Dispatches | June 15, 2007

I was driving through downtown Columbia the other day and a used bookstore caught my eye. Signs proclaimed huge bargains (50-80 percent off), though there was a downside: the store advertised such discounts only because it was going out of business. Another bigger independent bookstore up the street had also just closed.

More and more people are turning to mega-chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders (or even places like Wal-Mart and Gerbes) to get their reading fix. While I enjoy a good stroll through Barnes & Noble as much as the next Dostoevsky fan, it worries me to see the domination of the big chains. Still, it’s understandable. Independent bookstores can be harder to navigate, they can smell of must and old paper, and there’s no clearly defined shelf of annotated classics—the independent bookstore can be a mess that requires hours of sifting to find anything worthwhile.

And I love it for precisely those reasons.

Those hours of sifting, of picking up and carefully paging through a few dozen books, offer a reader the opportunity to find the real gems. More importantly, an independent bookstore tends to offer a potentially broader range of works and voices. In the mass national market bookstores, branding and sales dictate what gets on the shelves, preventing voices on the fringe from being heard.

Nothing compares to an unexpected literary “find” for a reader. Sure, we all know and love the classics out there. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury thrilled and confused me to no end, and I remember not being able to put down as As I Lay Dying until the last of the book’s wild pages. Yet the other day in that used bookstore I stumbled upon another key Faulkner book I never expected to read.

The work was called Thinking of Home and collected the letters of William Faulkner to his mother and father from the years 1918 to 1925. The Faulkner in these pages is not the veteran, world-weary drinker of later years; he is not particularly obsessed with the Southern decline. This man calls himself Billy and is young and exuberant and writes letters constantly to his Mississippi home. I laughed and was inspired and grasped some elements of Faulkner’s personality from those pages in ways I never imagined I could. Those years show Faulkner discovering the broader world—he lived in New York, Canada and New Orleans during these developmental times—and illustrate how the writer came to envision his own homeland of the South, so vital to his later masterworks. The man here innocently marvels at New York’s subway system and reminds his “darling momsey” in virtually every letter of his love: “I love you more than all the world” he closes one of the earlier letters.

Faulkner shares countless lively anecdotes with his parents, sometimes spicing up the tales with minor fictions and details that would later go into his novels. His writing aspirations and progress, incidentally, he only spoke of in letters to his mother.

By 1925, he was living in New Orleans, writing and corresponding with Sherwood Anderson. On May 7, he told his mother, “Still working on my novel. It is very good. I am about two thirds through—about 50,000 words. I kind of hate to finish it. I know I’ll never have so much fun with another one. I dream about the people in it. Like folks I know.” A few lines later he remarks that he has started walking in the afternoons “to keep myself down. I am getting fat, I think.” These letters illuminate the mind of a carefree Faulkner before the fame. It’s quite a human look at the man who helped bring literary Modernism to America.

I’ll throw out a guess and say that collection of letters won’t be at most chain bookstores. The national mega-stores have their place, but seeking out those fringe shops and voices is often supremely rewarding and important. I left that secondhand shop with both a pile of books and a smile.

Page-turner thrillers and romance novels present an assortment of clichés and action conveniently for the casual reader, but far more is possible and can be sought beyond the aisles of Wal-Mart and grocery stores. The difference between literature and the mass-market paperbacks is that literature challenges readers to think, to notice the seven-eighths of the iceberg below the surface.That’s one of the critically important functions of The Missouri Review: to find and cultivate these voices and offer a forum for literature. I rather like that and believe that such a conversation strikes at the essence of exploring the human heart in conflict with itself.