Archive for January, 2008


“Think of every town you’ve lived in…”

You’re not supposed to love a chain store—but in the autumn of 1992, no one had ever told me that. Earlier that year, sophisticated friends had taken me to the Strand in New York and Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and I marveled at what I beheld. Outside of libraries, I had never seen so many books, and I crept through the aisles with palpable glee. Even so, when they told me that both sites were cultural landmarks, I didn’t know how to respond. Although my purchases should have proven otherwise, those great, sprawling bookstores just didn’t exist. Like museums and cathedrals, they were mirages we gawked at on brief urban field trips; there’s no way such places were real.

That winter, I came home from college, and soon heard that people were talking: they’d put a new bookstore out on Route 18, and everyone said it was huge. Skeptical, I headed for the highway, expecting another mall store, some glorified hallway with only the latest bestsellers; but at the end of a half-dead strip-mall, less than a mile from the local landfill, in front of a parking lot pitted with potholes and crags, was an oasis I’d never imagined.

Tables by subject, comfortable seating, intimate aisles with rich wooden shelves—I was overwhelmed. My small college town offered nothing like this, and I was doubly amazed to discover a “medieval studies” section, several shelves of books that I simply hadn’t known I could own. In the months that followed, I often returned, making many impulse purchases—The Kalevala, Njal’s Saga, The Poetic Edda, the works of Sir Thomas Malory—without foreseeing that one day I’d be teaching most of these books, sharing them with students who otherwise wouldn’t have known them.

I also didn’t foresee that after fifteen years, this bookstore, destined to be dubbed “underperforming,” would quietly go out of business.

On Sunday, shoppers lamented the store’s final week. “I’m so sorry you’re closing,” wailed one woman, accosting a startled clerk. “It’s going to kill me!” As I wandered the aisles the very last time, I was hardly as histrionic, because I couldn’t help noticing that where once there were no mega-bookstores within half an hour of where I grew up, now there are nearly twenty. The closing of one store may be worthy of wistfulness, but in our era of Amazon.com and convenient, coffee-mad superstores, the idea that such places can “underperform” should be cause for a satisfied smile.

We’re spoiled; we quickly forgot that on the eve of the invention of the first Web browser, a Borders store was such a big deal that we dragged out-of-towners to see it. Those big-city bookstores were somebody else’s; this box, full of futures, was ours.

“Vituð ér enn, eða hvat?”

In December, the death of Icelandic translator Bernard Scudder had been little noted by the literary world. A month later—and nearly three months after Scudder’s death—I’m glad to see (via Sarah Weinman) that The Guardian has finally published an obituary. It’s the most complete listing yet of Scudder’s many accomplishments. I was saddened to learn that he was just 53.

If you’re so inclined, remember Bernard Scudder by reading his translations of some recent Reykjavik-based crime thrillers, literary fiction such as Angels of the Universe, or medieval Icelandic classics such as Grettir’s Saga and Egil’s Saga. Scudder’s obituary doesn’t fully explain his passion for Iceland, but I suspect that the answer is found on each page.

“Flags, rags, ferry boats, scimitars and scarves…”

The Northeast is sunny with pseudo-spring; like most Washingtonians, I’m rather caught up in it. As we wait for the cold to re-descend, here are some fun links for a pleasant winter day.

The Gypsy Scholar turns a Philip Larkin poem upside down and discovers that it’s still quite readable.

Steven Hart ponders the second-best swordfight movie of all time.

Jonathan Jarrett jauntily (and justifiably) jabs at jargon.

Scott Nokes reviews Raising a Modern Day Knight and remembers the Fisher-Price toy that begat many a proto-medievalist.

Patrick Kurp pokes around in the memoirs of Sir Alec Guinness, who concluded that “Shakespeare can take care of himself.”

The folks who field-test microwaveable meals at HeatEatReview offer their top ten posts of 2007.

Bob Eckstein has written a History of the Snowman. Perhaps he’ll let us know about medieval snowmen?

Michael Blowhard pines for a self-help book to write a blog post about self-help books.

Finally, here’s a tragically incomplete video of the world’s greatest cover of “Stairway to Heaven.” How does it affect you blokes?

“…but then my homework was never quite like this.”

The holidays are over, and as faculty and students alike march wearily back to the classroom, many of them will surely ask themselves, “Qui a eu cette idée folle un jour d’inventer l’école?”

God bless ’em, the French can tell you: “C’est ce sacré Charlemagne!”

(Note: This video is safe for work, unless your colleagues are offended by cloying melodies, inane French lyrics, or benevolent animated statuary.)