Tag Archives: reading

Bibliophiles versus Book Snobs

Within a year of opening Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books, Jack and I had learned the difference between bibliophiles and book snobs.

Bibliophiles will read anything; these are the people who know the ingredients in cereal because they’ve read the box. You see them at airports, closing a book with a sigh and a smile, followed by panic as they realize boarding won’t start for another fifteen minutes. You watch as they get up and read the fine print on the emergency procedure posters.

Book snobs are seen in airports with the latest Hot Topic book: a presidential autobiography; a presidential hopeful’s autobiography; whatever Michael Pollan’s done now (not that there’s anything wrong with him). Book snobs read because they are supposed to have read something, or because they want bragging rights. They read the same things as Everyone Else, or the same concepts in different packages over and over, to prove they are right.

A few months ago I happened to be at a conference with a lot of medical professionals. One of the doctors said every American needed to be required to read the Constitution and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. These were, in his opinion, the foundational documents for the future of a country that must be led by “the best and the brightest, people like us.”

He mispronounced Rand’s first name. Also, the movie had just come out. I’ve come to believe that anyone who discovers an intellectual source of wisdom in a great classic right after the movie debuts might be compensating for something.

We’ve seen it often here at the shop: people looking for a specific book tell you why it’s what everyone must read. These snobs choose books the way they choose their wine, as if incorrectness were possible and could mar enjoyment. Hey, it’s WINE!

Other people come looking for a specific book and tell you why it interests them, and while they’re in they pick up half a dozen others. These bibliophiles choose books based on what they think they’d like, or what they want to know about, not to reinforce things they already know. These are interesting people to converse with. If some are not considered society’s “best and brightest,” well, I’ve never yet met a bibliophile who wasn’t a bright light in a dim world, always putting his or her best foot forward.

And they can tell you all the ingredients in breakfast cereal.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Uncategorized

Robo-Owen’s Guide to Reverse Culture Shock

We are pleased to present here the first of Andrew-the-shopsitter’s guest blogs post-shopsitting. He promises to send them now and again, and we look forward to them. For those unfamiliar with the term, Robo-Owen is a wee anamatronic kitten presented to Ali and Andrew on their departure.

It’s now been a few weeks since I left Big Stone Gap. And while I didn’t feel as if I had experienced any culture shock following my arrival in September, I must admit some reverse effects upon setting foot in New York again. My ability to maneuver in crowds is only now returning, after a number of shoulder bashes on busy avenues. I am very wary of cops, and have somehow convinced myself that there are a number of New York street laws I’ve somehow forgotten and am unconsciously violating. My ability to pick good pizza slices has atrophied.

There have also been positive side effects. I find myself itching to replicate some of the regular activities from the bookstore (although I don’t see many of my friends having the requisite skills for Needlework Night). I seek out company in ways I didn’t before… in small town ways. Instead of waiting to catch up at a party I’ve dropped in on friends to chat and drink tea. I cooked some recipes I learned at my family’s Thanksgiving. And I find myself back in the habit of reading.

There is a suspicious lack of animals in my apartment. Sure, there are the mice, roaches, and centipedes, but they’re not good company like cats and dogs. Speaking of, I introduced my brother’s cat Baxter to Robo-Owen. They seem to get along, but judge for yourself.


Robo-Owen is a poor doppelgänger for the possibly-evil, possibly-dumb real thing. For one, he never interferes with my cooking. But now my food-defense instincts are so strong and ingrained I’d be ready if he somehow reprogrammed himself for human food. He also doesn’t have claws, so my skin is no longer a tapestry of angry red lines. This makes him a disappointing sparring partner. Sometimes I’ll try and goad him, but unlike the real thing Robo-Owen is unflappable. Robo-Owen never falls asleep on my stomach or leaps into my arms. All in all he’s good company, and even has a mechanical purr, but he’s no replacement for the real deal Owen Meany.

