Thursday, November 3, 2022

40 years of sanctuary at Books & Books


“I claim sanctuary!”

In medieval England, there was no more powerful a cry. The social station of the person was of no consequence; what mattered was that they were fleeing a pursuer and had arrived at the door of a church. Lift the wooden knocker on the door, utter the three words, and you would be granted asylum within its walls for 40 days.

Sanctuary derives from the Latin sanctus, meaning sacred. It is the same word that gives us sacrosanct. We don’t use these solemn terms much anymore and yet, who doesn’t want a place that we know will shelter us?

Refuge and ritual

Although there is no wooden knocker on the door of Books & Books, for 40 years now this Miami bookstore has been a sanctuary for readers lucky enough to live in, or visit, South Florida. Most of us are not likely to be fleeing pursuers (although this is Miami…). We are seeking refuge of another sort: a refresher for our minds, a respite for our souls.

We come, ostensibly, for the books and for the ritual that entails. Browsing shelves, lingering at tables, turning pages, treading on wooden floors whose reassuring creak signals a certain permanence. But we also come for the community.

Invariably there is someone to talk to, even if we’ve just met. The cafĂ© and courtyard practically assure this, as they serve up fellowship as deftly as delicious fare. The cohort of hyper-readers—the staff—is equally adept at practicing the ancient rite of independent bookstores, guiding you from one room to the next, each its own literary ecosystem, to the books that seem to have been waiting for you.

Mecca and safe space

And always (even though he might be at another Books & Books location) there is Mitchell. Founder, owner, visionary—Mitchell Kaplan has always understood that despite what early skeptics said, South Florida was a mecca for readers. Or maybe he simply knew how to make it that mecca, cofounding the Miami Book Fair at almost the same time he opened Books & Books.

When the stores had to close temporarily during the pandemic, it meant they could no longer set out their rows of wooden chairs for their continual author events. But the staff quickly pivoted, bringing us authors remotely, night after night, as we sat in our own chairs. During those grim and fearful days, the virtual Books & Books became our safe space, allowing us, for a short sweet time, to escape the incessant worry.

We are accustomed these days to having bird sanctuaries and wildlife sanctuaries, so why not a reader’s refuge? We may not be extinct or even endangered but we are…grateful. Books & Books is where the exploration of ideas, so sacrosanct in a democracy, finds space to be free. You don’t need to knock on the door. Just come in, and you will find sanctuary.

May those wooden floors forever creak.


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Some Words for David McCullough's Biographer

Several years ago I had the chance to interview David McCullough. Like many other Americans, I had long been under the spell of his voice and his books. I knew I would need to rein in my desire to listen to him for—oh, hours. So I promised him I would ask just five questions, and ended up asking only four.

As well-versed as he was in giving interviews, the last one took him by surprise.

Of all the people he had written about, I asked him, whom would he like to write the story of David McCullough?

No one had ever asked him that before, he told me. But he had a ready candidate: the 19th-century British writer Anthony Trollope. “He’s really good,” David said—and then remembered he hadn’t written about him. He paused for a few moments and then announced his choice.

“She was a wonderful writer, a good judge of people, and would have been a wonderful novelist,” he said. “She was pretty judgmental, but I guess I can take that.” He added jokingly, “I’d tell her to go easy.”

“She” was Abigail Adams.

Instantly I found myself thinking, Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be Abigail Adams.

We will, of course, never know what words this determined woman, whose correspondence with her husband David McCullough held in his hands when he was researching John Adams, might have brought to his biography. But here are some words from my interview that Abigail might have approved of—thoughts David McCullough shared that help to illustrate why he was, as The New York Times described him, a “spellbinding author.”

“I don’t think of myself as a historian or biographer.” Surprising words, don’t you think, for a writer whose histories and biographies earned him two Pulitzers (Truman, John Adams) and two National Book Awards (The Path Between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback)? But then he explained:

“I’m a writer who’s chosen to write about real people, and events that really happened.” He viewed history as his “terrain.”

“It was a particularly powerful summons, especially for young people. It affected my wife and me very much.” The summons was from John F. Kennedy, who in his 1961 Inaugural Address famously exhorted Americans to “ask what you can do for your country.”

David McCullough answered that summons, leaving a secure job in New York City for Washington, D.C.

Eventually, he would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for what he did for his country: helping readers bear witness to its history through those “events that really happened.” But first he worked for the U.S. Information Agency.

“I was in way over my head,” he said. “But that’s how you learn to swim.”

(These many years later, on the weekend that David McCullough passed away, there was a second, unexpected intersection with JFK. That Sunday, Caroline Kennedy was on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal in her role as US ambassador to Australia. She was marking the 80th anniversary of the World War II battle her father famously fought in as captain of the PT-109 torpedo boat.)

“Studying painting helps me to observe more closely.” So close was the juxtaposition of painting and writing for David McCullough that he sometimes captured in watercolor a setting he was writing about. It’s also why he was particular about certain prepositions: “When I write, I work in a book, not on it,” he told me—just as you do a painting.

