See this show: 100 books famous in children’s lit

The Grolier Club has an extraordinary exhibit right now, in the gallery on the main floor. “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature” is there only until February 7, Mondays through Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and admission is free. No reader should miss it.

The curator, Chris Loker, writes in the accompanying booklet/guide, “Our definition of ‘famous’ does not mean that all books chosen are ‘influential’ or ‘important,’ nor is our selection an effort to label these books as ‘best’ or ‘most’ famous.”

I like that clarification a lot, and it will make you feel better if your own all-time favorite happens not to be in the exhibit. My two favorites (Kiki Dances and The Hundred Dresses) are not, but just as I was starting to cry because Make Way for Ducklings didn’t seem to be there—it turned out to be there.  Here’s a sampling of what you’ll see.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Letterpress Books, Portland, ME

Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, WA

Battenkill Books, Cambridge, NY


A small Ayn Rand story

Ayn Rand is a writer you grow up and grow out of. ayn-rand-nycTeenagers love her novels: the plots are grandiose, unequivocal, uncompromising, morally unambiguous. The characters are idealized, romanticized, larger-than-life, and the Strong Guy always prevails. Her novels are adolescent, and adolescents are welcome to them.

When I went to Pratt Institute as a third-year transfer student in the art school, I had to take a couple of liberal arts courses to complete Pratt’s requirements for all art students. At that time—1965—most art schools advocated that their graduates should be well-rounded. Therefore a semester of philosophy was part of Pratt’s curriculum.

Our philosophy instructor was a young man, probably in his first teaching position, and he began the course with Plato and Aristotle. Boring, boring, boring. Most students in the class spent the fifty minutes doodling in their sketchbooks, and I did too, until the day Mr. X began to lecture about something called Objectivism.

From the way he taught it with complete conviction, and because we were utterly unschooled in philosophy, it sounded like a real thing. Rational self-interest, concept formation, inductive logic, and a lot of other jazzy terms meant zero to us until the magic name finally emerged: Ayn Rand.

Why on earth Pratt Institute would hire a proselytizer for a modern philosophy that was generally rejected by academics is a large question. But hire him they did, and the best I can say for the administration is that art students barely paid any attention to their liberal arts courses anyway, so the choice of teacher probably didn’t matter much.

In his quest to make the course relevant to us, Mr. X focused on Rand’s theories about what art was supposed to be: realistic. Period. Unknown-1If paintings weren’t representational, they weren’t art.

“As a re-creation of reality,” Rand wrote and Mr. X quoted, “a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.”

I think most of the other students were napping that day, but I happened to be awake and I thought something must be wrong with my hearing. There we were in 1965, with Abstract Expressionismfranz-kline-untitled_1-150x150 already deeply embedded in the art world and op art rapidly developing—and Ayn Rand didn’t believe either movement was legitimate?

That isn’t even putting it strongly enough: she rejected them completely, and so, of course, did Mr. X. I raised my hand, and we began a weeks-long argument that took us all the way to the end of the semester.

To give him his due, Mr. X was not in the least unhappy to be challenged; he encouraged the discussion unreservedly. He was young enough to relish the debate and enough of an ardent Rand disciple to surrender not an inch in the matter of abstract art.

At the end of the semester, he used his connections with the Objectivist crowd to arrange for Rand to give a lecture in the large auditorium at Pratt. The school considered it a great coup—she was, after all, famous—and Mr. X took me aside at our last class and invited me to arrive early for the lecture in order to meet Ayn Rand.

It must have been late May or early June and quite warm by then, but the sixty-year-old Rand showed up wearing a full-length mink coat and black heels that probably dated to 1947 or 1948. Mr. X beckoned me over and introduced us: “Miss Rand, this is the student I was telling you about, the one who believes in Abstract Expressionism. She’d like to ask you something.”

“What is your question for me?” Rand asked, clearly impatient.

I said, “How can you claim that abstract art isn’t art?”

