City Life: The Vision of Jane Jacobs

Quick, what’s the most important invention? The wheel earned itself a major reputation a few millennia ago and hasn’t lost ground since, so that’s a good option. The light bulb, the telephone, and antibiotics all have proponents to make a convincing case, as do the airplane and the refrigerator. And in my line of work it’s hard to overlook all the good that’s come from the printing press. The internet too, for that matter. Thanks, Al. But I’ll stump for an invention that predates almost all of these, going back to the very beginnings of history and beyond: the city.

If you think of cities as elaborate machines, it’s easy to take the next step and try to figure out why some of those machines work better than others. It’s not always because of the most obvious reasons, the massive installations and industries that some cities have and others don’t. Often it’s the minor details, the ones that seem to have arisen by happenstance, like how the doors to the houses open or how wide the sidewalks are. 

One of the first people to understand this was not an architect or builder, but a journalist and activist without any formal training in city planning. Jane Jacobs was initially rejected by the establishment (the disparaging phrase “mom in tennis shoes” might have been coined decades ahead of its time to refer to her) but she’s since become the godmother of contemporary urbanism. She successfully led the fight against Robert Moses and his attempt to mow down Greenwich Village and replace it with an expressway (see Robert Caro’s The Power Broker for more on that subject) and her own book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has become a bible for civic-minded individuals everywhere.

The full story of her life and her accomplishments has finally been done justice by Robert Kanigel in his new biography Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, a must-read for anyone who cares about human-oriented growth and development ... continued

Personal Service at Island Books

Recently a woman came in the store and noted that she had last shopped at Island Books in 1974. I have a major soft spot for that kind of customer already, and once she mentioned she had boy/girl twins I felt connected to her immediately. I told her I had 4-year-old twins too and she laughed and said that hers were now 60 years old! “I’ve done plenty of enjoyable things in my life,” she told me, “but nothing has ever been as much fun as raising those kids.” I knew exactly what she meant.

There it was again: the magic of a special connection made in the store. And then the conversation turned to books, of course. 

As the holiday season approaches, we’ve been thinking about new ways to connect with our customers. We pride ourselves on being a community center and a place your children learn to love to read. People often turn to our shelves when they have significant moments in their lives, like finding out about a pregnancy, a child starting school, taking a special trip, falling in love, buying a home, and more. Let us be a part of the special connections you make during the upcoming season. We understand the importance of those threads of family and community, and we’ll support you however we can. To that end, we’ve been thinking about two ideas and we would love your feedback ... continued

Writing a Life

Philosophers have been posing the big question for as long as anyone can remember: What Makes Life Worth Living? But the more pertinent question for booksellers is of relatively recent vintage: What Makes Life Worth Reading? I don’t know who first asked that one, but I know who gave the first good answer.

John Aubrey was born in Wiltshire, England in 1626, and from an early age took an interest in the world around him ... No detail was too petty to escape his attention ... By the end of his full life (he died in 1697) he’d assembled and organized a sizable collection of notes on the contemporaries he knew and on the immediate predecessors they’d known. His Brief Lives were filled with details both incidental (poet John Suckling invented cribbage between verses) and, in his time, shocking. Describing one knight of the realm, Aubrey wrote, ”Drunkenness he much exclaimed against, but wenching he allowed.” His manuscripts may have been titillating at the time, but they were never scurrilous. Their author conducted interviews, checked the records, and told the truth as best he found it–all of it. His methods defied the then-prevailing hagiographic trend, but his Lives outlasted his era, circulating ever more widely and providing us with much of what we know about the men and women of the 16th and 17th century. A major accomplishment, to be sure, but his real legacy is as the inventor of a literary art form–the biography. He provided the model for all the work that’s done today to give us full, true, affecting portraits of actual human beings ... continued

Publisher Preview Night

We recommend books all the time, and we think we’re pretty good at it (if we do say so ourselves). But even good readers like us still have things to learn, and the masters we often turn to are industry professionals who work not in bookstores but on the publishing side of the street. Among the very best of those are two old hands (and old friends of ours) from Random House, Katie Mehan and David Glenn. They come talk to us several times a year to tell us about what’s rolling off the presses and which of those titles they think are the best books for Mercer Island readers. The thing about Random House is that they publish a lot of books–Katie and David don’t try to push everything, just the stuff that we (and you) want.

Since they know their stuff so well, now and again we like to let them demonstrate their skills directly to you, our customers. So we’re giving them a showcase in the store at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 13th. They’ve picked 20 of their favorite books to share, fiction and non-fiction alike. Whatever you’re into, whether it’s drama or comedy, science fiction or romance, action or information, there’s a book (or two) for you on the list ... continued

There’s a New Trend in Football

Did you see this story about Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett setting up a book club for our beloved local football team? Even though football plays are complex and require intelligence to interpret and execute them quickly, football players are often stereotyped as simple-minded. Leave it to book clubs to help break down the cliché.

