Guest Post, Anthony Varallo: Homage to the School Book Fair

book fairDo you remember your school’s book fair? Ours was held in the library, the tables transformed into merchandise displays, books facing out from cardboard stands shaped like Snoopy’s doghouse or Clifford’s gigantic bowl, books grouped by series, recognizable in an instant, the red and white Choose Your Own Adventure logo; the Garfield books arranged like long, squat bricks; Hardy Boys books a blue sky, Nancy Drew a field of yellow. Pricey hardback picture books, too, that always included, year after faithful year, Green Eggs and Ham and Where the Wild Things Are, even though this was elementary school, Dr. Seuss long since replaced by Gary Paulsen. Looking at the picture books a crime punishable by lunchroom teasing.

We would visit the fair as a class, our teachers instructing us that we had a few minutes to browse and make our choices, but not to bend the books, which seemed contradictory instructions. You couldn’t really make your choice without bending the book, at least a little.  We handled Garfield At Large and The Mystery of Chimney Rock and You’ll Flip, Charlie Brown as if they were the First Folio. We checked prices, added up sums, estimated how much money we could wheedle from our parents. But it’s for books, Mom. You’re always saying how important reading is, right? Everyone else is getting at least twice that much.  

It was strange to see the school library—the last word in free stuff—become a place of commerce. Two book fair representatives sat at the checkout desk, the place where our librarian, Mrs. Dougherty, usually stamped our copies of Baseball’s Greatest Plays or Shark Attack! weeks before we lost them on the bus, the representatives wearing nametags, oddly overdressed, a black cash box atop the desk, a key turned inside its lock. We weren’t used to buying things at school, and we certainly weren’t used to the library being a place where everyone wanted to go.  If the library got too noisy, Mrs. Dougherty would sometimes punish us by making us put our heads down and turning off the lights. After school, the library doubled as a detention center. It was thrilling to think about buying books at the library, as exciting as it would have been if McDonalds took over our cafeteria and served up Big Macs and fries.

Later, we’d return to the book fair, sometimes with parents or grandparents (and parents’ wallets and grandparents’ wallets) in tow. Look, we’d say, and pretend we’d just discovered a book we’d been bending all week, its contents nearly memorized, its cost already factored into our asking price. Can we get it? Our parents would regard the book skeptically. This? they’d say. Isn’t this a little young for you? Then they’d reach for a mass-market paperback, Where the Red Fern Grows or Call It Courage or Johnny Tremain, and say, How about one of these instead?  And, since we’d anticipated them suggesting something exactly like that, and since we’d already factored the price into our plan, we’d say, Sure, we can get one of those, too.

Nowadays, I am that parent at my children’s school book fair. I’m the one who tries to steer them away from books about puppies solving mysteries in France (note adorable beret-wearing pooch on cover), or TV show tie-ins, or the umpteen bazillion books about video games, video games, and more video games. Still, my children want these, and I want them to want books, and I’ve never been good at not spending money on books, so to the register we go, where all the other parents are waiting in line with their children and their children’s stacks of mostly terrible books. We parents give each other a look, as easy to read as any of these slim volumes: wish we could have gotten these on Amazon instead.

Guest Post, Anthony Varallo: Standard Time

envelope-1426219The advantages of online submission over standard mail are so numerous, so obvious, so clear, so superior in nearly every way; still, sometimes I miss waiting in line at the post office, where no one else seemed to be sending overlong stories to The New Yorker. I miss holding the envelopes against my side so no one might see that I was also simultaneously submitting to The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. I always feared someone in line turning to me and saying, “Don’t you think that’s a little bit unrealistic?” But there was a pleasure in placing the envelopes on a scale and finding out—surprise!—how much it costs to send a thirty-two-page story to Boston. I miss buying a book of stamps for my next round of SASEs. I miss the receipt I always kept for no reason whatsoever.

