and graceful, was riding at anchor and under a blue-and-white awning aft a yellow-haired girl reclined in a wicker settee reading The Revolt of the Angels, by Anatole France.

She was about nineteen, slender and supple, with a spoiled alluring mouth and quick gray eyes full of a radiant curiosity. Her feet, stockingless, and adorned rather than clad in blue-satin slippers which swung nonchalantly from her toes, were perched on the arm of a settee adjoining the one she occupied. And as she read she intermittently regaled herself by a faint application to her tongue of a half-lemon that she held in her hand. The other half, sucked dry, lay on the deck at her feet and rocked very gently to and fro at the almost imperceptible motion of the tide.

The second half-lemon was well-nigh pulpless and the golden collar had grown astonishing in width, when suddenly the drowsy silence which enveloped the yacht was broken by the sound of heavy footsteps and an elderly man topped with orderly gray hair and clad in a white-flannel suit appeared at the head of the companionway. There he paused for a moment until his eyes became accustomed to the sun, and then seeing the girl under the awning he uttered a long even grunt of disapproval.

If he had intended thereby to obtain a rise of any sort he was doomed to disappointment. The girl calmly turned over two pages, turned back one, raised the lemon mechanically to tasting distance, and then very faintly but quite unmistakably yawned.

“Ardita!” said the gray-haired man sternly.

Ardita uttered a small sound indicating nothing.

“Ardita!” he repeated. “Ardita!”

Ardita raised the lemon languidly, allowing three words to slip out before it reached her tongue.

“Oh, shut up.”



“Will you listen to me—or will I have to get a servant to hold you while I talk to you?”

The lemon descended very slowly and scornfully.

“Put it in writing.”

“Will you have the decency to close that abominable book and discard that damn lemon for two minutes?”

“Oh, can’t you lemme alone for a second?”

“Ardita, I have just received a telephone message from the shore——”

“Telephone?” She showed for the first time a faint interest.

“Yes, it was——”

“Do you mean to say,” she interrupted wonderingly, “‘at they let you run a wire out here?”

“Yes, and just now——”

“Won’t other boats bump into it?”

“No. It’s run along the bottom. Five min——”

“Well, I’ll be darned! Gosh! Science is golden or something—isn’t it?”

“Will you let me say what I started to?”


“Well it seems—well, I am up here—” He paused and swallowed several times distractedly. “Oh, yes. Young woman, Colonel Moreland has called up again to ask me to be sure to bring you in to dinner. His son Toby has come all the way from New York to meet you and he’s invited several other young people. For the last time, will you——”

“No,” said Ardita shortly, “I won’t. I came along on this darn cruise with the one idea of going to Palm Beach, and you knew it, and I absolutely refuse to meet any darn old colonel or any darn young Toby or any darn old young people or to set foot in any other darn old town in this crazy state. So you either take me to Palm Beach or else shut up and go away.”

“Very well. This is the last straw. In your infatuation for this man.—a man who is notorious for his excesses—a man your father would not have allowed to so much as mention your name—you have rejected the demi-monde rather than the circles in which you have presumably grown up. From now on——”

“I know,” interrupted Ardita ironically, “from now on you go your way and I go mine. I’ve heard that story before. You know I’d like nothing better.”

“From now on,” he announced grandiloquently, “you are no niece of mine. I——”

“O-o-o-oh!” The cry was wrung from Ardita with the agony of a lost soul. “Will you stop boring me! Will you go ‘way! Will you jump overboard and drown! Do you want me to throw this book at you!”

“If you dare do any——”

Smack! The Revolt of the Angels sailed through the air, missed its target by the length of a short nose, and bumped cheerfully down the companionway.

The gray-haired man made an instinctive step backward and then two cautious steps forward. Ardita jumped to her five feet four and stared at him defiantly, her gray eyes blazing.

“Keep off!”

“How dare you!” he cried.

“Because I darn please!”

“You’ve grown unbearable! Your disposition——”

“You’ve made me that way! No child ever has a bad disposition unless it’s her fancy’s fault! Whatever I am, you did it.” Continue reading ““The Offshore Pirate” — F. Scott Fitzgerald”

T.S. Eliot Writes to F.Scott Fitzgerald

FABER AND GWYER LTD. Publishers 24 Russell Square, London, W.C.1. 31st December, 1925
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Esqre., % Charles Scribners & Sons, New York City.

