I'm at the airport with too many bags. A last minute weigh in required me to pull all my books out of my bags and redistribute the weight, while the service representative had to call Iceland (where I pass through en route to London), and the fifty pairs of eyes behind me glared and grew glassy.
Though this morning the weather was pure, clear and copper-sunned, the fog has descended so low that the tips of the trees are nearly obliterated. This is Seattle. This is the city I know.
Here's something I wrote a month or so ago, an ode to this city, its literary scene, and its inhabitants.
When I graduated from a small Midwestern liberal arts college with the music degree I knew I might never use, I felt lost looking for What To Do Next. Despite the pressure I felt alongside my friends – future accountants, teachers, and doctors - to map out a life just so, a much respected professor suggested that each step in one’s life seems microscopic, a darkened footpath occasionally lit by a chance lamp. This leaves a discernible trail only after years of walking and finally looking over one’s shoulder. I knew that that the next step wasn’t – at least yet – grad school. It was getting my hands dirty and figuring out how to do the things I’d have to put in practice as an adult – paying bills, avoiding fines, eating well, cultivating small pleasures. I wanted to be part of a literary culture, and that place wasn’t New York.
Someone told me that it only takes a person a single year of living in New York to claim it as the answer to the question Where are you from? But a Seattleite will customarily give the last city they lived in. The city’s position on the northwest coast has made it a decades-old gateway to the Japanese, Thai, Laotians, Hmong, and Vietnamese, as well as Russians and Swedes, and Americans who come from all over the country to tap into the vibrant cultural life and the jobs offered by massive corporations like Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and Starbucks who use the city as a base. This is a city cobbled together from people in motion; people who affirm the significance of place. It’s changeable weather and indeterminate seasons require almost hourly conversations on the expression of the elements: the rain and its specific characteristics, the sun and whether it will show, the green profusion of flora, or the unseasonable withering heat, and devastating Christmas snow.
Though Seattle is a young city (a nineteenth century frontier timber town and gold-rush destination) in a young country, the moniker “Most Literate City in America” means something, even if it’s just to its booksellers. This city is the home to – among others - novelists David Guterson and Jonathan Raban (and claims National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie and short-story writer Raymond Carver who is buried on the Olympic Peninsula, and many other journalists, essayists, poets, and publishers. As others have said before me, the contemplative weather drives us to our notebooks and laptops.
But it’s a city still self-conscious enough to make its qualifications sound like a defiant teenager. We may not be New York but…It’s high time that the city puts aside its inferiority complex and speaks for itself.
Seattle is a good place for a transplant interested in whatever literary culture the city had to offer; a city with enough readers and patrons to know that literature and the arts is an important cornerstone of both civic culture and private leisure. (Though for some reading is less leisured than vocational.) The key to an intelligent society is the circulation of ideas (the “fresh play” as Victorian reformer and poet Matthew Arnold would say), and the key to an imaginative society is recognizing the importance of stories to communities and to the individual. And yet, for all the established organizations, writing programs, journals, and local writers - we have far to go. There is much work to do.
Amazon was spawned here on this lush rain-logged hills, and though this provides fuel to the incendiary debates over literacy and the future of the book and of independent bookstores in the marketplace, the debate over the Kindle proves nothing less than that the issue of what we read and how we read it is worth arguing about. We are not unconcerned.
Here are some of the things Seattle does right:
1. Writing Programs
Aside from local MFAs and degrees in creative writing, Seattle has several community spaces for those who want to write. The Capitol-Hill based Richard Hugo House, named after a Seattle poet who wrote about “the mysteries of ordinary life in the city and the lives of working people,” is the third largest writing program in the country and offers writing classes, residencies for writers, and community events. 826 Seattle (also known as Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co.), one of the nonprofit writing centers begun by McSweeney’s editor and writer Dave Eggers, offers students access to tutors, writing workshops and publishing projects.
Though the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sadly stopped their printed daily in March 2009, the Seattle Times, winner of a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News reportage during the city-wide hunt for the cop-killer Maurice Clemmons, comes out seven days a week. Though Seattle may not have literary journals to rival New York or San Francisco, it is not without effort (Seattle Review, Cranky, Swivel, Rivet, Crab Creek Review). Image, a journal which explores the intersection of religion and the arts predominantly in the Christian humanist tradition, is one of its kind and has published Nobel laureates and writers, critics, poets, and essayists from around the world at a consistently excellent standard.
And let’s not forget The Stranger, the ubiquitous free weekly publication which, despite its leftist yells and vicious slandering of all those from outside the fold, continues to be a bastian of liminal literary culture, a crusader for the marginalized, and a dependably entertaining read. Paul Constant, the books editor and writer of the Constant Reader, is the everyday espresso-drinking reader’s man-about-town critic and a welcome voice in the conversation about reading devices and the book wars.
Wallingford’s Open Books: A Poetry Emporium is one of the only poetry-only bookstores in the country. The Elliott Bay Book Company has long been a puissant force in drawing nationally and internationally acclaimed literary figures for readings and lectures as well as providing an excellent independent source of books. The University Bookstore, the University of Washington’s bookstore is another giant, and together with the bookstore I work at, Third Place Books, provide a triumvirate of communal spaces with knowledgeable staff and literary events designed to keep communities involved. Besides these stores there are an abundance of bookstores that offer the reader frequent destinations. Unfortunately, these gems are closing are an alarming rate and require champions from a reading public.
Before the modern publishing house was created, books were published through booksellers. To be a bookseller, as Samuel Johnson’s father was, was to be a publisher. The books sold were personally championed by booksellers. This relationship produced a spirited connection, a legitimate chain, between the writing, printing and selling of books. We need to recover and rekindle (lowercase “k”) that connection.
With the separation of publishing houses and independent brick and mortar stores – where publishers have stopped listening to the little Shop Around the Corner and begun to give way to the bullying price wars of large chain stores and internet companies - and advent of espresso book machines – small printing presses that can access thousands of out of print titles, as well as producing self-published works – booksellers once again have the opportunity to become personally involved with publishing.
I believe that booksellers, often low-paid workers who spend their paychecks
on the books they sell and their free time in the reading and digesting of books, have something to offer. These are often passionately minded individuals who take to heart the importance of the small work that they do. With lives that are daily, unglamorously, occupied with the parsing of good literature and the sharing of unknown or long-forgotten works that very often might fall between the cracks, these are observers of human nature (how readily people betray their deeper selves in retail situations), ideas, and beauty.
If this sounds idealistic and self-important, it is because I am one of them, and like my fellow booksellers, have to believe that the small work we do, though largely invisible, is significant to the health and continuing intellectual and creative life of the community. If this sounds idealistic and self-important, it is because I need to believe it. We may not have holidays off, or weekends; we may eat poorly because our money goes to a re-translated novel by Witold Gombrowicz; but by God we know books.
I felt that my coworkers and I, and others like us, who are by day (and by night) booksellers, and secret scribblers in those in-between times on little pieces of recycled paper hoping, sometimes fruitlessly, to join the community writers whose voices resound in their heads, have something to offer to and on behalf of their city. These apprentices of the art and craft of literature must have something up their sleeves.
So let’s toast a life of vital engagement through books. Here’s to the secret scribblers of Seattle.
Photo courtesy of http://www.findingviews.com/page/13/