Wendy Werris’ An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books
Carroll & Graf, 2006

This is the final read that completes my plans for the Bibliophilic Challenge; I am still reading bookish books and chatting about them on Fridays, but my duties as a Litlover are complete and, for once, I underestimated my reading ability (I might as well have signed up for a dozen after all).

Of the six books that I’ve read with this challenge in mind, my favourite, hands down, was Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night. Comparatively speaking, the prose in Matthew Battles’ book (though highly informative) felt a bit impersonal to me, so I never felt a strong sense of connection, and the others had a strong element of memoir and lots of personality alongside the bookishness, but I didn’t feel a sense of connection with those personalities.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop Lewis Buzbee
Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.Jeremy Mercer
The Library at Night Alberto Manguel
Library: An Unquiet History Matthew Battles
A Pound of Paper, Confessions of a Book Addict John Baxter
An Alphabetical Life: Living it up in the World of Books Wendy Werris

For me, stronger connections exist with Wendy Lesser’s Rereading and Remembering or Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: it’s a personal choice but, hey, not much is more personal for me than reading. Still, Wendy Werris’ life is truly book-soaked (she was a bookstore clerk and then she was a publisher’s sales rep) and I can easily relate to that.

I loved the way that she marks time with books, for instance. “The best-selling books of those years help to put my job at Pickwick into both a literary context and a cultural time warp. In nonfiction, I recall Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown), the book that put Native American issues squarely in the middle of discussions on racism; I’m OK — You’re OK (Thomas A. Harris, M.D.), about transactional psychoanalysis; Inside the Third Reich (Albert Speer); The Sensuous Woman (“J”), with a theme about sexual freedom that piggybacked on the early feminist movement…”

When I was working in a bookstore, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Victor Ostrovsky’s By Way of Deception, Timothy Findley’s Inside Memory, and Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand were best-sellers. Funnily enough, even though I was not at all a non-fiction reader at the time, these titles came back easily, the many requests from patrons lodging them in some particular corner of my bookish memories.

Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth, Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, James Michener’s Caribbean, Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, and P.D. James’ Devices and Desires, were popular fiction at the time. As Werris says (“Just the mention of any of these books today instantly brings me back to the time and place that was Pickwick”), these books are memory markers for me.

She discusses the importance of hand-selling and the sense of community that flourishes in a literary community (well, none of us here in blogland need that explained, right?). “This [84 Charing Cross Road] is one of my best-loved books of all time, and if you haven’t discovered it yet I recommend it with my whole heart. I placed this book in more hands while I worked at Campbell’s than any other in my career.”

Helene Hanff’s book is a favourite of many booklovers, so it’s no stretch for most of us to imagine the kind of enthusiasm Werris has for it. And she was in a position that allowed her to voice her opinion in an influential way.

“It’s a gesture of literary intimacy that worked a half-century ago and continues to make best sellers out of orphaned books that get published without the proper amount of care. The hand-selling that continues in independent bookstores can make them flourish without the budget for an author tour or print advertising; they are the books that bring out the best in all concerned and deserve to be recognized.”

Orphaned books. Doesn’t it make your reader’s heart skip a beat? The book-rescuer in you swells forth. “It’s important to circulate enthusiasm for titles we love, for in doing so we keep the flow of books ongoing and strong. Everyone benefits from this — the bookstore, the publisher, and especially the reader. For me this is the entire point, the true blessing, of being in the business of books.”

And, in that sense, aren’t we all in the Business of Books? But perhaps some of us more than others, in the technical sense.

In speaking of Anne Chiquoine’s Books, which closed in 1989, she says: “She was always challenging me to stretch myself and to think more deeply. The books Anne suggested I read were always valuable additions to my library, including Joyce Carol Oates (Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart) and Dennis McFarland (The Music Room). I also began rereading some of the classics, thanks to her prodding, and was able to find a new depth in the writings of Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, and others.”

I’m sure we can all think of books we’ve read because someone else challenged us or prodded us in a new or different direction. So, as with the other books I read for the Bibliographic Challenge, there were definitely parts of Wendy Werris’ bookish memoir that rang true for me and I think other bookish folks could easily related to at least parts of her memoir as well.

Any of these parts ring true for you too?