Sunday, April 5, 2009

The reading life

If there is one thing that I do miss about the old places I used to live in Sanlågu, it's the availability of high variety bookstores and libraries. When I was younger, I used to buy at least one book a week. By the second year that I was working a job in Los Angeles, I began to stop buying books altogether once I realized the supreme wonders of the Los Angeles Public Library system, with its reasonable selection of academic titles, awesome online book catalog and automated email reminders, and ability to get the latest titles out to readers within a month's wait at most.

One of the fondest times of my life involved working part-time and being able to literally devote one or two full days out of the week to reading. I think that during that year I tore through about 100 titles.

Since then, I went to grad school, which effectively quashed any love for recreational reading outside the required 400 (frequently very boring) pages I got through a week. It's only now that I've started my reading again by limiting time on the internet.

And so it's off to find books once again. I paid $65 for a yearly friend-of-the-library card to the University of Guam library, and have found some titles I'd like to get have to come from off-island--and thus can take up to three months to get here and upwards of $50 in fees. So far I've taken out the cranky bastard Paul Theroux's Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific and am struggling to get through the last curmudgeonly chapter. I think it's two months overdue, but with a $.10 a day overdue fee, I'm not exactly in a rush to return it.

The Guam Public Library system I shamefully haven't looked into yet, but the on-going issue for me seems to be being able to get books that are most recently released or are a little bit, let's say, off-beat in topic (anyone on the cultural history of collective joy? anyone?). I do feel badly that here, like other library systems, the money is so tight that the air conditioner was out for two months and with it, the library's opening hours for two full months. The operational costs for protecting books in this tropical climate must be absurd.

Amazon delivers to Guåhan with shipping fees per book and thus eliminates savings from the cheaper prices, and MediaMail, which takes a week tops in Sanlågu, takes up to two months here. Barnes and Noble ships for free but costs way more than Amazon. Amazon's Kindle, or electronic reading device, is way too expensive right now, and each subsequent book in the library is going to cost at least $10 anyway. It would take me a long time to break even.

Which leaves three options in Guåhan: the Håfa Adai used bookstore (a great place to swap!), Faith Bookstore (good for local titles but with about 99% other inventory which I not only have no use for but am probably hostile towards), and Bestseller Books.

Bestseller is kind of like an airport bookstore; for shipping reasons (I'm guessing), its titles come in the airport/grocery store style compact editions. It does a good job of stocking local interest books in a way that online distribution has not yet acheived well for Guåhan-oriented titles. And because of its kind of limited selection of titles--once again, due to the high costs of maintaing and moving inventories on Guåhan--makes me think about getting into topics and titles I probably wouldn't otherwise purchase. Because last week I bought a history of Russian culture and politics since Tolstoy's death, called The Magical Chorus, which makes almost no sense to read on a tropical island in the western Pacific, but nonetheless does contain this pretty awesome excerpt:

"The 'sex problem' was a dominant topic in the influential intellectual salon of the St. Petersburg writer and philosopher Dmitri Merezhkovsky and his wife, the poet Zinaida Hippius, a red-haired beauty with the eyes of a mermaid... On May 1, 1905, a group gathered at the apartment of the decadent poet Nikolai Minsky, including Berdyaev, the influential Symbolist Vyacheslav Ivanov, the writer Alexei Remizov (all with their wives), Rozanov, Fedor Sologub, soon to be celebrated for his novel, Petty Demon, and a certain musician, as an eyewitness recorded, 'a blond Jew, handsome, unbaptized.' They dimmed the lights and twirled in a dervish-like dance in a mock Dionysian mystery. Then they symbolically crucified the musician, who had volunteered for the part.

"The point of the fathering was to perform a blood sacrifice. Ivanov and his wife, Lydia Zinovyeza-Annibal, dressed in red chitons with sleeves rolled up ('just like an executioner,' that eyewitness put it) cut the musician's wrist, mixed the blood with wine in a chalice and offered it around the circle. The ritual ended with 'fraternal kisses.'"

There were three copies for sale, but almost nothing in nonfiction about Asia, other Pacific islands (including Hawai'i), South America, Africa, and any other countries in Europe. What's the process that booksellers here undergo to determined the local market interest? Bestseller Books otherwise has the best variety of manga, religious/self-help, and mixed martial arts magazines. Rock on, regional interests.

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