Dear Mr. Scott Fitzgerald,
The Great Gatsby with your charming and overpowering inscription arrived the very morning that I was leaving in some haste for a sea voyage advised by my doctor. I therefore left it behind and only read it on my return a few days ago. I have, however, now read it three times. I am not in the least influenced by your remark about myself when I say that it has interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years.

When I have time I should like to write to you more fully and tell you exactly why it seems to me such a remarkable book. In fact it seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James….

By the way, if you ever have any short stories which you think would be suitable for the Criterion I wish you would let me see them.

With many thanks, I am,
Yours very truly, T. S. Eliot

P.S. By a coincidence Gilbert Seldes in his New York Chronicle in the Criterion for January 14th has chosen your book for particular mention.


Vanishing Is the Last Art (Book Acquired, Some Time in the Past Two Weeks)


Josh Davis’s novel Vanishing Is the Last Art. Blurb:

Charlie Fell sells baseball cards with seemingly hallucinogenic properties out of his bedroom, takes road trips to places he loves (New York City) and loathes (Southern California), and trips over a series of romantic entanglements. When the young writer releases his first novel, his life begins to unravel as the fallout from his published inner-monologues drive him back inside his already frail mind

Despair/Food (Books Acquired 6.08.2012)


 Dead Man Working is the latest from Carl Cederström (whose discussions with Simon Critchley became How to Stop Living and Start Worrying) and Peter Fleming. The book explores the existential despair of workers in our post-capitalist age. (It’s funnier than that description might suggest). Publisher Zer0’s blurb:

Capitalism has become strange. Ironically, while the ‘age of work’ seems to have come to an end, working has assumed a total presence – a ‘worker’s society’ in the worst sense of the term – where everyone finds themselves obsessed with it. So what does the worker tell us today? ‘I feel drained, empty – dead’; This book tells the story of the dead man working. It follows this figure through the daily tedium of the office, to the humiliating mandatory team building exercise, to awkward encounters with the funky boss who pretends to hate capitalism and tells you to be authentic. In this society, the experience of work is not of dying…but neither of living. It is one of a living death. And yet, the dead man working is nevertheless compelled to wear the exterior signs of life, to throw a pretty smile, feign enthusiasm and make a half-baked joke. When the corporation has colonized life itself, even our dreams, the question of escape becomes ever more pressing, ever more desperate.

Full review on deck.


Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir. If that name sounds familiar, you might recognize his face:


Publisher Random House’s blurb:

Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up.

Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of  “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.

With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures—the price of ambition, in human terms—and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.

Little Libraries, Guerrilla Libraries, Ad Hoc Libraries and More

Read Shannon Mattern’s great essay “Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins” (published at Places). From the essay:

These new library projects might seem to emerge from a common culture and uphold a common mission — a flurry of press coverage in late 2011 represented them as a coherent “little library” movement. But in fact they don’t. They have varied aims and politics and assumptions about what a library is and who its publics are; their collections and services differ significantly; and their forms and functions vary from one locality to another. I want to attempt here to identify a loose, and inevitably leaky, typology of “little libraries” — to figure out where they’re coming from, how they relate to existing institutions that perform similar roles, and what impact they’re having on their communities.

George Boorujy Talks to Biblioklept About Painting Animals and People, His New Show Blood Memory, and Throwing Bottled Drawings into New York Waterways

George Boorujy’s marvelous paintings explore humanity’s paradoxical engagements and disengagements with “Nature” — a system that we are manifestly a part of, yet nevertheless philosophically define ourselves against. The first Boorujy painting I saw, a gorgeous bluebird, stunned me: simultaneously delicate and fierce, it emanates pride but also an ineffable quality that surpasses rational, systematic thought. The painting’s vivid colors and subject recalled to me Albrecht Dürer’s Wing of a Blue Roller. I soon found more of Boorujy’s work at the P.P.O.W. Gallery home to the artist’s second solo show, Blood Memory (535 W. 22nd St., NYC, March 15th — April 14th). Blood Memory continues Boorujy’s depiction of animals and landscapes, subjects that resonate with his extensive travels across the US as well as his background in marine biology, a subject the New Jersey native initially pursued at the University of Miami before switching to a BFA. He completed his MFA at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Boorujy is based out of Brooklyn; he paints and teaches, and works a project called New York Pelagic, where he launches original drawings of water birds (along with a questionnaire) in glass bottles into New York waterways. Check out his website.

