Baffled, but believing

Maine won’t ever be confused for a literary hotbed. With our low population density (save for Portland), and lack of any real literary engine; like a major publication featuring writers; the state will continue to be known more for lobsters than literature.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have our writing bright lights. I could tick off a list of authors that carry literary cred, but any list like that is bound to leave off someone that others might deem essential. So I’ll leave the list making to others. Some will cite the efforts of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. I’ll be kind and reserve any judgment there, also.

In my early 20s, I left Maine and spent five formative years living in close proximity to a major American city, Chicago. Granted, this was the 1980s and those backwater years prior to the Internet might as well be 100 years ago for making comparisons with today’s social media-saturated way of communicating.

When our young family made its way back east, with all our belongings stuffed into the back of a U-Haul truck, there was one Maine radio station playing anything close to what I had access to near Chicago. Shortly after landing in Maine back in 1987, that station, WTOS, abandoned its freeform format that was still playing Black Flag, and other punk and post-punk bands underground fans like me were familiar with, and embraced a staid, classic-rock playlist that made them just like all the other stations on the FM dial in the Pine Tree state.

It would be a few more years before I could find the kind of underground and independent rock music I wanted to listen to, locally. When Brett Wickard opened his first Bull Moose store in a former Army recruiting space in Brunswick, I was then able to abandon the mail-order music catalog method (remember, I said this was pre-Internet) that had been my source for scoring non-commercial, independent rock music in the late 1980s.

Books pandering to the progressive, or rather obscure (especially specialty literary print-based magazines), have always been hard to come by in cultural deserts, like Maine. Perhaps once again it’s our paucity of population. Maybe it’s just that Maine—with the exception of Portland—isn’t that attuned to literary pursuits.

Outside of Portland, Brunswick—possibly due to Bowdoin College’s presence—has been able to support at least one store like Gulf of Maine Books that catered somewhat to readers desiring non-mainstream material. It’s a small store, and their selection, while varied, is also limited.

Interestingly, Lewiston, with a similar academic institution like Bates College, and a larger population than Brunswick, has zero book stores. If I wanted to take a shot at Lewiston, I could; but I won’t.

A few weeks ago, Mary and I visited Mark in Providence. It was all about my birthday, blah, blah, blah.

Providence is a big town. I call it a “town,” but it’s really a city, especially compared to anything that Maine offers (except Portland, yet again).

This city abutting Narragansett Bay (courtesy of the Providence River) has quite a few colleges, including one Ivy Leaguer in Brown. Maybe that’s why when I go to Providence, I can find a smattering of book shops that draw me inside and often, find me leaving with a bag full of merchandise.

One store I really like is Ada Books. The store is owned by a book-lover named Brent Legault. All you need to know about Ada is the following (from their website):

Reading a book or a magazine or a mini-comic backlit against some sort of screen or scrim is all right, I guess, but Ada Books imagines that a book is better when it’s splayed open on your lap, pinned flat against a table top, tented over your face, even just leaning on a shelf shining its spine at you.

If it sounds like I’m merely waxing romantic over a waning technology, then by Gutenberg, I am getting through to you! Now, pull your easy chair closer to the hearth, put some brandy in a glass, light a fire (don’t forget the kindling) & get comfortable with some old-fangled, lo-fidelity, battery-free bliss. Be it literary fiction, poetry, art, film, theater, philosophy, politics, history, biography, criticism, comics, chap books or zines, it can be had at Ada Books.

When I visited, I picked up two publications that I can’t find in Maine. The Baffler and The Believer. I should probably subscribe to them like I do The New Yorker.

The Believer has very loose ties to Maine. One of the editors, Heidi Julavits, hails from Maine. She was born in Portland. She did her undergrad at Dartmouth and her MFA at Columbia. I’m sure she decided that pursuing a career devoted to writing required leaving her native state and its lack of literary infrastructure for good. Now that she’s established and can afford it, she apparently spends part of the year back in Maine.

The Baffler is a publication that I’ve had an affinity for since the mid-1990s. I don’t even remember how I first came upon it. Their political and social commentary has had a strong influence on my thinking about American culture, especially its jeremiads against the empty dead-end of “rebellion-through-consumption” that epitomized the 1990s and shows no sign of abating.

It’s hard to describe The Baffler to anyone that’s never read it. One element that I think is significant is that their pieces, basically essays, are referred to as “salvos,” discharges against so much that is wrong with our current culture. If it helps, I’d say they’re managing to remain grafted in to the withering vine of muckraking that people like H.L. Mencken made hay with close to 100 years ago. America was once awash in journalism that dared to skewer sacred cows and take on the bullshit emanating from America’s business apologists.

One of its founding editors, and probably the best known one, is Thomas Frank. Frank wrote the seminal What’s The Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. One of the best books on why the 99 percent continues to vote for politicians dead set on working against their economic interests.

The 21st century has done its best to bury The Baffler. The publication has been published sporadically since 2001, partly due to their Chicago office being destroyed in a fire on April 25, 2001.

The Baffler has been relaunched (again), but this time (perhaps) the results will be more consistent. A new publisher (MIT Press) and a new editor in John Summers (replacing Frank) seems to have injected some new energy since its subsequent relaunch issue in March, 2012 (Baffler No. 19), with its cover featuring artwork of flying cars and a salvo inside on the foolishness of believing  that we’ll ever have them.

Unbelievably, I found that issue in the magazine section of Barnes and Noble in Augusta. I’ve never seen it since and given the unlikeliness of that occurrence, I may have dreamt it. Of course, I do have the physical copy; I only wish I’d kept my sales receipt to verify the veracity of what I think really happened.

Ada Books had both publications and I don’t know if any other store in Maine (save Longfellow Books, in Portland, of course) carries one or both.

Not only did Brent have the latest issues, he also keeps back issues. For me this was great because it meant that he had The Believer (October 12), the one with “the Obama cover.” It’s also the issue that had a long piece on Ayla Reynolds by Portlander, Ron Currie, Jr.

Here’s all you need to know about trying to remain literate (and subversive) in a place like Maine.

Currie wrote probably one of the best pieces on what has been one of Maine’s biggest news stories—the abduction and disappearance of the two-year-old Reynolds that garnered national attention and the interest of people like Nancy Grace. I mean, you know you’ve arrived as a news story when Nancy Grace covers you, right?

I’d never even had a whiff of Currie’s essay, and wouldn’t have known about it save for scanning the letters section in the latest issue (January 13), which meant that I read  the lengthy missive from Matt Wray taking issue with Currie’s “self-loathing,” accusing him of being a “restigmatizer.”

When I asked for that back issue, of course Brent had it and now I own the print copy of that issue of The Believer.

A quick Internet search for Currie’s piece and any possible fallout to it was very disappointing. I guess not many other people in Maine saw it, or if they did, they didn’t care enough to comment on it.

Of the two, my preference is for The Baffler, but The Believer is worth reading if you care to call yourself literate, which matters to few people these days, especially the people who I’m forced to spend the majority of my best hours rubbing shoulders with.