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Essay About The Littlest Hitler

July 24, 2013

Author Ryan Boudinot (Blueprints of the Afterlife, The Littlest Hitler) delivered the following speech at the reading celebrating Elliott Bay Book Company’s 40th Anniversary on June 30, 2013. 

Before I address the subject of Elliott Bay Book Company’s future, I’d like to acknowledge a few people.

First, the extraordinarily well-read, friendly, tireless, generous, and in one particular case incredibly sexy staff of Elliott Bay Book Company. The staff works on their feet, their heads full of titles and authors, for the modest wages this industry can support, because they love books. We rely on their taste and intelligence, their creativity and their commitment. Authors like me live to see staff recommendation cards under our books. The success of this great store begins with them. Thank you for being so good to us all these years.

Seattlites live in the eye of the literary hurricane that is Rick Simonson, curator of the greatest reading series in America. The farther away from Seattle one travels, the more mythic Rick’s persona grows. I know more than a few writers from around the country who brag to me that Rick championed one of their books. Rick represents this store as ambassador, tastemaker, and raconteur, and for that, sir, we are so lucky. Thank you, Rick.

Peter Aaron. Peter lifted this store from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill during one of the most harrowing economic slumps in American history. He improved an iconic Seattle institution, taking on tremendous personal risk and expense in the process. He understands, as Walter Carr did, that the store is more than a business and serves a greater public good. We wouldn’t be celebrating tonight if it weren’t for Peter Aaron’s vision, devotion, and leadership and for that, sir, please accept our sincere gratitude.

The past gives us our memories, the present demands that we accept the status quo or make a change, and the future asks for our imaginations. I can think of no better monument to the power of imagination than this bookstore.

The easiest and, let’s be honest, most exciting future to imagine is one of disaster, apocalypse, and the collapse of everything we hold dear. It’s seductive to interpret changes as threats. Elliott Bay’s history coincides with changes in how humans communicate that are as profound as the upheavals wrought by Gutenberg, in a young city that has made its name by dreaming up and setting in motion a variety of tomorrows. But let’s take stock of where we are now. It’s 2013, and we’re gathered in a building that sells a technology that’s persisted in its present form for hundreds of years, a product that contains written language, itself existent for thousands of years, and I’m delivering these remarks from my mouth to your ears, a medium—the oral tradition—that we can assume predates cave paintings. And yet in the forty short years of Elliott Bay Book Company’s life, those of us who consider our patronage a sacred duty have, at one time or another, wrung our hands in worry over the big-box retailers, or Amazon, or e-readers, or show-rooming, or whatever convenient villain we blame when the work of connecting books to readers seems difficult. But if there’s one claim about the future of which I’m entirely convinced, it’s that it will be full of books, on paper, printed, bound, and passed from one passionate reader to the next.

Inside Elliott Bay

We get to make that future happen. You and me. Here. Tonight. We’re the ones who are responsible for making that future together. We get to decide whether to just sigh and count ourselves lucky that independent bookselling in America has survived another year or to demand that this method of sharing knowledge is non-negotiable, that one of the prerequisites for a city to call itself civilized is that it must be home to bookstores as beautiful and awe-inspiring and devoted to free expression and diverse voices as this one. In that spirit I’d like to share a couple ideas about charting the path ahead for Elliott Bay Book Company in particular and independent bookselling in America in general.

First, authors like me can do a lot more for independent booksellers. The book tour as we know it needs to be reimagined. The idea that an author should get on an airplane and travel from city to city for the sole purpose of convincing readers to purchase a single title is quaint, short-sighted, and feeds the unspoken assumption that an author is a special person deserving of star treatment. Every time an author walks into a bookstore represents an opportunity to support not just their newest release, but the whole enterprise of independent bookselling. So I’d like to introduce a new program to Elliott Bay and independent booksellers everywhere, a program designed to attract customers and get more value from both local and visiting authors.

Staff Shelftalker

The Author Recommendation card.

[Here I held up a really poorly-executed graphic of a card much like the staff recommendation cards hanging in the store. These cards would contain the following fields: title, author, recommended by, author of.]

