A Schoenbergian Überraschung

Surprise is better expressed in German

           Bookstores are the best kinds of friends. They have secret treasures to give and ask for nothing in return. They are the friends who you could walk with in silence for several minutes and everything will still feel quite peachy. A solitary, Aristotelian partnership.

           I visited seven of my downtown pals yesterday. The first on the docket: The StrandTM. Before going there I knew it could be rather intimidating (Yelpers bemoan of the staff’s less-than-cordial attitude). However, my trusted English teacher from high school recommended it to me and so I said, “Onwards!” 

           Walking up to the storefront, I was drawn to the used books nestled in three-tiered carts. My excitement grew when I turned the corner: rows of $1 hardcovers and paperbacks lined a half-block stretch, forming one of those monster-sized deli heroes I used to see at block parties as a kid (except here the turkey was books and the bread bookcarts). They all collectively shouted, “Come here!” and that’s exactly what I did.

           My hands determinedly flipped through the reams of cookbooks, Fodor’s travel guides, and haphazardly-sorted CDs. My dismissal process was simple. If the book didn’t fulfill one of my three search criteria (music, German texts, Wodehouse/Waugh), it was quickly brushed over—to lie in wait for another eager flipper to find it.

           I was starting to feel like an overseas Amazon package—disheveled and exhausted—when my eyes halted at the Arial-typefaced words “Arnold Schönberg.” A smile spread across my face. Perfecting the art of the Bookstore SquatTM was worth it after all. I had found Something.

           The Schoenbergian moniker headed a CD recording set, “Arnold Schönberg: Dear Miss Silvers Originaltonaufnahmen 1931-1951.” Carefully opening the item, I perused  the accompanying booklet to learn about what was inside. The set is comprised of recordings of Schoenberg’s radio interviews, academic lectures, and letter dictations (Schoenberg spoke into a recording device, given to him by Clara Silvers, one of the addresses of the letters, for his assistant to later transcribe. The cover of the CD set shows him sitting at said device).  

           Schoenberg sprung off the pages at me. Argumentative statements like, “Das ist Unsinn, reiner Unsinn” and “Ich denke, eine Definition der Melodie existiert überhaupt noch nicht,” affirm Schoenberg’s position as a radical thinker in music. (“This is nonsense, this is mere nonsense” and “I think what is melody has not yet been defined at all.”)


Back cover of informational booklet. A Serious Schoenberg.

           Listening to the CDs, I was struck by Schoenberg’s subdued dry humor. During the testing for his interview with John Campbell of Caltech, Campbell tells Schoenberg they need to check the room’s acoustics, but before he finishes his sentence Schoenberg cuts in, “You mean I should speak now, a little, and this will come back?” Schoenberg, having used a recording device for his letter dictations in 1948, knew full well how these apparatuses worked at this point in time (1950).

And, in an earlier clip from a 1949 conversation, the conductor Karl Kritz asks Schoenberg to say anything, to which Schoenberg, with a humorous stagger in his voice, responds with a punningly-constructed answer built around the word “irgendwas” (anything): “Also, irgendwas ist immer viel schwer als etwas. Irgend was das muss man zuerst wissen. Ich weiss dass noch immer nicht” (Interestingly, only the test of the conversation is included in the CD, which means the recording company wanted its audience to listen to this part on its own.).

           My interest was piqued by the consistent use of German for the transcriptions in the adjoining booklet. I knew that Schoenberg had emigrated to the States (Los Angeles) sometime before WWII (1933), so it came across as odd that the interviews conducted while he was in America were written in German (it turns out the German transcriptions of these American interviews are translations. The CD set was meant for a German-speaking audience, which also explains the spelling of Schoenberg’s name as Schönberg.)

           After stumbling upon the Schoenbergian Surprise, my luck continued amongst the sea of musty books. I found a yellow-paged libretto from Paul Hindemith’s comic opera Neues vom Tage, a Dover Thrift Edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an informational booklet about Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin from a 2009 Wiener Staatsoper production, a complete set of Scriabin’s Sonatas played by Igor Zhukov, a BBC Music Guide to Maurice Ravel’s orchestral music, a collection of Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical works, a pocket map of Paris, and two French/English dictionaries (I couldn’t decide which was better, so, naturally, I got both). Content with my discoveries, I went into The StrandTM, where signs shouted “New Release!” and “Our Staff Picks!” at me.

           Standing in The StrandTM to stay warm, I took full-advantage of the Wi-Fi to map the rest of Expedition BookstoreTM. Setting out on my search, I ended up finding and making six more friends:

  • Mercer Street Books: I almost got Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in German.
  • McNally Jackson Books: a boasting Harvard student bragged about knowing John Eliot Gardiner; no used bookcarts in sight.
  • Housing Works Bookstore Cafe: used bookcarts! Found The Old Man and the Sea for a dollar.
  • Dashwood Books: eavesdropped on some Germans discussing youth culture and the difference between a longboard and a skateboard. Hint: one’s longer.
  • East Village Books: discount section out back in the “garden” (a little patch of stones). Also, check out this library thief story. I saw this owner while I was in the store.
  • Bluestockings: this self-described “radical bookstore” tasted like Earl Grey to my Chamomile predisposed palette; people who love Earl Grey, anarchist thought, and queer and gender studies, this one’s for you.

           I ended my day at Cafe Katja, where I received quizzical looks from the waiters (both for eating alone and for my order—“Just one pretzel please”). Navigating my way to the subway, I decided to take the long local train back. I had a lot of reading to do and a Schoenbergian Surprise to explore.


The Strand


Mercer Street Books


McNally Jackson Books


Housing Works Bookstore Cafe


Dashwood Books (It’s below street level—I walked right by it when looking for it!)


East Village Books




Cafe Katja