Message in a Bottle


By a calendrical coincidence, this year’s Father’s Day is an especially literary one. It falls on June 16th, which is celebrated annually, at least by English majors, as Bloomsday. That’s the day on which Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, peregrinates around Dublin, and it’s the day on which Joyce’s ardent fans don period garb and recreate that journey by traipsing across the city in Bloom’s footsteps. On this side of the globe we just hoist a Guinness or two and affect an Irish accent for a few hours.

Ulysses has a lot to do with fatherhood, actually. Some representative quotes: 

  • A father, said Stephen, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil.
  • Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?  
  • [A son’s] growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy.

Sheesh. No wonder people drink on Bloomsday. Lighten up, Mr. Joyce.

imageMaybe yours is the rare dad who enjoys massive modernist classics about the torments of fatherhood. Or like me, maybe you are that dad. If so, you can visit Seattle’s Town Hall for an afternoon of live performance. Professional actors will be reading selections from Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners along with some excerpts of Ulysses. It shouldn’t be all that depressing, in fact. Joyce was never afraid of confronting the harshness of life, but he’s also one of the most inquisitive and accepting authors of all time. Leopold Bloom shares the open nature of his creator, and Ulysses is famous for its triumphant conclusion, when Leopold’s wife Molly unfurls an all-embracing soliloquy like none other:

…and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

For Joyce, the final word of any philosophical argument was … well, you know.

One doesn’t usually think of a monumental writer in the context of domestic life, but Joyce was devoted to his children and indulgent of their whims. He had a close rapport with his artistic but troubled daughter, and at least one biography (Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake) claims her as a major inspiration for his work. Perhaps the best elucidation of their complex relationship can be found in a graphic novel by Bryan and Mary Talbot called Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne is another famous figure of fiction who was familiar with family life. Given the times in which he lived, he wasn’t exactly a primary caregiver, but he did spend considerable quality time with the kids. When his wife and daughters traveled to visit relatives, Hawthorne was left alone for three weeks with his five-year-old son, and the experience resulted in a charming diary called Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa. This isn’t a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child narrative by a patriarch, but a story by a gentle, fun-loving parent that wouldn’t be out of place on a contemporary daddy blog.

An even briefer, yet equally profound depiction of a father and child can be found in a short story by Donald Barthelme that I’ve written about before. It’s called “The First Thing the Baby Did Wrong" and can be read in its entirety in about a minute. Its silliness only partly masks real feeling, and there’s a useful reminder in there too: "That is one of the satisfying things about being a parent—you’ve got a lot of moves, each one good as gold."

My move this Father’s Day will be to grab some books in one arm and my kids in the other. If there’s room in there somewhere for an Irish stout so I can toast Mr. Joyce, Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Barthelme, and all the other dads out there, so much the better.


47.8208° N, 121.5539° W

We’ve all heard of the Nobel, the Booker, and the Pulitzer, but have you ever heard of the H. W. Wilson Award? It’s a yearly prize for the book with the best index. Who knew? I was pleased to see that A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork is a past winner. It took the brilliance of Joseph Campbell to make sense of Joyce, but it took the quiet efforts of the far less famous Charlee Trantino to make sense of Campbell.

The American Society of Indexers has high standards. When no index cuts the mustard, as seems to be the case in 2012, no prize is awarded. You have to respect that kind of seriousness—the ASI isn’t out to make news about themselves, they’re trying to honor good work. Out of respect for their mission, and as a way of drawing attention to the humble, helpful bit at the back of the book that too few of us acknowledge, I found professional indexer Gina Guilinger and asked for her indexing insights.



When people find out I am a book indexer, the response I often get is, “I thought computers did that.” Most indexers do use dedicated indexing software, which is useful and powerful for alphabetizing, sorting, and other mechanical functions of creating an index. But all of the term selection is a result of the indexer actually reading the text and discerning thematic relationships. A computer-generated list of words that appear in a text is more properly called a concordance—a user has no sense of how those words may be interconnected or even relevant.

