If you have to drive for five hours in a row, there are worse routes to be stuck on than the #89 from Montreal to Brattleboro, Vermont
especially in the Fall (okay, this isn’t the actual highway, it’s an image from Vermont Tourism, but you get the idea).
I was heading down to the Brattleboro Literary Festival. We’d attended last year. Caught readings by Richard Russo and Claire Messud, among others. Very pleasant little town. Plenty of granola and veggie burgers on offer, plus a very good used bookstore.
Ions ago, when in my late-twenties, I came across Clifton Fadiman’s A Lifetime Reading Plan.
I’d always wanted to read the great works – had studied politics in college, not literature. Clifton’s guide changed my life. Not only did I read all of its concise, well-crafted summaries – a hundred in total – over the years I’ve actually read many of the books on the list, taking great pleasure ticking off titles as I finish reading them. Clifton’s daughter Anne has written a memoir about her relationship with her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. I couldn’t wait to tell her what an impact he’d had on my life, and to learn more about the grand old man himself. Just listen to her. Energy level is off the charts, just as I imagine Clifton’s was:
Among other things Will in the World suggests that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic. It also details the bone-breaking cruelty that religion brings out in human beings. Heads chopped off, stuck on spikes, displayed on London’s bridges. Fascinating book, and yet considering how little can be proved about The Bard’s life, rife with conjecture. It took a lot of chutzpah to write this book, ergo, I wanted to meet its author. Stephen Greenblatt was appearing at the Festival promoting his latest book, Tyrant, about MacBeth, Richard lll, and Edmund of King Lear fame. A wicked Shakespearean cabal. None bare any resemblance to Trump of course.
Listen here as we debate this
I took this photograph of Stephen by lining myself up beside Beowulf (yes, his real name) Sheehan – using the same angle he used.
Why? Because Beowulf is one of the most talented author photographers in the world. He hit it big with a shot of Donna Tartt. It graces the back cover of The Goldfinch, and the front cover of Beowulf’s beautiful new book of photographs, Author,
Listen to Beowulf discuss photographing some of the world’s top literary stars, here
One thing I couldn’t understand as I stood in front of its closed, locked doors: why wasn’t this great used bookstore open?
It wasn’t, the whole time I was here. You’d think, what with the Festival on and all, that this would be the time for them to make maximum hay. Perhaps they were busy helping the organizers? Perhaps they were the organizers. Perhaps making money wasn’t the most important thing.
We talk, among other things, about the history of Shakespeare and Company, how Sylvia Beach started off, how James Joyce got Ulysses published, how the United States banned it, and how Ernest Hemingway figured out a way around this. Here’s the back-story:
The SS Lansdowne was a railroad car ferry built in 1884 by the Wyandotte Shipyard of the Detroit Dry Dock Company. It crossed the Detroit River from 1884 to 1956, between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario
The first copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses to enter the U.S. came via Windsor, Ontario. The books were printed in Paris and mailed by Hemingway to a friend of his in Windsor who worked for the Curtis Publishing Company in Detroit.
The friend, a reporter named Barney Braverman whom Hemingway had met during his days either in Toronto or Chicago (found references citing both), commuted from Detroit to Windsor each day on the ferry. Braverman reportedly lived on Chatham Street in a house kitty-corner to the back of what is today The Windsor Star newspaper building. Once the smuggling plan was hatched, 40 copies of the novel, published by Sylvia Beach owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, were sent over from Paris.
Every morning Braverman set off with a package under his arm (or somewhere less obvious) containing copies of Joyce’s novel (I’m guessing no more than one or two at a time), strolled downtown and somehow got past the border guards and onto the ferry. This was the only way to cross the river back then. At the time, construction of the Ambassador Bridge had only just begun.
These were in fact interesting times. Prohibition was in full swing. All sorts of people used to smuggle bottles of fine Canadian whisky across the border tucking them away in their trouser pants and underwear. Booze wasn’t the only thing banned. The authorities were also pretty uptight about ‘immoral’ ‘pornographic’ literature, though this really wasn’t what the guards were on the lookout for.
Each day, for what must have been several weeks on end, this innocent looking publishing salesman crossed the river, went to the Detroit Post Office and fired off first editions of what is now considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Beach’s friends and subscribers throughout the U.S. were on the receiving end, among them Alfred Knopf and Sherwood Anderson (if you’re intrigued by this escapade, check out Michael Januska’s novel Riverside Drive, it includes the smuggling of Ulysses into the States in its storyline).
