Monday, October 10, 2005

"Lost in a Town of Books"

I'm reading Paul Collins' Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. This memoir straddles two sub-genres of books: "Books About Books" and the "My Life in a Strange/Fascinating Place" books. The former category is a small, but stubborn sub-genre that still has its own section at your local Barnes & Noble. The latter is most represented by Peter Mayle's wonderful A Year in Provence, although I believe something called A HOUSE IN TUSCANY recently made a small, literary splash.

I happen to enjoy both of these sub-genres, so I was particularly keen on reading about a couple with young son moving to Hay on Wye, that famously bookish town on the border between Britain and Wales, dominated by Richard Booth, the owner of the town's largest (and most chaotic) bookstore, who is the self-declared "King of Hay." Although a former antiquarian myself, I never made the bibliophile's journey to Mecca. I live vicariously through those like Collins who find the place as fascinating as I no doubt would.

Hay on Wye is a town dominated by bookstores, all save one of which are antiquarian bookstores. In the words of Richard Booth: "A town needs a reason to live. (...) This town's reason to live is books." Collins wades into this rural, biblio-culture with a love of all things bookish and the skeptical eye of someone fed on non-fat lattes and mass transit.

Collins is writer who thrives on contrasts. Britain vs Wales, London vs Hay, America vs Britain or Wales, the suburbs vs the small town, chain bookstores vs the independents, all provide fuel for his often witty and occasionally profound observations. Being of a liberal bent, it is not surprising that Americans and conservative Britains come out of the comparison looking somewhat intellectually dessicated.

Example number one was a British game show during which the host departed from the script to make the case for Britain returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Collins is not certain the average Britain has ever heard of the Elgin Marbles, but is struck by the fact that in Britain you can get away with such a speech. "You are not allowed to do any of these things with the chimp's tea party that is the American audience, as it might interfere with their swinging their forearms about and yelling hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO!"

I confess to similar feelings when viewing American game show audiences, but why limit one's critical gaze to the pursuit of filthy lucre? Has Collins ever seen the cult-like rapture of the Oprah audience? Or the Koolaid drinkers who line up to see some America-hating starlet walk the red carpet with her enhanced boobs hanging out? Of course, Oprah and the starlet are cast from the same liberal political mold, so they might seem less egregious to the lefty writer/observer.

Myself, upon reading about the "brave" game-show host pontificating about cultural artifacts, I was reminded that the insufferable, politically-correct, psuedo-intellectual blather that has replaced real political discourse in Britain is not limited to the Anglican Church and the BBC.

Are Americans less well-read and cultured than their British counterparts? There was a time when one might have said yes, due in part to the differences in state schools in each country. Of course, the American public (state) schools are notoriously mediocre. They are also firmly under the yoke of the liberal ethos, and have been for at least thirty-five years. Could it be that those Americans who share Collins' worldview are also the same Americans who have turned our schools into the culture-free zones that Collins so dislikes?

Ten years ago I visited London. Walking through a Waterstones bookstore at lunchtime I was struck by a group of Londoners crowded around the "Classic Literature" section. With an hour to spare before rushing back to work, these hearty Brits were pawing over Jane Austin, Leo Tolstoy, and George Gissing. In America, the "Classic Literature" section has disapeared from most bookstores.

But does this mean anything?

Woody Allen once made a movie with references to Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt. The studio complained that no one would know those references. Allen had his staff go out into the streets and quiz New Yorkers, who, to their credit, knew all the famous names.

Does this prove anything other than that Londoners and New Yorkers are similarly exposed to at least the vestiges of Western civilization and culture?

An episode of the old John Cleese show, FAULTY TOWERS, provides an example closer to what Collins is trying to say. In the sitcom, Basil Faulty, the owner of the hotel, is berating the Spanish hotel porter, Manuel, over the latter's inability to accomplish a simple task. Frustrated, Faulty says, "This is not a proposition from Wittgenstein!" Laughter followed from the audience. Now I'm quite certain that the average British viewer of that sitcom is not conversant with the philosophy of Wittgenstein. But they got the joke: what Basil was asking the hotel porter to do is hardly the stuff of a dense, German, philosopher!

There is a cultural sense that is passed down from generation to generation. Your average Joe or Jane doesn't remember the details of Plato, Rembrandt, Mozart, or Henry James, but can count exposure to those people among their educational memories. Or they could until "education" became dominated by a frantic scramble to cram for the latest government-sponsored academic test, and increasingly interrupted by Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered tolerance day; Islam appreciation; and various other education-free indoctrination schemes devised by those education "intellectuals," who, like Collins' culturally-sensitive game show host, know what's best for all of us.

None of this detracts from Collins' wonderful tale of living in Wales amidst barns, books, and bibliophiles. You don't have to share Collins' good-natured elitism toward common folks to appreciate his love of lost treasures among the stacks and warehouses of the world's preeminent book town.

Besides, the last time I turned on British television, there were three men in a hot tub having a farting contest. I shan't view it again! I shan't!


At 8:42 AM, Blogger NoTONoEagles said...

Help Mommy, there are Liberals! underneath my bed!!! (No, seriously, that's the name of the book...) Don't believe me? The dang thing's on Amazon, not some hippie-press bullcrap ;) Anyway, thought you might enjoy, pinko ;)

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Paul Pennyfeather said...

I have no idea what the previous comment means.

Pinko? I haven't been called that in quite a while.



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