Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Therefore Do the Virgins Love Thee

So, I'm reading this rather charming book, Sixpence House: Life in a Town of Books, by Paul Collins, a Pennsylvanian-American writer who moved with his wife Jennifer and toddler son Morgan to live in Hay, a Welsh town full of bookstores.  It has its longeurs, but on the whole I'm enjoying it.  Collins won me over by telling how,
Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people.  This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1.  It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for [7*].
As Collins recognizes, "Readers always seem scarce."  I'm pleased that he's not one of those people who claim that Americans used to be big readers but were de-booked by the movies, TV, rock'n'roll, rap, whatever.

On the other hand, I have my disagreements with him, as when he contrasts postal delivery in Britain with its American counterpart.  Britons, he says, don't have the kind of mailboxes you'll find in rural areas in the US, the shoebox-sized container with a door on the end and a flag on the side, set on a post at the right height for a carrier to reach through a car window.
But it is indeed true that in America you can go months without seeing anything more of your postman than a bronzed arm reaching out of a white Jeep, stuffing a ration of advertising circulars into your box. Here people have a rather more personal relation with postal carriers.  You see them; they see you ... In the deepest rural areas, hitching rides with the local postman is not altogether unknown; his may be the only public vehicle for the area.  In America, trying to climb into any mailman's car will get you zapped with a Taser [155].
Some of this is probably true in rural America, that three-thousand-mile swath that has no real counterpart in Britain.  I wouldn't be surprised if people do sometimes hitch rides with carriers in rural areas where everyone knows each other, but given American hostility to freeloaders I wouldn't be surprised if the Postal Service has strong regulations against it.  I live in a mid-sized city, however, and I see my postal carriers, they see me.  Before moving to Wales, Collins and his family lived in the Haight, in San Francisco, so he must have seen his postal carriers there.

An enjoyable aspect of Sixpence House for me is Collins's enthusiasm for forgotten old books, such as Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Mercy Philbrick's Choice, based on Jackson's friendship with Emily Dicksinson and "published while the poet was still alive, and still unknown" (44).  I frequently interrupted my reading to look these up on Project Gutenberg.

Collins also recounts seeing his first book through the press, fretting over the dust-jacket design and the title.
Every part of every nursery rhyme is now accounted for: there is a book called Row Row Row Your Boat, another called Gently Down the Stream, one called Merrily Merrily Merrily, and several laying claim to Life Is But a Dream ... [T]he Bible was gutted long ago, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  Do not even think about using anything from the Song of Solomon.  Nor, for that matter, can you use Song of Solomon itself as a title [158-9].
Gee, really?  True, that was thirty-seven years ago; maybe you just can't use it anymore.

These quibbles don't keep me from recommending Sixpence House, though.  I'm glad I happened on it.

*I'm reading an e-book copy of Sixpence House, so I don't know how well the page numbers correspond to those in the print edition.  If you refer to the latter, I hope they'll at least be in the ballpark.