Saturday, July 30, 2011

Locusts, Social Networking, and a Novel

"The locusts have no king, yet they go forth all of them by bands." So says Proverbs 30:27, which Dawn Powell took as epigraph, and from which she took the title of her novel The Locusts Have No King.

The Association for Computing Machinery's "TechNews" mailing for Wednesday July 20, included an item with the heading "Swarms of Locusts Use Social Networking to Communicate," which item linked to one of the same name at the Institute of Physics. This did not mean, I found, that the locusts are inflating Facebook's user counts, rather that the social interactions of locusts tend to align their direction of travel. The longer article included the curious paragraph
Locusts rely heavily on swarming as they are in fact cannibalistic. As they march across barren deserts, locusts carefully keep track of each other so they can remain within striking distance to consume one another – a cruel, but very efficient, survival strategy.
The characters of Powell's novel are not quite that ruthless, though quite a few will not let scruples or obligations stand in the way of their path to money, notoriety, or pleasure. Her New York is a few acres of Manhattan,at the last mid-century, most of her characters involved one way or another with publishing--writers, publishers, advertising agents, artists and commercial artists. It is a world she must have known inside out, and her picture of it convinces. Her most obnoxious women characters have a quality that bring to mind one of  Samuel Butler's argument for female authorship of the Odyssey: no man would have treated the maids that brutally.

The novel does show aspects of what the Institute of Physics means by social networking. The lonely scholar Frederick is oddly assured by Dodo's promiscuity: that so many men have wanted her suggests that his appetite is sound. The students at the Institute for Cultural Foundations learn to discuss books and plays in the light of newspaper reviews, and resent anyone who bothers to read or view for himself and take a different view. A playwright likens the city's drama critics to "an old married couple; they had lived together so long they looked and thought alike ..."


Monday, July 18, 2011

Bookstores Gone

In the third of a century I have lived in Washington, DC, I have seen many bookstores go out of business. One or two that are still here astonish and gratify me with their persistence. In alphabetical order, and with something I remember buying from them (generally a small sample of what I bought), a few of the now gone:
  1. Bonifant Books, in Wheaton Triangle. I believe that it was started by one or more of the dealers from Imagination Books in Silver Spring. It closed about 2007. I found a bilingual edition of the Rule of St. Benedict there.
  2. Calliope, in Cleveland Park. It flourished in the early 1980s, and  was replaced by a video outlet, I think. I know I bought a volume of John Montague's poetry, and am fairly sure I bought J.V. Cunningham's Collected Poems there.
  3. Chapters, downtown. It began on the 1600 block of I St. NW, then moved a block north and east to K St., and made its last stand on 11 St. NW between Pennsylvania Avenue and E St. I bought quite a few books from them between say 1985 and 2008, the slimmest perhaps Joyce Cary's War Among the Bobotes, certainly the fattest Roy Jenkins's wonderful biography of Gladstone.
  4. Columbia Bookstore, Cleveland Park and Georgetown. It had an upstairs room on Connecticut Ave., then one on Wisconsin Ave. At the Cleveland Park location, I bought a two-volume edition of the correspondence of Adams and Jefferson.  At the Georgetown location, Jacques Barzun's The American University.
  5. Foreign Language Books, in Georgetown, I think in a rowhouse on Dumbarton St., vanished in the early 1980s. I'm not sure whether the store that hangs on north of Tenley Circle is a descendant or not.
  6. Georgetown Books, in Georgetown, then in Bethesda till about 2008. I deeply regret not dropping $100 on a facsimile of Johnson's dictionary there about 1985. I did buy a number of books there over the years, including a paperback Roman Journal when it was in Bethesda, and I think Johnson's Lives of the Poets in Georgetown.
  7. Globe Books, downtown. Globe was on 17th St. NW, opposite the Old Executive Office Building. There is a sandwich shop there now. I believe I bought a paperback of James Webb's Fields of Fire there.
  8. Imagination Books, Silver Spring on Sligo Avenue. It was a consortium of several independent dealers and closed in 1992.. One year when there was a sale on I bought the WPA Washington: City and Capital, with map.
  9. Olsson's, various locations: Georgetown, downtown, "Penn Quarter", Alexandria. Before Borders came to Washington, Olsson's was much the biggest store, so I bought many books there. It closed in 2008.
  10. The Trover Store, various locations downtown. The Trover Stores had the peculiarity, at least for a while, of shelving books within a section by publisher. It must have made inventory easier in some ways, but as a customer I thought it confusing. From the sale when it went out of business I bought a Don Quixote and a Rob Roy.
Then there are the ones with names that escape me. The used bookstore about where Pennsylvania bends into M St., where I coveted but did not buy a battered Malone edition of Shakespeare; the store on M St. almost to Key Bridge; the one on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington across from the old Sears; no doubt a couple at least on Capitol Hill.

Let me add that
  1. Chapters lives on not as bookstore but as the Chapters Literary Society, which you can find on Facebook.
  2. One of the dealers from the old Imagination Books run Silver Spring Books, on Bonifant St. in Silver Spring, between Georgia Avenue and Fenton St. (It is conveniently located across from the Thai Derm restaurant, if book shopping builds your appetite.)
  3. I could add Borders, which will be going out of business shortly.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Booked Up

In 1978 or 1979 I found my way to Booked Up, a used book store in Georgetown. Somehow I became aware that the proprietor, a tall, lean fellow, was the novelist Larry McMurtry. During the years I went there,  the most conspicuous of the stock was priced an order of magnitude or two beyond what I could afford..  I did manage to spend between $100 and $200 there over about seven years. And I'm grateful to the proprietors for letting a scruffy fellow with a backpack browse their annex unwatched.

