Message in a Bottle
From Clay Tablets to Cell Phones

The chattering classes (a phrase coined by Auberon Waugh, son of novelist Evelyn Waugh) continue to debate the future of print. Literacy itself is on the upswing, as text messaging pushes aside voice mail and crawling chyrons take up increasing acreage on our TV screens, so pundits are less concerned than they once were about images replacing words completely. They’re still worked up about how those words will be delivered to us, though. Will everyone be reading eBooks or …. what to call them? Apparently we’ll soon need a retronym to clarify what we’re talking about, much as we now must specify “acoustic guitar” or “analog clock.” For now I’ll stick to calling them what they are, thanks—books.

The topic has been so much discussed that it’s grown more than a little tiresome. We at Island Books are happy to sell you a story in bits and bytes or on paper, as you prefer, and we try not make a big song and dance about it. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of how writers are creating their stories. That is, how does a tale turn from a mere fizzing in the mind into words that can be read?

imageThings started, of course, with the oral tradition. Bards around campfires told and retold stories for thousands of years before the idea of writing was born. The earliest examples of stories being permanently preserved in print come from around 2600 BC, when the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Egyptians began pressing cuneiform into clay tablets and carving hieroglyphs on stone walls. The most significant of these is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale of creation and destruction that still speaks to modern audiences. Papyrus, parchment, and paper were developed as the centuries passed, as were various alphabets that made writing easier, but authors continued to produce work by hand. Even after the development of the printing press in the 15th century, a story had to start as a manuscript. It wasn’t until 1883 that this changed.

imageimageThat was the year that Mark Twain employed a newfangled invention and submitted a typewritten copy of Life on the Mississippi to his publisher.  He’d handwritten it first and then had a secretary type it up. The technology took off soon after, and it wasn’t long before authors began composing right on the machine. Around the turn of the 20th century, Henry James dictated many of his novels to a typist, and fifty years later, Jack Kerouac famously bashed out On the Road in just two weeks in front of the keyboard. Harking back to ancient times, he typed onto a continuous scroll of paper instead of onto individual sheets.

Soon another innovation took root. As described in a recent Slate article, English thriller writer Len Deighton became the first person to write a novel via a word processor in 1968. The device weighed 200 pounds and had to be hoisted into his home with a crane. Much like Twain, Deighton required the assistance of a professional; it was a woman named Ellenor Handley who actually entered the words into the contraption so that fans could read Bomber.image

Nowadays we’re all using computers to write, or most of us are. A few holdouts, including Will Self and Cormac McCarthy, cling to their Underwoods and Olivettis (Olivettii?), but I certainly didn’t hand-write this before you read it. What’s next? Well, readers in Japan are enjoying something called the “cell phone novel,” consisting of short chapters of under a hundred words sent by text message. Presumably most, if not all of these are “written” by a pair of thumbs dancing across a handheld device. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the proliferation of this trend, but I won’t discount it. People probably laughed at the first scribe who switched from counting sheep to telling stories, and look how far that got us.


Tom Sawyer, His Fence, and Moving the Bookstore

I am discouraged by the state of literacy amongst the youth of this island. Shocked, actually. When I was young we walked barefoot down country roads to the town library  where the friendly librarian offered up and we hungrily devoured the classics. Peter Rabbit, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wind in the Willows, Mark Twain, Midsummer’s Night Dream. We learned of the wider world and how it works through reading. Life lessons.

For example: You learn that when a boy from Mississippi hands you a paintbrush and says how much fun it is to paint a fence you might want to consider the offer carefully. Basic stuff. Thus I was shocked when I told everyone how much fun it would be to move five tons of shelves and books so I could get our store re-carpeted and no one blinked an eye. Have these people never read about Tom Sawyer or Br’er Rabbit? Well, I am grateful the carpet job is behind us and I know I had fun, but I’m less sure about my hard-working, early-rising “volunteers.” To make amends and to further the education of islanders young and old, I will make all Mark Twain books half price for the month of July. The world is full of flimflam men and some of them might even take the guise of a kindly old bookseller…

With true gratitude and affection for you all,


A Sense of Place

Island BooksOne of the best reasons to read something new is to live the life you aren’t living, and there’s no better way to escape than into a book with a strong sense of place. We all want to find new adventures and explore uncharted lands, and through the eyes of great writers we have the opportunity to transport ourselves through space and time.  Our bookstore has such a sense of place, and while browsing around in here it’s hard to wish we were anywhere else. The good news is we can have it all—we can be both here and elsewhere between the pages of some of our favorite books. We’d like to send you on an armchair vacation too, so we put together this list of ten books that will take you on a memorable trip to…

Rules of Civility1) 1938 Post-Depression New York City: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall for this book’s sparkling atmosphere as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.

Wolf Willow2) Southern Saskatchewan frontier, Canada, early 1900s: Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner: Wallace Stegner weaves together fiction and nonfiction, history and impressions, childhood remembrance and adult reflections in this unusual portrait of his boyhood. Set in Cypress Hills in southern Saskatchewan, where Stegner’s family homesteaded from 1914 to 1920, Wolf Willow brings to life both the pioneer community and the magnificent landscape that surrounds it.

Anthill3) Alabama wildland: Anthill by E.O. Wilson: This autobiographical novel follows the thrilling adventures of a modern-day Huck Finn, whose improbable love of the “strange, beautiful, and elegant” world of ants ends up transforming his own life and the citizens of Nokobee County. Battling both snakes bites and cynical relatives who just don’t understand his consuming fascination with the outdoors, Raff explores the pristine beauty of the Nokobee wildland.

The Poisonwood Bible4)   1960s Belgian Congo: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn5)  1830s Mississippi river: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn paints an unforgettable picture of Mississippi frontier life, and combines picturesque adventure with challenging satire. This is the story of a teenaged misfit who floats on a raft down the Mississippi River with an escaping slave, Jim. In the course of their perilous journey, Huck and Jim meet adventure, danger, and a cast of characters who are sometimes menacing and often hilarious.

Snow Falling on Cedars6) 1950s San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: In 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder.  Rich memories of a land desired, loved, and lost, and a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo’s wife, hang over the ensuing trial. San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched. 


Caleb's Crossing7) 1660s Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks: Growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans, Bethia is restless and often slips away to explore the island’s glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship. Bethia’s minister father takes on the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb goes on to study at Harvard. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb’s crossing of cultures.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil8) 1980s Savannah, Georgia: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt: Was it murder or self-defense?  For nearly a decade, a shooting and its aftermath in Savannah’s grandest mansion reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares.  John Berendt’s suspenseful and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction.  Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

A Fine Balance9) 1970s Mumbai, India: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers—a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village—will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, this novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.

The Tender Bar10)  1980s Manhasset, Long Island: The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer: A moving, vividly told memoir full of heart, drama, and comic timing. J .R. Moehringer grew up without his father and instead turned to the bar on the corner, a grand old New York saloon that was a sanctuary for all types of men-cops and poets, actors and lawyers, gamblers and stumblebums. The flamboyant characters along the bar tended him, and provided a kind of fatherhood by committee. When the time came for J.R. to leave home, the bar became a way station—from his entrance to Yale; to his tragic romance with a woman out of his league; to his stint as a copy boy at the New York Times. Through it all, the bar offered shelter from failure and a constant, beloved place to call home.


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