With the growing popularity of eBooks, the question arises: Why is an index necessary when one can use a search function? The most basic reason is that the terms and phrases one finds in an index will lead the reader to relevant information. Search will lead a reader to every instance of a term or phrase, but not always to information that is practical. Additionally, an indexer is able to gather all references to a subject under one heading whereas a reader relying solely on a search function will need knowledge of a wide variety of search terms to locate all of the references relevant to the query. For example, if one was reading a book about the American West and wanted to find mentions of Buffalo Bill, a search function would only direct the reader to instances where the author specifically used that name. In an index, the reader might look up Buffalo Bill and be directed to an entry for “Cody, William Frederick (Buffalo Bill).” If the reader was not already familiar with Buffalo Bill’s full name, a search function would miss many useful references.

As another example, in the index for a recent book I worked on, the reader will find an entry for “racial attitudes” and a variety of sub-entries directing the reader to information about the topic. Because the subject of the book was a former slave and because of the time period she lived and worked in, race is an important part of her story. If a reader is interested in finding references to race and/or racism in her life, a keyword search would be a cumbersome and time-consuming process. The reader would have to search “race,” “racism,” and “racial,” and still wouldn’t find all the instances in the book where race is discussed. The indexer can tie the nuances of the author’s words to the theme of the author’s writing, while a computer has no regard for context or meaning.

It’s tricky work, and it’s usually the very last part of a book to be completed. The indexer must work with final page proofs, meaning that page numbering has been determined and will (hopefully!) not be changed, so that the locators lead to the correct page. Depending on the length of the book and the depth of indexing required, the indexer, typically a freelancer contracted by the publisher or the author, has 2-4 weeks to complete the assignment, on average. The most time-consuming task is the editing. The indexer needs to make sure all entries are spelled correctly and that there is consistency in the phrasing of headings and subheadings. A multitude of cross-references, indicated by “see” or “see also,” must also be checked for consistency and to make sure they don’t point to a non-existent entry. When everything is finished, the index is shipped off to the client as either a .doc or .rtf file and the typesetters format the index file for printing of the book.

When it’s done right, an index enhances the value of the text for the reader. Nancy Mulvany, author of Indexing Books, sums up the job best: “The indexer is constantly balancing the words of the author with the needs of the reader.” So the next time you flip to the back of your favorite cookbook to find that cake recipe or turn to your computer manual when your screen goes blank, take a moment to silently thank the indexer who led you to the information you were seeking.

—Gina Guilinger was an independent bookseller for 15 years who currently owns and operates Weight of the Word Indexing Service. A version of this post also appears on the blog At Least We’re Here.

Legislators Are the Unacknowledged Poets of the World

On June 16th, while catching up with the news of the week, I read several articles about a not-so-minor political flap in Michigan. While the state legislature was debating a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a woman’s life was in danger, two female representatives were chastised by the Speaker of the House for “failing to maintain…decorum” and had their speaking rights suspended for the following day. One of the women had pushed for an amendment requiring that men prove their lives were in danger before obtaining vasectomies, while the other had concluded her remarks by sarcastically saying she was “flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina.”

The idea that it was inappropriate to say “vagina” while discussing issues involving human reproduction struck many observers the wrong way, and an outcry was heard across the nation. Was this mere prudish neo-Victorianism or was it Orwellian political oppression? (Note to self: Is it sexist to cite Orwell instead of Atwood here?) Others insisted it was the legislator’s tone, not her use of the word, that was being censured. There’s surely some truth to that, but I’m just as sure that far less decorous comments have been made by other politicians without gags being applied.

The incident reminded me of the brouhaha over the book that won the 2007 Newbery Prize. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron stars a 10-year-old protagonist named Lucky Trimble, who on the first page of the novel overhears a conversation she doesn’t fully understand. A former ne’er-do-well is regaling his buddies with an anecdote about the moment his life hit rock bottom, and it involves his dog being bitten “on the scrotum” by a rattlesnake. Many people (few of whom had actually read the book) objected to the very specific anatomical reference and claimed that there was no place in children’s literature for such vocabulary. Those who did read it knew that Patron had more than shock value in mind when she chose to employ it; Lucky’s development as a character is closely tied to a search for a loving, trustworthy adult who can explain things she knows she’s not equipped to deal with on her own. The message sent by the book as a whole was not that the word or the subject was fit for casual preteen use, but that kids need guidance as they grow older and confront adult topics. Patron, a children’s librarian when not wearing her author’s cap, agreed that parents should make their own judgments about whether the story was suitable for their kids, and encouraged discussion about the topic. Seems to me that this was the right response in that situation, and that more discussion, not less, was what was needed in the Michigan case.

