Volumes holds a unique place in Chicago’s cultural scene. Situated in the heart of Wicker Park, only blocks from Nelson’ Algren’s former home, the bookstore sprung up to become, virtually overnight, an institution in Chicago’s literary community. Bookish but not highbrow, nerdy but not lame, Volumes welcomes absolutely everyone, and sells books, beers, pens, magnets, puzzles or muffins to suit virtually every taste.
When independent publishers Tortoise Books picked up my novel, The Fugue, back in 2016, I faced the daunting task of marketing it with virtually no budget, few leads and limited knowledge of marketing or salesmanship. I looked at a map of Chicago’s bookstores, and decided to walk in to each one to talk about holding some event, or leaving books on consignment.
A lot of bookstores in Chicago aid writers of all stripes. However, the support I received from Volumes was particular in its warmth and openness. They did not look at me like a formal business partner, or a token that allowed them to claim support for small artists. Because their goal was to create community and foster cultural activity, Volumes welcomed me to a space that felt nothing short of family, and allowed me to access readers I never would have reached without their help. They seemed unaware of how strange, even exotic their habits were. It was just the way they went about selling books.
Well, we’re at risk of losing them. Yes…we’re at risk of losing so much…but saving Volumes is a noble goal, not only for the city: tourists from around the world buy books here, drink coffee here, and feel as welcome as I did when I came to say, “Um, hi. I’m an obscure writer with holes in my pants. Can you help me?”
I was at a book sale and signing event recently, sharing a table with another writer. The bookstore, located in a place with virtually no foot traffic, was near-empty, and the only people who came to our tables were interested in getting our signatures so that they could use them to enter a raffle the store had organized. My table partner and I spent the time talking about the usual things: book marketing strategies, the publishing industry and our current projects.
Eventually, I asked the guy, “What are you reading?”
He shrugged and said, in a tone so casual to be almost dismissive. “Eh, I don’t really read books. I’m just not really into them right now.”
I had no way of preparing myself for this. The guy was young, in his mid-20’s, right at the age when I had discovered writers who would remain favorites for the duration of my life, whose influence on my writing will never evaporate. He was at the age when I—no children or frightening responsibilities in my life—read between two and three hours each day, towers of books on my nightstand, desk and toilet tank. To this day, I don’t ever leave the house without a book in my bag, so I simply couldn’t hide my shock. “You don’t read?”
“I mean, I do research for projects. I like to study, mostly, so I get stuff from the internet. But I just don’t read books right now.”
I started stuttering. Perhaps I appeared offended. The experience was painful, stinging, unfathomable, inexplicable…I felt strain in my stomach and was overwhelmed by an urge to clench my teeth. “So, how do you work on craft without looking at stuff written by people who are better than you?”
“Eh, I get feedback. I’m in a writer’s group.”
“And…these writers. Do they also reject books? Do they ever tell you things like, ‘Your writing reminds me of such and such?’”
“Maybe they like books, but we don’t talk about it. The group is all about writing, so we focus on that.”
I sat with his answer for many minutes, feeling the silence stretching between us like a bungee cord about to kick back with the force of a falling elephant. I imagined the guitarist who did not listen to guitar, the painter who did not look at paintings, the doctor who rejected convalescence, the teacher who had nothing to learn. On any level, in any environment, the sculptor who had no use for sculpture would be considered a buffoon. If a singer came to a singing coach to reveal she had no interest in listening to song, the coach should send her packing. Yet this young man sat cocksure and certain of his intrinsic talent. Reading would be an admission of either weakness or incapacity.
I finally asked him, “How do you rationalize selling books to people when you don’t want to buy or consume books yourself?”
“Yeah, I get that point. I mean, it’s true, I guess, kinda. But I just got so many things on my plate. I don’t need to read someone else’s stuff to sell my own.”