Just like Robo-Owen is no real cat, I’m no longer a real shopsitter. But old habits die hard, so I may just start loitering around my local used bookstore until they kick me out for aggressive re-alphabetizing. Whatever my future away from Big Stone Gap may hold, I know that book and bookstore culture will remain a part of my life. So I look forward to sharing more of my own experiences with the book life in the near future.

Happy Holidays to all of you and to all of my friends in Big Stone Gap!

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Guest Blog from Jack – Storytelling in the bookstore

Last Friday saw us back in storytelling territory when our friend the eminent and highly regarded teller Mary Hamilton visited the bookstore to promote her book Kentucky Folktales. We last met up with Mary and her husband Charles when we were ‘booking down the road’ back in January and stayed with them in their home in Frankfort KY.

Many of you will know that Wendy plied her trade as a professional storyteller for many years in the US, Canada, Scotland and England, and is a past member of the boards of the National Storytelling Network here in the US and the Scottish Storytelling Forum. So Wendy’s and Mary’s paths have intersected a fair few times over the years and it was a delight to welcome her to our bookstore.

How wonderful it was again to be part of an intimate gathering of folk sharing the joy of the spoken word and living stories that have been passed down from generation to generation including at least one that had ‘crossed the pond’ from Europe. In the Q&A session following the readings and tellings we had a fascinating discussion about the difference between those things and the challenges for a teller in writing down stories and then reading those stories that she had originally told orally.

There’s a big opportunity for bookstores to host storytellers, and not just for kids’ events. We always have storytelling for Valentine’s Day and Halloween in our store, with the first half hour for kids and the remaining time very definitely NOT for them. It’s another great way to connect with your community and that community has lots of stories to share.


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Regan’s Halloween Recommendations

1951 – The Deserts of Iraq

A dashing explorer-priest is conducting a study of ancient relics when his archaeological team uncovers a statue of the Sumerian demon Pazuzu.  A confrontation with evil is inevitable.

2012 – Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore

Andrew Whalen, shopsitter, is woken by clanking and rattling noises in the attic. He investigates, hoping to find Halloween decorations and not to find demons. He is disappointed on both fronts.

But as Andrew encounters the horror within he discovers that it’s not the Sumerian Pazuzu at all, but a transmigrated manifestation of Andrew’s own Netflix Instant Queue, and the horror movie that had awaited him.

This is getting complicated.

Now Andrew is possessed by the spirit of  Regan, a young girl, who is herself possessed by the demon Pazuzu and is ALSO fictional.

Phwew, this is a mess. And totally not an excuse to wear a night-gown all day and eat split-pea soup. Luckily, this particular possession arrived just in time for Halloween! And Regan has recommendations from the shelves. Take it away evil-spirit-movie-demon-girl:

While William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is way better, the sequel Legion has some fun moments. More police procedural than horror, it’s never as scary as the original, and has far less ME!

Full of supposedly true tales as told by truckers and motorists, the Book-on-CD Trucker Ghost Stories is occasionally chilling, but more often just plain fun.

Ok, I’ll admit. I haven’t read either of these. But I’ve heard good things about Let Me In and the Swedish film adaptation Let The Right One In is the best vampire movie since Near Dark. As for Prophecy… if it’s anything like the movie than it waffles between environmental preaching and gory silliness in the most charming and 1970s way imaginable.

And no Halloween list would be complete without creepy ol’ Mr. King, so I’m recommending his short story collection Night Shift, which includes the story that heart-attacked 13-year-old Andrew, “The Boogeyman.” Plus, there’s no better primer to horror as a genre than his nonfiction Danse Macabre.

Oh, geez. This is just so exciting. I spewed up all my demon gunk.

Happy Halloween!


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St. Martin’s Press will be providing two books for this round, as Camille Born, a storyteller from Mahomet, Illinois, and Tamra Igo, a Wise County, VA native, have tied for first place in Caption Contest III.

Camille’s winning entry for the sad little face above was “I wish I could read. *sniff*”

Tamra entered, “I only have nine lives to read all THESE?”

Second place  goes to Eleanor Hjemmet, a musician from Tennessee, for her entry, “Isn’t anyone going to read to me tonight?”