Tilting her head back so she could look down her nose at me—in two-inch heels she was just my height—she said, “But my dear, it isn’t.” With that she turned and strode off.

There is a coda to this story. Setting aside her politics, which repel me, I will admit that there’s one phrase in the Rand lexicon that stuck in my head and still makes sense to me, if artists and writers are going to do their work: “the virtue of selfishness.”

There’s an ongoing argument as to whether, in her book of the same title, Rand intended this phrase to mean something broad or something narrow. She claimed it simply meant “concern with one’s own interest.”

How much, how often, and in what way you practice the virtue of selfishness—all of that is up to you. But if you plan to accomplish your artistic goals, it’s likely that you’ll have to accept a certain amount of your own selfishness, and recognize it as a virtue.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Andover Bookstore, Andover, MA

Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, UT

Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore, Munising, MI



Christmas in Greenwich Village

writers who lived in the east and west village, back in the day, now and then
  • Edward Albee • W.H. Auden
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay • William Burroughs
  • Allen Ginsberg • Emma Lazarus
  • Willa Cather • John Cheever
  • Edgar Allen Poe • Edith Wharton
  • E. E. Cummings • Dorothy Thompson
  • Gregory Corso • Mark Twain
  • Marianne Moore • Jack Kerouac
  • Dashiell Hammett • Sinclair Lewis
  • Lorraine Hansberry • Frank O’HaraIMG_1060
  • John Dos Passos • Dawn Powell
  • Thomas Wolfe • James Baldwin
  • Jane Jacobs • Richard Yates
  • Henry Roth • Sara Teasdale
  • James Agee • Sherwood Anderson
  • Joseph Brodsky • Hart Crane
  • Denise Levertov • Bret HarteIMG_1066
  • Eugene O’Neill • Richard Wright
  • Theodore Dreiser




FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Valley Bookstore, Jackson, WY

White Birch Books, North Conway, NH

Best of Books, Edmond, OK

Death songs




A “death song” is traditionally sung before or after a death, in commemoration.

In 2014 we lost many important and  well-known writers whom we wish to remember. Many unsung writers died too—writers who were, perhaps, friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, lesser lights, forgotten authors. Writers who worked alone, steadily, without much recognition. Writers whose suns eclipsed, whose stars faded. We celebrate them too, as members of our community, whether or not we knew them, whether or not they achieved their goals.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

Nadine Gordimer • Gabriel García Márquez • Walter Dean Myers

Vicente Leñero • Maya Angelou • Kent Haruf • Sue Townsend

Mark Strand • Carolyn Kizer • Galway Kinnell • Radwa Ashour

Siegfried Lenz • Thomas Berger • Maxine Kumin • Daniel Keyes

P.D. James • Eric Hill • Marsha Mehran • Joe McGiniss

Amiri Baraka • Diann Blakely • Saeed Akl • Michael Shanahan

Ana Maria Matute • Richard Eder • Bel Kaufman • Gil Marks

 Mavis Gallant • Paul Robeson Jr. • Claudia Emerson

Jonathan Schell • Mary Stewart • Jack Agüeros

Elizabeth Jane Howard • Justin Kaplan

Martin Gottfried • Susan Spencer-Wendel

Farley Mowat • Ann Marcus • Joel Brinkley

Shon Harris • Peter Matthiessen • Sherwin B. Nuland

IMG_0904Apologies if I’ve inadvertently omitted any writer you feel strongly about; add a comment below, to inform us all.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Wind City Books, Casper, WY

bookbook, New York, NY

Sherman’s Books, Bar Harbor, ME



Oh, that New York Times. How hard it must be to fill those pages every day. But some days we get lucky and the editors push themselves onto new turf. As yesterday in the T Magazine, in a piece called “Old Books, New Thoughts.”

The article comprises seven writers reconsidering their earlier work, and this sentence alone—from Philip Roth, on the topic of Portnoy’s Complaint—made me grateful I’d stumbled on the piece.