About the middle of the 1980s I found my way to Georgetown and Booked Up less often. Then one day in the 1990s I read that McMurtry had packed up his books and taken them to Archer City, Texas. I'd love to spend a few days browsing his holdings there, but I can't imagine an errand that would take me to Texas.

A couple of years ago McMurtry brought out Books: A Memoir, about his years in the book trade, not just in Washington or Archer City, but in Houston and California and points beyond. It is a slim book, of 109 short chapters, easy to pick up and browse at odd moments. It gives a picture of the antiquarian book business in the days before the internet, when Polaroids of shelves were the most advanced technology in use. I believe that anyone who likes bookstores would enjoy this book. Those who know Washington or Houston would probably enjoy it still more, though I must say that most of his acquaintance in Washington was of a social stratum I know not at all, and Houston I must take entirely on faith.

McMurtry writes that Booked Up was replaced by a a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Perhaps so, though I think I remember that the short-lived garden store Smith and Hawken had the property about 2002.  I have no idea what's there now, but I doubt it would be a bookstore.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Painting, Continued

During the last seven years we have received a thorough indoctrination in the following beliefs:
  1. Graffiti artists aren't the only vandals who work with paint.
  2. Any painter worth hiring charges more than you care to pay.
  3. No other sort of painter will prepare surfaces as carefully as the owner will.
  4. The pain of hiring such a painter is less than the pain of seeing paint peel in two or three years.
The practical corollaries have been that
  1. We will paint anything we can reach, from at most a ten foot ladder or by hanging out a window.
  2. We will wince and write a check for rake boards, the dormer, and the reachable but depressing porch rails.
These beliefs may be true primarily of the United States. The best painter we know, an immigrant trained in Europe, says that Americans don't want to pay for good painting. The brochures from the Fine Paints of Holland line imply the same; they discuss the apprenticeship that Dutch painters undergo, and speak of the decent income a qualified painter makes in the Netherlands.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Happy Bastille Day!

In (their excellent) The Age of Federalism, Elkins and McKittrick write
Though Americans in general, over time, have probably tended to be better informed about France than the French about America, the difference has been mainly one of degree. They have in their way been just as distracted in their interest and attention as the French have been regarding them.
Americans' most ardent responses to France have come at times when the French were supplying their deepest needs: ministering to their self-esteem and nourishing their very uncertain sense of national identity....
 (Page 306, and see also note 2 to Chapter VII, on "the copy of Elizabeth B. White's excellent American Opinion of France from Lafayette to Poincare, published in 1927, which sat on the the shelves of the Smith College Library for nearly fifty years with its pages uncut ... [and] E. Malcolm Carroll's French Public Opinion and Foreign Affairs, 1870-1914, which contains not a single reference to the United States...")

Monday, July 11, 2011

Thick White Paint

K. is able to get a great deal of disgust into the words "that thick white paint", sometimes "that ugly thick white paint." This paint is used by crews such as realtors or their clients hire to hide years of neglect, sometimes damage. The more careless crews leave it spotted on floors. Nearly all seem to seal windows shut, or reinforce paint seals already in place. They blur the detail of trim as a blizzard hides low shrubs.

That thick white paint cost me twenty minutes or half an hour this weekend, when I had to lower an upper window sash that was painted into place probably seven years ago. A  little work with a sharp putty knife freed the sash from the parting strip, but but the parting strip itself stuck to the frame here and there. Well, parting bead is cheap at the lumber yard, and I wasn't gentle with it.

I'm happy to say that our surface of thick white paint must be down to a very few square feet. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Today the July issue of the Communications of the ACM arrived. The second headline on the cover is "Cellular Telephony and the Question of Privacy."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Negative Word in Favor of Hemingway

According to Borges, the problem with Hemingway was that he admired bullies; Paul Theroux quotes him to this effect in The Old Patagonian Express. I was primed by a reviewer to note and perhaps admire it when I read the book. Yet, with my limited reading of Hemingway, I wonder. He bullied, and he admired himself. But in the novels and stories I remember, he admires the man of action and the brawler; these are not necessarily bullies.

At the time, any favorable impression of this insight was lost in a page or two, when Theroux read Borges Kipling's story "The Church That Was at Antioch." To complain of Hemingway's fondness for bullies, and then to read Kipling without remark is odd enough--think how many of Kipling's heroes are bullies. But to express admiration for "The Church That Was at Antioch"! William McKinley might have have thought the likening of colonial administration to the apostolate of Peter and Paul overdone.

An Hour and a Half

Last night we drove to the AFI to see Midnight in Paris. I thought it a fine half-hour sketch padded to three times that length. There were a lot of old English majors in the audience, judging by the laughter at appropriate points.

I did notice one trait of Woody Allen's and wonder whether it is his own weakness or a calculated pandering to ours--he makes his points very broadly.
  • Gil's competitor, Paul, (who after all delivers a correct judgment on Gil's nostalgia in the first five minutes) must be a pedant. Up against a pedantic art professor, Gil looks pretty good. Against a figure with the mind of a Bernard Berenson, he would look quite different.
  • Gil's fiancee, Inez, is fundamentally dull, so Gil isn't presented with much of a choice when it's time to cut loose. She is quite beautiful, but in this movie the only women who aren't are Inez's mother, Gertrude Stein, and an extra or two.
  • Inez's parents are dull, rich, and purse-proud, her father stupidly conservative. I did not sense that it would take Richard Posner to demolish Gil in an argument, but dad has no recourse beyond calling him a communist.
S.J. Perleman wrote that the script writer Grover Jones had once instructed him in a point about writing Westerns: when the bad guy gets off the stage coach, he must kick the nearest dog. It's good to know some things don't change.