There are stories of Bennett leaving books all over the place, including in his coaches’ offices. Bennett chose Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers as the first Seahawks book club pick, a logical if obvious choice. And oh the irony, since Gladwell is known for his hatred of football, which he’s deemed a “moral abomination.” But either Bennett doesn’t know about Gladwell’s position or he doesn’t care. The point of the Seahawks reading Outliers is to study what makes people extremely successful. Bennett wants to get his teammates to talk about something meaningful and build their connection beyond the game. As one of the most outspoken players in the league, Bennett probably also wants to give his teammates more knowledge for discussing social issues with the media ... continued

Reading The Underground Railroad, Part II

(continued from part one)

Miriam: I agree James, it belongs on the same level as Beloved and the others. I’d also add The Known World by Edward P. Jones to that definitive list. The competition between the slaves struck me too, especially when it pitted women against men (like over the ownership of Cora’s garden patch). They had to do whatever it took to survive, even if it meant turning on their own.

I’ve wondered why Whitehead decided to use a female protagonist. It’s probably because of her vulnerability. Lizzie, I liked Cora too, but she was something of a prism to me, a way to view the larger world Whitehead created. Her persona was defined more by the actions she takes in a few key scenes rather than by her thoughts and feelings. It’s an interesting way to create a character. When I think of her I immediately go to the scenes where she violently defends her small garden patch, or when she throws her body over a young slave boy to protect him from a whipping, or when she’s acting out the slave scenes in the museum and pausing to give the onlookers the evil eye ... continued

Reading The Underground Railroad, Part I

Who knew Oprah would bring us together? James and I crossed each other’s reading tracks again with Oprah’s latest book club pick, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Even better, Lizzie had already read it, so we had three varying opinions. Since it’s been awhile since we held an online book club, we decided it was time to join forces again to hash out our response to one of the biggest books of the fall. In the past we’ve discussed Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Lori Robinson joined that conversation too). 

As a child learning about history, Colson Whitehead was disappointed to learn that the Underground Railroad wasn’t literally a train that carried slaves to freedom. So for his new book, he made it real. The story follows a 15-year-old slave named Cora whose mother made a successful escape when Cora was a little girl (as far as she knows). She embarks on her own escape from a Georgia plantation, making her way north in search of freedom. Her route takes her on to a locomotive built by slaves that runs underground. The train stops in different states, and each location demonstrates a different version of how people responded to slavery. Cora is constantly on the run, chased by slave chasers and bounty hunters, and her journey takes her through every imaginable horror. The Underground Railroad echoes many other books in the genre, yet manages to have a remarkable voice all its own ... continued

Somebody Does It Better

Any child psychologist will tell you it’s a bad idea to compare siblings to each other. Ask big sis why her room isn’t as neat as her younger brother’s and she won’t clean it up, she’ll drop out of school and ride off on a motorcycle to the tattoo shop. It’s probably not a good idea to compare one country to another either, although I don’t know what the national equivalent of a regrettable tattoo is. But the Olympics are in full swing and global competition is in the air (along with Zika-laden mosquitoes) so let’s throw caution (and some bug spray) to the wind and ask the big question: How does the good old U.S. of A. stack up to the rest of the world?

Pretty well overall, I’d say. I don’t wear a flag pin on my lapel or anything, but most of the time I’m perfectly happy to live where I do. I’m on vacation abroad right now, though, and my trip has shown me that we have some catching up to do in at least one important area. I’m talking about our relationship with books, of course. Sure, you and I read like our lives depend on it, but not everyone in the fifty states feels the same way. France, on the other hand, shows signs of being the most book-obsessed place on the planet ... continued

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

In 2003 Carolyn Parkhurst published her debut novel, The Dogs of Babel. It had the most idiosyncratic premise. Paul’s wife dies after falling out of an apple tree and the only witness is their Rhodesian Ridgeback. In an effort to explain the circumstances surrounding his wife’s death, Paul decides to teach his dog how to speak English so she can tell Paul the truth about what happened.

Paul sounds a little crazy, right? You might say that Parkhurst specializes in the confusion of a person stuck in circumstances beyond their control. Fiction is the perfect place to conjecture what you might do in a heartbreaking situation. Paul’s goal is far-fetched but the portrait of his grief is achingly realistic, and the book became a huge bestseller. Please don’t consider it a spoiler when I tell you the dog doesn’t learn to talk. But Parkhurst does manage to show how language is not enough. Paul’s wife had language and he still failed to understand her.

Harmony is Parkhurst’s new novel and its premise and execution is just as distinctive as The Dogs of Babel ... continued


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