Father -- George Boorujy -- Part of Blood Memory

I was thrilled to talk to George over a series of emails: he was personable, funny, and very generous. He ended his first email with one of the best sign-offs I’ve ever read: “I’m gonna go drink in the shower now.” Like many folks of delicate sensibilities and fine upbringing, I too enjoy shower beers. We rapped about Florida, ecology, Swamplandia!, the arts and sciences, the Hipster Mujahideen, the possibility of a racist ibis, and much more.

The Artist in repose next to the freshly completed work When Was It That I Knew You

Biblioklept: Tell us about your solo show at the P.P.O.W. Gallery. It’s called Blood Memory—what kind of pieces are you showing?

George Boorujy: Animals. Surprise! But really this is the most purely animal show or body of work that I’ve done. I think there’s only one piece that isn’t of an animal. They’re mostly portrait type pieces, some quite large. I’m finishing up a lynx which is 6 by 11 feet. It sort of looks like Goya’s Colossus. There’s a black white-tailed doe, a meadowlark, a blue jay, a ram, a pronghorn, a frigate bird, a cormorant, another few deer, a Burmese python (hi Florida!). And a mountain. I always seem to need a mountain.

Biblioklept: Your past work has often focused on animals and landscapes, often with implicit ecological arguments. I know you initially studied marine biology in school—how did that course of study influence your art?

GB: I think my brain is somewhat organized like a school where arts and sciences are lumped together. So I’m using the practice of art instead of the practice of science to explore the things I’m interested in. Art and science are very similar in many ways. They are often both a pursuit of the truth. Just different tools and methods are used. Although I am an environmentalist (whatever that actually means) I try not to have any explicit agenda with the work. I want it to stir the viewer or trigger something within them, but not give them an answer or a specific point of view. If I make a piece that shows a manipulated landscape, I’m not necessarily saying it is wrong to manipulate the landscape. We all do it, and we all take advantage of fossil fuels – I love fossil fuels! They’re amazing and we should respect them more and conserve them more – I just want to show what is. Same goes for the treatment of an animal. I’m sure they’re stand-ins for something in my deep sub-conscious, but they are also just what they are, with all attendant veins and ticks and dust in their fur.

Biblioklept: How do you make your animals look so imperious, so proud?

GB: I think maybe it’s because I make them big. I try to actually give them a very indifferent expression so that people can read whatever they want into it. I suppose there is an inherent pride in the form of the animal itself because it is the result of millions of years of evolution that have made it this far. A lot of people think they look sad, which isn’t intended either. I was leaving the studio a few months back when I had a lot of them up and they all looked very judgmental. But then it was better the next day.

Hunters, George Boorujy

Biblioklept: Let’s shift to people for a moment (although people are animals too, of course). In works like Moraine and Hunters there’s a sense—at least for me—of distance, or almost intrusion (even voyeurism, if I’m being honest). I find your picture of Lincoln fascinating too. I’m curious about how you actually create these pictures: How do you plan them? How do you execute them? What motivates them?

GB: I’m happy that you felt like a voyeur. I never want the pieces to be just observations, I want them to be interactions. Those two pieces in particular could have ended up looking like dioramas or re-enactments or something if there wasn’t the eye contact and the acknowledgement of the viewer. In Hunters, there’s even a small boy hailing the viewer on the right hand side. As though the viewer was coming up in a canoe or something.

As much as I love to draw people, it’s tricky. As soon as you see someone you immediately jump to, “Who’s that? What’s her deal?” We have so much baggage and built in signifiers that it’s difficult to represent someone as a human not of a particular era or class or culture.  I wanted both of those pieces to look as though they could be taking place a thousand years in the future or ten thousand years in the past. Hence, no clothes. But no clothes in situations where there would be no clothes – on the beach (a clue there with the title, Moraine, as in a glacial moraine. I live in Brooklyn down the hill from a glacial moraine, and really all of Long Island is a glacial moraine), or in the case of Hunters, people who have just come out of the water or are doing something in the water. I had to be careful with how to depict the men – one of which is me – would they be bearded? I was afraid they’d look too caveman-ish, or too much like the Hipster Muhajideen (I coined that by the way). I wanted them to be kempt as I wasn’t interested in depicting a post apocalyptic scenario or a definable Paleolithic one either. I also like the play between the indifferent expressions on the men and the smiling hailing boy.

As far as creating them, with the animals I usually make a sculpture first and then make the two-dimensional image out of that because there would be no pictures of the animals in the poses and situations that I put them. With the people, I took some pictures of myself and my friends. Then I changed some things here and there. The girls are my sister and her childhood best friend – but they weren’t naked! They had on bathing suits! And the guys are me and my friend, although it’s my body both times because I changed my mind on a pose. Nudity is a funny thing – I wanted to show them naked, but not in a sexy way. So that’s why they’re pretty modest, even though I guess you can see my dick in the one.

