Bookshops and the Character of a City
Also: A 12-year-old Cormac McCarthy, a new self-portrait of Van Gogh, and more.
A factotum is a person who does all kinds of work, and in Marius Kociejowski’s book A Factotum in the Book Trade, he writes, among other things, about the odd jobs he did as an assistant in an antiquarian bookshop on London’s Cecil Court (known for its second-hand stores) before it closed and moved online. The book is a funny, sometimes cantankerous memoir about Kociejowski’s life as a reader and in the book trade in London.
But it’s mainly about the bookshops themselves—specifically antiquarian bookshops—and the booksellers who run them and the collectors they serve. It is a lament for a way of buying books and a culture that, at least in Kociejowski’s view, is quickly disappearing. Early on, Kociejowski writes, “Secondhand bookshops, once a feature of almost every borough, town and village, continue to close, even in supposedly bookish places like Oxford and Cambridge”:
“Town and city are no longer the organic growths they once were. They have begun to operate on a purely functional level that has little to do with what actually brings grace into our lives. You eviscerate a habitat of its culture and the species it supports will find it increasingly difficult to survive or else they’ll mutate into something else.”
Of course, bookshops were originally started (and are still started) for a functional reason—to sell books—and to blame a preoccupation with making money for the disappearance of bookshops and to wish instead for a world where people start and support businesses solely for the “grace” they bring “into our lives” is to wish for a world that has never existed and will never exist.
But Kociejowski is right that the disappearance of secondhand bookshops (and other secondhand stores) changes the character of a city and, to a degree, the lives of the people who live there. A city, Kociejowski writes, “is measurable through its smaller enterprises,” and something of London’s rough-and-tumble, libertine character has been lost as these places have disappeared and the city itself has gotten “sleek.”
In his review of the book earlier this week in the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes that “Many good memoirs have been written by antiquarian booksellers . . . A Factotum in the Book Trade is memorable because a) it’s well-written, and b) it’s close in touch with the books. Kociejowski, now in his early 70s, never owned his own shop. He struggled financially while raising a family on an employee’s earnings. He simply loved the work.”
I haven’t finished the book yet, but I am enjoying it so far for its intelligence and biting anecdotes. In one passage, he complains about an “objectionable subspecies” of bookshop customers “who with their mobile phones like to photograph each other holding an open book although very rarely are their eyes fixed on the page. The punishment for them cannot be too severe.”
The book has been published by the small Canadian publisher Biblioasis, whom I wrote about here. They have hit gold again, it seems, which is no surprise.
Thanks to Michael Crews for pointing me to this 1946 documentary of Tennessee dairy farmers featuring a 12-year-old Charles McCarthy, Jr., better known today as Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s first appearance is at the 1:55 mark. He plays “Jimmy,” who visits a farm “to learn all about cows.”
The artist Claes Oldenburg has died. He was 93. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” Oldenburg once wrote. That is certainly clear from his giant urban sculptures of everyday objects. In the Wall Street Journal, Kelly Crow writes that Oldenburg’s “lumpen or towering versions of everything from buttery baked potatoes to bowling pins were typically rendered at a monumental scale only a giant could practically use. The effect gave his oeuvre a playful, Alice-in-Wonderland appeal.” The critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1972 that “Oldenburg is death’s buffoon.” Everything he makes is “a testament to polymorphous perversity . . . no living artist combines the roles of magician and clown with as much skill as Oldenburg — except, obviously, Picasso.”
Speaking of modern art, Dominic Green reviews Alex J. Taylor’s Forms of Persuasion: Art and Corporate Image in the 1960s: “Mr. Taylor’s Forms of Persuasion is a well-researched, revealing account of how avant-garde art and design filled the ‘fishbowl foyers’ of Midtown Manhattan, the imaginations of board members and the pockets of a lucky few artists, including Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Pablo Picasso. Mr. Taylor, an art historian at the University of Pittsburgh, rejects the still-popular fiction that the avant-garde art of the 1960s was in the vanguard of the political left, or that ‘sovereign statements of independent creativity’ such as Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup series were ‘emancipatory expressions of resistance against the cultural norms of midcentury society.’ Rather, the author suggests, corporate modernism was a collaboration between corporations and artists: ‘business art,’ as Warhol later called it.”
A new self-portrait of Van Gogh has been discovered on the back of a painting called Head of a Peasant Woman: “Discovered by an X-ray during a routine conservation and cataloguing process, the portrait, estimated to date from after his move to Paris in 1886, is invisible, having been sealed inside its frame for years.”
Also: “Italian archaeologists working on the excavation and conservation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem announced this week that they had discovered rock layers from the quarry used to build the original Constantinian-era church.” Sarah E. Bonds writes about the find at Hyperallergic.
Alex Taylor reviews Joshua Hren’s new novel, Infinite Regress: “As a post-campus novel, Infinite Regress treads new ground. Unlike other works within the campus-novel genre, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, we witness the ‘Catholic’ St. Marquis University only briefly through Blake Yourrick’s flashbacks. The story follows Blake as he seeks some way to pay back his college loans, first as a temporary worker in the Bakken oil fields, and then as a security guard at a graveyard. Above all, Blake is seeking to avoid a proposition made to him by his former professor, the defrocked Jesuit Theodore Hape (whose crimes in a lake-house with seminarians might remind church-watchers of a certain former cardinal). Hape has offered to pay Blake a tidy sum of $50,000, about half of his loan debt, for one simple consensual act.”
It has been ten years since Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was posted on YouTube. It is still one of the platform’s most popular videos.
Ted Gioia writes about how a song he recorded in 1986 came to be used in an episode of the hit TV show Better Call Saul: “The story begins back in the mid-1980s, when I was preparing to record my first album, The End of the Open Road. I composed a waltz, languid and bittersweet—but I didn’t know what to do with it.”
You know, of course, that ancient Greek statues were brightly colored. A new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art repaints models using photographic and spectroscopic technology.
My wife’s tomatoes are not coming in as she hoped, but the ones that are coming in are delicious. (Is there anything better than homegrown tomatoes?) This year, she planted some black tomatoes. I like them but not as much as the cherry ones. There are thousands of kinds of tomatoes in the world, and in William Alexander’s Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World, he tells the story of how the tomato, which was originally grown only in South and Central America, conquered the world. Bonnie S. Benwick reviews.