Last year, in the thick of August, I took part in a panel discussion at Changing Hands, the fine independent bookstore in Phoenix, and was amazed that in spite of the apocalyptic heat of the desert and the congestion of downtown, the place was packed. And not just packed: packed with readers in their 20s and 30s who were well prepared for the conversation at hand, who came loaded with smart questions and good information, and who bought books by the armload.
The point of that anecdote? Only that book people have been bemoaning the death of print, though print has refused to die, and of independent bookstores, which have been surging back since the darkest days of the Great Recession. Just as the future is unevenly distributed, so are these stores—but big cities and small towns alike are feeling the effects as indie bookstores, often started and staffed by young people, join and then change the commercial and cultural mix. Reports the American Booksellers Association, the number of bookstores has grown by a third, to more than 2,200, in the last six years, while overall sales were up 10 percent last year. Adds Francis X. Clines in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, taking a dig at a certain online behemoth, “The indies now find that readers are looking for life beyond their computer screens. They want to embrace books in all three dimensions and to select them in a tactile, less anonymous marketplace.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that everything else in the country is falling to pieces. That according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives America’s infrastructure an overall grade of D+. Infrastructure requires taxation, and taxation requires political will and leadership, all in short supply. Elizabeth Drew, astute as ever, examines the issues in a recent number of the New York Review of Books. Meanwhile, over at The Gothamist blog, the noted scholar of American politics Robert Caro reflects on a long career of writing about two larger-than-life men who made a profound difference in the course of history: Robert Moses, who shaped the face of New York City, and Lyndon Johnson, whose legacy is still a point of contention among the politically aware. Remarks Caro, “There’s only one comparison that I know of to Moses and that’s Baron Haussmann. As for Lyndon Johnson, I don’t think we have someone with the legislative genius like that.” More’s the pity.
Speaking of monuments, Yale University Press has been releasing, at an appropriately deliberate pace, a new translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time series,the most recent volume being In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Over at The Millions, 30-year-old blogger Hannah Gersen recounts her experience warming up to Proust over the course of a decade until finally wrapping up “one of the best novels I’ve ever read.” And speaking of monuments of a different sort, to say nothing of precocious writers, why has Annie Dillard been so little heard from in recent years? The question exercises William Deresiewicz over at The Atlantic, commenting on the occasion of the publication of Dillard’s The Abundance, her first book in a decade.
All right-thinking bibliophiles keep a shelf of books, or at least a few of them, selected for their titles alone: The Acts of Disputation with the Heresiarch Manes. Dummy Days. Elements of Livestock Judging, to name three books in my own collection. But who knew that there was a prize for such titles? Live it to our friends across the pond, where, reports The Guardian, the 2016 Diagram has just been awarded. Runner-up titles include the politically charged Too Naked for Nazis and Soviet Bus Stops, though the winner is neutral and universal: Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus, referring to infrastructure of a wholly different sort.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor. Photo above of Annie Dillard courtesy of Phyllis Rose.