By Stuart Mitchner
“Good bookstores reflect a Whitmanian sense of self: they contain multitudes.”
—from In Praise of Good Bookstores
I found Jeff Deutsch’s In Praise of Good Bookstores (Princeton University Press $19.95) under Business & Career (341.45) at the Princeton Public Library. Which is why I almost didn’t find it. I had to ask a librarian for help. I can see why a book about bookstores by a man who runs one could end up in that Dewey Decimal dead zone, but Deutsch’s deceptively small volume is much too multitudinous to be squeezed into 341.45. While it’s true that you’ll pick up some information about managing Chicago’s Seminary Co-op, a vast bookstore with an imposing reputation, you don’t have to read far to know you’ve entered a wondrous realm on the far side of “business and career,” a bookstore utopia where the dead speak to the living in a society Deutsch has woven together with thoughts on books and life and the life in books, from Petrach to Pound, Epicurus to Emerson, Calvino to Conrad, and on beyond the beyond.
The Dylan-Whitman Matrix
Whenever I’m in the vicinity of Memorial Day, I run into Bob Dylan, born May 24, and Walt Whitman, born May 31, a liaison Dylan exploited in “I Contain Multitudes,” the first song on his album Rough and Rowdy Ways. Deutsch offers a line from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” to describe what happens when bookstore browsers surprise themselves, finding “just the sort of book they were hoping for”: “Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.” Whitman’s thought needs more than one reading. The way it’s phrased is so striking, you can imagine it haunting the room at the Chelsea Hotel as Dylan was composing “Visions of Johanna,” and you wonder if it might have provoked something “out of the soul” of Robert Frost when he wrote “Mending Wall” (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall / That sends the frozen ground-swell under it” ).
Another line from Whitman by way of Deutsch that led me straight to Dylan stresses the importance of taking “a more active approach to reading,” meaning that the reader has “to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay” (or in Dylan’s case, song or memoir) providing “the start or framework.” It’s not that “the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book.”
Dylan provides a demonstration in his freewheeling autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, where his version of a “good bookstore” is the voluminous library of the Greenwich Village couple he was living with at the time. He describes “a dark cavern with a floor-to ceiling library…. The place had an overpowering presence of literature…. There were all kinds of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General — a narrative which would give you chills…. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine.” more