“They were not perfect—perfect and human are contradictory. Nor did what they achieve result in perfection, especially when declaring all men to be created equal.”  David was referring, of course, to Adams, Jefferson, and the others who hammered out the Declaration of Independence and the path this country would take. He continued:

“What they did was to give us the ideal to strive for. They didn’t attain equality. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't keep trying. Each generation of Americans tries to carry the torch of that ideal.”

Somehow it seemed an easier torch to carry when we knew David McCullough was among us, his words and his voice there to ground us.

Oh, what I wouldn't give to have asked him more questions.


Thursday, July 1, 2021

On This July Fourth, Let’s Say Farewell to This Word

Now that the US government has done a word purge of “alien” from its immigration policy manual, replacing it with “noncitizen” and “undocumented individual,” it may be time to toss out its frequent companion as well.

Let’s say farewell to “foreign.”

“Foreign” stems from the Latin foris, meaning outside in the physical sense. A close etymological cousin is “forum,” originally a public place—i.e., outside.

So far, so good—and, you may be saying, so what? After all, dictionaries still start their list of meanings for “foreign” with such benign explanations as “situated outside a place or country.” This is the first definition in Merriam-Webster.

But keep going down the list and you’ll soon come to a very different meaning, of “alien in character: not connected or pertinent” (Merriam-Webster’s fourth entry). And there we are, back once again to “alien.”

Freighted and fraught

I vividly recall being described as a foreigner the year I lived in England. And yet, I didn’t feel like an alien, or that I was not pertinent. I just felt like an American who was in another country—not a foreign one, just a different one.

The problem with “foreign” is that it’s freighted. Fraught with negative connotations—stranger, outsider, unknown to the point of being suspect—it has a circle-the-wagons sentiment to it.

So why do we continue to call the familiar “foreign”? Our planet is a globalized, world society now, and in many ways has been for millennia. (In the year 1000, for example, there was a brisk Persian Gulf-China trade route that also connected to East Africa.)

Yet diplomats continue to engage in foreign relations, when the goal is to find connections with other countries. And would a foreign language be less intimidating to those of us who don’t know it if we thought of it as a world, or a global, or simply another language instead? Ditto for its native speakers.

Fight vs. facilitate

“Foreign” has its place, of course, as Veterans of Foreign Wars can attest. These soldiers were fighting enemies whose essential values threatened to undermine our own: that were alien to our national character. The debt we owe them is huge.

But when we don’t need to fight, let’s use words that facilitate tolerance rather than fight against it, however unconsciously. When we can swap “us-versus-them” language for words that instead suggest “we,” let’s do it. It’s just the kind of thing worth thinking about as we head outside to celebrate on this Fourth of July.                                                                     

Image by Tom Walsh, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

What is this thing called ‘hug’?


(Wikimedia Commons photo by Todorov.petar.p)

Have you hugged…somebody today? (The expression began as “Have you hugged your kid today?” Now it’s gone so far as to ask, as an Etsy selection does, “Have you hugged your burrito unicorn?” Um, why?)

Thanks to a shot, or two, in the arm of a Covid-19 vaccine, many of us now feel safe using our arms to clasp, cradle and cuddle one another. No longer will expressions like “bear hug,” “bro hug” and “group hug” seem like quaint artifacts of a pre-pandemic world. Calendar note: January 21st is National Hugging Day; might as well start gearing up now.

Humans have been hugging since the 1560s—actually, far longer than that, but that’s when the meaning of wrapping your arms around someone became wrapped around the word hug. In Old Norse, people engaged in hugga, or comforting. The word evolved from hugr, which meant courage, and which is worth pondering. Old English weighed in with hogian, to care for.

The French, who like to linger over lunches and other pleasing things, stretched the pleasure of hug to the four-syllable embracier in Old French. Yes, that would be our modern “embrace.” The “brace” reaches back to the French, Latin and Greek words for arm, for the obvious reasons. Spanish makes it clear: el brazo is an arm; el abrazo is a hug.

“Hug” has its own brand of onomatopoeia. If you can sigh, you’re halfway to saying it.

And so we sigh—with relief, with unrestrained emotion, with no longer having to long to hug. We’re living high on the hug, and loving it.

Sunday, January 24, 2021



‘Civil’ comes back in flower

Among its many other triumphs, Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem was a disarming, uplifting reminder that in our words lie powerful incubators of our deeds. One such word that her poem summoned for me was “civil.”

Some of the strongest buttresses of our democracy are bound up in that word. Civil discourse. Civil liberties. Civil society. Civil rights.

“Of or relating to citizens,” Merriam-Webster tells us about the word, presenting its first meaning. The Romans gave it to us in the form of civilis, deriving from civis, or citizen.

For the Romans, so strongly was the idea of civis connected to one’s identity that to utter Cicero’s pronouncement of Civis Romanus sum—“I am a Roman citizen”—was to immediately command respect. It’s no accident that some of this country’s foundations as a republic trace back to the ideas and ideals of Cicero. Even though not in Rome, Americans have been known to do as some of those ancient Romans did when it comes to government.

