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The writer's paradise, lost

"Death of literature? Not just yet" was the title of an article in this paper that I read with savage indignation and some amusement. Literature kaput and defunct? Of course it is. Dead's-a-doornail is the Down East expression, out like a light, see-ya-later. Contrary evidence in the article enlivened the obsequies but were contrived, offered by the wrong people, mostly publishers, and sounded like asking the oculist if you need spectacles.

Nothing was said about the fatal affliction. There isn't a publishing house or a bookstore in the United States today that cares a hoot about literature, and if one or all of them cries foul at this reprimand, their actions will not support them.

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Behold the parable of Sanford Phippen: Sandy is a schoolteacher in our Maine community of Orono, which is properly pronounced "or'no" and is the seat of the University of Maine.

Sandy is a Hancock County boy, and accordingly full of beans, blueberries, corned hake, and native intelligence. He wrote a book. It is a good book, and with keen wisdom under a sly grin it tells how Sandy was kitchen boy in a tidewater summer hotel.

"Kitchen Boy" was published by an optimistic if small Maine house, and shortly thereafter, Sandy wrote a letter to Mr. Barnes and Mr. Noble, who run the bookstores. He politely asked them why they did not offer "Kitchen Boy" in their store near his home.

Before the law firm retained by Barnes & Noble rises to gird its loins and strike, let me say that I have in hand a copy of the reply Sandy received from Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble wrote, with computerized logic, that their records showed they had sold none of Sandy's books last year, and consequently had bought none this year.

Last year, Sandy didn't have a book. In the same letter, treading on their own logic, they told Sandy they never buy from authors and publishers but only from distributors, and that if Sandy would find himself a distributor they would take 10 copies. As I understand it, there has been no perceptible fruition of this suggestion. Among the pallbearers were Barnes & Noble.

A poet named Flaccus once prayed for a bit of land with a garden, a bubbling spring, some trees, and he wrote that the gods had sent all this and more, and he was heartily content. Aristotle called for "pleasing language," and nobody ever did better than Flaccus. If you scramble one of his poems, so meticulously precise was his wordsmithing, you can put it back together only in the order Flaccus first chose. The Sabine Farm offered tranquillity where Flaccus could compose. Wordsworth wrote that poetry stems from emotion recollected in tranquillity.

There has never been a publisher or bookseller who made a book. Publishers and booksellers are in business, and writers are not. O.O. McIntyre was a writer and wrote that he was working when he was just looking out the window. Didn't my own dear wife tell the census man, "Oh, no, my husband doesn't work; he's a writer!"

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An author is a sad-faced creature sitting off alone wondering why nobody pays attention. All a writer desires is peace and quiet and a window nearby. Publishers, today, do not know this, and make a big to-do under writers' windows to keep them stirred up and cranky all over the place. Writers want to be loved, and everybody kicks them.

Is there a publisher in the country who wouldn't gladly, even cruelly, swap Joseph Conrad or James Hilton for any $lime $pe$ialli$t bringing in the cookie$? Goodbye, Mr. Chips, indeed!

There may be a blessed exception and possibly two, but in general, today the biggest enemies of literature are the publisher and the bookstore. And please don't write to tell me of some dear, sweet, little lady who still keeps a browsing stall where you can sit relaxed and enjoy the cookies she brings.

One such dear, sweet, leftover from literary days told the local newspaper the other day, "I have a terrible time getting the publisher to send me Kenneth Roberts and Plupy Shute and stuff like that, but when I get some they sell immediately."

John Milton, after looking out his window, told us that a good book is not a dead thing, but contains a potency of life to be as great as the master spirit that wrote it. As well kill a man, he said, as kill a good book.

You may have a bit of a hunt to find a bookstore with some Milton. (Look on the agriculture shelf, for he did a book about a garden.)

Does anyone remember playing a card game called Authors? It was sinful to play cards on Sundays, so we were told, but Authors was instructive, literary, and quite proper. So we could play cards after all. Each card had a picture of an author, and each one except George Eliot had whiskers. There were memory quotations to enrich our perceptions, and a short time at the game was as good as Literature II at any seminary.

In my youth I was thus encouraged to enjoy literature. A fine-looking bunch those authors were, dignified and decent, looking like dear uncles. I wouldn't care to sit in on a game of Authors with the grumpy, dispirited complexions brought on by the abuses of today's book business. An author should not be caused to look through the glass darkly. Nothing should keep him from writing as funny as he can.


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