Sunday, July 14, 2013

Karl Pohrt

Writing about Jonathan Lear’s poignant Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation on January 1, 2000, Shaman Drum Bookstore founder Karl Pohrt called it “a wise book that illuminates human ingenuity and courage in the face of terrible vulnerability.”

Karl, who died last week, was a wise man who illuminated human ingenuity and courage in the face of terrible vulnerability.

To those book reps lucky enough to work with him, to the booksellers all over the world who were lucky enough to call him colleague, and to the readers and academics in the Ann Arbor community, the loss is hard to bear. 

This man was a bookselling dynamo who never let adversity- including the closing of his beloved Shaman Drum- diminish his enthusiasm for the next project.  For him books and life unspooled together, two sides of a möbius strip, and it was never clear where one started and the other ended.  His post-store travels and projects constitute a defiant NO to the gnawing away of literary culture, and an emphatic YES to the power of an individual to save books, reading and thinking itself.

By the time I began working for Harvard, MIT and Yale in 1998, Shaman Drum and Karl Pohrt were already nationally celebrated bookselling institutions.  But Karl treated our appointments with an astounding degree of humility and respect- for me, yes, but mainly for the books whose fate we were deciding.  There was something holy about the shrine-like store, and about our appointments- an unlikely description from a diehard atheist like me, but no other word fits.  He made sure others were at the table, that the collaborative qualities of bookselling were honored, but in the end this was several hours of communion with three wonderful lists of new titles each season.

“What you publish honors complexity,” he told me once- a high compliment.  Karl seemed to think that much of the world’s problems could be put down to either over-complicating the simple things, or over-simplifying the complex.  He valued books and people who got the balance right.

In a 2004 post, he described how he named his blog, There is No Gap:

A few years back I purchased a t-shirt with the message NO GAPS emblazoned on the front in sumi ink calligraphy. It is not an anti-globalization slogan attacking the Gap clothing chain—although I’ve no regrets if people think that’s what it means. Rather, it’s a statement about human possibility, about how we might conduct ourselves in the world if we were living optimally.

I bought the t-shirt at a Zen center in upstate New York, and the Roshi there talks occasionally about the tendency we have (especially those of us who can afford it) to back away from the intensity of life. A little of this is permissible of course, but the personal and social consequences of living at one remove from life too much of the time are ultimately disastrous. We can actually learn how to lean into the fire, the Roshi says. There shouldn’t be any gaps.

Ray McDaniel sent a note to the Shaman Drum Bookshop staff late this summer suggesting we consider what he calls entrance as opposed to escapist literature as a theme for our holiday catalog this year, and I choose to understand this as a different way of talking about the topic my t-shirt raises.

“What are those books that bring you closer to the world, make you more a part of it?” Ray asked.

Using books to enter rather than escape the world, ramping up the intensity, leaning in.  That’s Karl Pohrt.

Over the course of a decade’s meetings, during which we pored over thousands of new titles, trying to imagine customers for them in Ann Arbor, Karl’s own personal enthusiasms are most memorable to me. 

He adored Adina Hoffman’s vivid book on the poet Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, and made it an Ann Arbor sensation.

John Marzluff’s In the Company of Crows and Ravens just tickled him- “crows are such tricksters you know!”

He loved to listen to the audio version of Borges' This Craft of Verse as a way to reduce stress- “it always improves my mood,” he said.

And in fifteen years I never saw him as excited as he became over Staring Back, the Chris Marker photography book MIT did in 2007.  He claimed to have seen La Jetée and Sans Soleil forty times, and I believe him.

This fall, we have a new title on the Harvard list that I know would have made him jump for joy:  The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman.  An autobiography by Davi Kopenawa that turns the tables on white researchers and anthropologizes them, it’s a fantastic and utterly original voice.  The book is big and challenging, both simple and complicated, and I have no doubt that Karl would be nodding his head gravely and brainstorming promotional possibilities for it- including how to get a Brazilian rain forest shaman to Ann Arbor. 

Eventually I will have to accept the reality that I can’t call Karl to gush about this book which I know he would love.  I will pitch it with extra heart to others, which is all I can do to salute him.  Though I know Karl’s aura will reverberate in the book world and beyond for years to come, right now his absence feels like a very big gap indeed.

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