I found an irony in reading about that conflict when I did, because of a much earlier controversy over the appropriateness of various words. James Joyce’s encyclopedic masterpiece Ulysses was published in 1922, but wasn’t legal for sale in the US until a landmark ruling in 1933 that declared it a serious work of art despite its more than occasional crudeness. Its characters—Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom, and many others—get up to all sorts of mischief in the course of the novel, and virtually all the proper (and improper) names for bodily parts and functions come into play at some point (“vagina” makes but a lone appearance, so far as I can tell). All the thoughts and actions in the book, base or exalted, famously take place on June 16th, a date that’s celebrated every year by Joyce fans who call it “Bloomsday.” It was on that date in 1904 that the fictional Buck Mulligan stood on the frigid Irish shore and violated taboo by referring to “[t]he snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” The Martello tower withstood the utterance of this vivid and accurate description, and so will our republic weather any storm of words from the pens of our authors or the mouths of our elected representatives.


Image of mute Justice by Miel Prudencio Ma.

A Tale of Two Shakespeares (and Co.)

We at Island Books would object to the idea that there are better places to shop for books than our own not-so-humble establishment, but we readily acknowledge that there are a number of such venues more famous than we are. Many of those are excellent in their own right, and this week is a good occasion to pay tribute to one of the finest and most famous among them.

On March 14, 1887, a girl named Nancy Woodbridge Beach was born in Baltimore. She later adopted the first name by which she’s better known today, Sylvia, and spent several years traveling and studying in Europe. Falling in love with a small bookshop in the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris, she was moved to launch a similar venture of her own. Her first notion was to return to New York and open a branch store that would introduce French writers to an American audience, but the prohibitively high rents back home encouraged her to stay in Paris and open an English-language bookshop and lending library. Thus was born, in 1919, Shakespeare and Company, which would later become the literary headquarters for James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and the Lost Generation. Sylvia Beach not only ran a successful business at a time when it was a fairly daring thing for a woman to do, she hosted salons, loaned money to authors, and even published their work herself when she believed in it strongly enough. Without her, there’d be no Ulysses, a novel she championed in the first place by printing it and later by vigorously defending it against censorship and charges of obscenity. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that she’s today considered the patron saint of booksellers.

During the years that the shop flourished, it was directly across the street from La Maison des Amis des Livres, the sister store that inspired Shakespeare and Co. La Maison was run by Adrienne Monnier (pictured at right above), who in many ways is the true heroine of the story. It was her counsel, support, and example that allowed Beach (center, looking at James Joyce) to accomplish what she did, and the close professional relationship the two women shared was intertwined with a deep personal attachment. Tracing the thirty-six years of love between them is a highlight of reading The Letters of Sylvia Beach, edited by Keri Walsh.

Shakespeare and Co. survived for over two decades, making it through the Great Depression and closing its doors only when the Nazis occupied Paris. Legend has it that the store was shuttered in 1940 when Beach refused to make a sale to a German officer. Although it was unofficially liberated by none other than Ernest Hemingway, returning to his old stomping grounds as a military correspondent in 1944, it never reopened after the war.

In 1951, another American expatriate, George Whitman, opened an English-language bookshop in the Fifth Arrondissement that he called Le Mistral after the dry wind that blows across France toward the Mediterranean. It became a haven for a new generation of artists and writers, even becoming a temporary home for many in the Beat Generation as they passed through Paris. He intentionally modeled his operation after Beach’s, and at a 1958 dinner together, she symbolically passed her mantle on to him. She died in 1962, and two years later, Whitman renamed the store Shakespeare and Company. He continued to host regular poetry readings, provide a lending library, and offer bed space between the shelves to visiting writers of every stripe until his death this last December, two days after he turned 98. He and his shop have been immortalized in various films and books, with one of the most complete pictures being painted in Time Was Soft There, a memoir by Jeremy Mercer.

