The dangers of a book-lined room

Collecting books remains a socially acceptable form of hoarding for now, despite the best efforts of my wife to lobby against the practice. She has a point. She married a man who thinks nothing of blocking off her windows with yet another bookcase, a man who would be entombed happily among his books like a sarcophagussed pharoah. (“Don’t romanticize it,” she says, reading over my shoulder.)

I always wanted a book-lined room. At first I lacked the books, and then I lacked a dedicated room. Now, like a runner who’s poured on too much speed at the finish line, I have several book-lined rooms (and books to spare). My favorite is pictured, a small room with tall bookcases on three of its four walls, a window and a library desk on the fourth.

Think of a book-lined room as a private garden.

In this age of vaporware volumes, such a room may seem decadent, an indulgence on the order of Des Esseintes’ jeweled tortoise. I don’t think of it that way. For me it’s more of a panic room, a place to take refuge against the distractions of the world. These books keep out the spirit of the age the way lead sheets block radiation. I can pretend, at any rate, that they do.

This is no fortress of solitude. It may insulate me from out there, but the room is anything but free of distraction. In a book-lined room haunted by past minds, ideas and arguments, plots and characters take on a physical presence. Herein lies the danger. When I shut the door I’m closed in with the most cacophonous and threatening horde imaginable — my literary influences. Some days they don’t let me get anything done, demanding my whole attention.

Nobody wants to raise a martyr

from Back on Murder

Parents want to raise future doctors and lawyers—above all, future candidates for happiness. They do not want to nurture martyrs, whatever the cause.

The trick to signing books

Years ago, my friend Charles stood in line for me at an Umberto Eco reading, bringing back a copy of The Island of the Day Before inscribed to me. Don’t ask me why, but it still feels strange to think of Eco writing out my full name.


For Mark Bertrand
Umberto Eco

I don’t know how the tradition originated, but the talismanic pleasure of having one’s book signed by the author is undeniable. The pleasure hasn’t always been unmarred in my case. One of my professors inscribed my copy of his book of poetry to someone else (he misremembered my name). Another prof made out her new book to me, when in fact I’d purchased it as a birthday gift for my wife. I was too bashful to correct the mistake, which would cost me: for years afterward, whenever I would sneak the book onto one of my wife’s shelves, she would move it back among my books: “It has your name on it, not mine.”

Michael Chabon would never have done that to me. When he signed my copy of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, he wrote his name first, and only then asked whether I’d like the book made out to anyone. Genius. By this time I’d given up on having them inscribed for anyone but myself, so he made it out to me:


To Mark –
Michael Chabon


Chabon knew what he was doing, and I’ve emulated him ever since. Occasionally, as I take the open book from a reader and begin to sign my name, I’ll detect a note of panic. You’re already writing, and I haven’t told you who to make it out to! Then I ask, and everything is fine. (Besides, I write crime novels, so a little panic isn’t out of place.)

The greatest book signing secret I’ve learned wasn’t this one, however. No, it happened at a convention where the publisher was giving the books away for free. Needless to say, this resulted in long lines. Seeing the winding snake of readers before me, I hunkered down like a book-signing machine. When I looked up, we’d blazed through most of the books and most of the people, too — but I still had twenty minutes left on the clock. The marketing guy from the publishing house stared at me wide-eyed, surrounded by a pile of empty book boxes. “That was … fast.”

It turns out, the trick is to go slow. Take your time with each person and let the line grow longer and longer. Never rush because part of the joy of the experience is spending a few moments chatting with the author.

This is not just a lesson in book signing, but a lesson in life.

The best signing story I’ve heard comes from a good friend who found a secondhand copy of his book for sale. He pulled it off the shelf, opened to the flyleaf, and found a long personal inscription he’d written to a colleague. “I gave him this copy, and he turned around and sold it!” I haven’t had that experience yet, but there’s always time.

The shriveled hearts of noir

Here’s Loren Eaton writing about Back on Murder, my first Roland March novel, at his blog “I Saw Lightning Fall”:

… when violence inevitably comes crashing down like a ball-peen hammer on an outstretched hand, it’s as gritty as anything you’d expect from established hardboiled scribes. Bertrand even lends a certain poetic grace to the tough bits. After a brutal beating, an informant’s “eye opens, the blue cornea bright in a red sea of burst vessels.” The final shuddering seizures of a gut-shot gangster become a “saintly spasm,” his gaze “rolling heavenward in agony, brows arched in acute pain.” And when we finally learn the nature of the tragedy that haunts March, it comes in a scene so wrenching, so raw, so downright mean that it’ll likely thrill even the shriveled hearts of the noir set.

The whole post is worth checking out.

Public is where you go to be alone

from Back on Murder

Public is where you go to be alone.

Being good when the world is bad

from Back on Murder

We might be cut from the same cloth as the people we lock up, we might have a tendency to jack-knife our relationships or channel the violent impulses that go hand-in-hand with what we witness into unprofitable avenues, but for the most part, we’re clean. Not squeaky clean, because no one is, but relatively unspotted. Because we didn’t get into this for the cheap thrill of packing a gun, or to work out our inferiority complexes, or because we couldn’t find a better line of work. Carter Robb has it right, in a way. We could have kept things safe, chosen decent occupations that make for polite dinner conversation, better pay and better hours and a far reduced probability of being shot or beat down. But we didn’t choose to be the safe guys. We chose to be the good guys, hard as that is when the world is bad.

The writer’s space reflects the writer’s mind

One of my secret fears is that a writer’s space reflects the state of the writer’s mind. If, over time, you get the face you deserve, maybe the same thing is true of your desk.


