Monsters, Monsters Everywhere
David, Ashley, Michigan Quarterly Review
If you find yourself, like I did, asking what we need to be thinking about nonfiction as the twenty-first century picks up steam, then you're liable to run into some problems straight away. Who, for example, are the "we" to whom the basic question refers? Readers, writers, critics, teachers? And that's just the question's subject; the meat of the matter lies in its predicate. Yes, the gray feeling of being overwhelmed descends immediately, which led me to hunt for someone on whom I could dump this unwieldy question. Someone who'd have something more interesting and meaningful to offer than the intellectual gobbledygook I might be able to muster on my own. Independent bookstores seemed like a good place to turn.
To run an independent bookstore these days represents nothing less than an act of bravery in the face of numbers that rarely add up to good business sense. More than that, such a pursuit can be nothing less than an act of true love for the printed page and things literary. I figured that these passionate and brave folks could teach me something about nonfiction and what we should be asking ourselves about it merely by the way they choose to organize their stores and by what they put in them. And of course by what they leave out of them.
"Excuse me, miss, would you point me in the direction of the nonfiction?" I asked a clerk at Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor. I see her there so often that I really should know her name. I stop by almost daily to finger the books and far too often end up carrying home a stack of them. She looked like she thought I might be having an off day, but she kindly pointed me to the shelves marked "Literature." Among the fiction titles I had virtually memorized in their places were the essay, memoir, and literary nonfiction titles I had also grown accustomed to seeing on my regular visits. But wait, I couldn't find Wole Soyinka's new memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, or even his earlier one, Aké: The Years of Childhood. "No, those are in 'Africa,'" the clerk reassured me, "Always best to ask." Yes, that's just what I was thinking. So could you tell me, I wanted to ask, what is the difference between Literature and Africa? While we're at it, how is memoir by Patricia Hampl more related to things literary, thereby landing it in Literature, while memoir by Soyinka is more closely related to geography, thus relegating it to the Africa section of the store? Both authors are widely respected as literary writers. Surely, Hampl's Virgin Time has more in common with Aké: The Years of Childhood, than it does with Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which sits nearby in the Literature section. Or does it?
Feeling no more secure about my ability to define or say anything meaningful about the genre, I left town. I went in search of my old stomping grounds on the west coast. I found that my favorite used bookstore in Menlo Park had sold its stock to Powell's in Portland and closed its doors. Kepler's, also in Menlo Park, was alive again, but not the same store I had grown to love in the decades before it closed last year citing cash-flow problems. While grateful for the reopening, I was sad to learn that the captain at the helm I'd trusted for almost twenty years to fill the shelves with all kinds of good surprises had stepped down in favor of a board with better business sense who promised to reopen the store and keep it open. And even Cody's on Telegraph Avenue, yes dear and beloved Cody's, was almost empty of stock and hours away from closing for good, when I stumbled in eager for enlightenment.
Disoriented and feeling awfully glum about what all these re-orgs and closings might say about the future of books in general, never mind this question about nonfiction, I drove across the Bay Bridge and found a parking spot directly in front of City Lights in San Francisco's impossible-to-findparking North Beach. Poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti's place since 1953, City Lights is my kind of place, too. …