Brattleboro and Books, Greenblatt and Fadiman, Beowulf and Bookstores

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.

I was pumped about who I’d lined up to interview for The Biblio File.

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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:

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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.

Stephen Greenblatt

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,

The writer Donna Tartt (USA), April 11, 2013, New York, New York. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com

Listen to Beowulf discuss photographing some of the world’s top literary stars, here

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One thing I couldn’t understand as I stood in front of its closed, locked doors: why wasn’t this great used bookstore open?

Brattleboro Books

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.

Here’s some tourist information for Brattleboro and environs.

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Ryerson, Book Publishing, Libido and Plucked Chickens

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Let’s just say $120 a night doesn’t get you much in the way of a hotel room in downtown Toronto these days. Crack-houses – that’s what the customer comments make them sound like. So I dialed up Airbnb to find a place – near Ryerson University – and got a lovely one-bedroom apartment for the same money. Clean, quiet, central, just what I needed. Turns out it was less than a block away from the old Maple Leaf Gardens

where my eldest daughter was scheduled to cross the stage the next day, a graduate of this program. This is why I was here; but naturally I’d lined up a few Biblio File interviews to wile away the spare time.

The first was at the home of award-winning investigative journalist Elaine Dewar. We talked about her book The Handover (Biblioasis, 2017).

It concerns the increasing concentration in and foreign ownership of Canadian book publishing and how this has choked off writers’ options and advances, and readers’ choices. More precisely it explores in detail the convoluted and disingenuous sale by Avi Bennett of McClelland & Stewart to Penguin Random House via the University of Toronto, and how millions in government grants and tax credits were purloined along the way. Reads like a detective story and reveals much about how the Canadian establishment works.

Listen here to our conversation:

After the interview, and a quick perusal of Elaine’s artwork, I jumped in a taxi and headed for Le Paradis

where author David Gilmour and I were to dine that evening. It’s weird. I was in the taxi, and although I didn’t know exactly where I was, at one point the street suddenly seemed familiar. Contact Editions bookshop is located along here somewhere I said to myself. And damned if we didn’t pass it about 10 seconds later (on Davenport). Here, some years past, I’d bought a first edition of the first book ever published by Coach House Press, Man in a Window by Wayne Clifford.

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David is famous among Biblio File listeners for being the only guest ever to have told the podcast’s august host to Fuck Off on-air. His blast was delivered after bridling at my nervy criticism of several of his well-turned similes. It happened during one of the early episodes of the program. You can listen to the fireworks here if you like:

We ate outdoors. The evening was warm and pleasant. Save for water, we didn’t drink anything. The pepper-steaks arrived as the subject of concentrated ownership surfaced again. More and more award-winning authors, I remarked, are resorting, out of necessity it seems, to working with smaller independent publishers, pretty well all of whom have shallow pockets. Despite caring deeply about giving voice to Canadian-told stories, the advances they can muster are pretty pathetic. This isn’t to say however that Canadian authors can’t make money with them. It’s just that it’s not as easy and upfront as it once was with the big boys.

Talk turned to literature. I raved about the class of young students I’ve encountered at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College while sitting in on some Great Books courses (stay tuned for Biblio File interviews with the profs). They, the students, are filled not only with enthusiasm, but also smart questions and answers. It’s clear they’ve actually done the readings. Close readings. I mentioned how lucky I felt to be able to participate (thanks to Director Mark Russell). Then I remembered that David does me one better. He gets paid to teach this stuff every week at the U of T.

After some discussion of Plato’s contention that it’s a blessing not to be cursed with a ravenous libido in older age, we turned-in early, two Autumn chickens. Plucked alouettes.

Actually, it’s Sophocles who’s credited with the libido remarks in Plato’s Republic via Cephalus, who in turn tells Socrates. When asked about love, and if he was still capable of it, Sophocles replies, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and it feel as if I have escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ This has also been translated as ‘like escaping from bondage to a raging madman;’ and my favourite, ‘like being unchained from a lunatic;’ there’s also from ‘an idiot,’ ‘a demon.’

To be continued…

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