A YEAR IN READING 2011.

C. Max Magee of The Millions has an annual tradition of asking people to talk about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year, and he has once again begun the series with my contribution; here it is, featuring my fervent recommendation of Grossman’s Life and Fate, discussed on LH here (and in earlier posts linked from that one). I expect Grossman’s magnificent creation will eventually be thought of, as it deserves to be, as the great WWII novel and as a must-read up there with Tolstoy, Joyce, et al.
Addendum. Adam Kirsch has a good essay about Grossman’s novel at the New Republic.

Comments

  1. Patrick Leigh Fermor “A Time of Gifts” – snapshots of German life as an English lad met it on his tramp up the Rhine and down the Danube in 1933-4. It’s a beautifully written tale of an encounter with a shortly to be lost civilisation.

  2. The civilisation is not lost, as I am here to testify. The only change in the present context is that one does not tramp up the Rhine, but rather travels by boat after buying a ticket through a smartphone app.
    Even in the 1870s public transportation by boat on the Rhine was available, as I learned recently from a short story by Trollope that takes place in Nürnberg – “Linda Tressel”. The heroine ends up dying in Cologne.

  3. Even in the 1870s …
    “Even” merely reflects my ignorance. For some reason I had assumed, before reading the story, that in 19C Germany people travelled only by land (including trains after 1837), water being not a help but a hindrance to be overcome by bridge or ferry.

  4. I’m going to buy Life & Fate for myself for Christmas.

  5. I’ve already had enough life and fate on my plate this year, so I have my sights set on the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, 13 volumes on a CD.

  6. Tits and bum now make me glum,
    But words have never failed me.

  7. I just ordered the English paperback for 9 Euros at the train station bookstore. That’s not much for 900 pages. There is a German hardback edition for 24 Euros, but no paperback.

  8. Ordered?

  9. “The civilisation is not lost, as I am here to testify.”
    Grumbly, I think you missed the “down the Danube” part. Certainly Eastern Bohemia, Vienna, Pressburg and Budapest had civilisations in the early 1930s that are now lost.

  10. “The civilisation is not lost, …” You may be right – but have you read the book? Another, related civilisation is now in place, of course.

  11. Jeffry House says:

    The Russian version of Life and Fate can be found here.
    http://militera.lib.ru/prose/russian/grossman/01.html

  12. I was just making a wisecrack, dearie. Of course I’m going to read it.
    vanya, I didn’t miss the “down the Danube” part. I had to ignore it because I am dumm wie Bohnenstroh about that neck of the woods.

  13. Crown: Ordered?
    Is that the wrong word for what you do when you ask a bookstore clerk to arrange for the store’s supplier (Grossist) to deliver a copy of a book that is not on the shelves ?
    Has that gone out of style ? I could myself have arranged for amazon to deliver a copy of the book to me directly, but I prefer to support bookstores when I’m not in a giant hurry. I also buy matches from the little match girl, instead of from a supermarket.

  14. I didn’t know it was possible at a station bookstore. Good for Köln, really. I know if I asked to order a book at Euston or Grand Central or Oslo S they’d think I was taking the mickey (though Grand Central does have a very nice little toy shop, and last year at Euston I saw some old-fashioned razor blades for sale at Boots).
    One of the advantages of your native country is that matches are free; it’s in the second amendment, along with the right to bare arms.

  15. But don’t try to strike a match on your bare arm.

  16. Good ol’ America ! But unfair to women, I think. There’s not much they can bare, being subject to the law of pasties.
    Striking matches is illegal in Germany, under the name of Kuppelei. It seems the English word is procuration.

  17. I didn’t know it was possible at a station bookstore. Good for Köln, really.
    Where did you think I get these Suhrkamp head paperbacks I read on the train ? All my Luhmann books I bought off the shelf or ordered there. Ten years ago I acquired my hardback copy of Sein und Zeit as it languished in the philosophy section there – I had been eyeing it for 20 years.
    The Cologne train station has played a large part in my life, for a number of reasons on which to elaborate my sense of propriety says “uh-uh”.

  18. All my McCall Smith, Nothomb, Weldon, Fontane, Grossmann etc also come from there. One of the employees is a woman I have known for years and talk with for hours at a time, a Buchhändlerin who learned her trade in Berlin in the politically heady 70s.

  19. the philosophy section
    The philosophy section? Isn’t the station way too high-rent a location for a bookstore with a philosophy section? How big is this bookstore, for God’s sake? I thought they were all going out of business.

