A Decade in Books
Miriam R. Kramer
The surrounding D.C.–area literary landscape has changed significantly in the past decade. My beloved Olsson’s disappeared. Many of my former colleagues and I still miss it greatly for its unique literary and musical culture. Big box stores like Borders folded, leaving a Barnes & Noble here and there, although it also closed it doors in many local locations. The Books-a-Million chain has also disappeared from both Old Town and the District of Columbia.
Our area has luckily retained other treasured independent institutions such as Kramerbooks & Afterwords, which is expanding its footprint by taking over neighboring space in Dupont Circle. In addition, the powerhouse Politics & Prose has expanded its scope under the ownership of Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, offering classes and its own printing press while continuing its unparalleled calendar of author readings and book signings.
The biggest change in this past ten years has been the advent of the e-reader along with smartphones and tablets. The Amazon Kindle has dominated that market from its incipience in July 2007. My own reading habits have changed as a result. I read both hard copies and books on my Kindle, which offers some distinct advantages in allowing the reader a dictionary at the push of a finger, and necessary space saving for transient bibliophiles with burgeoning shelves and little storage space.
Yet e-readers ultimately offer an impoverished sensory experience by depriving readers of all the sights, smells, and enjoyment of hefting weighty tome in their hands or carrying awaited paperbacks away to enjoy at a local coffee shop. We shop differently in person than online. There is no substitute for stacks curated by sophisticated and passionate buyers who create a store’s culture and character. Browsing stacks is like no other experience. We book-lovers get lost in our search, looking up hours later with a sense of satisfaction to make spontaneous purchases that we might never have found otherwise.
Luckily there is now an uptick in new indie bookstores in the DC area and across the country, perhaps similar to the return of vinyl’s popularity during the waning era of CDS and current era of musical downloads and streaming. The importance of tangible interaction with any art form cannot be underestimated.
I have so many memories of books discovered in my eclectic browsing during the past decade that I will mention only a few here in no particular order. At Olsson’s I participated in two midnight book launches of the last two Harry Potter books at Olsson’s, joyous occasions in which I made chocolate “Cockroach Clusters” for our parties and celebrated J.K. Rowling’s literary juggernaut with the children and adults who lined up to buy all the books we could provide.
Speaking of J.K. Rowling, I cannot forget to mention British writer Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, also ostensibly meant for children but perhaps enjoyed as much or more by adults. Rowling’s dominance in that time period overshadowed Pullman’s wonderfully written, compelling and philosophical series featuring young heroes Will Parry and Lyra Belacqua, who set off on an adventure that might ultimately save their parallel worlds.
Through perusing the stacks at Olsson’s I discovered the Irish crime writer Tana French, who always leaves me thinking about her eloquent writing and haunting characters months afterwards. I wait eagerly for her next novel year after year. Author and journalist Carl Hiaasen caught my attention with his hilarious novels about crazy Floridians capers and passion for environmental issues. Susanna Clarke’s unique book-brick Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell indulged my penchant for British literature with gorgeous Jane Austen-style writing that recounted a brilliant, unnerving fantasy about magicians and the land of Faerie in nineteenth-century England.
After Olsson’s closed in 2008, I browsed elsewhere in stores and on my Kindle, finding much more to celebrate in new releases everywhere. Journalist Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, with its passion for social justice and politics in Sweden absorbed me with its dark humor and intricate plot. In creating the characters of the crusading journalist Mikael Blomqvist and his cohort in research, Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, he penned a compelling series of bestsellers that examined societal injustice and corruption through a thoughtful, firecracker-fast plotline. Salander has become one of my favorite literary characters, her loner brilliance as a socially inept hacker and uncompromising ferocity as a survivor making her an unconventional superheroine for the computer era. Although David Lagercrantz has stepped in to continue the series, I wish Larsson were still alive to offer us his unique, ardent perspective on media, politics, social welfare and social injustice.
Another jewel I discovered was the gorgeous history The Warmth of Other Suns, a National Book Award winner by New York Times journalist Isabel Wilkerson. In writing a definitive history of the African-American migration from the South in the twentieth century, she created a book that should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the United States. I flew through the book in twenty-four hours, her bell-clear, unsentimental writing and precise focus making the trip as easy as breathing. As a natural speed-reader, I later re-read it to appreciate it even more.
Those who read this column regularly will have noted my great enjoyment of George R.R. Martin’s cynical medieval fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, currently depicted on screen in HBO’s blockbuster series Game of Thrones. A great escape, it will leave any reader fascinated with its politics and battle between good and evil, One of his show runners, David Benioff, also wrote a book I greatly enjoyed. City of Thieves is a highly unlikely buddy comedy set during the Siege of Leningrad. Having endured an unrelenting Russian winter myself, I felt the story viscerally in all its humor, bitterness, and poignancy.
Where do I stop? How many authors and books have I not mentioned? How about Malcolm Gladwell, whose unusual perspective on sociology and culture I have always championed? Jhumpa Lahiri, whose gorgeous writing and depiction of the Indian-American experience depicts loneliness so beautifully? David Sedaris, one of our most eccentric and hilarious social observers? Laura Hillenbrand and her perfectly written book Unbroken, a depiction of World War II POW and former Olympic athlete, Louis Zamperini? There would not be enough room to include all my authors and books if I were to take over this whole magazine.
In the end I cannot leave out three of my favorite books of all time. They are a part of me. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, incorporating elements of a romanticized Britain with Scandinavian and Icelandic sagas at their most beautiful. I have re-read it somewhere between five and ten times at different points in my life, including the last ten years.
In addition, Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita is a cult book in Russia, only published after the death of Joseph Stalin. The Devil visits Moscow with his familiars in tow, including a black cat named Behemoth who carries a Browning automatic shotgun. A brilliant writer, the Master, burns his book in despair at the Stalinist stifling of literature, while his muse and great love, Margarita, redeems his sacrifice. Last but equally important, Bulgakov re-tells the story of the ultimate redemption, the story of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Jesus. I also read this book overnight, finishing it the next day overwhelmed by its brilliant surrealism and deeply moving ideas. I also read it in Russian, eventually visiting all the places mentioned in the book when I moved to Moscow, Russia.
One more for the road: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I recommend the annotated version with commentary by Alfred Appel, Jr. Nabokov’s native language was Russian, but in English he wrote perfectly, incorporating eclectic cultural references with sly verbal rhythms and sleight-of-hand, creating a mysterious, surreal portrait of the mythic American road trip that yields endless new layers of interpretation upon each reading.
Lastly, dear reader, please visit The Last Word on line at oldtowncrier.com under Arts & Entertainment. Let me know your thoughts and reactions in our comments section. After writing to share my love of books for ten years, I would enjoy your recommendations and comments. Thank you for sharing this literary journey with me.