In praise of bibliophiles

BY JOE KILDUFF

Published November 17, 2005

This past Friday, Shaman Drum, that bookstore on State Street where so many English Department teachers compel you to acquire the texts for their course, celebrated 25 years of Ann Arbor existence. Among the wooden bookshelves, there was wine, cheese, cookies and coffee. There was a jazz band plucking away at instruments toward the back of the store where famous authors usually read. There was tower of cascading liquid chocolate shaped like the Stanley Cup into which people stuck pretzel rods and strawberries and pineapple chunks, and we laughed and shook hands with the owners and all those related to the success of the Drum. We bibliophiles were, immeasurably, uniformly, happy that the Drum had offered so many books to the Ann Arbor culture for a quarter century.

Jess Cox

There also were many people in black suits and white hair. Just after I had dipped a pretzel rod into the tower of chocolate, an older poet friend of mine admitted how relieved she was to be around so many older people. It was more of her scene. I looked around. The youngest looking person there could have been me, a dude about to turn thirty. "The problem with the people there," another poet friend and attendee of the party said the next night, "is that most of them were old enough to remember when the store first opened." Pretend for a moment that Shaman Drum is a microcosm that contains and reveals American literary attitudes. It follows illogically - but in a fun kind of way - to ask: Are books generally becoming - or have they become - something for the old only and something only for the young when the young are forced to study them for class?

I am not alone in pondering this question. Critically acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen has lamented in Harper's back in 1996 that contemporary social trends threaten novel-based entertainment by changing reader's expectations. He writes that, nowadays, we readers may think, "The book must bring something to us, rather than our bringing something to the book." (Think of how the imagination falls away when you watch a music video).

He echoes the sentiments of many writerly persons who make fun of me because I own a television. And that I actually watch it. If I am at their home or apartment and I ask them if I can check the score of a game, they regard me as if I have crossed a Graduate Employees' Organization picket line. After they admit they do not have a TV, they ask, "Would NPR have the game on?" They too worry that the poetry chapbooks and novels they write will be overlooked at Borders because the new season of "Desperate Housewives" just came out on DVD.

Which begs the question: Why ask the question, "Are books fading away like a sitcom that's finally peaked?" in, of all places, hippy intellectual Ann Arbor? A town where people read books in coffee shops, in bars, at bus stops and (once I encountered this, and the guy almost stepped through me) while walking down the street? A town accurately described by fellow Daily writer and fellow bibliophile Bernie Nguyen as a town, "with more bookstores than I can count on my fingers and toes." Well, it's because A2 commonly offers a halfway point for those who demand that entertainment must bring something to them and those who bring something to the entertainment.

Public readings are the halfway point and, I think, a neat way to spend an evening. There are more in a month in A2 than I can count of my fingers and toes. Just before that Shaman Drum party Friday night, I attended a reading at the Guild House where three talented first-year Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing students - Sabrina Spiher, Michelle Brown and Brittani Sonnenberg - read poetry and fiction. On the one hand, we the audience held the respectful attention people display at a night at the theater. We used the words to ignite images in our head and we applauded and laughed. In other words, we brought ourselves to the book. On the other hand, the readers brought things to us: They offered autobiographical insight to the creation of the poems and stories (not unlike a DVD with audio commentary) they brought their voices (Sonnenberg and Spiher even absorbed the voices of the characters at times), and they brought their beautiful language.

In addition to the aesthetic values, the practical ones abound. Most readings are free to the pubic, although there is the slight literary peer pressure to purchase the hardcover; many teachers will accept a reading response for extra credit for an English class and most importantly you can impress friends and potential romantic partners by quoting someone like Salman Rushdie or Jonathan Franzen, who'll be coming to Treetown and reading fiction on next Monday. I believe and hope I won't be the youngest one there.

 

Joe still has a "Reading is Fun-damental" poster in his apartment. He can be reached at kilduff@umich.edu.