A Modest Book Fair Reveals America’s Half-Seen Literary Renaissance

Meditations from a book fair

The rain abated for the annual Hudson, New York, book fair, and there in the grand Opera House were hundreds of beautiful volumes and journals of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and excitements, incitements and enticements that can’t be categorized. They were not only objects of art, often exquisitely designed and produced, but they were gemstone caches of the mind, adventures awaiting us. And yet the emphasis, as always in Hudson, was on buying antiques and food, food for the belly, not the mind.

One has to peel away one’s sadness to treat the intellectual abscess: why have we failed to create a culture that values a stunning volume of thoughts and images more than an old bottle? Is there a clue in this to our failure to prepare our children for the century that is already upon them, the clue being that we value objects more than the life of the mind, forgetting in our obsession with things that thoughts are themselves things?

Why has it not occurred to us that books are bargain-priced collectibles far more valuable than a chipped crock or a rusty wheel? Is the answer that we go to Hudson because it’s a known destination for antiques and by God that’s what we’re going to buy? Or is it because in all cases everywhere a book cannot compete in our minds with yet another doodad or gewgaw? Is it because books deteriorate at a faster rate than the contents of an antique shop? Doesn’t that depend on how highly we prize the book? Some books have survived for centuries. Is it because the contents of a book are secreted in our mind, whereas we want something to show for our money?

No matter the skill of a glassblower, he cannot have entertained all that poets entertain in their minds. Why is a great poem or a great book of poems not worth the price of his vase? Is it because our culture has not reassured us about the worth of the poetry and fiction and therefore we must fall back on our devices? If that is the reason, then it must be a facet of a culture that values its best thoughts less than its best gimcracks, a culture that regards its best thoughts as disposables but its hard-body products as collectibles.

Up and down Warren Street, Hudson’s fascinating main line, I walked, taking in my fellow strollers, their purchases, the antiques, the food emporiums, and I did not find a single item-not even a 96-acre estate with grand vistas described on a realtor’s window-worth what was practically being given away in the Hudson Opera House, books for $4, literary journals for $2.

We’re a gaming culture. Wall Street, after all, is a great casino. So why are we not betting on our artists and writers? Or our scientists, for that matter? Why would a gaming culture choose a colored medicine bottle over its poetry and fables and inquiries? Is this what investment advisors call conservative investing or is it philistinism?

And why have I not entertained these thoughts before? Why has it taken me so long to be sad about something that now seems so obvious and squalid?

I picked up The Open Face Sandwich, a literary annual based in Austin and New York City. It is not only an exciting work of art in itself-its production values are superb-but it is publishing the kind of work that doesn’t fit into even our more arcane pigeonholes. Its call for submissions gaily suggests “absurdities, misinformation, pornography, libel, personal correspondence.” There is nothing in Warren Street’s antiquaries-forgive me, brave entrepreneurs of Hudson-worth Open Face Sandwich’s endeavor to stir interest in the notoriously unpublished novels of Hortense Caruthers (search for her at your peril) who said she wrote for the unborn:

“My dear, I am dead. I speak to you now, not from the grave but from the light that enters the famished socket of your eye.”

Here is a living endeavor full of fun, curiosity and elegance, all ingeniously packaged as a true collectible. Nothing on the street like it. All it requires is a culture to yearn for it as much as it does its next pizza or fake Greek urn.

And there at another table was upstreet, number six, a refined literary review published in the nearby Berkshires by Ledgetop Publishing, full of poetry, stories and essays. It represents a half-seen renaissance in American culture. There have never before been so many esthetically rewarding journals produced by a society that might be called War and Prison Inc.-in the midst of political chaos and rabid greed, beauty and intellectual inquiry of the highest order are flourishing.

It all came down to a personal decision. I knew the book fair was underway. My strategy was to park and look for garden planters as I approached the Opera House. I found what I was looking for and decided to come back and buy two planters after strolling through the book fair. But at the fair I bought books instead of the lovely planters. My mind needed another excellent thought, another well wrought image more than my garden needed a cement pot.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm

New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/

His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com

His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com

His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com