In which I celebrate the sheer joy of the bookstore

by Lorin Michel Sunday, July 17, 2011 10:49 PM

For a writer, a bookstore is like crack cocaine to a drug addict. You walk in the door, feel the cool rush of air conditioning and breathe in the intoxicating scent of paper and ink mingling with the blood, sweat and tears of the writers whose names grace each jacket, each cover. In new bookstores, the shelves that greet you are long and welcoming. Tables stretch ahead, adorned with signs touting “new releases,” “great new writers,” “new in paperback,” and “discoveries.” In used bookstores, the fragrance is almost overwhelming. It’s slightly musty, obviously old, like walking into an antique store, but that fragrance is rich in history, and the pages of those books, those pre-owned books, bear the mark, feel and scent of those who turned the pages before.

In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet dictates to Baruch the scribe the mode in which his book was written. Scribes are considered the earliest booksellers, supplying copies of the books they heard dictated to those who asked. Aristotle is said to have possessed an extensive library; Plato is said to have paid quite a bit of money, one hundred minae, for three small books by Philolaus the Pythagorean. One of the first libraries, the Alexandrian in Greece, was founded in 300 BC, with various people procuring books to showcase for the masses.

In Ancient Rome, it became a fashion statement to have a library as part of a household and Roman booksellers flourished. Their shops were called taberna librarii. So great was the desire for books that a law was passed granting scribes the ownership of the material written.

During the Abbasid Caliphate in the east and Caliphate of Cordoba in the west, medieval Islam also encouraged the development of bookshops and dealers. And the great demand of copies of Christian gospels and the bible increased demand for books by scribes and new stationers even more.

Bookselling took on even greater significance in 1470 when Antony Koburger introduced the art of printing. Henry VIII and Edward VI on England tried to meet the demand for books but were stopped by the monarchs of the Tudor dynasty. Regardless, the first patent for a king’s printer was granted to Thomas Berthelet by Henry VIII in 1529 and book printing and thus bookselling progressed from there.  Unfortunately, the great fire of London in 1666 destroyed many of the books of the time because they had been stored in the vaults of St. Paul’s Churchyard. Pity, that.

Which brings me to Barnes & Noble, the bookseller founded by Charles Barnes in 1873. The first actual bookstore was opened in 1917 in New York City by William Barnes, Charles’ son, and G. Clifford Noble, at 31 West 15th Street. In 1932, it moved to its flagship location at 18th Street and Fifth Avenue. I thought of this store today, a store I visited when I was in high school and traveled to New York with my mother for the weekend. I remember walking Fifth Ave, popping into Tiffany’s and other stores, but the one I remember most was Barnes & Noble, the premier bookstore of New York, of the world. The front of the store was sidewalk to ceiling glass, stocked with books, of course, and the inside was pure drug-fueled magic to this budding writer. Today there are 717 stores and some 637 college bookstores. Most now provide a place to curl up with a good book, along with a coffee café because a cup of coffee and an entrancing tome go hand in hand.

Walk into a bookstore and breathe in history, romance, war, magic, mysticism, drama, comedy, literature, art, film, poetry, reference and more. I did earlier today when I entered the Barnes & Noble in Westlake Village. It was Sunday morning, and this bookstore on this day was my cathedral, my place of worship.

I worshipped to the tune of nearly $150, and I thank god that such a place exists for addicts like me to get a fix.

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live out loud

It's all about the story

by Lorin Michel Monday, June 27, 2011 10:22 PM

Did you hear? Tell me what happened. It was about a year ago. Just last week. Once upon a time. It was a dark and stormy night. As creatures of this planet, our lives revolve around a story. We are, ourselves, each a story. As Dickens’ David Copperfield begins so astutely: “To begin my life at the beginning of my life, I record that I was born.” And his story develops from there. We are born into a circumstance, we grow up with family, we fight with siblings, we go to college or out into the work force, and a new story begins, our adult story. Sometimes along the way, there are dramatic plot twists. Someone gets sick, a parent dies, a first love cheats and breaks your heart. Each one of us is a non-fiction story that is at times interesting, occasionally heightened and most often painfully ordinary. That’s why fiction exists.

There are many kinds of stories and story telling and they are all part of the rich, textured, quilted and fraying fabric we call life.

Ever since there were humans, we have been telling each other tales. The caves of ancient dwellers remain illustrated with their stories, of how they hunted and slew their prey; of how they migrated to new caves, men dragging their women by the hair. Native Americans are famous for the stories they told verbally, a tradition that would be passed from generation to generation, nothing ever being written down but rather enhanced by memory and time, becoming ever more colorful, warriors described as increasingly brave.

The ancient Egyptians told stories in the great pyramids using hieroglyphics. The Greeks created gods and goddesses, as did the Romans. When Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth, his followers began the stories that would become legend, many of them ending up in the number-one selling short story book of all time: The bible.