I realized I was the only person to have ever asked this man that question. His education and culture must have reinforced his position as reasonable and rational. Still, I’d have a much easier time with the pharmacist who knows her wares are poisons just as I could get my head around the grocer who sold high fructose corn syrup without ever eating it himself. But…dude…these are books.
In America, in the 21st century, it’s not just the president and his followers who don’t read. Some writers have also joined their ranks.
Photo of a contemporary book burning from Wikipedia.
I had a clogged sewage pipe. The basement flooded, about five inches of water. All sorts of stuff needs to be discarded: rugs, mattresses, clothes. But there are two things that just ripped my heart to shreds.
This is a photo of the box that contains the only hard copy of the novel I wrote while living in Europe between 1996-1999. About a Lithuanian orphan who ends up influencing the life of an historian from Santa Barbara, it was never published. Yes…like The Fugue, this one was just sitting on the floor somewhere.
My wife fell in love with me while reading this book. I developed friendships while writing it, and I became myself as a writer, found my voice somewhere in the middle of it. It contains some of the worst sentences I’ve ever written, so pathetically, honestly unfortunate that they represent an organic beauty I’ll never know again.
The text is ruined. Also in the box were critiques of my writing I had collected from classmates at Columbia, some of whom have gone on to become quite accomplished and acclaimed writers.
The other damage is a box of letters. Those letters date back to the late 80’s; many of them are in old air mail envelopes. The box contained post cards from ex-girlfriends, letters from men who had witnessed the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania; it’s just a box of treasures, memories, mementos, documents to make sense of my identity and past. Many of them will be saved, but some of them are just trashed.
My computer and cameras survived. So did my tax papers and all sorts of stuff money can replace.
Most questions about writing are loaded, and they require reading between very many lines. They usually are versions of these two questions:
1.) Will such and such make me a better writer?
2.) Will such and such help me get published?
We should note that those questions are not about the same thing. If getting published required someone to improve their writing, a lot of currently published bestsellers would have never made it past the acquisition editor’s desk.
The only thing a writer should do is read and write. You really can’t do one without the other, not if you want to compose engaging texts. That’s the short answer.
The long answer is more interesting. Will travel make someone a better writer? Travel, when done outside all-inclusive resorts, builds empathy. It offers alternative points of view. Travel enough and you’ll learn that everybody considers themselves the center point. I’ve heard people from at least six other countries tell me they come from the greatest country in the world. (Russia, Canada, Australia, Germany, The UK, New Zealand)
Travel also disarms the traveler. It can, when done with the right purpose, displace mythologies. Travel raises questions that have no answers. It also displaces common explanations. Why was Rome built where it stands? Well…there’s the Tiber. Yes, but Rome stands elsewhere, not just on the banks of the Tiber. Fifth grade geography class has its limitations.
All of those things make someone a better thinker and citizen but not necessarily a better writer. We can work on our observations skills in our bedrooms. Their application on trips really does reveal things that are otherwise invisible.
Of course, some of the best writers never really went anywhere. One thing they all did, however, was read, and they read whatever they could get their hands on. Travel is fun and engaging, a much more rewarding way to pass the time than, say, watching NFL games. It’s not as expensive as people think, certainly not when compared to its benefits. One thing I always have in my bag when I’m traveling is a book. It’s usually written by someone very different from me.
This is about a 24 minute video of me answering moderator Amy Danzer’s questions following my reading at The Looking Glass Bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois on February 18, 2016. Yes! That gorgeous bookstore in the background is right here where I live. It’s worth visiting just to see the decor (and to buy a bunch of books, obviously).
In this video, I answer questions about why I’d want to write a literary fugue, what place setting plays in my writing, how art helps with trauma, and what audience I had in mind while writing.
Enjoy, and do share.
Also, be sure to check out my fledgling YouTube channel. It’s sure to grow as I gather more videos.
Note: I was asked by Mikhail Iossel to write this text. It ended up posted on his Facebook.