  20. Yes, I’m envisioning a modest train station dwarfed by an enormous, multilevel bookstore; people arrive for their trains hours early so they can study a little medieval history or brush up on their Kurdish before boarding.

  21. Bookstores are still very much alive (and well?) in Central Europe. Central Vienna is full of small bookstores. I am not sure how they survive so well compared to stores in the Anglo-Saxon world, but there seem to be no large Barnes & Nobel or Fnac type chains in Austria for whatever reason, and the Kindle or other ebooks still offer a meager selection if you want to read anything written in German. Sadly the bookstore at Westbahnhof is not on the same level as Cologne – mostly just bestsellers and magazines.

  22. I believe it is illegal to discount books in Germany (and Austria?). This is good in that it helps preserve independent bookstores and bad in that it keeps people from having cheap books.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    there seem to be no large Barnes & Nobel or Fnac type chains in Austria

    True.
    (That said, la Fnac is awesome.)

    I believe it is illegal to discount books in Germany (and Austria?).

    Probably Austria, too.

  24. In the article you mentioned Solzhenitsyn. This year I read him for the first time: Le Pavillon des cancéreux (Cancer Ward). It was a book I had inherited from my grandfather and I somehow thought I had to read it. I expected it to be mildly boring, as can be the case with Nobel Prize winners. I was pleasantly surprised.

  25. I’m envisioning a modest train station dwarfed by an enormous, multilevel bookstore
    The store was renovated recently, but I can’t find pictures of it in the internet. After Crown’s post wondering how large it is, I managed to reach another of my Buchhändler people at the store on the phone, just before 10 PM when it closes. He said the website was being redesigned and I that I probably would have trouble finding a picture.
    The chain now belongs to the Unternehmensgruppe Dr. Eckert GmbH . One of the store employees has told me that there are only five “flagship” bookstores at train stations these days, in Cologne, Leipzig and somewhere else. She said the group makes most of its money selling lottery tickets, paperclips and diapers.
    MMcM links to the WiPe on Gerhard Ludwig, the founder of the bookstore chain. The article has interesting information, new to me, on Ludwig’s politico-PR activities at the train station bookstore in the early 50s.
    The bookstore is not that big, but it does have two levels. Downstairs are novels and bestsellers, a tiny section with a few French, Spanish and Italian novels, and next to the cashiers’ desk (what is the English for Kasse in this connection ??) a selection of cigarettes. Upstairs you find sections for maps, mangas and comic books, stuff for train enthusiasts, IT, law, politics, history, self-help, psychology, and dictionaries.
    My corner of delight is the sectionette for philosophy and sociology. Even part of that is encumbered with rookiebooks (“Seneca For The Businessman”) – but hey, we all gotta start somewhere (and I myself bought a copy, oh the shame of it !). This section contains some Kant, some Sloterdijk, a smidgen of Derrida etc etc, and of course a selection of the newest stuff from the fabulous paperback stw series (Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft). All told there are maybe 150 books (I’m bad at estimating sizes, distances and numbers of real-world things).
    But think about it: you don’t need yards of shelves imitating the philosophy and sociology holdings of a major library. What you need is a loose community of buyers and booksellers who talk with each other, and a stock of books that shimmers and shifts – a bit of have-to-have-read, a bit of new-and-shiny, some what-the-hell-is-that-about.
    An essential factor enabling all this to happen is the Buchpreisbindung law against discounting, as Hat mentioned. What is meant is “immediate discounting” shortly after publication. You can indeed buy books at reduced prices after 18 months have passed, though. Publishers sometimes issue Complete Works Of paperback editions at prices that would be hard to beat at a used book store. That explains why I am the shy owner of two fat, 95%-unread boxes of Everything-That-Freud-Saw-Fit-To-Opine-On, one a critical edition.

  26. There are many bookstores in Cologne to go crazy over. Buchhandlung Ludwig at the train station doesn’t have much in architecture and the arts, so Crown will want to mosey over to Buchhandlung König. I buy and order my Bachelard, Beauvoir and other French stuff at Klaus Bittner:

    Unsere Fachgebiete: Deutsche und Internationale Literatur, Frankreich, Spanien, Portugal, Italien, Afrika, Asien, Lateinamerika, Lyrik, Theater, Tanz, Film, Arno Schmidt, Judaica, Geisteswissenschaften, Depots

    I have set my face against book discounting – just look at the States, for God’s sake. I earn plenty of money as an IT corporate bitch, and all of it goes straight into the coffers of bookstores and the International Little Match Girl Foundation. I myself live off self-made tortillas and black beans with epazote.