“In the beginning…”

Once man (and woman) began to actually write things down, more stories began to emerge in forms that people could keep for themselves. Plays were created, along with poetry and sonnets, and exquisite letters penned by nobility. Novels were written and great literature was born. Journalists and anarchists alike wrote stories of what was happening in the world, often painting a picture of a place readers would never see except in their minds. That’s what the greatest stories did and still do: transport the reader to another place, often another time, into a different world other than the world in which they currently reside. David Carr, a media columnist for the New York Times describes journalism as the space that exists between people.

Songwriters are phenomenal storytellers. They are poets with guitars, pianos and a good beat. Some of the best are still telling stories today. Bruce Springsteen and John Mayer come to mind. Is it possible to listen to a song and not get wrapped up in its particular story?

“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves; Like a vision she dances across the porch As the radio plays; Roy Orbison singing for the lonely; Hey that’s me and I want you only; Don’t turn me home again I just can’t face myself alone again.”

Photographers tell a story on film as do filmmakers. These stories, told visually, are the new version of cave paintings and hieroglyphics.

In the old days, people sat around a fire, telling stories, spinning tales. Sometimes they did this because they couldn’t read or write and the stories only existed in their minds. It’s how children tell stories today. They may not have command of the language yet, in terms of writing something down, but they have exquisite command of their imaginations. Listen to a child as they create a universe that you’ve never visited, where the colors are vibrant, the people are all short and the sky is purple with six moons, where the land is populated by puppies and bears and their job is to save those puppies. Where the bear caves are dark, scary. Where the roars are loud, ear shattering and teeth clattering. These are the stories of children.

They’re about creating a world for them to exist, even temporarily, where they are heroes and heroines, where they can conquer all and save the puppy. Funny how it’s never the kid sister or the parents.

The stories we tell ourselves are similar. We create worlds we want to live in, where we’re stronger than we actually are, capable of dealing with any situation with grace and wit, where we always know the right thing to say and do. I love the idea of the story, the poetry of it, the imagination of each one. I think the space that exists all around us and flows in and out and through us is where our stories reside.

Mine is a work in progress. What’s yours?

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live out loud

May I call you Jimmy?

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, June 15, 2011 7:49 PM

When I was in college, studying Creative Writing and English Literature in order to get my bachelor’s degree at the University of New Hampshire, I did both a lot of writing and a lot of reading, getting lost inside stories that transported me like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or journeying back to Shakespearian England to tread the boards and sometimes choking through works that I liked but didn’t love, words that I read but didn’t absorb, like the short stories of James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet considered one of the most influential and modernist avant-garde writers of the early 20th century, a writer I truly appreciated because I knew I was supposed to but a writer I could never really embrace though I do remember reading and liking – sort of – The Dead, the last short story in his book of short stories entitled Dubliners, about a man named Gabriel who has an epiphany about himself, his wife, their past, the living and the dead, ultimately revealing his smallness and insecurity, an introspective philosophy that I didn’t quite catch at the time because I was only 21 and not yet attuned to the fine art of symbolism as applied to great works of literature and especially as applied by Joyce…

… who would go on to pen one of the novels ranked first by the Modern Library on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, Ulysses, a book that both paid homage to Homer’s Odyssey – Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s book – and turned it completely on its head with Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique (the last episode or chapter is comprised of run-on sentences that employ little to no punctuation), unique structuring, experimental prose, puns, parodies, allusions, humor and obscenities that actually put the book on trial, but which I have never read even though I’ve tried because it’s just too obscure, though I have to admit that his stream of consciousness idea is one that intrigues me as both a writer and a story teller and I’m seriously considering picking the book up again one of these days, after I plow through some of the other piles of books that I haven’t read but want to, to finally read a book that’s actually one of those books that achieves greatness without actually being a great book, a category I suspect many books from the 19th and 20th century fall into, but no matter;

I will open the book about Leopold Bloom and read about his ordinary Dublin day, taking place on the 16th of June 1904, a date that is celebrated annually as Bloomday on the streets of Dublin, Ireland where James Joyce penned his most famous work and all of his works, and where one day I hope to visit, but not until I read that damned book so that I can fully appreciate and participate in this most literary of celebrations even as tonight I trying something a little different as part of my own celebration of James Joyce and that’s the run-on sentence because if you’re still reading, which I sincerely hope you are, you may have realized that this entire post is one, long, drawling, ridiculous sentence: a true celebration of language, grammar and punctuation because even with this whole thing being one sentence, Microsoft Word has not seen fit to underline it in green to tell me that it’s wrong. 

