Friday, October 10, 2008


Des Kenny's 101 Irish Must Reads.

This being one-tenth the mortal span of the recently reviewed (by me here and on Amazon US) "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die," I suppose, it's fitting that the Irish version, by Galway bookseller and critic Des Kenny, proves less formidable and more realistic. I wonder if it's all fiction? Also, it's heartening as an aside that although the shop I loved on the high street in the medieval town center's been shuttered now-- and after its remodeling, frustratingly-- there's a browsable store out on the "Liosbán Retail Park née Industrial Estate" as a bit of recompense. The "white 'spotted or chief fortress'" of its Gaelic name clashing with English functionality, in a typical culture clash. The webpage touts the location as akin to an "American style Bookbarn," but at least there's comfy chairs and free parking. Less atmospheric by far, but perhaps more commodious for the thousands of books it must surely shelve.

My next visit to the City of the Tribes, whenever that may be remaining only theoretical given the current economy, will certainly find me there mooning over spines, even if I have to walk miles down the congested Tuam Road from my spartan B&B. Rather fitting that the first seller on the Net became an unwitting victim of its move from High Street, as Des cited that even Galwegians were ordering on-line from him rather than making the trek down what after all have become increasingly touristed haunts jammed by street buskers and mimes the past decade.

The new place-- pictured above-- offers 50,000 titles in 700 square metres. I guess they sell 'coffee' too, as their "jpg"'s so tagged. Depressingly, the strip mall location also advertises on the website "Books by the Foot." It's a testimony to the marketing savvy of a family in the business since 1940, and a testament to our society's transition in how "books do furnish a room," if not perhaps how Anthony Powell might have wished. Still, the postcard of the green-painted former storefront, dog and window-shopper snapped by Liam Blake, sent when I became a subscriber to the books-on-approval scheme a decade ago stays up in my office.

Until the cost of shipping from Ireland became exorbitant, added to the expense of increasingly inflated offerings from small and academic presses that I craved but could no longer afford, the book packages sent from Kenny's remained a thrice-yearly treat. Trouble was I also had to ship the books back I did not want, and this turned out to be a sizable chunk of more than change, books being the one burden anybody having to haul them learns to their muscular exertion. I spent more money there than any other bookstore, a considerable achievement, although quickened by the collapsing rate of the dollar to the euro which hastened my termination of such largess and my domestic increase to our national trade deficit.

On my first visit, twenty years ago, I asked Des himself, unaware of his polymathic presence, about what I thought an obscurity, any pamphlets on Lough Derg's St. Patrick's Purgatory. I walked off a short time later with not only rare booklets from decades ago, but a handsome thirty-five pound anthology just out from a local history society on that very place, exactly what I needed and precisely what I would have never found even on the shelf of my research university yet, perfect for my dissertation.

My last visit, perhaps the summer before their Easter closing, I had picked up a pair of Irish-language plays by Antoine Ó Flatharta, hard to find in any retailer even on the edge of the author's Gaeltacht. Des began talking to me 'as Gaeilge,' and to halt the rush of 'blas,' I had to embarrassedly confess my limits as a Yank struggling with the dramatist's macaronics to improve my shaky grasp of Irish. On that same stop, I met Des' brother, Tom, and talked with him not only about an imperious put-down made by his near-neighbor in their native Leitrim, John McGahern-- whom I had just heard speak from his then-forthcoming "Memoir" but also about the area where I'd figured out my birth mother had been born. He kindly noted my query and later placed it in his column on "Old Galway" in the local paper. Their mother, in her 90's, I nodded to politely, as she was engaged in a heated reminiscence with a customer and friend in the crowded aisles.

Reading Joseph O'Connor's novel "The Salesman" on the train the other day, unsurprisingly the narrator, stuck in Galway, whiles away his afternoon browsing there. Ken Bruen's novels curiously find Jack Taylor always getting his reads, on the other hand, from a friendly clerk at Charlie Byrne's, just across Middle Street from the back entrance to the old Kenny's, now the Art Gallery's rear door. Taylor even enters Eason's a few blocks past K's. I wonder if there's some reason for the choice Bruen, a native son, makes for his erudite protagonist's patronage?

Anyhow, speaking of selections, it's a shame that we foreign-based scholars and bibliophiles and amateur critics face such difficulties in finding the titles that few libraries here ever import, as budgets diminish on the municipal, university, and personal levels. While turning to interlibrary loans and haunting the checkout lines that my tax dollars rather than my own income support, it's tough to winnow the gems from smaller Irish-based presses that Kenny's often displays. I have found, more than once, on the jacket of an LAPL or UCLA acquisition from a few years back a little sticker with Kenny's price still affixed in punts.