Shakespeare and Co. still thrives, under new management that’s been in place since 2003. The current owner/operator has professionalized things a bit, putting the store on firmer fiscal footing without sacrificing its tradition or its charm. It’s a nifty trick she’s pulling off, an extra impressive one considering she took the reins at the tender age of 22. Of course, bookselling runs in her blood, since she’s George Whitman’s daughter. You can see Sylvia Beach Whitman on site and in action in this video interview from Craig Ferguson’s The Late, Late Show.

Happy 125th birthday to Sylvia Beach, and here’s to another sixty years of Shakespeare and Co. with her namesake at the helm.


Genius For All Ages

There’s a book I’d been planning to mention somewhere on the blog this holiday season, and I’m going to do it today, but I’m going to talk about a couple of others first that might not seem to have much to do with each other, so bear with me.

The first is a classic picture book most of you will probably remember, either from your own childhood or from your children’s bookshelves. It was first published in 1964, and it’s as fresh today as it was then. It stars Frances, who decides one day that there’s only one meal she wants to eat. Instead of drawing a line in the sand, her parents decide to indulge her wish, so thereafter it’s Bread and Jam for Frances morning, noon, and night. It’s not surprising to adults, though it may be to kids, that the delight Frances feels at exercising her will and getting exactly what she thinks she wants soon wanes. There’s a lesson in the book, obviously, but it’s not at all heavy-handed. What’s at stake, while important, especially to the young, isn’t exaggerated, and Frances has a real childlike quality that makes it all wholly believable. To this day I can’t help thinking of her as a person even though she comes from a family of cute, furry badgers.


The second book dates from 1980, and it’s a science fiction novel for adults called Riddley Walker. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where civilization has deteriorated to subsistence level, and it’s one of those books that some people would (rather insultingly) say “transcends its genre.” This is because it’s written in a rich, unusual style that teaches you how to read it as you turn the pages. To give you an idea, the narrator begins the book with these lines:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly been the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt been none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

In terms of language it’s on par with Anthony Burgess and James Joyce, managing to suggest what really might happen to our human ability to communicate after a catastrophic event. It contains snatches of  ancient mythology and 20th-century jargon, along with bits evocative of everything from Beowulf to Chaucer and maybe even Cormac McCarthy. In the way it rolls together the history and future of English, it almost creates a genre of its own.

The third book, the one I’d planned to talk about all along, is called The Mouse and His Child, and it actually is a holiday book of sorts. It tells the story of a father and son, wind-up mice purchased as a present and later discarded when they wear out. Battered and broken, they’re rescued and partially repaired by a tramp, who sets them wandering in search of a home. Danger finds them in the form of a malicious rat and battling shrews, they find philosophy in the form of a scholarly turtle at the bottom of a pond, and thanks to their persistence, the plot eventually finds them quietly triumphant, with a new family and a place of their own to celebrate the winter season. You’ll normally see this book shelved in a section for middle-grade readers, but it has all the depth and nuance of adult literature. It’s exciting and eventful even while it occasionally touches on dark, melancholy themes—desperate parental love, war, existential angst, and poverty among them. The book begins and ends at Christmastime, and it’s filled with a pure hopefulness that’s not at all maudlin, so I always think of it in December and have ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago. 

What all these books have in common is that they’re the work of a single author, Russell Hoban. I can’t find the exact quote I had in mind, but he’s been described as the one person who has produced stone classics for every reading age, from picture books for the very young to chapter books for their older siblings to fiction for their parents. In recent years he’s even comically treated the trials of the elderly, as in his novel Linger Awhile. He’s a remarkable writer deserving of considerable attention. 

I’d just taken my copy of The Mouse and His Child off the shelf, intending to share it with my own kids for the first time, when I heard the news that inspired me to expand this post beyond its initial scope. Russell Hoban died this week at the age of 86. According to one obituary, he predicted back in 2002 that death would “be a good career move … People will say, ‘Yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again.’” They should.


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