Early this summer, I needed to ride a train and a bus across Chicagoland, a trip that would take a good hour or so. Buying coffee, I looked in my bag to find I had forgotten to bring a book, so I went to my neighborhood bookstore to browse around. My desires were straightforward: a book of shorts, either poems or essays or stories, something that would not weigh down my bag very much. And I wanted to spend less than ten dollars.
Several books caught my eye, but I finally settled on a tiny little tome, a simple black and white cover. It was titled Dust, a collection of essays by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. The blurbs said something about memory and dreams, favorite topics, but besides this, I had no idea who he was. I knew he had been translated from Russian, and I trusted Dalkey Archive Press. The book also cost less than six dollars.
The first sentences engaged me in a way books rarely do. As the initial paragraph made its way through my mind, I felt Dragomoshchenko’s prose was braiding strands of light among my thoughts; the effect was a trancelike wonder at the power of words to evoke spaces and sensations in the imagination. I had to stop reading for a moment to begin again—perhaps I was not concentrating properly. But this was simply the effect. The sentences were about something familiar, even tactile and intimate—knives, streets, shells—and yet his ideas and gestures flowed from one unexpected moment to another, cutting at angles that seemed invisible, passages that operated by association and accident, but also depended on some perverted mathematical principle, perhaps algebra. I read slowly, patiently, and let go of any need to understand this man, this Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. I simply let myself experience his beautiful visions, accept his gifts.
Later on in the summer, all the way in Vilnius, Lithuania, I attended the opening reception of the Summer Literary Seminar. I ended up in a conversation with Elizabeth Hodges, the publisher of the St. Petersburg Review, who handed me a bookmark, one of these meant as an advertisement for the journal. Among the names of people the journal had published—it leaped out to me—was Arkadii Dragomoshchenko.
I grew excited, “This guy! This guy! I read this guy! This guy’s a trip!” Someone else in the world knew him? Someone else liked him? Here was a person who had published him? “I stumbled on his book, totally by accident, and it blew my mind.”
I learned that he had only recently died. The news hurt me, a curious kind of pain. It was not the hurt I have felt when relatives or loved ones have died, but very much like the kind that pangs when I hear about the death of a colleague I had worked with overseas, or if I hear that my old professor’s heart stopped beating in the middle of a lecture. Reading Dragomoshchenko is like swimming in his consciousness; at least for me, it was like knowing him across a dozen births and reincarnations. He and I were once goldfish sharing the same bowl; later on I was his housekeeper, and now he was this writer who braided light in my head.
Hodges told me that Michael Iossel, the director of the seminar, had been Arkadii’s close friend. I had to tell him about my accidental discovery. While speaking, I watched a restrained, sublime pain soften Iossel’s expressions, loosen his posture. He told me about Dragomoshchenko’s methods and relations with others in Russia, few of them very good. I took mental notes on what else to read even when I already knew I’d read anything that existed in English.
It is easy to explain this as synchronicity—how often do we run into friends and colleagues of artists we admire? In one way, my encounter with Dragomoshchenko, then with Hodges and Iossel, is exactly the same as being hit by leaves falling from the same tree at different moments of the day and in different parts of the forest. In another, it is the same as searching out for those leaves, the leaves of an elm, in a space where all the other trees are maples or oaks. I read Dragomoshchenko because he is exactly the kind of writer I’d read, and I met his colleagues because they are also interested in these kinds of letters.
Even so, it illuminates something I’ve always believed about literature. Reading a book is not just to engage the thoughts of an author but also to join a community. It’s invisible, spread out over great distances, even foreign to itself, barely aware of how large or small it might be. Despite all this, it is real, enormously powerful and deeply intimate.
Writers must remember this when they stare at their words and wonder, “Why the hell should I bother with this tripe?” There’s no reason, actually, just as there is no reason to invite friends for dinner or ride the bus across town to meet colleagues. But when we do it, and when we share, we create and maintain communities which contribute to what makes life interesting. Books improve bus rides for strangers and make distant friends in the process.
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