Today a copy in fine condition fetches $75,000 (twice that if it’s inscribed). Unfortunately the curious literary tourist can’t take a ferry across the river (only commercial trucks can do this), but he/she can visit John K. King Books on the Detroit side at 901 W. Lafayette Street. It’s humungus. How humungus? Here’s a video I took the last time I was there
All very well, but, we don’t stay at home here; we believe that if you can, experiencing place in tandem with relevant, related reading, is the way to go.
To wit: when we went to ‘Sin City’ a few years ago, I checked out the bookstores, of course, but I also read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and tracked down some of the locales mentioned in it.
Circus Circus for example.
Here’s one of the best passages in the novel:
The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos…but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange Country-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet sisters from San Diego…so you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid-air on the wolverine’s neck…both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight down towards the crap tables – they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back up towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they’re about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean Kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.”
It’s a light, fast moving read, funnier than expected, and surprisingly thought-provoking – largely because as a literary tourist on the scene, you get face-to-face with these American Dream seekers that Thompson so successfully lampoons…complete with Southward angled cigarettes dangling from their mouths, glazed eyes, Depends tight around their groins, and coins flowing from their pockets into insatiable fruit-buttoned machines, flushing money down the toilet bowl.
Mind boggling really. More fucked up than anyone on drugs could ever be. Knowing the odds are stacked against them. Playing anyway.
One way to start off the day in Vegas is with a good breakfast at The Bellagio. Food is excellent, the options plentiful, and the Murano glass ceiling in the lobby as you head into the restaurant, is gorgeous.
There are a surprising number of decent used bookshops in Vegas, starting with Bauman Rare Books located nearby in the Palazzo’s high-end shopping mall – which makes sense given that Bauman owns the high-end of the book market – the shop is more special collections library than anything else, except here, of course, you can buy the books! As then manager Rebecca Romney explained (this goes back a few years, she’s now with Honey and Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn, and just so you know, what she has to say hasn’t dated at bit. It’s good, timeless advice), Bauman specializes in high-spot literature – typically the ‘best’ work by the best authors in the best condition. As a result you can expect big ticket prices, but you can also expect that the books will hold their value.
Listen to our conversation here:
Moving off The Strip, other shops in town worth visiting include the Amber Unicorn with its enormous cook book selection, Plaza Books (Update: It’s closed. Now online only), Greyhound’s Books (out of business), and the spacious Dead Poet Books (also out of business). All are clean, well organized affairs, and all offer interesting stock. Toward mid-afternoon I hit Academy Fine Books (doesn’t appear to be in business anymore…I’m going to start crying now). It’s located across the road from this heavenly creature
who looks down benignly on the now empty (and sketchy), aptly named Blue Angel Motel. Academy is decidedly disorganized, and as such, more of a treasure hunt than the other stores. Turned out to be my favourite. I pulled out this desirable E. McKnight Hauffer cover
for $10 (later printing, unfortunately, but still a lovely find. And yes, appears that it too is out of business. So much for the surprising number of used bookstores now. Looks like it’s time for another visit to survey the carnage).
Depending upon how bagged you are from all the browsing, you might want to check out Las Vegas Shakespeare. It hosts and produces an interesting lineup of theatrical and musical performances throughout the year (okay this is getting ridiculous. Seems like it too is closed). The studio is located across the road from the Neon Museum, (not closed)
another place worth visiting.
I came to literary tourism through the doors of a used bookstore. Via the hunt. And yet, book shopping represents just one of many ways in. One of the most popular, is, as I say, through the pages of a novel. In Fear and Loathing the two lead characters check into The Mint Hotel and Casino.
after booting it from L.A. to Vegas in their rented, drug-laden convertible. Hunter S. Thompson puts it much better: “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas. To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun. Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether.”
The Mint sadly is no longer, or at least its name has gone. The place is now known as Binion’s. It’s seen better days. Like when big crowds were still tight around the crap tables. “Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them – still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino”
So, I called them up and got a tour of the hotel part of what is now a casino complex. Turns out it, the tower, has been closed, awaiting renovation, for some four years now. Nonetheless, we traipsed up in un-airconditioned heat to the 12th and 18th floors, in search of rooms 1221 and 1850. No such luck. Neither exist. We did however visit the 5th floor and a double bedded room that more than likely served as sauce for Thompson’s meatball imagination. We also hit the rooftop patio, complete with empty swimming pool, and a great view of several other buildings that would have been around in the late 60s.