From civis to civilis is just a few short steps, as civilis speaks to public life and the civic order: both the rights and the duties of a citizenry. Walk with that concept a little farther and it’s not long before you arrive at the familiar, everyday meaning of civil: polite.

Civil discourse is how democracy works best because it means we listen, politely, before deciding a course of action. So to once again practice civility is more than a nice gesture, the kind thing to do. It’s also to be an American citizen. It’s our democratic way to both command respect, and show it.


Sunday, March 22, 2020

A comforting phrase pandemics can’t touch: ‘like a balm’

When this is over, we will emerge changed in many ways, and our language will not be immune. Perhaps “pre-pan” and “post-pan” will enter the lexicon. Or “pre-covid” and “post-covid.”

Already we have additions to Merriam-Webster, “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” among them. But the terms, though necessary, do little to console.

So let’s dig into that vast trove of English words and phrases and find something comforting we can use right now. One that sounds right to me is like a balm. “Balm?” you’re probably thinking. “Isn’t that something you rub on your lips?”

Well, yes. It’s any healing ointment, actually, and usually fragrant. Something soothing, in other words. It harks back to the Latin balsamum, which gave us the aromatic balsam.

Why balm works

The beauty of balm is that it’s linked to the physical, to touch. And reassuring touches are what we crave right now, as we don’t hug, huddle, gather or otherwise affirm one another’s physical presence. Solace is soothing, too, as it seeks to console us, but not in a physical sense.

Like a balm floated into my consciousness recently as I read one of the emails from Books & Books. Owner Mitchell Kaplan and his dedicated team have taken their physical spaces—the various Books & Books venues in Miami—and turned them into a devoted community of readers.

At the moment, those physical spaces are closed. But the messages that Books & Books is sending customers are like a balm. Here’s part of the one I received on Friday…

None of us knows what the future will bring, but we know we have a shared community that is planning to emerge from these dark times into a brighter day. Stay calm and read on. We will meet in that land that readers inhabit. It's a safe space, a life-giving space, a space unlike any other. We all know it and now take shelter there -- together. 

Beautiful, don’t you think?

And there are other things that act like a balm right now. One, for me, was reconnecting with a friend from so long ago it seems like yesterday. Another has been the emails and texts and phone calls (phone calls!) checking in with relatives and friends and colleagues.

The lovely watercolor you see here is by Renee Reese.  She shared it with her friend Andrea, a dear friend who shared it with me. The daffodils offer solace. The fact that my friend took the time to virtually share them with me is like a balm.

The philosopher Joseph Campbell encouraged us to follow our bliss. That may be too distant at this particular moment. But I hope you’re finding those special, small gestures and kindnesses right now that act like a balm.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Perhaps the oddest New Year’s resolution yet: give cursive a(nother) chance

If the story in the New York Times a few weeks ago is any indication, cursive writing might just be making a comeback, modest though it may be.

Contrary to what those who shun, eschew, lament, rail against, and run from cursive might think, the word does not derive from “curse.” But the running from is actually close. “Cursive” is from the Latin currere, to run. Letters in cursive writing flow, or run, together.

I think we should seriously consider a cursive revival. I say this even though my own cursive writing is cacographic—a fancy way of saying borderline illegible.

It’s not because I think that people will always have to sign their name the way we do now; I doubt that we will. It’s because cursive can be a potent tool when you're seeking transparency. 

For a good example, just read Lincoln.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” intoned President Abraham Lincoln at the memorial service for Union soldiers on November 19, 1863, “but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln was right on the second point but wrong on the first. We do, indeed, remember what Lincoln said at Gettysburg. In fact, the Gettysburg Address is set in stone on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

But is that really what he said that day?

The reporters who were there didn’t get it right. It’s not that Lincoln talked fast, but he talked short: a mere 270-odd words in under three minutes. Nobody was expecting that.

But while we may not know verbatim what Lincoln said, we do know what he wrote in his own hand at various times, and for different reasons. Five extant versions of the Gettysburg Address demonstrate Lincoln’s neat, highly legible cursive.

Therein lies my argument for why we should learn how to write cursive: so we will know how to read it.

In cursive courses truth

Source documents like Lincoln’s five versions of the Gettysburg Address allow us to see what Lincoln really wrote, and by extension, what he was thinking at the time. It’s the same with Jefferson and the draft of the Declaration of Independence that contains the 80-plus edits of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. 

And with JFK, whose determination to put Americans on the moon was in his mind well before his galvanzing, "We choose to go the moon" speech at Rice University in 1962. In gathering his thoughts for topics for his 1961 Inaugural Address, the first word Kennedy scrawled on the front of an envelope was "space."

So let’s resolve this year to keep cursive alive as a way to more fully partake of our country's past. The ability to literally read our history through the hands of some of those who made it means we better understand what they were seeking. 

That kind of truth without filter is a powerful tool to possess. Let's run with it.