How Joseph-Beth’s and Jonathan Franzen Made Books Personal Again

On Tuesday, January 26, 2009, a friend and I drove over an hour round trip in the Columbus snow, spinning out twice, to buy Franz Ferdinand’s third album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, at a record store on its release date.

I am positive such an odyssey will never happen again.K04116 Fall am tues

Amazon and iTunes were long established and have grown since. To defrost an automobile rather than double-click a “place order” button seems preposterous now, as does my four-star review of the album for my undergraduate student newspaper. (A new wave throwback album in 2009? Please. Three stars, at most.)

However, the spirit of that trip, of wanting to make the release of art something to be celebrated, shared, an event, is what compelled me and Justin Chandler, fellow MA in fiction here at Miami U., to a bookstore to buy work from a different “Franz”—Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity.

When I asked our current workshop instructor, Dr. Joseph Bates, author of Tomorrowland and The Nighttime Novelist, if he could refer us to any hip bookstores in the Cincinnati area, he recommended Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The establishment is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Past Miami students have interned with the bookstore; conversely, Joseph-Beth employees have been guest speakers for Dr. Bates’s classes. Justin and I saw no reason why we shouldn’t further the Miami/Joseph-Beth relationship.

Remembering my snow-filled album excursion, I suggested we wait until the weekend (and check the weather). We departed on a sunny Sunday afternoon, not a week after Franzen’s novel had been released. During the hour-long car ride, we learned we were both first-generation college students. We waxed past Franzen novels as well as his themes of familial conflict and multinational connection. The discussion proved a solid refresher for the similarly themed Purity.

Joseph-Beth’s reminded me of a Barnes & Noble sans the sterility. Instead of a Starbucks, there was Brontë Bistro. The genres were numerous but weren’t laid out in a boring big box. Rather, some were upstairs, others in an alcove to the side of the entrance, a design which made textual perusal more an adventure.

Not that we had to look far. Franzen’s work was front and center for his release week. We searched through the stacks of Purity and found two autographed (!) copies, both priced the same as non-autographed ones.

After our purchase, we read. Then we discussed what we read, something which I haven’t done outside of a lit seminar in a long time. The camaraderie, the conversation, the change of scenery—all refreshing.

In Franzen’s commencement address to the class of 2011 at Kenyon College, he dissuades technophilia, positing “[w]hen you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?” Whereas the acquisition of books, whether from a bookstore or library, plus the discussion of them in book clubs, was once a way to leave the room, devices such as the Kindle have made human interaction a seemingly unnecessary prerequisite to getting this week’s best seller. One can argue literature’s lesson is to teach us empathy; what happens, though, when we have no one with which to practice that lesson?

Christopher Maggio
Miami University MA student