Friday 4 December 2020

Learning to Read and Write in New York City


The Strand Bookstore in New York City is in trouble.  The Pandemic has hit its business badly. When news of this much-loved institution’s problem reached the press, many of its legions of devotees placed orders to save it. It reminded me of a piece I wrote about a visit to New York a few years ago.


Learning to Read and Write in New York City


Back in Manhattan after 5 years, I made my usual pilgrimage to the Strand Bookstore.  From Union Square subway I walked south on Broadway and soon saw the shop’s maroon and yellow awning.  It has been there since 1923 and it is the last remaining independent bookstore in what had been a whole street of bookshops.  It boasts that it has 18 miles of books.  In its labyrinth of stacks on four floors, I could believe it.  Fortunately, expert staff can lead you to almost any book in a New York minute. 

It is the only bookshop I know that provides shopping trolleys.  An American friend told me she is not allowed in there without a keeper.  I was lucky; I bought just two books, neither of which I knew existed before I went in. I lingered in the stationery section.  I cannot resist a new notebook or pencil.  I could have bought a Moleskine notebook to turn me into Bruce Chatwin or a Palamino Blackwing, John Steinbeck’s preferred writing instrument. 

Pilgrimage over; I paused to pick up a copy of Gotham City Writers’ News from a sidewalk newsstand.  Gotham Writers is another fine Manhattan institution.  Among other things, it runs online courses for writers and competitions.

Then I went to an exhibition of Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts at the Morgan Library.  What especially appealed was that Hemingway wrote a lot about how he wrote.  I read his letter to Mary Welsh written from the Normandy Invasion.  He wrote 'I am ashamed I know too few adjectives.' 

'That makes two of us, Ernest', I muttered.

He enjoyed editing his own work.  He could do it first in pencil as he wrote, again when he typed it out and finally when reviewing the proofs. Editing is good for all of us whether we like it or not.  I guess we need to be as good as Hemingway before we can fight back against editors.  There in the margin of an edited typescript, Hemingway's own handwriting declared, 'who b******d this up like this?'

He wrote in French School exercise books and I could study the physical process of his writing.  He re-wrote the last page of 'A Farewell to Arms' 39 times before he was satisfied.  He had also consulted F Scott Fitzgerald about the manuscript.  After they had worked on a particular page together, Fitzgerald told Hemingway that page 226 was 'one of the most beautiful pages in English literature'.  Well that is certainly something to aspire to.

Evidently, Hemingway was not too proud to take advice.  Gertrude Stein told him of an early manuscript, 'begin over again and concentrate'.  Thanks, Gert.

I saw his notes for the title of a short story.  He used to write the story first then create as many as a hundred potential titles before selecting exactly the right one.

If writing was that hard for Hemingway, how are the rest of us to manage?

I drafted this piece with a Palomino Blackwing pencil but I am still not Steinbeck.  I used a school exercise book but I am still not Hemingway.  What can I be doing wrong?

Strand Bookstore

Gotham Writers


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