Montaigne calls it, “the most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds,” and goes on to say, “The study of books is a languishing and feeble motion that heats not, whereas, conversation teaches and exercises at once.”* Close as I’m likely to come to exercise or a classroom then.
As booksellers, all but the most practical parts of our job: shelving books, ordering books, ringing up books at the cash register, are to do with making conversation. Selling books is a talker’s trade. I’ve known some perfectly lovely people; intellectual, diffident, bookish, who weren’t much at selling books. Good at other things, necessary things, but disinclined to say much. The idea of a bookstore job appeals to the introvert. Must be lovely, reading all day, seeing all the new books as they come out, wandering the quiet aisles with a cart. I’ve heard the same said of libraries, by people who’ve never worked in a library. Then comes the Holiday trade, or the fifteen minute phone-call with a lady who liked Donna Leon but can’t remember what she’s read, the aunt convinced that her seven year old nephew is a genius and ready for “something more substantial.” Nothing for it but listening — the better part of conversation according to more than one famous talker** — and then finding something to say. Bookselling is more questions than answers mostly, but Heaven help the bookseller with nothing to say.
A good part of what we do is talk amongst ourselves. This can look suspiciously like idle chatter, because that’s what it mostly is, but it is also part, and quite an important part, of the business of selling books. I don’t read what you do. I don’t know much about travel, or sports, popular music, raising puppies, contemporary Scandinavian mysteries, cryptozoology, children’s books, pie-baking, middle eastern languages. Sports, did I mention sports? What I don’t know, let me tell you, I could write a book on what I don’t know. Somebody does. Somebody knows. We get lucky, that somebody is on the Information Desk the same time I am, somebody walks up and asks about baseball, or football, or golf, soccer, lacrosse, marathons, fishing, bowling. (I include fishing because I know nothing beyond Izaak Walton and Tom Sawyer and I’m pretty sure there’s something called “sports fishing,” or did I make that up?) We talk amongst ourselves. That’s how someone like me knows who Peyton Manning is, roughly, or why Chloe Sevigny should have a new book of photographs, though I couldn’t tell you if she took any of the pictures in it. How I heard about Gone Girl before it was published. How I heard about coloring books for adults before we had dozens upon dozens of grown-up coloring books from which to choose.
For almost a decade now I’ve been having a regular conversation, every Thursday — baring illness, vacations and the like — with Nick DiMartino. Nick’s worked at the University Book Store since the first Nixon administration. Nick reads the way alcoholics drink. You can learn a lot from Nick. I have.
A year ago I started recording our Thursday morning conversations. After much struggle and the help of younger persons, I learned how to edit our conversations on my home computer and post them as podcasts to Soundcloud. We’ve recorded more than forty of editions to date of Breakfast at the Bookstore with Brad and Nick. We’ll do another come Thursday.
In the course of the year Nick has talked his way from Archipelago Press to Zola, from Arctic Summer, to Tales of the City, with a surprising number of stops in Catalonia, and a good part of the year spent in The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante. Meanwhile, I’ve gone from the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the conquest of Quebec to the court of Queen Anne. I’ve made projects of Parkman, Cowper, Carlyle, Scott, and now Swift. There’ve been comics and comic novels on the breakfast table between us, history, biography, movie stars and muck, and loads and loads of translations throughout.
We’ve had on librarians, fellow booksellers, a publisher’s rep., and poet.
And always, or nearly always, there’s been at least one Lucky Lou’s maple bar for Nick, though these seldom last the length of the conversation.
All in all, it’s been a good year for us, the bookstore, the podcast, and books. We’ve heard from regular listeners at other bookstores, from a nice fellow in Mumbai, and from old friends and new across the country and the continent.
That would seem to me to be the point. Maupassant somewhere calls conversation “the art of never seeming bored, of touching everything with interest,” and so we seem to do, despite or perhaps because of our very different reading. It seems we’ve succeeded at least to the extent of extending our conversation to include people we’ve never met in places we’ve never been. That’s what good booksellers do, or try to, every day. This is just our latest effort.
It wouldn’t work without Nick. He’s the magic of the thing. There are few people with a greater enthusiasm for literature, for life, than our Nick. It would be all well and good for me to just gas on about the old, dead darlings of English Belles-lettres — like I do — but without Nick there to exclaim, “Really?!!”, to change the subject and say sensible things in the face of my all-too-predictable outrage at nobody reading Charles Lamb nowadays… well, it wouldn’t be so much a podcast as something to avoid at the bus-stop. “Oh, God. It’s that guy who reads ‘Froude.'”
As it is, our conversation would go on anyway, but then, we’re old friends. Now it seems we’ve made more.
To those that do, thanks for listening. Start your own conversations too, come to that. The more we talk books, the better some of us like it. So, let’s keep the conversation going, and as one or the other of us invariably says each week, “keep reading good books.”
* Charles Cotton’s translation.
** “The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”– William Hazlitt, himself no small beer as a talker. See, Table Talk.