Monday, July 18, 2011

Destination Literature, or "You Are There Reading"

One of our booksellers, Jes, is reading Moby Dick this summer. So when her family happened to go to Nantucket for summer vacation, Jes packed Melville. When she returned to the Booksmith, she told me excitedly about a beached whale she encountered while beach combing. I was jealous. When I read Moby Dick for the first time last summer, I was forever wanting to see just how big those beasts were. Jes had other convergences of literature and life as she explored the island, from which Ishmael and his companion, Queequeg embark on their fatal adventure. Jes may not have seen any white whales off Nantucket, but she was still thrilled to be reading Moby Dick there. "I was eating chowder, they (Ishamael and Queequeg) were eating chowder..."

I recognized Jes's Nantucket experience as what author Anne Fadiman calls "You Are There Reading" in her essay collection Ex Libris. "You Are There Reading" is exactly what it sounds like, "the practice of reading books in the places they describe." All you have to do is pack a copy of Thoreau's Walden on your next trip to Walden Pond to find out what Jes, Fadiman, and all of us here at Booksmith are so excited about.

Destination Literature is our newest section at booksmith that promotes "You Are There" reading like never before. We've culled our shelves and distrubuters to bring together an exciting collection of travel literature, as well as great international fiction, mysteries, and essays. The books are shelved geographically by continent and country, then alphabetically. Almost every bookseller here has at some point been stumped by a customer looking for a title by its location on the map. I don't think we'll have that problem anymore. Yesterday I found an Estonian title on our shelves. (Jaan Kaplinski's The Same River). Traveling to Zanzibar? We've got you covered (Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley).

Shelving our Destination Literature section has been an adventure in itself; I can't imagine what browsing will be like. Something close to traveling the world, I imagine. I was shelving in "Spain" when a customer asked me for George Orwell's book on Catalonia. I pulled Homage from where it stood, a few inches away from us. "That was like magic!" he said, in an accent I couldn't place. I hope he reads the book on his way to Catalonia, to really see some magic, that of words becoming world.

Arranging the books geographically has tested my knowledge of the world, and I have to admit to keeping at Atlas nearby as I shelve. To what region of the world does Estonia belong, anyway? (I shelved it in Europe, between England and France.) Let us know if you'd like to see a particular author or region represented on our shelves.

One book had me completely stumped. I stood in the aisle, leafing through Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. The book, a novelization of one of Scheherazade's tales, is set in Azerbeidshan. To which continent, I wondered, did this country belong? I opened to a map in the book, but was still at a loss. Azerbeidshan, I learned, is located between the Black and Caspian Seas, east of Turkey and south of Georgia and Armenia. We had decided to shelve Turkey under Europe, but Azerbeidshan appeared to be just as close to Asia.

I decided that I would have to read the book in order to determine where to shelve it. On page one I read, "Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia's cultural revolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe."

I had happened upon a professor lecturing students on their responsbility to establish the country's national identity. As I shelved the book (under Asia), I felt that peculiar thrill--perhaps not quite as intense as the joy that comes with "You Are There Reading," but something like it--that of seeing the impact of what I was reading on the larger world. This, I believe, is the true value of our Destination Literature section. The books shelved here have the power to bring the world to you, or to inspire you to go out into the world. It's a section for the armchair traveler as much as for the daring adventurer.

So come visit what Lisa likes to call our "Venetian Canal" of Destination Literature, located between aisles two and three of the store, a section worthy to be called a destination itself.


As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

What a splendid post, springing from a splendid concept. Bookseller to bookseller, can you tell me if your Destination Literature section contains the only copies of said books? Is your Orwell book on Catalonia elsewhere in the store, or just there?

I'm heading to Santa Fe soon. What would you recommend for reading while there?

Jodie said...

Thanks for your comment; I'm excited about the conversation surrounding literature and the destinations books to bring us. To answer your first question, yes, many of the books in our "Destination Literature" section are located in second sections around the store. So, you could find Orwell's Homage to Catalonia both in Destination Literature and in World History. Zeno's Conscience, by Italo Svevo is shelved under Italy in Destination Literature and also in our fiction section. There are some titles, such as Tony Perrottet's recent Sinner's Grand Tour, which are only shelved as travel literature. I hope this helps.

As to a recommendation for your travels to the Southwest, I just happened to come across D.H. Lawerence's Mornings In Mexico this morning, which covers time he spent in New Mexico and Santa Fe. I also enjoyed Geoff Dyer's book about Lawerence, Out of Sheer Rage, in which he follows Lawerence to the Southwest. You could also try Willa Cather's Death Comes Before the Archbishop, which chronicles the efforts of a Father Latour as he sets up a Catholic Mission in New Mexico in the 1840's. The book describes the landscapes and diverse ethnic groups he finds there. Happy travels, happy reading. Jodie

Evan P said...

You might also try Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya for New Mexico.

Or if you don't mind wandering westward and reading about a far superior state (full disclosure, I may or may not have been raised in Phoenix), Sherman Alexie's story, "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" knocks me out every time. There's also a lot of work from Denis Johnson and Barbara Kingsolver that is set out that way. :)

Jodie, great post, and great job with the new section. It looks amazing. I've been to Estonia. They had riots while I was there. Strangely, I ate at a restaurant called the Arizona Grill in the center of Tallinn. Their chicken wings were sub-par. Also, they have a yearly wife-carrying contest. If you win, you get your wife's weight in beer.

It's a beautiful and glorious country.