the contextual life

thoughts without borders

meet the bookseller :: back pages books (waltham, ma)

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Alex Green is the owner of Back Pages Books, an independent bookstore and publishing house in Waltham, Massachusetts. he’s also, in my opinion, one of the most creative and energetic book pushers out there to-date. if you’re in the area, check out their events.

What are your most anticipated books of 2011?
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace—I’m a latecomer to Wallace, and I’m stunned by his breadth. I feel like I missed the American Kafka.

What is Poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti–I can think of no other human being from whom I’d like to read this question and this answer more than Ferlinghetti.

The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States by Gordon Wood—Wood is our only traditional historian who knows the definition of the word radical. He gets better with each book. I’m a dork. I get giddy waiting for his books to come out.

1493 by Charles C. Mann– 1491 was the best history of the Americas before Columbus written. Period. 1493. I can’t wait. Whatever you do, don’t read any other books with a date as a title. They’re not to be trusted.

Tyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya–Moya reminds me that surrealism is alive and terrifying and relevant and raucous and hilarious. This is a novel about the real-life pro-Nazi mystic president of El Salvador in the 1930′s nicknamed “The Warlock”. I only trust Moya to do this kind of thing right.

The Life of Super-Earths by Dimitar Sasselov–Sasselov may well be our next Sagan. Kind, gentle, exceedingly brilliant, and able to make revolusionary ideas clear as day (as well as admitting when they can’t be made clear as day), I’ve been waiting for this book to come out from the day it was first mentined.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi—I think The Icarus Girl had the greatest child character I’ve ever read in fiction. Oyeyemi may not always be easy, but she’s humming myths and parables that are stunning–like little else I’ve encountered, they are intricate, gorgeously fashioned, and they matter.

who do you think were the unsung heroes of 2010?
So much is unsung. Major Jackson’s poems in Holding Company are deeply profound, sensual, political, revolutionary poems. It deserves the Pulitzer. Dave Zelsterman’s Killer is just one of his growing catalog of the best American crime writing in decades, but continues to be overlooked. He was on NPR’s Top 5 mysteries the same year as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Both books were unknowns then. I hope his becomes as famous as Larsson’s have. The Autobiography of Mark Twain was the most poorly handled book release I’ve ever seen—it was so bad it makes this book unsung even though I know hundreds of thousands of people bought the book. It wasn’t sung. Or at least it wasn’t sung right. I can only hope people will take a quiet moment and leaf through a few pages to read the soul and conscience of American writing.

that’s a profound statement about twain and now that you say it, i completely agree. it was a sad showing for an incredible book. as a bookseller or otherwise, how would you have launched it?
The Mark Twain book release was handled the same way the UC [University of California, the publisher] system handles everything—badly. As a bookseller, I thought, put everything on the line. If you fail, and the UC Press fires you, you can go out job hunting saying, “I lost my job because I put everything on the line for Mark Twain.” They’d probably make you President of Random House for that. If we use these “strict on-sale dates” for drivel like George W. Bush’s memoir, why wouldn’t you issue one for Mark Twain’s autobiography to drum up some energy?  Threaten to sue the hell out of anyone who releases it even a minute too soon. It worked for JK Rowling. Tell the New York Times that if they’re going to have Garrison Keillor lambaste it for being long-winded, meandering, and slow, he’s not allowed to do it in a three page, long-winded, meandering, slow book review, and remind him that it’s only Volume I, and that Mark Twain always gets the last laugh. Host celebrations all over the country. Have a freaking celebration.

What happened instead?  The book was shipped out 6 weeks ahead of its expected release date and nobody knew what it was. When booksellers tried to describe it, people didn’t understand and walked away. The publicity “machine” of course kicked in just on schedule, six weeks later. That was just before Thanksgiving . . . a great time to start gathering the energy for a Christmas release of course. And having learned so much from the release of W.W. Norton’s $200 Carl Jung book the year before (it sold over 25,000 copies), they ran out of copies and couldn’t keep up production. They had lots of excuses, including the belief that a $35 hardcover would have been too expensive for most folks, so they underestimated. Just brilliant.

One UC Regent’s salary for a year would be worth it to make sure the release of the first Mark Twain book in a century is handled correctly, but that doesn’t seem to be the model. We need to discuss this in the book industry because it’s a quintessential example of how we don’t take ourselves seriously as a media industry, and we make unacceptable mistakes that damage our entire industry.

wow. i like the idea of nationwide celebrations and that’s an interesting statement about publishers. we’ll have to come back to that in a future interview. for now, any good suggestions for bored teenagers?
Read anything anyone tells you not to read.

that’s amazing advice. my friends and i passed around go ask alice and the electric kool-aid acid test. what’s your favorite classic?
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. When you’re 21 the last most terrifying story is the one that convinces you might not want to be God after all. . . . The Secret Agent by Conrad is a close second. . . . God, what have you done? This is hardest question you can ask a bookseller.

italo calvino wrote an essay Why Read the Classics—it’s brilliant, you should read it. in it he talks about how it’s only during our school years that we’re forced to read classics; he makes a case for doing so in order to find the classic that suits us best. he says, it’s “only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.” broadly speaking—and i mean genre, time period, location—have you found your classic?
I don’t know if I’ve found my classic yet. I certainly do love the Power and the Glory more than almost all others. The Classic, as I see it, moves you beyond yourself—fills you with such an extraordinarily overwhelming empathy and understanding, it actually changes how you view the world, fundamentally. It’s like the idea of a paradigm shift. That book is not the book you walk around quoting to everybody. It’s not the one for which you run out and evangelize.

There’s this great Lorca comment about how there aren’t really bad books, poetry, art, etc.  There’s only those that you like and those that you don’t. I don’t know if I agree fully, but I do feel that right place and right time are very important, and that we often read things and don’t like them because of where we’re at, not the author.

