Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.
“I have a very good collection. I love Joyce. He and Beckett are going to be read five hundred years from now, just like we read Shakespeare.” David Newel’s enthusiasm is contagious. I think back to my first visit to Sellers and Newel, where he gave me a crash course in 20th century publishing by going over Joyce’s tricky publication history. A compelling detail from that day resurfaces: the first printing of Ulysses in London was printed on American sheets, because the publisher didn’t want to dirty British paper with something he considered so depraved.
“We’ve really sold a ton of the Joyce stuff,” Peter Sellers pipes in, when I ask if the section draws a special crowd. I’ve come on a Tuesday afternoon, and both men are in the shop. Given Newel’s expertise, I imagine that the place must somehow seem like a beacon for fellow Joyce aficionados. “We do get some academics, yes.” Newel doesn’t really want to talk about clientele; it seems he’d be much happier talking about the books. Sellers hands me a copy of Ulysses with an alluring photograph gracing the cover.
“That’s from the film,” he tells me. I didn’t know there was a movie version. I think about renting it to celebrate Bloomsday, this Saturday. Newel tells me that the movie isn’t bad, it’s from the late ’70s. The proprietors jointly remind each other of the details of its release. ’76? ’77. It was Bosco – Hogan? – Yes, Hogan. They talk over one another and it’s fun to watch them in action, calling on their native knowledge, pulling up the past. (NB: When I go home and Google this information, I realize that they’re both thinking of Bosco Hogan in the 1977 film version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In that film he played Stephen Dedalus, a principal character from both books, but not in the 1967 picture Ulysses.).
I ask if they’ve got anything planned for Bloomsday, June 17, the day that all of Ulysses takes place on. “We’ll probably do a special window display,” Sellers says. It’s Taste of Little Italy this weekend and neither of the men think that James Joyce holds much crossover appeal for people coming to listen to Italian cover bands and stand in the sun and smell sweet grilled corn in the air. But their window displays have been enough to draw in customers in the past. They had a particularly memorable one when Mad Men began its most recent season, with shadowy cutouts of the falling man and some spectacularly designed vintage books on Ogilvy & Mather and period advertising. Their current campaign, which features a rotation of portraits of famous authors and pithy captions about reading, has been a success. “We had a picture of Kerouac up there, and one customer came in to breathlessly ask how much of his work we carried. I told him ‘some,’ and he was over the moon,” says Sellers.
While I understand why they might refrain from holding a big event to celebrate Bloomsday, I’m a little disappointed. They’re the only bookstore I’ve ever been in that carries such a vast array of texts inspired by Joyce. There are even a few mass-market mystery novels that refer back, in some way or another, to Joyce’s work. Newel hands me two editions of one such specimen, called The James Joyce Murder, by Amanda Cross. The cover copy is scintillating in its charming mid-’60s way. “It doesn’t have a lot to do with Joyce,” Newel laments. “There was one set in Dublin. That was the best. We had it in stock for a while.”
I ask him if most of the writing surrounding Joyce in the shop is popular, like the mysteries, or more academic, like some of the imposing commentaries that grace the top of the shelf. “As far as secondary literature goes, great writing generates great commentary. Ulysses in particular is such a nicely complex work–it may have some of the structure of The Odyssey, but there’s so much there. The quality and inventiveness of the language…Most of the commentaries are by definition interesting, and as thorough as they choose to be. One of the definitions of secondary literature is to transform or translate the original. I will say that Joyce despised academic treatments of his work. He wrote it for the people. He didn’t write it for the academic world.” Newel tells me a heartbreaking anecdote about Joyce asking his young nieces what they thought of the book, after it had been out for some time. “They said, ‘Mom wouldn’t let us. She says it isn’t fit for being read.’ We might laugh now, but he was devastated.”
At this point I am totally enthralled with Newel’s enthusiastic acumen for his subject. I ask him, admiration making my voice small, if he’s read every book he carries on Joyce. “No,” he says flatly. And how could he? It was a foolish question. “I’m currently rereading Stanislaus Joyce’s autobiography [My Brother's Keeper]. Without Stanislaus you wouldn’t have [James] Joyce at all. He provided so many details,” Newel tells me, about James writing to his brother with absurd tasks to provide accurate information on Dublin for Ulysses. He would ask his brother to count the trees on a particular street, or the number of paces from one intersection to the next. I ask if it’s possible that Stanislaus fudged his answers a little, made things up. That’s what I would do. Sellers laughs. Newel doesn’t. “Oh no, they had too much integrity for that.”
Before I leave the shop, I ask Newel if he has any advice for daring readers looking to take in Ulysses for the first time. And of course, he does: “I’m a big believer that however confused people might find themselves, they should surge ahead and read Ulysses on their own. You have to put in the work, but you’ll be rewarded. That’s my primary recommendation. After you’ve done that, give it a rest. Then come here for a book of commentary. And then read it again.”