I was going to blog earlier in the week, honest I was. But it’s the postseason around here and I’ve been Distracted By Baseball. My mother and I have watched the postseason together most years since I graduated college; the last couple of years, since I’ve gotten cable, we’ve texted snarky comments to each other during games we don’t actually watch together.
The reason for this tradition is simple: as Baltimore Orioles fans, most of the last 20 years have been pretty dark days – really everything from 1998 through 2012. So watching postseason ball and rooting against the Yankees/Red Sox became a way for mom and I to still enjoy some baseball, even when the Orioles were awful. My love for (and total recall of) the last 16 years of postseason baseball has led Brian and I to several conversations this week that sounded something like this:
Brian: I don’t think the Marlins ever actually won the World Ser…
Me [interrupting]: IN 2003 JOSH BECKETT PITCHED ON THREE DAYS’ REST AND STRUCK OUT NINE YANKEES IN A ROW, WINNING THE SERIES FOR THE FLORIDA MARLINS AND BECOMING THE SERIES MVP.
But this is not a baseball blog. Back to the books! During my time in Denver, in addition to visiting the super-wonderful Denver Art Museum (which, despite being under construction, still managed to have a spectacular array of special exhibits, including an amazing Rembrandt etchings collection), I also stumbled, almost by accident, on a used bookstore while looking for parking downtown – Capitol Hill Books.
I mentioned in my last post that my visit was not altogether harmonious. The first thing that didn’t make it altogether harmonious was that the bookstore was having plumbing problems that they were working on while I was browsing, giving the store a faint but persistent aroma of…plumbing problems.
The second issue interrupting my browsing bliss was another shopper. I was in the fiction section, right around the Bs and Cs, when a man in his 60s started talking to me. He had bushy hair and thick glasses and a tweed jacket with the patches on the elbows – your basic professor uniform.
Man: It’s just so remarkable how many books there are and how much there is to know!
I responded that, gee, there sure is, or something to that effect. I didn’t want to be rude.
Man: I mean, look at some of these writers. They have a dozen books and I’ve never even heard of them! Like this Elizabeth Berg!
Me: Well, yes, she’s quite well known, she wrote Talk Before Sleep and some others…
Man: Oh, well I don’t know who she is.
Me: :::starts edging away in politest way possible:::
At this point, the man asked me a couple of questions, the only one of which that I can clearly remember is:
Man: What was the last book that you read?
Me: Oh, well I finished a book on the plane this morning – Nella Larsen’s short fiction.
Me: She was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance who wrote Quicksand and Passing, and these three short stories.
Man: When was the Harlem Renaissance?
[At this point, the pseudo-academic tried to tell me about some story he’d heart on NPR about the first black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. I’m not sure what this has to do with Nella Larsen.]
Man: I don’t remember her name. Not that it matters.
Me: :::definitely ready to politely edge away from a man who thinks women’s names don’t matter:::
Man: I think it was in the thirties.
[I looked it up later – it was in 1961 and her name was Constance Baker Motley.]
[He says some other things about his vague recollections on Constance Baker Motley that are too cringeworthy to be shared as direct quotes, but trust me, were super awkward.]
Man: Anyway, I’m a writer myself [long pause where I’m supposed to ask him what type of books he writes, but I don’t]. So, why did this Larsen woman only write two books and three short stories?
Me: She stopped writing to become a nurse to financially support her family.
Man: Well, but couldn’t she have kept writing? I don’t understand.
Me. Well…you gotta eat.
Man: I mean, I understand that, but that doesn’t mean you need to stop writing.
Me: Well…I think the nursing profession is a pretty noble one, don’t you? I mean, if she’s saving lives in Brooklyn, that has inter-generational consequences for families. Surely that has as much impact as writing novels, doesn’t it?
Man: Oh, I mean, I guess, I suppose so, I don’t know…
Me: Well, I have to go re-shelve this book for them that was in the wrong spot, so, thanks!
That last part, by the way, was absolutely true. Capitol Hill Books had shelved Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange in the B section as though written by Betsey Brown, so I escaped to the S section to re-shelve it.
This perplexing conversation with this man had another consequence, not altogether bad. When he started talking to me, I had just taken a book off the shelf to consider it for purchase. By the time I had escaped his awkward discussion of the Harlem Renaissance, I had forgotten that I hadn’t finished thinking about it, and it was still in my hand.
So, I ended up buying it without fulling realizing what I was doing! But it’s a coming of age book that seems to show promise, so I don’t think I ended up stepping wrong here, even though when I got home and looked, I didn’t really remember buying it – Rattlebone by Maxine Clair.
The other two books picked up in Denver were definitely on purpose – Sugar House by Antonia White and Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West. I really liked Frost in May by White, and I loved The Lost Traveller by her even more. And I had been on the lookout for Friendly Persuasion, so I was happy to find a copy. And happy to get out of the used bookstore without any more friendly interruptions, or plumbing scents.
I had been happy, though, to have an opportunity to publicly defend Nella Larsen’s decision to stop writing to become a nurse. I’m as sad as anyone else that there isn’t more Nella Larsen to read, but some of my favorite people on the planet are nurses, and nurses keep the world going round, so I defy anyone – Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, or some dude in the bookstore – who tries to give Ms. Larsen grief about that decision.
Now, there’s also the question of how much personal satisfaction she might have lost not getting to write anymore, and that’s a whole other thing. But please don’t try to tell me that nurses matter less than writers. I am not here for such talk!