The great first paragraph from "The Prince of Tides"

by Lorin Michel Saturday, April 30, 2011 11:36 AM

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

“I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders. As a boy I was happy about the channels, navigating a small boat between sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters exposed on the brown flats at the low watermark. I knew every shrimper by name, and they knew me and sounded their horns when they passed me fishing in the river.”


The opening lines from The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, one of the most exquisitely written books I’ve ever devoured. It is truly haunting in its prose.

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great first paragraphs

Auntie Warren holded the ladder for Uncle Kebin

by Lorin Michel Sunday, April 24, 2011 8:37 PM

Many years ago, Kevin and I were doing some painting in the great room. He was up on the extension ladder, the top feet resting against the beam traversing the ceiling that goes all the way to the top of the second story. We had done some drywall sanding as well so there was a fine layer of dust on the marble floor of the entry way, where the bottom feet of the ladder rested.

I’m not a big fan of ladders though I understand their necessity, and evidently so does just about everyone in world, now and for centuries past. In fact, the first known recording of humans using ladders can be seen in a Mesolithic rock painting in a cave in Valencia, Spain. The painting is at least 10,000 years old and shows non-descript humans carrying baskets or bags up a ladder that seems to be made of grass as they climb to reach a bee’s nest. Obviously they were in search of honey. More modern ladders were first built by Hebrews and Egyptians during the rule of the great Pharaohs. Many were used to build the pyramids. Those were fixed ladders, largely constructed of bamboo or other reeds.

There are 14 different types of ladders currently in existence. While most were originally made of wood, aluminum was introduced in the 20th century because of its lighter weight.

There are bridge ladders, which are used horizontally, and cat or chicken ladders used on steep roofs to keep roof dwellers from sliding off into oblivion. There’s also a roof ladder that hooks over the ridge of a pitched roof. A folding ladder has hinges; a hook or pompier ladder has a hook to grab things like windowsills, explaining why they’re so popular with firefighters, as are turntable ladders that are fitted to the rotating platform on top of fire trucks. An orchard ladder has three legs so it can be placed between branches to make things like apple picking easier, and safer. Step ladders, patented in 1862, are short; builder’s ladders have multiple sections so they can be short or long. A telescoping ladder has three parts that can form two step ladders while a vertically rising ladder is designed to climb impossibly high, reaching nearly infinite points.

And then there is the extension ladder like ours. It has a pulley system so Kevin can raise or lower it by himself, lock it into place and then climb to wherever he needs to climb.

Yesterday, he was using it against the palm trees in the yard, extending it high up toward the fronds so he could cut down the dead ones and clean up the trees in general. There are three such trees. They reach to the sky, and there he was balancing against a ladder that was leaning against a long tree that has very slick bark. I was on the ground, trying to keep the ladder steady as it slid from side to side as he wielded some kind of saw on a pole. Fronds crashed around me. Rigid spears sliced through the air. But the mission was accomplished without incident.

The same cannot be said for that episode many years ago when the extension ladder had a seemingly solid place to rest against the beam. The beam, it seems, was not the problem. The fine layer of drywall dust was. Under Kevin’s weight, the feet slid as if on ice and the ladder fell, bringing my husband crashing to the floor, through furniture and paint cans. We spent the day in the emergency room before learning he had been lucky, suffering only torn ligaments in his ankle and a couple of bruises.

I told my sister about our little episode and she called back several hours later with this question, dripping with wisdom, from my then four year old niece: “Why didn’t auntie Warren holded the ladder for uncle Kebin?”

I celebrate that wisdom every time my husband insists on climbing to the sky.

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relative celebrations

You've got mail(box)

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:49 PM

It’s a ritual nearly as old as the fine art of writing itself. It is the art of writing a letter and putting it in the mail with the hope and knowledge that it will make its journey however long or short to its intended destination; that it will be delivered via a certified mail delivery person who will walk, drive, or ride to deposit the envelope into a proper receptacle. A mailbox.

According to the National Postal Museum, the mailbox has been around for more than 150 years. But the earliest history of a mailbox in the US is actually at the corner of Boxtree Road and Lewis Road in East Quogue, New York. It stood there in the late 1700s. In 1863, postal carriers began delivering mail to homes by knocking on doors and waiting patiently for someone to answer. Because people were often not home, mail like that special letter, wasn't delivered in a timely manner. People soon began installing mail slots or letterboxes as they’re known in Europe. Of course, this was in the city. If you lived in the country, where roads were scarcely traveled, there was often no delivery at all. In 1896, the United States Post Office introduced a concept called rural free delivery, though mailboxes consisted of empty bushel baskets, tins and wooden boxes. In 1923, the Post Office mandated that every household have either a mailbox or a mail slot in order to have mail delivered. The flag was added later.