Every author who visits the store will be encouraged to fill out one or more of these. They’re welcome to recommend whatever books they wish–frontlist, backlist, within or outside their genre–for the benefit of customers shopping the store. These recommendations, like staff recs, will live on shelves and displays long after the author’s event has concluded. Over time, a bookstore like Elliott Bay can amass an archive of author recommendations that will assist in highlighting backlist titles and provide the store with a competitive advantage against retailers who don’t offer a rich events calendar.

But why stop at recommendations? Authors should consider it part of our responsibility to provide other forms of exclusive content to independent booksellers, whether in the form of guest blog posts, previously unpublished stories, essays, or poems distributed only at in-store events, physical pages of their manuscripts given out at readings, or short workshops or lectures for local writers. Let’s take a page from independent music stores, whose annual Music Store day is an opportunity for music lovers to discover limited, special editions of albums by their favorite artists.

Author recs can be just one part of an overall strategic reinvention of the independent bookseller as a generator and repository of proprietary intellectual property. As the independent bookstore moves into the future, it has an opportunity to capitalize on its institutional advantage–its capacity to influence the tastes of readers in the physical world. An independent bookstore isn’t simply a passive outlet for the publishing industry, but a powerful intersection of readers and media that thrives when it understands the strength and leadership capacity of its brand. One of Elliott Bay Book Company’s great strengths is its relative absence of co-op placement, its fierce devotion to its staff’s tastes, and its selection of books based on the quality of the work rather than the size of the advance or marketing budget. I encourage my fellow authors to roll up our sleeves and recommit ourselves to support these values and make sure that independent booksellers like Elliott Bay remain leaders in the world of ideas.

Of course authors are just one component of the world of books. A bookstore succeeds in its service to passionate readers, and we’re lucky that this bookstore’s home is one of the world’s most literate and free-thinking cities in the world. Andthat its new neighborhood is Seattle’s most vibrant, creative, and proud. (And by the way, what a fabulous coincidence that we’re celebrating forty years of exercising our First Amendment rights during such a historic week for our LGBT families and friends.)

Elliott Bay is one of the chief gathering places of the literary and artistic community that makes Seattle an incredible place to live. Let’s give some shout outs to some of the tireless nonprofits and organizations that nurture Seattle’s love of books.

Richard Hugo House!

Seattle Arts and Lectures!

826 Seattle!

Clarion West!

Seattle Public Library!

And everyone else I will deeply regret failing to mention. Those of us who cherish the written word, whose lives are enriched by readings and classes and workshops in all the forms they can be found in Seattle, we too can do more. So I’d like to propose another project for the benefit of not just Elliott Bay Book Company, but the whole city. Let’s seek formal recognition for Seattle as a Unesco City of Literature.

Unesco, the Cultural office of the United Nations, started the City of Literature program to recognize cities around the world that honor the literary arts through public and private means. Criteria for becoming a Unesco City of Literature include the following:

  • Quality, quantity and diversity of publishing and editorial initiatives
  • Quality and quantity of educational programmes
  • Urban environment in which literature plays an integral part
  • Experience hosting literary events and festivals, promoting foreign and domestic texts
  • Libraries, bookstores and cultural centres
  • Active effort to translate literary works from diverse languages
  • Use of new media to promote and stengthen the literary market

Unesco cities of literature currently include Dublin, Reykjavik, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Norwich, and Iowa City. These cities comprise an international network devoted to collaboration and cultural exchange. Our city, which has given us so many authors, books, events, and resources deserves to stand beside these cities and uphold the responsibilities that come with the designation. I have contacted Unesco to begin the process of applying for the City of Literature program and learned that the application process begins again next year. I’ve also been consulting with friends in Reykjavik who successfully applied for inclusion in the program and reached out to Iowa City’s City of Literature Board of Directors. Tonight I’m proposing a committee to pursue City of Literature designation, comprised of representatives from Seattle’s arts organizations who have a stake in Seattle’s thriving literary culture. And I’m proposing that we present Elliott Bay Book Company’s forty-year commitment to the written word as one of the primary reasons that the world should recognize Seattle as a City of Literature. If you’re interested in becoming involved, let me know, and let’s make this happen.