From Binion’s I hi-balled it across town to the Special Collections Library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about gambling and the history of ‘Sin City’. “ UNLV Special Collections houses unique, rare, and specialized research material that documents the history, culture and physical environment of the city of Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada region, the gaming industry, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.” Collections include books, pamphlets, posters, serials and periodicals, scrapbooks, archives and manuscripts, maps, architectural drawings, photographs, video and audio tapes.
I talked gambling with former director now Head of Exhibits (now Curator) Peter Michel. Listen here to our conversation:
After our conversation I pulled the files on The Mint, ‘the tallest building’ in Nevada at the time, and saw how it looked shortly after it went up, how they promoted it, and what they stirred their drinks with. I also got to play with a First Edition of Fear (see above).
How did this physical framing of the book affect my experience of it? Rather positively I’d say. Bringing it out into the real world has certainly made both events – the reading, and the visiting – more distinctly memorable. There’s a thrill attached to seeing in real life what you’ve first encountered in your imagination – even if the two don’t always match. Extending my encounter with the book was fun, a continuation, an excursion, a kind of treasure hunt, in a way, which takes us back to the start, searching for things – books in one case, deeper understanding in the other – trying to impose order on the chaos.
Herman Melville lived at Arrowhead (so named because of arrowheads found nearby in the soil during planting season) from 1850–1863, during which time he wrote some of his best known works: Moby-Dick, The Confidence-Man, and The Piazza Tales, a short story collection named after his porch, of which he wrote:
Now, for a house, so situated in such a country, to have no piazza for the convenience of those who might desire to feast upon the view, and take their time and ease about it, seemed as much of an omission as if a picture-gallery should have no bench; for what but picture-galleries are the marble halls of these same limestone hills?—galleries hung, month after month anew, with pictures ever fading into pictures ever fresh.
Built in the 1780s as a farmhouse, it was located adjacent to property owned by Melville’s uncle Thomas, who Melville visited in his youth. He purchased the property in 1850 with borrowed money and spent the next twelve years farming and writing. Money problems forced him to sell the property to his brother, and return to New York City in 1863 whereupon he eventually found work as a customs inspector.
The house remained in private hands until 1975, when the Berkshire County Historical Society acquired it and some of the original 160-acre property. The Society restored most of the house to Melville’s period and operates it as a house museum; it’s open to the public ‘during warmer months.’
I visited Arrowheadto learn more about why it should be on the Literary Tourists’s bucket-list. Listen here to my conversation with Executive Director Betsy Sherman
This is a before and after story. Before: We’d first visited Salem some years ago primarily to check out The House of Seven Gables. It’s New England’s oldest wooden mansion, and inspired
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name. Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersol, had inherited the property from her wealthy sea captain father in 1804, the year Hawthorne was born. Later on, Nathaniel used to visit the house frequently between 1845-1849 when he was a surveyor at the nearby Custom House. During this time he wrote his first critically acclaimed and best known work, The Scarlet letter.
We learned all of this, and a lot more, from our tour guide. She was terrific, and made all the difference. I’m kind of ambivalent when it comes to writers’ houses. Many of them can seem fake and contrived. Tourist traps. If, however, the guide is informative, animated, and funny, the experience can be really enjoyable. This, as I say, was the case with ours.
Gift shops are always fun. And this place has a dandy. It sells lots of funky literary stuff, including this tea pot
Salem is also home to an evocative cemetery
where Nathaniel’s ancestor John Hathorne is buried. And yes, Nate changed the spelling of his name to avoid any connection with the old judge, the only one involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions; plus there are some truly beautiful old ships docked here,
beside which you can
Anyhow, getting back to before: when we were first in Salem I took great pleasure in browsing through the Derby Square Bookstore.
It’s one of the most overstuffed floor-to-ceiling shops I’ve ever visited. Not that the stock was all that interesting. It wasn’t. And even if it was, there’s little chance of being able to pull much out, without taking down the entire stack.
Hard even to see who you were paying your money to.
For presentation alone however: Most memorable!
Now, however, after, when we visited last month, the store is much changed.
I was pleased to see that the building was still occupied by a bookshop, but it’s nowhere near as remarkable.
While my companions followed the scarlet brick road (okay line) around town – no double inspired by Hester Prynne’s walk of shame – I decided to do some writing/surfing at this fine local, dog-friendly,
coffeehouse. The service was spirited
as was the coffee. Lots of electrical outlets, wooden floors, good music, artisan beer – the perfect writers’ hangout. As for the name,
Gulu, Gulu, romantically, “Marie Feldmannova and her husband, Steve Feldmann, named their quirky place for the cafe in Prague where they met.”
For advice on what to do and when to do it – Halloween and witches cast a spell over the place in October – check out Salem Tourism’s website here.