And an honorable mention (no prize, but hey, it’s fun) goes to Good Reads Missoula for “I shouldn’t have stayed up all night reading Cujo,” and to Erin Dalton for “Mosley! I wanted Milne!”

My husband and I don’t cast votes in these competitions, but after laughing himself silly at several entries, Jack has decided to create the “Jack Beck Discretionary Award,” which he is sending to Paula Welch (no relation, so it’s not nepotism) of Dallas, Pennsylvania. She entered, “Of all the bookshops in the world, she had to come into mine.” Paula will receive a CD of Jack singing Scottish ballads. (He’s sending Eleanor one, too.)

Thanks for the laughs, and Caption Contest IV will gear up at the end of the month! Meanwhile, blogging, blogging, blogging.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, small town USA

What If…..

What if a book leaves us unchanged?

People read books for all sorts of reasons: entertainment, information, because someone (or everyone) else is… but what if we read a book, and it makes an impact, reaches out and punches us right in the heart? And what if we cry, and swear that we will change the world that could hold such horrid truths as, oh, say, Grapes of Wrath. Or Tess of the D’urbervilles. Or even Hunger Games–which may not have the staying power of those first two, but still packs quite a wallop in the interesting metaphor and parable of social justice departments.

What if we say all that, and then we pick up the next book in the stack–or advertised on the side of the bus–and keep reading?

Does it still count, that we cried, that we felt what the characters felt, saw the injustice, the fear, the hurt? Or did it never happen? Because it really didn’t happen, did it, that thing that left us shaking until we looked up and realized we were just riding the subway, holding a paperback.

Unless it did happen. Inside us. I can count hundreds of books I’ve read in the last few years, but ask which ones changed me, and I can count them on my fingers. The Smallmart Revolution. The House of Sand and Fog. And the Band Played On. A book of short stories called Hunger by Lan Chang. Rory Stewart’s Prince of the Marshes.  Kite Runner. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Children’s Story by James Clavell. Rumer Godden’s translation of Prayers from the Ark.  I can also tell you exactly what they did, in order: changed where I shopped; sent me to volunteer at a refugee center; taught me to be embarrassed at some of the church rhetoric surrounding AIDS; made me a better Cultural Studies professor, x3; gave me my first naive understandings of white privilege; scared the shit out of me; and renewed my faith in innocence.

I can’t list such specifics for most of the books I’ve read. Every book we absorb lays a foundation, yes, puts another brick in the walls of our beliefs, anchors our approach to life. Every word is valuable–or at least being able to access it is valuable. But not every work changes us, does it? The ones that suddenly, before we can defend against it, turn us sideways, tilt our world’s axis–well, when I sit back and think about, I’m surprised at how small a list that is. I remember passages and themes from many books, but when I think about the ones that visibly affected the way I think, act, speak—–the list shrinks.

So, which book(s) shaped you, turned you into who you are now, or filed away the rough edges of what you used to think? Which books made you say “what if” and then stick with “if?”


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography

A Good Hard Smack

My husband and I went to Verybigcity, VA so he could take his citizenship exam and become an American. On the way up, we listened to the CD of 100 potential questions he would be asked about the due processes of our government. (He got 94/100; I got 89/100.)

It took us 7 hours to get to Verybigcity, 15 minutes for Jack to take his test. Congratulations, Mr. Beck; now when people ask, you can say you’re an American.

Then we got back in the car and drove to Bigcity, VA, to record a radio program about our Booking Down the Road Trip and my forthcoming book. Sarah, the show’s host, made us feel at home and asked many interesting questions: “Why did you open a used book store in the first place?” and “What’s a trailer park intellectual?” (That’s how we describe many of our customers, people who are intelligent yet didn’t get a higher education, who often have jobs that don’t require–or perhaps even value–their innate smartness and problem-solving abilities.)