Of all that I’ve read over the years, this makes me think of one book in particular. It was actually a play, and it was so altering to me that I doubt I’ll ever actually see it performed. When I was about 14 I sat down and read Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. I remember getting to the climatic moment and actual jolting off the side of the couch. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. I felt so utterly destroyed by what had happened. That’s one of those things nobody can teach you. I didn’t know books could do that. I walked around in a daze for days.

that’s now on my list of books i must read in my lifetime. what’s one of your favorite escapist reads?
The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss. As an adult I get the whole nuclear parable bit, but dammit, that’s not the point. The point is, there are Yooks who butter their bread side up, there are Zooks who butter their bread side down. One side has something called a “triple-sling-jigger”, and someone has built a giant wall that they’re hurling things over again and again. What could possibly be better?

summer is coming up, what’s your take on public school summer reading selections?
I think the lists need fewer choices with more expansive thinking behind them. The biggest issue is that greater focus needs to be placed on getting parents to participate more in what their kids read. I’ve felt for some time that “One City, One Book” programs should always be children’s or young adult books. I must say that I’m about as far from prudish as they get, but I’m appalled by the level of violence in the young adult books that end up on the list. It’s a copout by the writers and the publishers to produce that kind of junk and its outrageous to have kids reading it—adults can make their own decisions about what to read, but adding violence to the meritocracy is unacceptable. Needless to say, I’m no fan of The Hunger Games.

what books would you add to the required reading list?
I love great adventures. I feel like anything that takes a kid somewhere far away is worth the read. Thankfully the number of choices in that regard is huge. I’m honestly not even sure where to begin.

do you have any guilty pleasure reads?
I love hard-boiled Italian crime fiction. I have absolutely no idea why.

i’ve come to appreciate good mystery, or maybe literary suspense is a better word for it. it’s not something i would have expected so i hear you when you say you have no idea why you like it. now onto one of my favorite questions: where do you find out about books?
Customers and going into other bookstores. I read catalogs from some publishers, but generally I find books through word of mouth. I am a sucker for the New York Review of Books too. A customer once said to me, “We, as a nation, don’t deserve a publication that good.”

ha. i’m envious of australian public radio—their shows are very philosophical and wouldn’t last a second over here. sometimes i wonder what it would be like to have that programming on NPR. i’m curious to know what has your attention these days?
There’s a guy out there running something called Five Chapters Books, and he’s fantastic. I’m eagerly waiting for copies of Emma Straub’s Other People We Married to arrive from them. Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould have been steadfastly writing the only contextualized history of Afghanistan. Their new book Crossing Zero on Afghanistan and Pakistan is phenomenal. There’s a fascinating book being released this month called An Unfinished Revolution about the relationship between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (they exchanged letters).  There’s a great upcoming release by Ig Publishers called Reviving the Strike.  Well timed.

so funny you mention emma straub. her name is all over the place here in new york city and brooklyn. she works at this great indie in cobble hill and has become a local star—a “darling,” really. she just wrote a piece about getting dates at bookstores which ran on slate. she’s getting big, just wait. and wow, abe and karl? insane, i have to check that out. you and i are both fans of public radio, are you listening to any good shows these days?
Michael Krasny’s Forum on KQED radio out in the Bay Area is often good. I find myself often listening to Tom Ashbrook’s On Point even though it aggravates me.  It’s like the radio version of Charlie Rose.

zing! and i agree about krasny. i think he’s one of the most well-read people out there. i’m always impressed with how much he knows. here’s another one that calvino talks about: do you ever reread books?
I like to reread On the Road. It gets sadder, and more momentous as I get older. It’s the Gatsby of its generation.

who are some of your favorite authors and why?
The poet Donald Revell is majestic. He’s our Thoreau. His poem Halloween, Blue Diamond Nevada says it all. There’s a circle of novelists that includes Matthew Vollmer, Sarah Braunstein, and Lewis Robinson. They represent something really hopeful to me about American fiction. Cormac McCarthy is of course, a visionary among the unsettling.  Among the not-living, Conrad, Steinbeck.  Many of the authors I like can be lumped into the made-up genre of Realist Horror Fiction.

that would be a great section in a bookstore. i’d probably spend most of my time there. what do you wish people knew about bookstores?
You can come in and browse around and sit down and read a book and come to the events, and you don’t always have to buy something.  I notice a sense of guilty obligation among people that they need to buy something and that means that they haven’t been shown what’s great about so-called “third places”. Come in, kick back, relax, just don’t bring your Kindle or we’ll break your hands.

[laughs] what’s your favorite part of being a bookseller?
Getting recommendations from kids.

how did you come to own a bookstore?
Idle time spent in the town I loved thinking about what would make me love it even more.

what’s the greatest challenge facing independent booksellers today?
Independent booksellers were once seen as really worldly, wise, engaged people.  It was understood that we were entrusted with a  very valuable element of what defines civilization.  We are just as worldly, wise, and engaged as ever, but market capitalism has spent a lot of time trying to convince the world that we are a bunch of stuffy, antiquated suckers.  They do this because booksellers are dangerous—we can’t be mediated as easily as mass media. We have our own thoughts and opinions, we know a lot, and we get people excited about doing just the same. I think the challenge is for us to do more publicly, make it clear that the large corporations seeking to get rid of us don’t do it because we’re weak, but because they’re afraid.

any thoughts on the relationship between booksellers and publishing houses?
To steal a line from a great novelist . . . yes.

new york times article on jung’s red book sales
five chapters website
emma straub’s piece on finding love at bookstores in slate


Written by Gabrielle

April 8, 2011 at 7:36 am

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