Minimal space = minimal output?

Looking through old photos I found a snapshot of my writing environment circa 2008 (at right). Painfully minimalist and squared away, it suggests a tidy-minded craftsman. Only one item on the desk is still with me in 2013, and that is the matte-finish 20″ display. I won’t part with that until it dies unless Apple gets a clue and drops its infatuation with mirror-finish reflective screens. The white chair moved to my attic workshop, the cantilevered lamp broke, the mouse was replaced and the keyboard is in a drawer somewhere. The old white MacBook is now obsolete –– its replacement was recently replaced –– and the Ikea desk ended up somewhere (I’m not sure where).

The most surprising thing, looking back, is how little paper there is. No pens on the desk, no notebooks, none of the frenzied evidence of composition that surrounds me now. At the time this photo was taken, I had published one book. Since then, four more are in print.

My office (pictured above) testifies to the activity. While the space is larger, the books everywhere make it feel much smaller, more like a cave. Chaos reigns. Digging through the piled detritus gives an archaeological impression. I find pockets of paper from a year ago, notes on long forgotten projects, random objects swallowed by time. Part of me loves this disorderly grotto and part of me is frankly terrified. I’d love to prune it back, even take it down to the minimalist roots. The only problem is, a writer’s space sometimes functions like the seasoned bowl of a briar pipe. Ream too aggressively and you lose the flavor.

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Good mental health an unrealistic goal

from Pattern of Wounds

One of the keys to a long career in law enforcement is learning how to tell police psychologists what they need to hear without sounding deceptive. The only alternative is good mental health, which to me has always seemed too unrealistic a goal.

Unsafe, But Good: First Things on Roland March

Just as Dante through the character of Virgil guides his readers through the underworld, J. Mark Bertrand through the character of Roland March guides his readers through the underbelly of this world.

That’s from “Murder Escapes the Vicarage,” Betsy Childs’ review of my Roland March novels at First Things. Following on the heels of Jon Breen’s piece in the Weekly Standard, she looks at all three books as a whole and draws some perceptive conclusions (if I do say so myself). Follow the link and enjoy.

How Sir Walter Scott started the American Civil War

Mark Twain made up my mind about the influence of bad ideas in literature, and he accomplished this by jabbing at my soft underbelly––my Southern identity. Born in Louisiana (any farther South, I used to joke, and I’d have drowned in the Gulf) I managed to lose the accent along the way and consequently I can “pass” for what I am not. I don’t talk like a Southerner and I never thought of myself as a Southerner, either––geographically, perhaps, but not culturally––until in 2006 I moved to the Dakotas. All at once, I felt my Southernness rather strongly in a fish-out-of-water sort of way. I now think of myself as an expatriate. Like James Joyce. (Delusions of grandeur?)

Some Southerners bask in pride, but I was never that sort. Instead, much like a kid my age growing up in West Germany, I felt a kind of war guilt, the burden of knowing ones’ ancestors fought on the wrong side. Why had they done it? And why couldn’t their descendants let it go? I wasn’t sure. Mark Twain seemed to blame Walter Scott:

A curious exemplification of the power of a single book for good or harm is shown in the effects wrought by Don Quixote and those wrought by Ivanhoe. The first swept the world’s admiration for the medieval chivalry-silliness out of existence; and the other restored it. As far as our South is concerned, the good work done by Cervantes is pretty nearly a dead letter, so effectually has Scott’s pernicious work undermined it.

Sir Walter Scott was “pernicious”? Twain insists on it. He lays out the case in Life on the Mississippi, a book that instilled in me such dreams of sailing down that river, until a kind soul pointed out that the Mississippi is not the Rhine (i.e., it isn’t beautiful). Not only did Scott’s bloated, grandiloquent style come to dominate nineteenth century letters, but his preoccupation with honor and chivalry sewed the seeds of war.

[In the South], the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it–would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.

According to Twain, the popularity of Scott swept away not just Quixotic skepticism, but also the democratic substitution of meritocracy for aristocracy:

Against the crimes of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte may be set two compensating benefactions: the Revolution broke the chains of the Ancien Regime and of the Church, and made of a nation of abject slaves a nation of freemen; and Bonaparte instituted the setting of merit above birth, and also so completely stripped the divinity from royalty, that whereas crowned heads in Europe were gods before, they are only men since, and can never be gods again, but only figureheads, and answerable for their acts like common clay. Such benefactions as these compensate the temporary harm which Bonaparte and the Revolution did, and leave the world in debt to them for these great and permanent services to liberty, humanity, and progress.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.

And the falseness of Scott’s aesthetic even introduced bad faith into the architecture of the South:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the [Louisiana] Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque ‘chivalry’ doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things–materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not–should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

This goes a long way in explaining why, when Twain decided to take up the mantle of Cervantes and skewer medieval chivalry, it was a Connecticut Yankee and not a Southern Gentleman he had to send back in time. The Southerner, presumably, would have been right at home and all too pleased to leave things as he found them.

Twain, of course, was no stranger to criticism, both literary and cultural. He didn’t reserve all his scorn for Sir Walter Scott–there was plenty of contempt left over for James Fennimore Cooper. But it’s interesting to look back from the vantage point of the twenty-first century and see how a body of work now regarded as innocuous could have been credited with promoting our greatest national catastrophe — Ivanhoe as a bookend to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Whether Twain’s hyperbole hits on an underlying truth or not I can’t say, not being a scholar of the period, but I have to admit he’s got me half convinced despite contemporary skepticism about the power of fiction.

And for the record, say what you want: I like Ivanhoe.

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