  27. This is good in that it helps preserve independent bookstores and bad in that it keeps people from having cheap books.
    Except the second condition doesn’t seem to apply, probably for the reasons Stu describes above. There is no shortage of affordable books in the German world. Even without discounts German language books tend to be reasonable compared to books in France or Italy.

  28. Also matches are basically free in Vienna – just duck into any touristy restaurant or bar in the 1st district and grab a box. Cruel to the Little Match Girls, but that is competition for you.

  29. vanya, I would be interested in a little personal report by you on bookstores in Vienna, with links to their websites. Others could add reports for their cities – a bit of orientation for migratory readers, not Baedeckers for Casaubons.

  30. Here are a couple of shots of the new improved interior of Buchhandlung Ludwig. Apparently they’ve started selling gummibears to attract new non-smoking customers. There may be a lesson for Barnes & Noble in this, though ‘gummibears’ may be a coverall (or indeed some kind of euphemism).

  31. Dammit, Crown, that’s the Eckert site I linked, where I couldn’t find pictures. The shot is taken from the staircase that descends from the manga mezzanine. At the top of the picture is the bottom edge of the second floor, where I live. In the entrance lurks a dark figure, which can’t be me because it’s too thin.

  32. The guy with the beard at the right is some kind of store director. One day I was complaining to Renate about the store policy of not ordering from certain publishers (of books I wanted) because they don’t give the store enough margin. As the guy passed by, Renate introduced me to him as a long-time high-turnover customer.
    I fastened onto him like a tick. He did the jovial businessman number – “well, order Mr. Clayton whatever he wants !” – and sailed off. Big deal – the software still makes it impossible to order the books.

  33. To the lower left and back of the staircase photographer, not visible, is the largish novel section.

  34. Here are a couple of good bookshops in Oslo: There’s no tax on books but even so any non-Norwegian item is hellishly expensive. If you’re visiting, the books worth buying are the home-grown, Norwegian language ones.
    Tanum‘s branch at Bogstadveien 43; Norli, in Universitetsgata (my personal favourite for dictionaries etc. – and for art etc. books at Norlis Antikvariat, next door) and Tronsmo (privately owned, esp. for comics & graphic novels etc.) have all won the Norwegian Writers Association annual award for Norway’s best bookshop.

  35. Oh. Here are a couple more…

  36. next to the cashiers’ desk (what is the English for Kasse in this connection ??)
    In the US it’s the checkout (or checkout counter)

  37. Crown, it’s a pity you have no pictures of the interiors, apart from Norlis Antikvariat. You can’t judge a bookstore by its facade. The owners of the Audiatur store that won first prize must think the same – they don’t even provide a photo. Is Norli a “university bookstore” ?
    Thanks for reminding me, empty. I had thought of “checkout counter”, but was unsure whether that was only in libraries. In a bookstore you don’t check things out !? That’s no argument, I know …

  38. Oh how I love discussions of bookstores, preferably with pix!
    This year I read him for the first time: Le Pavillon des cancéreux (Cancer Ward). It was a book I had inherited from my grandfather and I somehow thought I had to read it. I expected it to be mildly boring, as can be the case with Nobel Prize winners. I was pleasantly surprised.
    Yes, I remember enjoying it greatly in English many years ago and am looking forward to reading the shiny new Russian copy I got from St. Petersburg Book Store in Brighton Beach (nostalgia-inducing YouTube ad).

  39. I was thinking while I was walking Topsy that it would be quite easy to start a “Great Bookstores of the World” website, by city, with photos, showing specialities and addresses. But what’s in it for me?
    Norli’s nothing to do with Oslo University, which is elsewhere. It’s just on Universitetsgata, which runs alongside the original 19C first university building – a direct absolute copy ripoff of Schinkel’s Altesmuseum. I’m surprised the old boy didn’t sue.

  40. …and here is the University building.

  41. it would be quite easy to start a “Great Bookstores of the World” website, by city, with photos, showing specialities and addresses.
    I wish somebody would do that.

  42. Well, maybe I will. I know a few in NY, SF, London, Hamburg and Oslo, assuming they’re still in business. The rest could be a wiki thing.

  43. I wish I could create links. If interested, google Munro’s Books of Victoria, an independent I have patronized in all three incarnations.