Originally, the flag was raised not by the owner of the box to signify outgoing mail, but by the mail delivery person to indicate mail had been delivered. Post Office employee Roy Joroleman designed the curved, tunnel-shaped box, so rain and snow could slide off, with its latching door and movable signal flag to indicate outgoing mail in 1915. This box became the standard for years, especially after the Post Office issued specifications for curbside mailbox construction for use by a variety of manufacturers.

Luckily, not everyone complies with the standard. And as long as they conform with specs that will hold at least one and half inches of stacked envelopes without bending or damage, be about 9 inches wide and 13 inches high, standing between 27 inches and 66.5 inches off the ground and be able to withstand rain, wind, snow or sleet, they’re OK to display any artistic box they want.

Mail delivery is what truly matters; the style and shape and personality of the box is what defines both the mail sender and the receiver. It’s a way to non-conform and a way to celebrate originality.

Our mailbox is currently standard issue. A black dome shape. Some of the paint has flaked off, exposing gray steel beneath. The front latch takes some coaxing to get it to catch correctly. The box came with the house and it’s on a post at the curb with three other boxes just like it. It holds our incoming and outgoing mail, and its red flag works just fine.

I have to admit that I’d like to revert to the old days, when the flag was raised to indicate mail had arrived. It’s much more dramatic and suspenseful to see what’s waiting, who wrote, and what they have to say.

These days, most of the people who write are asking me to send them money. In other words, you’ve got bills!

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The great first paragraph from "The Poisonwood Bible"

by Lorin Michel Monday, April 11, 2011 6:40 PM

"Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever."

The opening lines from The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

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great first paragraphs

What words can do

by Lorin Michel Sunday, March 20, 2011 9:44 PM

I like to think that words can enlighten and confound, create and obscure, twist together to form stories, papers, letters, articles, emails, texts, poetry, sonnets, plays, song. We speak words; we scream them. We sing them. We embrace them, become them, memorize and recite them. They define our personalities, the way we speak, the way we communicate, the way we emote and feel. Words define each culture, cleverly disguised as language. Each and every one, no matter how small or how elaborate, tells a tale of romance, redemption, infidelity, joy, drama, tragedy, comedy, reality and truth. Beauty.

Most of us never even think of the words we use, but I think of them everyday, imagine how to use them and somehow find a way to put a string of them together to make a sentence or two, a paragraph or three.

In my world, words become art.

On this rainy Sunday, I give you this: Portrait of a woman of words.

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The Power of Words

by Lorin Michel Friday, February 25, 2011 11:50 PM

As a writer, I am naturally enamored with words, all of them. The ones I know and even the ones I don’t. One word can alter the course of a conversation, even change the course of a relationship. The right word can bring both smiles and tears, sometimes simultaneously. The wrong word can bring anger, fear and loathing.

I use words to make my living. Each day I stare at numerous blank Word documents, the little angry cursor blinking at me incessantly, waiting for me to put a word, a string of words, a sentence of words that become a paragraph that become an entire article or story, down and to hit save. Years ago we didn’t need to worry about that; today we have to save our words.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the recognized authority on all things word-related, there are some 600,000 words in the English language though not all are in current use. Its second edition contains entries for 171,476 words that we use every day and 47,156 words that have become obsolete. There are also 9,500 derivative words, something formed from something else. Electricity from electric. There are also slang words. When you total them all up, there are over 250,000 words in use every day.

Shakespeare, one of the premier wordsmiths ever, used some 884, 647 words in his plays and sonnets, but his vocabulary was between 18,000 and 25,000. The average 16 year old has a vocabulary of 10,000 to 12,000 words. A college graduate uses 60,000 active words and 75,000 passive ones.

Half of the words we use are nouns, a quarter are adjectives and a seventh are verbs. The rest are exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes and more.

As a writer, I hope I use all parts of all words. I yell! I write and I read. I have books on a shelf. I have walked through a bookstore. I’m in love.

See what I did there? I used an exclamation, a conjunction, a preposition, and a suffix. I did not use more. Well, maybe I just did.

Words can wound or bring joy, they can dance or fall flat. They can describe a murderous plot with detail (in the corner of the dark room, a sliver of light oozed through the crack in the blinds, illuminating a tiny man; the shadow of an ax glowed eerily on the white wall), or declare undying love (I’ve been waiting for you all my life and suddenly, you walked in, ordered a beer and winked at me. And I was powerless to stop my heart).

In my arsenal of 60,000 active words I like ones like archaic, discombobulated, nebulous, nefarious, puppy. Is there a better word than puppy? Maybe puddle.

And of course one of my favorites from when I was in 5th grade and we had a contest to see who could make the most words from another word. The word was antidisestablishmentarianism. To this day I’m not sure what it means. But I know I won the contest.

That’s the power of words.

Oh, and there are 523 fabulous words in this blog post. 

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