There were other pleasures, too. I had a ritual for writing out SASEs, a problem for me, since my handwriting is terrible, but I could cover well enough by printing in all caps. I would set a stack of #10 envelopes on my writing desk and print my name and address so many times, over and over again, until my name seemed alien to me, my address some foreign port I’d yet to visit. After, I would place a stamp in the top right hand corner with the same studied care I used whenever I had to affix a registration decal to my license plate. Next, I would paper clip the SASE to the back of my submission and cover letter—it was part of the ritual that the SASE must be hidden from immediate view since I didn’t want the editor thinking about rejecting my story before encountering the first page—and slide it into the envelope, where I hoped I would never see it again.

For the manuscript, I preferred staples to paper clips, and sort of miss the days when “staples or paper clips?” was as familiar a question at AWP panels as “how do I get an agent?” or “where do you get your ideas from?” Another loss: the feeling of reloading my stapler with a fresh, gleaming row of staples. Testing the first staple, always a misfire, so that the next staple might pass through.

I liked to send my stories from the post office, even if I had sufficient postage at home, since I believed that a postmarked story had a better chance of getting accepted than a stamped one. I refused to use commemorative stamps, worried that some editor might start thinking about Edith Wharton or Ernest Hemingway or Mark Twain or some other vastly superior writer, rather than my homely stuff. I always used brown manila envelopes, never white, never Tyvek. Never priority mail: too desperate.

For a while, I had a preference for specific postal employees at my local post office (this is embarrassing to admit) since I believed that some of them were “lucky” while others were not so lucky. Part of the ritual was to stand in line and hope to get a “lucky” employee without deliberately changing my position in line, a game so dumb and meaningless I can barely stand to write this; still, it was kind of fun. My favorite “lucky” employee was a kind, middle-aged woman with gray hair who would always stamp a bright red first-class stamp as close to the editor’s name as possible so that, as she explained it, they would think they were “first class people.”

But there’s one ritual I miss more than any other: opening a rejection slip from some distinguished magazine I had no hope in the world of getting accepted by, and finding even the slightest written note. Sorry, not this one, or, Try us again? I would read those notes more times than I’d like to admit, hieroglyphs, I believed, to my certain future.

Guest Post, Anthony Varallo: Least Loved Books

Books

“book sale loot” by Ginny is licensed under CC by 2.0

Do you own books that, despite their quality, reputation, significance, pleasures, virtues, rewards, and overall worthiness, are still somehow your least-loved books? Mine reside at my office, where I’ve now exiled all the titles I can no longer fit on my shelves at home. I know I should donate these books or give them away—why bother keeping them in the first place?—but even the least-loved book still casts some kind of spell, just enough to keep it out of the Goodwill box, if only for a few more months.

Mass-market paperbacks, already fading from the landscape when I began buying fiction, are perhaps the least loved of my least-loved books. I still have my dog-eared copy of Franny and Zooey, with its spare, green and white cover (I cannot accept the idea of Salinger in hardback or trade paperback for some reason, especially The Catcher in the Rye, which has always seemed to me the center of the mass-market paperback universe), along with my Victorian paperbacks, even Bleak House, my favorite Dickens, here among the least loved nonetheless. I’ve somehow held on to my high school copy of The Grapes of Wrath, another mass-market paperback that should look more worn than it does—did I skim The Grapes of Wrath? A least-loved book, flipped though again, gives off a faint whiff of guilt.

Books assigned in college fall easily into the least loved pile, many of them still wearing their university bookstore price stickers, others sporting highlighted passages no longer needed for anything, the exam long since over. Several contain my handwritten margin notes—“industrial revolution,” “death of God?” “pantheism”—in my embarrassingly bad script. A copy of Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, assigned for a course I can barely remember, shoulders a row of other college texts, for courses also forgotten, no matter how hard I try to recall that moment in my life when, according to my highlighting, I finished Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, or had grasped enough of Bergson’s “Laughter” to write “Charlie Chaplin, etc.” at the end of an essay. A least-loved book mocks you for how much you’ve forgotten.