I want my children to grow up in this store. I want this store to be around for them a long time, long enough for them to venture out of the castle, into the science fiction and mystery sections, into fiction, history, poetry, art, science, and travel. I want my kids to stumble upon a new literary journal, discover a recipe that they’ll hand down to their grandchildren, get practical advice from the reference or self help sections, and learn who they are in poems and stories and novels. I want them to hold something in their hands that was written thousands of years ago and get the signature of the author whose book was published yesterday, a book that will change the lives of readers hundreds of years from now.

When we talk about the future of a place like Elliott Bay Book Company, it’s easy to talk about things that didn’t exist five, ten years ago. The competitors of bookstores aren’t gadgets, business models, or other companies. The competitors of bookstores are what they have always been–ignorance, apathy, and the absence of empathy. As the independent bookstore that sells books to old Amazon employees like me, serving a city as young as the future, Elliott Bay knows change. When the store itself needed to change it didn’t complain, it didn’t grumble, it didn’t blame anybody for a rough retail landscape. It did what all institutions worth preserving do. It went to work.

Let’s imagine a future with a lot of work to do. Let’s imagine a future that’s worth achieving, a future of shared responsibility, where one word burning in the night beckons us to a place where we can find books and other people who love them: READ.

I for one want to keep that light burning. Who’s with me?

Let’s make a promise to each other tonight. Let’s promise to love and support and honor this place for at least another forty years. As a forty-year-old myself, it’s possible that I’ll be back to celebrate the store’s 80th anniversary. And if I’m lucky enough to do so, it’ll be because I was just one of many who believed, as I believe tonight, that Elliott Bay Book Company’s finest hours are yet to come.

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Posted in Authors In Store| Tagged 826 Seattle, Clarion West, cultural icons, Elliott Bay Book Company, Elliott Bay Book Company anniversary, literary resources, Richard Hugo House, Rick Simonson, Ryan Boudinot, Seattle, Seattle Arts and Lectures, Seattle Public Library, tastemakers, UNESCO City of Literature | 1 Response

“Then there’s the time I went as Hitler for Halloween,” begins the title story of Ryan Boudinot’s debut collection. In this way, The Littlest Hitler already sets itself up as a series of mishaps leading us away from the ordinary. The protagonists are not cut from a dazzling cloth; they’re one step below the Everyman, people with seemingly insignificant jobs and dull lifestyles, whose worlds spiral into microcosms of the bizarre. These stories are packaged with innocuous titles such as “The Sales Team” and “On Sex and Relationships,” yet they are twisted and often violent, leaving their characters bewildered, shaken out of the commonplace realms they inhabited.

Boudinot writes with a steady voice; his first-person narratives remain convinced of their own authority even as his characters tangle with absurd and unwieldy situations. In “Contaminant,” a factory inspector busies himself every day with the task of distributing individual pallets of peas for inspection. He faces the hurdle of a newly hired corpse whose dilapidated presence compromises plant sanitation. “Drugs and Toys” finds an overly inquisitive pharmacist heading into dangerous territory when a new storeowner on the block returns his kindnesses with indifference and animosity. “Civilization” is a chilling glimpse into a society where family bonds are destroyed for the sake of the nation’s moral interests: quirky, laughable moments are juxtaposed with a horrific reality. A high school student must perform an unthinkable deed in exchange for a college scholarship. His duty officer reassures him that he’ll soon have “a real genuine American kind of moral authority” and his parents will be proud of him “up to the moment they die.”

A flawed tenderness emerges between Boudinot’s characters, beyond the intricacies of his plotlines. “The Littlest Hitler” could be strictly billed as the woeful tale of a boy who makes an unfortunate costume choice while his classmate dresses as Anne Frank. The story is framed, however, by the efforts of a single father doing all he can to make his son feel loved on an important day, assuring his son that he’ll be “the scariest kid in fourth grade.” Boudinot’s stories hinge upon moments like these and the devastating ways our collective private and public lives continue to change, whether it’s right or wrong and whether we’re ready or not.