Temples for the Literary Pilgrim.

Yesterday’s Sunday NY Times travel section was focused almost entirely on bookstores, which of course was a direct path to my heart. I hope nonsubscribers can access these articles, with their gorgeous photos:

Temples for the Literary Pilgrim (“From Mexico City to Hangzhou, bookstores that are destinations in and of themselves”): the only one I’ve been to is Shakespeare and Company, but I’d like to spend time in them all. Hangzhou’s Zhongshuge Bookstore is probably not my kind of place as far as books are concerned (even setting aside the fact that they’re in Chinese), but I’d love to just gawk for a while.

7 Writers on Their Favorite Bookstores (“Geraldine Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Pamela Paul and others in the literary world reveal their favorite bookstores”): I’m particularly fond of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s recommendation of San Librario in Bogotá, Colombia, which begins:

The place is small and irregular in shape. From the outside, it looks as if a door has been carelessly left open in a house with a brick facade and barred windows. Bookshelves cover the walls as you enter; in the center of the small room there’s a desk that I can’t describe, because books always hide it — hide its surface, of course, but also its front and sides, so that the bookseller seems to greet you from within a trench of printed pages.

Now, that‘s my kind of place! (Contrariwise, Pamela Paul plumps for Hatchards in London. Boring.) Incidentally, the print version has a bizarre set of typos in Geraldine Brooks’s piece on Fullers Bookshop in Hobart, Tasmania: “engrainedingrained,” “Sunday Mmass,” “Mount t Wellington,” “winterywintry,” “cafeé.” Most of them seem to have to do with conversion from non-US spelling, but I don’t know what “Mount t Wellington” (which occurs twice) is about.

Ann Patchett’s Guide for Bookstore Lovers: Worth it just for An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, Mass. (“Jeff Kinney took part of the proceeds from his juggernaut series “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and built his hometown a four-story bookstore — the ultimate fulfillment of literary civic duty”).

A Bookworm’s Travel Plan, by Jennifer Moses: I was annoyed by her opening salvo of proud anti-Kindle Luddism (“I need the real thing: a solid slab that I can hold in my hands”), but she won me over with this:

And then I saw it: a small city, built entirely of the novels of Anthony Trollope, an author I’d never before taken up, though I distinctly remember my mother’s dear friend Jessica saying something like: “At a certain point past youth, if you don’t discover Trollope, there’s basically nothing to live for.” Trollope? You mean that bearded and bespectacled Victorian word-factory with his hemming and hawing and endlessly long sentences? I’d rather be stuck on an elevator. But there it was, beckoning me: “The Eustace Diamonds,” crumbling and stained. As if it were an abandoned dog, I couldn’t resist.

That’s the very novel my wife and I are now reading at night! And a good one it is, too. (We’re looking forward to plenty more Trollope; thank goodness for prolific authors.)

Comments

  1. > Incidentally, the print version has a bizarre set of typos in Geraldine Brooks’s piece on Fullers Bookshop in Hobart, Tasmania: “engrainedingrained,” “Sunday Mmass,” “Mount t Wellington,” “winterywintry,” “cafeé.” Most of them seem to have to do with conversion from non-US spelling, but I don’t know what “Mount t Wellington” (which occurs twice) is about.

    If it follows the same pattern as the others, then I imagine it represents an attempted conversion from “Mt Wellington” to “Mount Wellington”.

  2. The most entrancing bookstores are a maze of mis-matched bookshelves with narrow passageways between them, at least one U-shaped niche that can only accommodate one customer at a time, rooms whose floors aren’t on the same level so you have to step down or up or better yet, there’s a small ramp joining them, some of the books seem to have been there since the sixties or seventies, there are sections catering to what seem to you to be strange obsessions … in short, they make adults feel like children again. Also, they’re firetraps.

  3. ‘ Pamela Paul plumps for Hatchards in London. Boring ‘

    But next door is Waterstone’s, which among other things has half a floor or Russian books, a top-floor café where you can take books and read them, and a little mezzanine café at the back on the ground (US first) floor where you can graze a vast number of current magazines. A bit like the (late lamented, I believe?) Barnes and Noble in NYC.

    For Londoners or visitors, I recommend as an ‘entrancing’ bookshop John Sandoe, up a alleyway (Blacklands Terrace) off the top of the Kings Road opposite the Saachi establishment. Fits the definition of a maze, and has a superbly well-informed staff.

  4. If it follows the same pattern as the others, then I imagine it represents an attempted conversion from “Mt Wellington” to “Mount Wellington”.

    Of course! Thanks.

    The most entrancing bookstores are a maze of mis-matched bookshelves with narrow passageways between them […]

    Exactly.

    But next door is Waterstone’s, which among other things has half a floor or Russian books

    Yes, if I ever get to London again I’m making a beeline for it. When I was there in 1971, my destination bookstore was Foyles (where I found some excellent Russian books).

  5. @hector: The original Powell’s City of Books had all those features, although even before they redid it in the 1990s it was vast. After the redesign, it was larger and by almost any reasonable measure better, but it lost a great deal of its peculiar charm. For another ten years, Powell’s Technical Books a few blocks away, remained a really unique place, in part because it was crawling with bookstore cats. They even had a cat on the illuminated sign for a while.

  6. After the redesign, it was larger and by almost any reasonable measure better, but it lost a great deal of its peculiar charm.

    This is the case with my favorite local bookstore, Troubadour Books.