While the protagonist may be straining to escape his moral conscience, I was attempting to break free from a literary conscience that had been constructed by my reading, my schooling and my fastidiousness — from a habitual sense of prose decorum.


The Settlement Cookbook

My lovely, talented, smart, sweet niece Sophie Javna has been studying the history of settlement work in Chicago. Hold onto that information for a paragraph or two.

I don’t get to see Sophie often enough since she’s at Colorado College and I’m in Manhattan. However, we converged at her parents’ home in Ashland, OR Sophie/Lorrie at Sharon's b'day party(also home of a wonderful indie bookstore called Bloomsbury Books) in mid-October for her mom’s birthday celebration.

Sophie is a serious food person, but being a mere twenty-one she didn’t grow up with the same cookbooks that her aunt (formerly a serious food person, and author of ten cookbooks) did. I began cooking in the mid-1960s, when The Settlement Cook Book [sic] was right up there with The Joy of Cooking. 

1965 Settlement CkbkI owned the 1965 edition, and the recipes were wonderful—but the chapters that were not about food and that were addressed to young immigrant women in late nineteenth-century Milwaukee made it more compelling than any ordinary cookbook. And that’s what ties right into Sophie’s study of the settlement house movement, as you will see from my article below, written for Eater’s Digest: 400 Delectable Readings About Food and Drink, published in 2006.


the story of the settlement cookbook

Mrs. Simon Kander was not, reputedly, a warm and fuzzy person. She was, however, a formidable lady who got things done. IMG_02661In Milwaukee in 1896 she and a group of other Jewish women opened a settlement house for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, to teach them English and other useful skills that would assist them in assimilating into American society. Not least of these skills—at least in Lizzie Kander’s opinion—was cooking.  

In 1901 Mrs. Kander observed that in the cooking classes (some of which she taught herself) the high school girls were spending precious time copying down the recipes that the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. It occurred to Mrs. Kander that many hours could be saved and much more progress made if each girl were given a printed booklet containing those recipes, along with instructions on various other household matters such as cleaning, stain removal,, and building a fire. The settlement could sell the booklets, too, for a bit of income. 9781557094360_custom-9393f2dac1d4a79cd9d58d571c84b6ddc30a87bf-s2-c85 

She applied to the Settlement Board (all men, of course) for eighteen dollars to fund the project. They turned her down, though they added—famously—that they would be happy to “share in any profits from your little venture.”  

Little venture? The Way to a Man’s Heart…The Settlement Cook Book was printed with the help of Mrs. K’s friends and connections, and the 1901 edition was not a booklet after all: it came off the press at 174 pages.  The first thousand copies sold out in about a year. The cookbook committee enlarged the book and printed 1500 more. By 1910 it was doing so well that profits from the books were used to purchase land for a new settlement house, and more cookbook profits were used to help build it.  

In 1917 there was so much cookbook action that the ladies had to hire office help; in 1921 the committee incorporated as the Settlement Cook Book Company and agreed to take a twenty-cent royalty on each book.  UnknownMrs. Kander’s “little venture” continued to yield money for all involved, and along the way the book became a classic.  Many editions have been published, and over 2 million copies have been sold; in 1978 it was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame. The popularity of The Settlement Cook Book spanned most of the twentieth century, and many a young woman started married life with a couple of saucepans and a copy of the book.  

From its inception, The Settlement Cook Book was not just a book of recipes; it was a document of culture, a manual of what was considered proper, important, and useful for girls and women to know in the kitchen and the home. When an immigrant girl read Mrs. Kander’s authoritative advice on what to serve for dinner or how to lay a table, she felt confident that she was on good, solid American ground. And she was.


SIDEBAR: Noodling around online, I found this delightful post about The Settlement Cook Book. I don’t know this writer at all, but I love the piece and thank her for it.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

 William Stout Architectural Books, San Francisco, CA

Subterranean Books, St. Louis, MO

Head House Books, Philadelphia, PA