That same issue came up with the Lincoln piece. Originally I thought about doing him full body. But then I knew people would just be looking at his penis, which wasn’t the point. It’s easy to be sensationalistic. Harder to go for the slow burn. And I love the slow burn. Not saying that I always get there, but I am more interested in that generally. I looked at as many pictures of Lincoln that I could find and then came up with a good amalgam. With him it was almost the opposite of what I do when depicting people. Instead of going for neutrality, I was interested in showing one of the most recognizable figures as what he – and all of us – was. A human, an animal. It’s sort of like what I’m always doing, trying to make people re-see what they have seen a million times. Like, what was Lincoln? What does a jack-rabbit really look like? What are we? What are these other beings, what makes a horse?.

"I really do mix my inks in shot glasses. I'm not that much of a drunk."

Biblioklept: What are you reading now?

GB: This seems like a set-up but I actually am reading that biography of Audubon by Rhodes. It is such a good read. Tracing Audubon really traces the beginning of the country, and that guy got around. So you get these really interesting portraits of cities we know today in their infancy, and cities that were once prominent but are now considered backwaters. And the countryside and rivers before they were drastically changed. I often think about how weird it is that when my grandfather was a child we still had passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets. That’s not so very long ago. Now the parakeets I see are introduced monk parakeets or escaped pets. If they become established then it will be less than a geological blip where we didn’t have parakeets here. The life between introduced and native is an interesting one to ponder.

Biblioklept: As we’re on birds, it seems like a good time to bring up your New York Pelagic project. You put original drawings of birds along with questionnaires in bottles and set them loose on New York waterways. Your blog discusses the motivations and goals behind the project in detail, but maybe you could give our readers a brief overview of your expectations? Is it difficult seeing your original work float away?

GB: It’s funny, I really had no idea what to expect. I was afraid none would ever be found. But, depending on how you count it, four or five have been found out of… 15? I actually have to update the blog and do some counting. So that’s a pretty good ration considering. I didn’t expect the project to become such an exploration of the city, I’ll tell you that much. But honestly, the history of New York is so amazing, and so rich, that you can’t pick your nose without flicking a booger on an old Dutch millstone or some such thing. And it is compelling. I didn’t expect to get so writer-y. I’ve never really written before, and it’s actually pretty fun. And as far as responses I was hoping people would be excited and happy. Which, except for once, they were.

As far as letting the work go, it is surprisingly easy. I thought I’d be more sad about it. But in actuality I’ve done some of them twice to make sure the one in the bottle is really good, not just middling. I want people to find something beautiful. And even if it never gets found there’s something very satisfying about letting something I’ve worked hard on go away. Christ, I ain’t no Buddhist, but there’s something zen about it I suppose. Maybe it’s a good foil to the other work I do which is so labor intensive and made to be seen and hopefully preserved. There’s also something so nice about it being pictures of seabirds that go (mostly) missing. We don’t see then really, just the gulls in the parking lot for most of us. The large majority of them live in habitats that don’t really overlap with ours.

Biblioklept: Let’s talk Florida — you went to Miami, I went to UF in Gainesville, and I live in Northeast Florida now, which is basically a different state than South Florida . . .

GB: Miami is totally a different country. From North Florida and from the rest of the U.S. I was always bummed about not doing a semester abroad when I was there, but then realized that going there is basically eight semesters abroad. So funny that you went to UF. Our big rivals were the Seminoles of course. Which I remember some people used to refer to as the Semen Holes. Which wasn’t as disturbing as a t-shirt I remember of our mascot — an ibis of all things! – jerking off on a Seminole Indian. I would kill for that shirt now, no matter how many racist nightmares it would induce. If an ibis can be racist against a Native American . . .

I love Florida in all it’s David Lynchian beauty. Hmmm . . . this brings me to something that I read recently having to do with Florida – [Karen Russell’s] Swamplandia! I hated it. And for very specific reasons. She is trying desperately to be funny, but she’s not. And it really brings down the whole thing.Every character in the book is trying so hard to out-quirk the next. There’s no straight man. Not that there has to be per se, but there is no anchor to the book. And I like flawed characters, but none of hers are particularly likeable. Even with all their quirks—in defter hands it would work. But like I said, she’s just not a funny writer and it seems like she thinks she has to be. Which is a shame, because there’s an interlude in the book (which I think was in The New Yorker) which is beautiful. So well written and evocative and moody. And well told. It’s not funny, but not everything has to be. I wish she had just expanded that into a whole novel instead of crowbarring a bunch of kooks around it. But now I’m listening to State of Wonder as I finish up a painting for the show and it is excellent.