  44. iakon, here’s how you make a link:
    1. Paste the following string of characters
    <a href=””></a>
    into your comment where you want a link.
    2. Copy from your browser the URL (address) of the site you want to link, and insert it between the two quotes, where I have put “ADDRESS” in the following example:
    <a href=”ADDRESS”></a>
    3. Now paste in the link caption text, where I have put “TEXT” in the following example:
    <a href=”ADDRESS”>TEXT</a>
    The result, in the editor box, will look something like this:
    <a href=”a.b.com/cat.jpeg”>picture of a cat</a>

  45. Thanks, Grumbly. As comedians say, ‘That’s easy for you to say’, but I’ll work on it.

  46. OK, I’ve got the URL, but what’s the link caption text, and what’s the editor box?

  47. By “link caption text” Grumbly means the text you want to appear in gray and be clickable, and by “editor box” he means the part of the screen into which you type a comment.

  48. By “link caption text” he just means the word or phrase you decide to use as the link that people will click on, eg (in the one I wrote a few comments back) Altesmuseum.
    “Editor box” just means the blue-bounded rectangle at the bottom of the page, where you write your comment.

  49. Thanks, fellas. How’s this?

  50. Remarkably effective. Well done!

  51. And now I want to go there!

  52. Yes, it’s something to experience in person. I generally drop in once a year. And if you exhaust yourself standing and reading in various sections, you can refresh yourself in a neighbourhood pub or cafe and have another go.
    But since I discovered the website recently, I’m going to order some winter reading shipped to me in the New Year. Even living on a poverty-level pension, there’s no sense depriving yourself when you’ve learned how to survive within your means.

  53. Grumbly, I don’t think most of the small bookstores in Vienna even have websites but if I have time that might be a project some day. Kuppitsch does have a website. I also discovered a Thalia yesterday so the chains may be moving in.
    Just out of my own nationalist curiosity, why, iakon, are French language books in the “foreign language” section in a Canadian bookstore?

  54. Just out of my own nationalist curiosity, why, iakon, are French language books in the “foreign language” section in a Canadian bookstore?
    Ouch!

  55. unfair to women, I think. There’s not much they can bare, being subject to the law of pasties.
    You can buy pasties at most London mainline railway stations now, they have them delivered fresh from Cornwall every day: I like the beef-and-cheese ones best. You COULD eat them ‘bare’, but as they’re sold hot, I prefer to keep them in the paper bag they come in. I didn’t know there was a law about women and pasties in the US – are they not allowed to eat them in public, then?

  56. are they not allowed to eat them in public, then?
    Neither women nor men are allowed to nibble pasties in public, I expect. I didn’t even know there are edible kinds on the market. I might have guessed, though, since you can buy strawberry flavored rubbers to keep your feet dry.

  57. Vanya, a good question, with the proper tone of irony.
    Canada is bilingual only politically. Among most English-speakers, there is a broad and deep prejudice, a feeling of self-satisfaction, a sense of no need for other languages (all of which are ‘foreign’). It doesn’t help that our giant (in population) next-door neighbour is monolingual in English, with powerful technology and the same prejudice. Since the spread of radio, my country has absorbed the culture, language and prejudice of our neighbour.
    Having learned through reading since the age of five more on my own than my society or schools could instill in me, I have reversed that prejudice, though I couldn’t avoid the Americanization of my speech.
    This is why I find mine host’s blog so congenial, and I embrace the technology far enough to participate in cosmopolitanism.

  58. Well, Canada is institutionally bilingual, which is what countries adopt when they don’t have too many individual bilinguals. Where there’s lots of individual bi- or multilingualism, there is little need for institutional bilingualism.
    I was going to say that French was a foreign language because it was the language of the colonizers, and probably few people speak it any more — but that was before I realized that I had misread Canadian as Cambodian.

  59. For god’s sake, don’t eat the poutine in Cambodia.

  60. The official programme to encourage the acquisition of French by those whose natal language is English has failed to produce a significant number of bilingual speakers. Those with better digital research skills than mine can find the statistics, which I read recently.
    There has been an increase in French-born bilingual speakers, but they have greater motivation.

  61. I keep mishearing the title of this piece as “A Year In Redding, 2011” (“Has Language moved, or what’s going on…?”).

  62. Well, as a Royals fan I was very excited by their 2010–11 run of success and felt I had to be near the action, but now that Matt Mills and Shane Long are gone I’m moving back to the States in disgust.

  63. back to the States
    Ooh, nasty!

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