Books loaned from students, colleagues, or friends join those given as gifts, and keep the other least-loved books company. Loaned books remind you that you really should have given the book back months ago, the same thought you recall having had months ago, when you still didn’t feel like reading the book, although you told yourself otherwise, smiled, and assured the book-loaner you couldn’t wait to get started. Gift books carry the expectation of a thank you and a rave—I loved it!—an expectation your most-loved books would never impose.

Accidentally acquired books define one of the lowest strata of least-loved books, these sudden guests, these strangers, these party-crashers, these mysterious visitors. Why do I seem to own a novelization based upon a Graham Greene screenplay I’ve never heard of? My other Graham Greene—deliberately acquired—remains at home, clearly most-loved, too worthy to group with this screenplay, whose title I can’t even remember now. Where did I get that book? How, too, did I end up with two copies of a memoir I’d be too embarrassed to admit owning one copy of, not to mention reading, which I didn’t—still, the book remains, least-loved, but not yet donated, no matter how many times I’ve thought, I really should donate that one. Another layer of least-loved-ness: they remind you of everything else you’ve been putting off lately.

Sometimes, though, when I’m at home searching for a book, a book that feels just out of reach—I know it’s here somewhere, etc.—I’ll wonder if it isn’t really at my office, there with the least-loved titles? But no, it couldn’t be, I’ll think. Not that book. No way. But then it occurs to me that it must be there, since I’ve been searching for it, and since an exiled book occupies a place in the mind nonetheless, as if it were loved after all.

Guest Blog Post, Anthony Varallo: SPACE, DOUBLE SPACE

Anthony E VaralloHow many spaces after a period, one or two?  Space or double space?  If you’re like me, old enough to remember typing your first research papers on your parents’ IBM Selectric, —ancient, even then, but thrilling nonetheless, the way the letters jumped from a center ball that spun and rotated across the page—then you probably prefer two spaces, even though, as you are becoming increasingly aware, typeset pages, like the ones you see in nearly every print publication of every kind, from the smallest circulation literary magazine to The New York Times, use a single space.  Only.  There is, as you must reluctantly admit, no such thing as double-spacing in print publication.  A single space presides after every period.  A space no different than the one after a comma or semi-colon.  Yes, you know this; still, you use two spaces after each period.  Why?

Because you took a typing class in seventh grade, for starters.  The class met in a room fitted out with twenty manual typewriters resting atop twenty desks, the typewriters wearing a vinyl cover that could only be removed upon the instructor’s permission and, at the end of each session, carefully replaced, requiring you to position the typewriter’s carriage just so.  The instructor was old, even by seventh grade teacher standards, and his voice shook as he called out the sentences you were to type, including—and this seems important—the spaces after each punctuation mark.  Comma, space.  Period, double space.  The sound of twenty space bars double-spacing: a basketball dribbled twice.  Failure to double space, a red instructor’s mark, a lower grade.

Because, in college, you upgraded to a portable word processor, heavy as a packed suitcase, but light enough to carry to the dorm lounge whenever your roommate had a visitor.  The word processor stored your papers—documents, you began calling them, without quite realizing it—on disks, enabling you to save your work for later, the words on the page and yet not on the page, either, since you hadn’t printed them out yet, a new phrase to put alongside documents.  Still, you wrote those words as if they would be printed out, because that’s what words aspired to, you began to realize, to be part of sentences to be printed out, and those sentences needed a punctuation mark at the end with two spaces after to give them their proper due.  A pause.  Breathing room.  Authority.

Because, right after you traded in your portable word processor—that old thing!—for your first personal computer, you began writing short stories, and sentences suddenly seemed something larger than words on a page; they became individual brushstrokes on a canvas framed by top, bottom, right and left margins.  Something to take time on, to linger upon, even for hours, as you did, drinking coffee late into the night.  A sentence was a slow-born thing, you began to understand, and to finish one was a kind of honor, one that required a double space, as if to say, There, done, yes, made it, now it is so.  The double space sent the cursor more forcefully into the blank page, to better accompany your mind, which suddenly had no idea how it had ever written a good sentence in the first place.  For each sentence completed only sent you into the next sentence to be completed, where all the old challenges cropped up again—word choice, tone, grammar, syntax, style, clarity, coherence, precision—the completed sentence offering no clues where the next was to follow.  Every sentence is a solo act.  A truth the double space only wished you to know better.  A truth a single space would rather you never learn.