Here, from the hometown paper The Galway Advertiser, 9 October 2008, a blurb of sorts on the book's release. I've excerpted a few of Kenny's spot-on observations.

101 good ideas from Des.

Book expert gives readers the benefit of his years of reading

'I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!' said the author Jane Austen. 'When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.'

A good way to start building that library, and exploring and experiencing the rich and influential world of Irish writing - one of the nation's great gifts to itself and the world - is to read a new book from Galway bookseller Des Kenny, entitled Kenny's Choice - 101 Irish Books You Must Read.

Kenny's Choice is Des' personal selection of Irish fiction, poetry, and history books he feels are too important not to read, have been overlooked or neglected, or are worth rediscovering. For this Des drew on his love of books as well as his knowledge as a leading Irish bookseller.[. . . .]

'It's to celebrate the Irish book,' Des tells me, 'and it's also as a tribute to my parents, the work that they did, and the love of books they gave us.'

The book features 101 reviews - some written as Gaeilge - with author information. Each review is only two pages in length and written in an accessible manner, yet still manages to yield a wealth of information - always the mark of a good critic. In short, it's the kind of book you can pick up to check on one review and end up reading for ages, coming back to dip in and out of every now and again.

Major Irish writers such as John Banville, Seamus Heaney, Jennifer Johnston, Brian Moore, William Trevor, Samuel Beckett, and WB Yeats are included. Co Galway authors are well represented through Walter Macken, Pádraic Ó Conaire, Brendán Ó hEithir, Ken Bruen, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Liam O'Flaherty, and Tom Murphy.

While the above are obvious inclusions, Des also wanted to champion writers whose work has suffered neglect or marginalisation over the last few decades and to convince people to read them again.

'I wanted to underline the fact that there is more to a good book than what’s on the best seller lists,' he says. 'I also felt there was a significant amount of good books not getting the recognition they deserved. Two generations of Irish people have not opened books by Maurice Walsh and Francis McManus and they should be made aware of them.'

Des cites Jack Heart's In The Wake Of The Bagger, Mervyn Wall's The Unfortunate Fursey ('The funniest book you'll ever read,' he says), and Spike Milligan's Puckoon as further examples. He also says Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles To Babylon? are now viewed as 'school texts' and avoided as much as possible. 'There is more to them than that,' he says. 'They are too good to be ignored.'

It's a welcome and fresh perspective for such a book to adopt and it is good to see Christy Moore and Pat Ingoldsby included alongside more obvious writers like JM Synge and Frank O'Connor. Many may consider Des' inclusion of Maeve Binchy's Light A Penny Candle odd though.

'Maeve Binchy, and that book in particular, opened the door for other Irish women to feel that they too could tell their stories and write fiction,' he says. 'I hate the term 'chick-lit'. I despise it! It's just another way of marginalising a style of writing by and for women.'

However the most surprising thing about Kenny's Choice is not an inclusion but an omission. James Joyce is nowhere to be seen on Des' list of essential books.

Des has reasons both practical and provocative for leaving him off the list. He points out that most people are well aware of Joyce, aware of his reputation, and can name a number of his books even if they have not read them.

'This book is not about Joyce, it's about the other men and women who deserve attention,' he says.

Des also says, somewhat mischeviously, that there was little point including Joyce as 'most people claim to have read him'.

It is a fascinating aspect of the James Joyce phenomenon that no criticism is permitted of the writer and those who dare suggest - no matter how well versed they are in Joyce or their academic qualifications - that Ulysses has any flaws, suffers an immediate 'belt of the crozier' from the Joyceans. Des' third point is bound to send them through the roof.

'I was going to include Dubliners but in the end I didn't,' he says. 'I was talking to Con Houlihan once about Joyce and I suggested to him that I find a lack of generosity in Joyce's writing. Con thought about it for a moment and replied: 'You're nearly right.'

'I find that in Beckett and Yeats there is a greater feeling and generosity towards other writers and towards the reader. Many people just think of George A Birmingham as a comic novelist, but reading this Protestant minister again I found a deep rooted socialism and social concern for people. In Joyce it always seems to be about what you can do for him, not what he can do for you.'[. . . .]

Kenny's Bookshop

1 comment:

Arukiyomi said...

You might be interested in heading over to Arukiyomi's blog and picking up a copy of the new version of Arukiyomi's 1001 books spreadsheet .

Along with calculating how many books you need to read a year before you die, there's all the 2008 edition books, all those removed from the 2006 edition, links to wikipedia , amazon.com and .co.uk and Google books.

Happy reading!