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Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell

What are you reading?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell. It’s a novel set in 1930s London, and it follows mostly the interior life and misadventures of Gordon Comstock, a former copywriter turned poet/bookstore clerk/bohemian who at all costs wants to avoid the life of the ‘money-obsessed masses.’ And, ironically, in his poverty he comes to think of little else besides money as his circumstances become more and more dire.”

What on earth is an aspidistra?

“It’s the ubiquitous, hardy, common houseplant of the time and setting. It seemed every household had one. Orwell uses it as a symbol for succumbing to everydayness and middle-class complacency, the type of life Gordon Comstock so desperately wants to avoid.”

Why did you pick it up?

“It is one of Orwell’s lesser-known stories, but it was the favorite of one of my husband’s professor friends.“

What did you like about it?

“What first attracted me was Orwell’s very keen eye and his spot-on physical descriptions of life behind the cash register of a used-book store. But I don’t share the main character’s sneering attitude toward his customers! There are also wonderful passages where Orwell skewers the naïveté of angry young men with ‘subversive’ ideas and ideals. Blistering social criticism is generally not my thing, but when it’s done this well, it can be delicious. I was also impressed with his depiction of what it means to have financial worry hanging over one’s head constantly. Orwell must have suffered from poverty to write so incisively and heartbreakingly about it.”

Who is your favorite author?

“I haven’t read enough to have a favorite author. But I loved Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. The softness of her descriptions juxtaposed with the ruggedness of the land. When I finally went to New Mexico, it was just so accurate. And just the way it gave the whole arc of a life, the story of the priest brushing up against the Native Americans. That was one of those books where, when I got to the last page, I was sad. I wanted it to keep going.”

What book has been most life-changing for you?

“Maybe Walden, the way Thoreau wrote about his relationship to nature. I was more of a city girl, and I wasn’t attuned to nature. I loved the details Thoreau provided on building his rustic home. He took me inside the experience. And it probably didn’t hurt that I read Walden while staying at a cabin. Thoreau’s firm belief in the restorative power of nature made me a kind of city-girl convert. As he said, ‘Nature spontaneously keeps us well.’ But as a bookseller, I have to say the most memorable Walden quote for me is, ‘How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.’”

Do you ever see that happen here in the store?

“The books people search for or stumble upon and choose at our store daily fascinates me. A person choosing books for his or her personal library brings to mind one of my favorite quotes, from Borges: ‘A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.’ I think the titles in a library trace the lines of one’s face as well.”

 What do people buy these days?

“I can’t keep Steinbeck on the shelf. College kids, high school kids, older men — they all buy it. That, Charles Bukowski, and Ayn Rand. The kids always ask for Bukowski. He was a poet — kind of a seedy character.”

Do you read any magazines or newspapers?

“I read the Wall Street Journal every day.”

Who do you talk to about what you read?

“My book club is my husband. It’s an endless horizon for me, because he’s like a captain, plowing his ship through ideas. It’s fun.”

Name: LYNN MAXWELL | Age: 52 | Occupation: BOOKSELLER

Neighborhood: LA MESA | Where interviewed: MAXWELL’S HOUSE OF BOOKS, LA MESA

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What are you reading?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell. It’s a novel set in 1930s London, and it follows mostly the interior life and misadventures of Gordon Comstock, a former copywriter turned poet/bookstore clerk/bohemian who at all costs wants to avoid the life of the ‘money-obsessed masses.’ And, ironically, in his poverty he comes to think of little else besides money as his circumstances become more and more dire.”

What on earth is an aspidistra?

“It’s the ubiquitous, hardy, common houseplant of the time and setting. It seemed every household had one. Orwell uses it as a symbol for succumbing to everydayness and middle-class complacency, the type of life Gordon Comstock so desperately wants to avoid.”

Why did you pick it up?

“It is one of Orwell’s lesser-known stories, but it was the favorite of one of my husband’s professor friends.“

What did you like about it?

“What first attracted me was Orwell’s very keen eye and his spot-on physical descriptions of life behind the cash register of a used-book store. But I don’t share the main character’s sneering attitude toward his customers! There are also wonderful passages where Orwell skewers the naïveté of angry young men with ‘subversive’ ideas and ideals. Blistering social criticism is generally not my thing, but when it’s done this well, it can be delicious. I was also impressed with his depiction of what it means to have financial worry hanging over one’s head constantly. Orwell must have suffered from poverty to write so incisively and heartbreakingly about it.”

Who is your favorite author?

“I haven’t read enough to have a favorite author. But I loved Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. The softness of her descriptions juxtaposed with the ruggedness of the land. When I finally went to New Mexico, it was just so accurate. And just the way it gave the whole arc of a life, the story of the priest brushing up against the Native Americans. That was one of those books where, when I got to the last page, I was sad. I wanted it to keep going.”

What book has been most life-changing for you?

“Maybe Walden, the way Thoreau wrote about his relationship to nature. I was more of a city girl, and I wasn’t attuned to nature. I loved the details Thoreau provided on building his rustic home. He took me inside the experience. And it probably didn’t hurt that I read Walden while staying at a cabin. Thoreau’s firm belief in the restorative power of nature made me a kind of city-girl convert. As he said, ‘Nature spontaneously keeps us well.’ But as a bookseller, I have to say the most memorable Walden quote for me is, ‘How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.’”

Do you ever see that happen here in the store?

“The books people search for or stumble upon and choose at our store daily fascinates me. A person choosing books for his or her personal library brings to mind one of my favorite quotes, from Borges: ‘A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.’ I think the titles in a library trace the lines of one’s face as well.”

 What do people buy these days?

“I can’t keep Steinbeck on the shelf. College kids, high school kids, older men — they all buy it. That, Charles Bukowski, and Ayn Rand. The kids always ask for Bukowski. He was a poet — kind of a seedy character.”

Do you read any magazines or newspapers?

“I read the Wall Street Journal every day.”

Who do you talk to about what you read?

“My book club is my husband. It’s an endless horizon for me, because he’s like a captain, plowing his ship through ideas. It’s fun.”

Name: LYNN MAXWELL | Age: 52 | Occupation: BOOKSELLER

Neighborhood: LA MESA | Where interviewed: MAXWELL’S HOUSE OF BOOKS, LA MESA

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