  7. By these measures, the Strand in NYC should be entrancing, but it isn’t at all. See our 2011 discussion.

  8. My favorite along these lines is Un Regard Moderne, in Paris. The guy specializes in underground literature, comics, and that sort of thing. Last I was there, several years ago, books were stacked three-deep and 7-ft high against the walls, with tight passages that had to be navigated with the utmost care to avoid catastrophic bookslides. The place is full of rare treasures, as in “I must buy this book because it’s wonderful, and because if I don’t, I’ll never see it again.”
    I was listening to the proprietor, who was on the phone, placing an order for some more books.

    Ed.; Oh, no! I just read that the proprietor, Jacques Noël, has passed away this last October.

  9. I recall the original Borders in Ann Arbor– long gone, needless to say. ‘Long gone’ applies also to Washington DC bookstores. Thirty-five years ago, when I first arrived, DC (and Georgetown in particular) had many excellent-to-great bookstores and movie theaters. Sigh. Now we have Trump.

  10. Now we have Trump.
    Make American book stores great again? (Sorry, temptation was too strong.)

  11. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Two anecdotes, but I’m cheating, because they concern libraries, not bookshops. (But why not? The French word librairie means bookshop, so let’s just say I’m confused.)

    1. A long time ago I had read that when Gauss derived the equation for the Gaussian distribution, he didn’t prove that the arithmetic mean was the best sort of average, as often claimed, but had done exactly the opposite, something much more difficult: he assumed that the arithmetic mean was the best sort of average, and then derived the properties the world would need to have for that to be true. When I was writing a book about use of statistics in biochemistry I thought I had no hope of finding out where Gauss had written this. (This was in the early 1990s: no Google then). However, I was idly looking at the books in the library of the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Chile in the hope of finding something interesting. I didn’t have very high hopes, as it’s a very inadequate library, but then my eyes lighted on an English translation of Gauss’s book, and there I was able to find the relevant passage. (A very Germanic translation, however: the translator was careful to reproduce all the stylistic contortions and very long sentences that he had found in the original.)

    2. A few years later I was in the library of the main building of the Université de Bordeaux waiting for a social event to begin. This, by contrast, is a very splendid library with many thousands of books. I took one at random off the nearest shelf. It proved to be written by someone I knew quite well (though I know her husband a lot better), a psychologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I can’t resists telling you how C. H. Davis in 1857 presented Gauss’s thoughts:

    Since this [the probability distribution] cannot be known a priori, we will, approaching the subject from another point of view, inquire upon what function, tacitly, as it were, assumed as a base, the common principle, the excellence of which is generally acknowledged, depends. It has been customary certainly to regard as an axiom the hypothesis that if any quantity has been determined by several direct observations, made under the same circumstances and with equal care, the arithmetical mean of the observations affords the most probable value, if not rigorously, yet very nearly at least, so that it is always most safe to adhere to it.

    It trips lightly off the tongue, doesn’t it?

  13. Since this [the probability distribution] cannot be known a priori, we will, approaching the subject from another point of view, inquire upon what function, tacitly, as it were, assumed as a base, the common principle, the excellence of which is generally acknowledged, depends. It has been customary certainly to regard as an axiom the hypothesis that if any quantity has been determined by several direct observations, made under the same circumstances and with equal care, the arithmetical mean of the observations affords the most probable value, if not rigorously, yet very nearly at least, so that it is always most safe to adhere to it.

    No duh!

  14. The normal distribution does indeed work that way in a fully normal world, but this world is not only abnormal, but parts of it have been put into a seven and a half-foot lonnnngggg … FIFTY-FOUR INCH-WIDE … GORILLA!!!

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    In a Gaussian normal distribution isn’t it true by definition that the arithmetical mean will work out to be the same as the median and the mode, thus making the question of which might be “the best sort of average” irrelevant?

  16. There are situations when taking a mean of multiple measurements does not give you the best estimator of the underlying quantity. This, of course, hinges on what you mean by “best,” but there are certainly situations where the best error quantifier is not the standard error.

  17. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Indeed, and that was exactly the point I wanted to make in my book: that Gauss didn’t prove what he is commonly claimed to have proved, and cannot be used as an argument against what you are saying.

    In a Gaussian normal distribution isn’t it true by definition that the arithmetical mean will work out to be the same as the median and the mode, thus making the question of which might be “the best sort of average” irrelevant?

    Yes, but the variances (of the sample means, modes and medians) are different. If the distribution is truly Gaussian then the sample median has a bigger variance than the sample mean, and that is the basis for the claim that the sample mean is “better”. The part that is omitted is the question of which has the smaller variance when the distribution is not truly Gaussian. In practice it’s impossible to know with real experimental data whether the basic condition is satisfied or not — not even approximately unless you have thousands of observations.

  18. That Gaussian digression left me spinning, but now that I’ve rediscovered my centre and stopped . . .

    I was very pleased to find Munro’s Books of Victoria enshrined among the Temples. I have been making serendipitous discoveries there since the Sixties. I can’t wait til Russell’s Books of Victoria is recognized internationally to be a Temple too. I don’t know of another store that mixes new and used books. But I do know that other independent bookstores thrive in Victoria. And then there’s nearby Sidney Booktown-by-the-Sea.

    I may make a report on Cuba Libro in La Habana in the New Year.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    I keep forgetting Mona lisait in Paris!

  20. That is a very sweet calembour.

  21. “At a certain point past youth, if you don’t discover Trollope, there’s basically nothing to live for.”

    I think by now I have pretty much resolved not to grow up, so it is just as well I am a Reformed Nihilist (we don’t believe in anything but we’re not dogmatic about it).

    I don’t think Groningen has a proper book temple though, since De Slegde went the way of 21-century retail.

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