December 03, 2009

The Gift That's The Right Size For Everyone We were talking at our annual book group holiday lunch yesterday about getting gifts for our children. Everyone, it seems, is cutting back again this year. And once again, some of the impetus for change is coming from children who are greener and leaner and less interested in filling up their lives with possessions. I expressed some regret at not getting to buy my boys things, because it really is the only time in the year when I do give them presents. But like the other ladies, I am very happy not to have to do a lot of shopping, schlepping, and wrapping. I don't much like stores. Malls give me a headache. I'm cranky about having to navigate around a gazillion careless people parked in front of the product I need, chatting heedlessly on cell phones while blocking the progress of a dozen of us with other demands on our time. I'm already anticipatorily cranky about the mountains of sugar that lie between me and January 1st. I find it hard to imagine putting up a wreath when I've still got a few brave flowers blooming in the garden. But I'm dealing with this minor case of the holiday grouchies, and with a number of people who will need some wrapped gift under the tree, by doing my shopping at the one set of stores that make me smile instead of frown: Bookstores. Luckily, my family and friends are bookworms, so I can go from store to store with my loved ones in mind, and chat up the bookloving staff. "What's new? What's good? What are your customers falling in love with?" In a great bookstore, like Water Street, in Exeter, New Hampshire (where I recently did a Quarry event with Frank Cook, JE Seymour and Norma Burrows, pictured here) or Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., my questions draw enthusiastic suggestions. The booksellers will pluck books off the shelf and give me quick descriptions. This post-apocalyptic one, for the physics guy, is called young adult but all the adults who read it are blown away. Perhaps Nick Hornby for the film maker? A new Julia Glass for the relative who loved Three Junes. Can any Ishiguro ever compare with The Remains of the Day? I chat. I collect a pile of books. I begin to make my own holiday wish list. I spend my life in the world of books. I eat, sleep, love, and breathe books. When I die, it will probably be because I'm crushed by the toppling cascade of my TBR pile. Last year the only book I got for Christmas was a cookbook. This year, I'm making a wishlist and hope they're checking it twice. I'm buying all these books because I love books, of course. I'm also buying all these books to set a good example for the rest of you. Because I know that not all readers understand the importance of book buying to authors. Several years ago, I did a library event with a few other authors, and we all brought along copies of our books to sell. At the end, when we authors were circulating, and drinking punch, and eating cream cheese brownies, two women came up to me, declared themselves to be great fans of mine, and said, "But we've been having a terrible time finding your first book." I pulled a copy out of my bag and said, "'re in luck, because I have a copy right here." They backed up a few steps and one of them said, "Oh, we don't BUY books." I realized then that there's an educational component to being a writer--and I'm not talking about teaching writing. I'm talking about teaching readers to buy. I know we're all being careful about our finances these days. I also know that writers live and die by our book sales. Sales are good, the publisher will want to buy another book from us. Sales are poor, the publisher goes looking for a promising new author. Paperbacks cost little more than a few cups of Starbucks coffee. Trade paperbacks cost as much as a couple pairs of panties, and the elastic doesn't give out. A hardcover book can last a lifetime, be read by dozens of people, or you can enjoy it and then give it to your library, take a charitable deduction, and give pleasure to many. When I graduated from high school, valedictorian of a class of about 26, our motto was: In Ourselves Our Future Lies. For writers, that also properly reads: In Yourselves Our Future Lies. I hope I'll see you at the bookstore. P.S. Our book group is also creating our own small buzz (and cluck) with bees and chicks from Heifer, International.
Standing Next to Genius--The Original Christmas Carol posted by Leann Sweeney While I was in New York City last year, I had a wonderful museum experience. We went to the Pierpont Morgan Library. Pierpont Morgan collected first edtions and there was so much to explore in what was once the Morgan family home. Like a handwritten original copy, one of only four in the world, of Milton's Paradise Lost. One bedroom size room was taken up with this display. But I kept returning to one small spot in the original library with its floor-to-ceiling book shelves: a small glass display case holding the original draft of Dickens A Christmas Carol. I saw his very readable handwriting and the leather journal where he wrote one of the most socially significant books ever written. I saw his line edits, line edits not different at all from what I have done on my drafts. Oh how I wished I could take that book and hold it in my hand for just one second. He wrote the book after a falling out with his publisher, whom he believed had cheated him out of profits from his previous book. He chose to publish A Christmas Carol on his own, staying in control of every aspect of its production. Not so different than the route some writers are taking today, and have taken for as long as books have been written. Contrary to what many believe, the book was an instant bestseller. He sold 6,000 copies the first week. But it was not enough to offset the costs he incurred in publishing the book himself. I'll bet that sounds familiar, too. Every year, part of the minimal decorating I do for the holidays is to take out my copy of A Christmas Carol and place it where I can see it. What better way to decorate a house than with a book? And what a book it is. A ghost story, a mystery and a tale that some say created our modern Christmas. One wonderful day of celebration with good food and loving family. By the time Dickens wrote the story, he was celebrating Christmas with a happy family. But, as I shared a few weeks ago about my own unhappy early years, Dickens had a miserable childhood. When he wrote about how the Industrial Revolution harmed children, he was speaking from experience. He had been placed in a home while his father served out a term in debtor's prison. Miserable childhoods are nothing new, either. But Dickens made a difference for me as a little girl. I related to that book the first time I read it ... no devoured it. What Dickens taught me is that a book with a real plot, with a beginning, a middle and an end, can shine a bright light on how our society works or doesn't work, as was the case in England in 1843. He wrote that masterpiece in six weeks. Six weeks. And I got a chance to stand next to it and examine his writing word by precious word. I felt the ghost of a genius standing over my shoulder--and he was smiling.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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