Have you ever stolen a book?

GB: I thought I hadn’t, but then I realized I had. And this seems almost like a plant as well. It was a Swedish publication about Seabirds. And I really passively stole it from the New York Public Library. I honestly think I was the only one who ever took it out. And then I kept bringing it back late. And then one time it was so late that they just billed me for it as a lost book. I could have returned it, but it was only like 14 bucks! Over the years I had probably paid 20 in late fees on it already. Wait—maybe I didn’t steal one because I paid the 14 bucks. But it was somehow dishonest.

Teju Cole’s Open City Is a Strange, Marvelous Novel That Captures the Post-9/11 Zeitgeist

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall . . .” begins Julius, the perspicacious narrator of Teju Cole’s admirable and excellent début Open City. That opening “And” is significant, an immediate signal to the reader that this novel will refuse to align itself along (or even against) traditional arcs of plot and character development. We will meet Julius in media res, and we will leave him there, and along the way there will be learning and suffering and compassion and strange bubbles of ambiguity that threaten to burst out of the narrative.

As noted, Open City begins with Julius’s peripatetic voyages; he walks the night streets of New York City to ostensibly relieve the “tightly regulated mental environment of work.” Julius is completing his psychiatry fellowship at a hospital, and the work takes a toll on him, whether he admits it or not. In these night walks—and elsewhere and always throughout the novel—Julius shares his sharp observations, both concrete and historical. No detail is too small for his fine lens, nor does he fail to link these details to the raw information that rumbles through his mind: riffs on biology, history, art, music, philosophy, and psychology interweave the narrative. Julius maps the terrain of New York City against its strange, mutating history; like a 21st century Ishmael, he attempts to measure it in every facet—its architecture, its rhythms, its spirit. And if there is one thread that ties Julius’s riffs together it is the nightmare of history:

But atrocity is nothing new, not to humans, not to animals. The difference is that in our time it is uniquely well organized, carried out with pens, train carriages, ledgers, barbed wire, work camps, gas. And this late contribution, the absence of bodies. No bodies were visible, except the falling ones, on the day America’s ticker stopped.

Open City is the best 9/11 novel I’ve read, but it doesn’t set out to be a 9/11 novel, nor does it dwell on that day. Instead, Cole captures something of the post-9/11 zeitgeist, and at the same time situates it in historical context. When Julius remarks on the recent past, the concrete data of history writhes under the surface. He remarks that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center “was not the first erasure on the site,” and goes on to detail the 1960s cityscapes that preceded the WTC. Before those, there was Washington Market. Then Julius embarks, via imagination, into the pre-Colombian space of the people we now call Indians or Native Americans. “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories,” he concludes, peering at the non-site that simultaneously anchors these memory-spaces.

Julius’s line, like the lines that comprise New York City (and perhaps, if we feel the spirit of its democratic project, America itself) is a mixed one, heterogeneous and multicultural. Julius’s father, now dead, was an important man in Nigeria, where Julius enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood. Julius’s mother—they are now estranged—is German. He remarks repeatedly about his German grandmother’s own displacements during WWII, reflecting at one point that, from a historical perspective, it was likely impossible that she escaped Cossack rape.

Even though he sometimes seems reticent to do so, Julius delves into the strange violence that marks his lineage. He recalls a childhood fascination with Idi Amin; as a boy, he and his cousins would watch the gory film The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin repeatedly: ” . . . we enjoyed the shock of it, its powerful and stylized realism and each time we had nothing to do, we watched the film again.”

Fascinated horror evinces repeatedly in Open City. In just one example, Julius believes he sees “the body of a lynched man dangling from a tree”; as he moves closer to inspect, he realizes that it is merely canvas floating from a construction scaffold. Perhaps so attuned to history’s grand catalog of spectacular atrocity, Julius finds it lurking in places where it does not necessarily evince.

In turn, despite his profession as psychiatrist, Julius is wary of human sympathy. Throughout the novel, dark-skinned men engage him by calling him “brother.” He almost always deflects these attempts at connection, and internally remarks them as fatuous, or naïve, or false. This is not to say though that Julius doesn’t make significant (if often transitory) connections.