Because you have tried using a single space, even though you won’t admit it.  A phase that only lasted a few months or so, right around the time you started noticing that your students, born in the era when you traded the word processor for the PC, used a single space after periods.  So you tried, for the sake of keeping up, for the sake of growing and changing, for the sake of not suffering potential embarrassment, always important to you.  You single-spaced after each period.  A feeling like walking on one foot.  Like looking left, right, but not left again.  Like parking bumper to bumper in a crowded lot.  You couldn’t get the hang of it, so back to double-spacing you went, and where you have stayed.  You can’t help it: you like the world a little bit better with double-spacing in it.

But what to do now?  You have two children, and they both use computers, both like writing stories and jokes; sometimes even a screenplay, which they film with their iPods.  Sometimes they need your help spelling certain words, help you are happy to give.  You stand beside them as they type the word and reach the end of the sentence.  You hold your breath after they type the period.  The cursor blinks.  Your children hesitate, about to ask another question.  Space or double space?

Guest Blog Post, Anthony Varallo: Read Elsewhere

Anthony E VaralloIs there a better book than the book read elsewhere? Why are so many of the books I remember best strangely wrapped up in my sense of having read them elsewhere, away, far from home, outside the classroom, or miles from my bedside nightstand, where all those books I’ve been meaning to read—books I will likely read there, before sleep and not nearly elsewhere—lie unread?

For me, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary will always be the Book I Read on a Paddleboat, when I was 13 years old and staying at my aunt’s house in the Pocono Mountains. My aunt owned a house on a lake, and permitted my friend, cousin and I the use of a red paddleboat we had to unmoor from a dock slick with the splashes of kids in lifejackets, the boat always on the verge of sinking, or so we joked. The three of us would paddle to the center of the lake and read the books we’d purchased on the drive in, at a bookstore shaped like a log cabin, all mass market paperbacks, Dean Koontz, Louis L’Amour, and of course Stephen King. I chose Pet Sematary because it had the scariest cover, and because Stephen King had blurbed it himself as a book so scary it terrified him while he was writing it, and who wouldn’t want to read a book like that? My memory of that book is of a child getting hit by a truck while speedboats and water skiers sent our paddleboat rocking in their wake.

Rabbit, Run is the book I read while studying abroad in London, the book purchased the moment before I’d run out of money and was feeling homesick for Delaware, my unremarkable and not terribly literary home state, which, in the opening pages of Updike’s novel, is only a few minutes away from Brewer, Pennsylvania, where Rabbit Angstrom works a bad job, argues with his wife, and recalls his days of basketball glory. I remember reading the book in our student flat at the top of a stairway that led to a rooftop we were forbidden to explore—hidden away—as Rabbit, in the opening chapter, goes on a solo drive through Pennsylvania, taking a series of turns that nearly takes him to Delaware. I turned the pages, thinking Rabbit was surely about to pull up in my driveway.

I read The Old Man and the Sea while staying at a friend of a friend’s house in Connecticut, part of some road trip I took the summer before I left for college. I’d been put in the guest bedroom, which had a twin bed and a desk with a bookshelf on top: I’d always meant to read The Old Man and the Sea, but had never gotten around to it, and was always sort of afraid that someone would ask me if I had read it—you mean you haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea?—and part of the pleasure of reading it now was my realization that no one would see me taking it down from the shelf each night and hence would never know that I’d just read it in the span of a weekend, and could now answer yes if anyone asked me about The Old Man and the Sea, a power I now felt I held in reserve, at the ready.

I’m traveling again in March: I will have to pack some of those bedside books, the ones I’ve been putting off forever, so that they might be read elsewhere.