The night before the show, we had a lovely dinner with a friend from Bigcity who brought along two of her friends; the five of us laughed so hard as we got to know each other that other restaurant patrons cast glances in our direction–mostly envious. Such fun we had, discovering kindred spirits through casual conversation, enjoying the moment and each other’s ideas and stories.

Taping the radio show was relaxing, Sarah being so good at her job of listening carefully and asking probing questions. As we left, she gave us a verbal list of bookshops and some arts contacts. A little Middle Eastern lunch downtown cheered and warmed us.

All the above is very pleasant; Jack gets to be American so he can vote and be voted for on issues that are important to us; I got to record a radio program about books and people and publishing things useful to humanity; we had a lovely time chatting with an old friend and making new ones; and we walked around a pretty downtown area browsing and eating great ethnic food unavailable where we live. It’s fun to visit a city.

Would it be fun to live in one? A persistent undercurrent beat against our naivety once we left the shelter of existing relationships. “You’re from where?” “You wrote about what?” “You’re who, again?”–all these questions set against some unseen yet very present assessment activity. Is this person worth my time? Can she do anything for me?

I remember a Canadian spoof news show (think Stephen Colbert) where one of the reporters went to Washington DC, and described it as the kind of place that you wanted to give a good hard smack. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I’m dissing Verybigcity or Bigcity, VA; both have charming architecture and people in them. It’s just that from the hotel clerk to shopkeepers to state agency directors, one gets the impression that they have better things to do than pay attention to who is in front of them. “I’m only doing this until I can [insert other work here].” “Don’t think I’m going to spend my life doing THIS” whether “this” meant direct an artistic endeavor or serve coleslaw.

Everyone seems to be assuming that any comment you might make couldn’t possibly be as important as the plans in his mind, the paperwork on her desk. A clerk at a bookstore: “Mmm, you just became a  citizen? How nice. $5.24 please.”  A waitress: “Bookshops? I don’t know. What did you want to drink?” At an arts society: “Do you have any questions?” and when I started to ask one, overtop of me, “Well, I have someone coming in a moment, so thanks for stopping.”

It’s the small town ethos, I suppose; after all, we are from Southwest Virginia, and Jack is from Someplace Else besides. We’re not interesting, or powerful, or useful and unless we become one of those things can’t have purchase on that slippery ladder of the elusive ranking scale. In SW VA, Gott Sei Dank, that’s not how we handle people. The person in front of you is the person you’re talking to, the most important moment of the moments you are having. He or she is a human, a customer, a citizen of the world who is treated with the kindness and friendliness that are our trademarks.

Don’t get the wrong idea; SW VA can be downright brutal to those who are from someplace else. And yet, in all honesty, I’m beginning to have more empathy for why we have that reputation. If a person from Smalltown goes to Bigcity and gets the intellectual condescension equivalent of “y’all ain’t from here, are ya,” it’s pretty hard to not retaliate when the opportunity arises.

And, sweet irony, being from SW VA is a serious handicap in Bigcity. We’re supposed to be the wee bit ashamed, or at least humble, about where we’re from, because clearly it isn’t powerful, or interesting, except in a quaint, “Hey, can you churn butter” kind of way.

I couldn’t be prouder to be from a place where people live in the moment; are proud of themselves and their families NOW, not for what they’re going to do next month when they REALLY get the job they deserve; honor the right of every person to have an opinion, to voice an intelligent thought; and where we listen to each other.

Because for all the power these cities exude, all the influence they bear on the rest of us, if the trade-off is living a life ranking people by what they can do for you, thank you, no. We might have missed the joy of meeting our friend’s friends if we’d played that game. We might have redirected the radio host’s questions to “this is what you NEED to ask us, dear.” (Not, I think, that she couldn’t have handled that; Sarah gave the impression of having seen everything, twice.)

How much fun, how many interesting people, Bigcity citizens must miss. How many we in Smallville miss by playing the same silly game. Wouldn’t it be nice if this mutual animosity tournament could end so none of us miss out, because my impression is that no one ever really wins a round of “you’re not from here.”


Filed under small town USA, Uncategorized