One of the organizing principles of Open City comes in the form of Julius’s infrequent visits to the home of his former English professor, Dr. Saito, who is slowly dying. Saito’s own memories float into Julius—this technique repeats throughout the novel—and we learn that he was interned as a young man during WWII; the sad fact is another ugly kink in the line of American history that Julius attempts to trace.

Julius also befriends Dr. Maillotte, an aging surgeon on a flight to Brussels, where he spends a few weeks of Christmas vacation, ostensibly looking for his oma (a task he performs half-heartedly at best). As Julius daydreams, Dr. Maillotte, European émigré, finds a place within his vision of family members and friends:

I saw her at fifteen, in September 1944, sitting on a rampart in the Brussels sun, delirious with happiness at the invaders’ retreat. I saw Junichiro Saito on the same day, aged thirty-one or thirty-two, unhappy, in internment, in an arid room in a fenced compound in Idaho, far away from his books. Out there on that day, also, were all four of my own grandparents: the Nigerians, the Germans. Three were gone by now, for sure. But what of the fourth, my oma? I saw them all, even the one I had never seen in real life, saw all of them in the middle of that day in September sixty-two years ago, with their eyes open as if shut, mercifully seeing nothing of the brutal half century ahead and better yet, hardly anything at all of all that was happening in their world, the corpse-filled cities, camps, beaches, and fields, the unspeakable worldwide disorder that very moment.

In Brussels, Julius meets Farouq, an angry young man with intellectual, Marxist tendencies. Farouq believes in a theory of “difference” and finds himself at odds with both the dominant Belgian culture and with Western culture in general. Julius’s conversations with Farouq are a highlight of the novel; they help to further contextualize the drama of diaspora in the post-9/11 world. Later, Julius finds a counterweight to some of Farouq’s extreme positions over a late lunch with Dr. Maillotte, who suggests that “For people to feel that they alone have suffered, it is very dangerous.” There’s a sense of reserved moderation to her critique—not outright dismissal nor condemnation, but simply a recognition that there are “an endless variety of difficulties in the world.”

Julius seems to tacitly agree with Maillotte’s assessment. His reluctance to accept brotherhood based on skin color alone speaks to a deeper rejection of simplicity, of tribe mentality, of homogeneity; it also highlights his essential alienation. At the same time, he’s acutely aware of how skin color matters, how identity can be thrust upon people, despite what claims to agency we might make. In search of the line that will connect him to his part of the American story, Julius finds unlikely “brothers” in Farouq, Maillotte, and Saito.

But let us not attribute to Julius a greater spirit than Cole affords him: Open City is a novel rich in ambiguity, with Julius’s own personal failures the most ambiguous element of all. While this is hardly a novel that revolves on plot twists, I hesitate to illustrate my point further for fear of clouding other readers’ perceptions; suffice to say that part of the strange, cruel pleasure of Open City is tracing the gaps in Julius’s character, his failures as a professional healer—and his failures to remark or reflect upon these failures.

But isn’t this the way for all of us? If history is a nightmare that we try to awake from—or, more aptly in a post-9/11 world, a nightmare that we awake to, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek—then there is also the consolation and danger that time will free us from the memory of so much atrocity, that our collective memory will allow those concrete details to slip away, replaced with larger emblems and avatars that neatly smooth out all the wrinkles of ambiguity. “I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life,” Julius wonders at one point; later, Saito points out that “There are towns whose names evoke a real horror in you because you have learned to link those names with atrocities, but, for the generation that follows yours, those names will mean nothing; forgetting doesn’t take long.” Julius’s mission then is to witness and remark upon the historical realities, the nitty-gritty details that we slowly edge out of the greater narrative. And Cole? Well, he gives us a novel that calls attention to these concrete details while simultaneously exploring the dangerous subjectivity behind any storytelling.

If it needs to be said: Yes, Open City recalls the work of W.G. Sebald, who crammed his books with riffs on history and melancholy reflections on memory and identity. And yes, Open City is flâneur literature, like Sebald (and Joyce, and Bolaño, perhaps). But Cole’s work here does not merely approximate Sebald’s, nor is it to be defined in its departures. Cole gives us an original synthesis, a marvelous and strange novel about history and memory, self and other. It’s a rich text, the sort of book one wants to immediately press on a friend, saying, Hey, you there, read this, we need to talk about this. Very highly recommended.

Open City is new in trade paperpack from Random House.

“Nothing but Misery, Nothing but Monsters” — Henry Miller Walks Around New York, Talking About His Childhood