Reading Notes:
Buying Netherland


The pallor of the so-called hours of darkness was remarkable. Directly to the north of the hotel, a succession of cross streets glowed as if each held a dawn. The tail-lights, the coarse blaze of deserted office buildings, the lit storefronts, the orange fuzz of the street lanterns: all this garbage of light had been refined into a radiant atmosphere that rested in a low silver heap over Midtown and introduced to my mind the the thought that the final twilight was upon New York.

Methinks I’m in for a good read. The foregoing passage, from pages 20-21 of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, induced such a mild rapture that I had to stop, to copy it out somewhere.

I bought the book yesterday, when it made its first appearance in stores. I’d been told that Tuesday would be the day when I inquired about it at one of my favorite bookshops, McNally Robinson, in Prince Street. That was on Friday; on Thursday, the Times had published Michiko Kakutani’s warmly favorable review. What’s that about, I wondered, this publication of reviews before books come out? The nice people at McNally Robinson couldn’t tell me, but they acknowledged that it was becoming a practice. I was asked if I’d like to have a copy set aside. I declined, saying that “I’d be back.” The gent behind the counter, recognizing me, murmured something affirmative. Then I confessed to having already ordered a copy from Amazon. Which I couldn’t wait for.

I’d be back. I didn’t say that I’d be back to buy the book, but that was the implication, and my curious and idiosyncratic scruples wouldn’t let me forget it. Coming out of a doctor’s office yesterday morning, in the East Seventies, I turned west instead of homeward. The next thing on my agenda was to obtain a copy of Netherland. As I approached Lexington Avenue, I developed a plan. A very rudimentary plan: if Netherland were for sale at Shakespeare & Co, opposite Hunter College, I would take the IRT down to Bleecker Street and buy it at McNally Robinson.

Scruples jarred and tumbled: to the extent that this plan allowed me to fulfill obligations of the sheerest gossamer to one bookshop, it involved the rip-off of information from another. The theft would be minimal: a glance at Shakespeare’s window, there for the taking by any passer-by, would tell me what I wanted to know. I still felt somewhat shifty, but I could live with copping a glance. The reader familiar with Manhattan will marvel at my expecting a brand-new book to make its appearance in a window display right away. In the provinces, perhaps, any salesclerk can slip a new title into position of prominence, but in New York, that sort of thing is done by window dressers, and window dressers aren’t on duty round the clock.

This realization took hold as I searched the display at Shakespeare & Co in vain: no Netherland. Of course not. I would have to go inside if I wanted to be really sure. How awful, though, to browse for a book that I had no intention of buying. The fact is, I do not enter small independent bookshops in the adversarial spirit appropriate to commercial transactions. I identify too easily with the bookseller, who all too obviously can’t be in it just to make a buck. I identify with the overeducated, underpaid clerks, people whom I used to look up to when I was young because they had obviously read so much more than I; even now that this is no longer likely, I still regard them as gatekeepers. Custodians. Stewards. I can’t just muscle onto their premises and sniff out availabilities, leaving them not a penny richer. For one thing, I’m too vain: it’s important for me to able to regard myself as a dues-paying Nice Person — a common affliction in my neighborhood, if not nearly common enough. For another, I’m working off the guilt that my mother never felt for cadging the photograph of a very expensive jeweled watch from a salesperson at Tiffany and then running down to a dank outfit on Canal Street to have the thing copied for a fraction of the uptown price. I am working off the guilt that my mother accrued for doing things like that while taking a generally anti-Semitic line, as if it were all right for her to “Jew someone down” (drive a hard bargain), but not all right for anyone to be a Jew. My need to atone has made me the merchant’s dream customer.

Standing outside in the rain, I devised another plan. I entered Shakespeare & Co and headed straight for the counter. Ignoring the two tall stacks of Netherland that stood between me and the clerk (Yes!), I asked for “the new Donna Leon.” I didn’t bother to look for it myself. I didn’t wander among the tables as though time spent in a bookshop were a treat and a pleasant temptation. Now that I knew for certain that Netherland was out, I was on my way to another bookshop, and for that very reason my conscience obliged me to take as little time and occupy as little space at Shakespeare & Co as possible.

The Girl of His Dreams — the new Donna Leon — was handed to me almost instantly, bought and paid for immediately, and slipped into the bag that, ordinarily, I’d have forgone, but for the rain. I left the store in a cloud of virtue, and walked half a block to the subway entrance. In no time at all, I was reading about the burial of Guido Brunetti’s mother, which is how Ms Leon opens the latest installment of the commissario’s adventures in Venetian crime, as the 6 train jogged downtown.

Forty minutes later, I climbed out of the subway at 86th Street. Mission accomplished? Well, I had my copy of Netherland, which I had purchased, as planned, at McNally Robinson in Prince Street. But my commercial scruples did not prevent me from entertaining the idea of keeping the receipt in my wallet, so that I could brandish it to the McNally Robinson staff members who had talked about the pre-publication publication of book reviews in the Times with me on Friday, and who had understood that I’d be back — but who hadn’t been there just now to see that I had been back. Some other set of scruples, happily, suggested that this would probably be a foolishness.

2 Responses to “Reading Notes:
Buying Netherland

  1. Ellen Moody says:

    Dear RJ,

    I’ve not been reading your blog for a while. I got caught up with all sorts of things, but now term is over and summer is ahead. I really very much enjoyed what you wrote today.

    Jim and I did come to NY a few weeks ago and we went to the Poussin exhibit twice, saw _Sunday in the Park with George_ (a revelation of a production because now I realize the 2nd act far from a filler can be the point), _Top Girls_ and walked a lot.

    I wish I could say I keep up with the latest books. I’ve this irresistible urge to try to write books myself and some of my reading time is given over to listservs.

    I hope you and Kathleen keep well.


  2. Nom de Plume says:

    This is a showstopper entry, RJ. The magic of your passion for books spun through the mini-drama of responsible consumer-ship had me charmed. You begin with a tasty passage from the sought-after tome; I felt your paragraphs could also occupy pages 20 and 21 of some book you were about to write. Or had already.