14 July, 2009

A Mentor of Sorts

Friday night, my son and I were hanging out at the monthly open house they have at the Fine Arts Building. After viewing all the galleries and studios, we ended up at Selected Works, a used bookstore, where there was something of a reunion going on. Ron, the proprietor of what had been the largest used bookstore on the Northside in the 70’s and 80’s, was there with one of his former employees, and they were reminiscing about the old days in the book trade with Keith, the owner of Selected Works. For a year or so, I had been in the book trade, working for Roe and Sons, and I also had friends who worked for Chandler, Bookman’s Alley, and Bookseller’s Row, so I immediately joined the discussion. Mostly it was gossip about who was working where these days, how the internet was a real opportunity for increased sales, but how it also drove down prices and made keeping a store-front ever more difficult. We each knew of three stores that had shut down in the last year, though all three proprietors were still selling on-line.

Though the others there were about ten years older than me, it turned out that, having grown up in Chicago, I had the longest memory of the book trade in this town.

None of us remember the the name of it, but we all remembered the first used book store on North Lincoln Avenue. I had been a patron in the early 1970’s, and the fellow that ran it (I never knew his name) was a real curiosity. He was working class, self-educated, very widely read, full of unpopular opinions and unorthodox views. My father used to say that he “epitomizes the genius and ignorance of the self-educated.” He was unlike anyone else I had ever met and most Saturday afternoons would find me hanging out at his bookstore. The fellow was always recommending things for me to read and, for about two years, he pretty much determined the books that shaped my world-view. He was full of advice, and these are the things I learned from him.

1] Read original sources. Studying the Second World War? Start with a good general history and then, once you have the lay of it in your head, go right to memoirs, journalism, and books by the participants. At the time I was interested in WW2, and the fellow steered me to memoirs by Speer, von Melenthin, and Saburō Sakai, a Japanese Zero pilot, he threw Bill Mauldin’s “Up Front” at me but advised that I avoid “Crusade in Europe.” He got me a copy of the Army Officer’s Manual from 1941 and a re-print of the last pre-war edition of Jane’s All the World's Fighting Ships. I didn’t just learn a lot about it, I learned how to research a subject.

2] Read the other guy’s stuff. You’re a communist? Go read Mein Kampf. Read National Review and Worker’s Vanguard. Read Marx and Hayek. Read Mill and Burke. Sure, some of it will turn out to be a lot of long-winded nonsense (e.g. Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind”) but some of it has insights that you will never get from the fellows on your own side (e.g. Burnham’s "Suicide of the West”). Read it all.

3] If you want to know what a fellow thinks, read his essays, if you want to know how he thinks, read his memoirs. Bill Buckley and Whitaker Chambers sound a lot alike in the pages of National Review, but “God & Man at Yale” shows Buckley to be a first class jerk, while “Witness” is actually rather touching.

4] Read books. Reading periodicals is like watching the second hand of a clock. Journalism is ephemeral, just has to make a single impression, but a book has to be though out, consistent, complete. You might pick up an idea or two from magazines or newspapers, but you really learn things from books.

5] Old men know a thing or two. Most things have been tried before and have failed, and old men have been around long enough to know what doesn’t work. The New Left was such an unmitigated catastrophe because everything the old men of the Left knew was lost and forgotten.

6] Don’t fall for false linkages. Everybody has an agenda and the best way of putting their agenda across is by linking something they want to something everybody wants, or linking something bad to the agenda of their opponents. Saying that only an anti-Semite would oppose the State of Israel is a false linkage. Saying that only a racist would oppose Affirmative Action is a false linkage. Calling gay marriage “marriage equality” is a false linkage.

I learned a lot from that guy but, as I say, I never knew his name. Imagine my surprise Friday when I found out that he was known in the book trade as “Bigot John.”

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