Bookstore owner & author Peter Miller: It is not a time of great books

Book City: Miller has been an institution in the Seattle book business for 35 years. His picks for the best of the best in design, architecture and good reading.
Peter Miller

Peter Miller Photo: Kirk Francis

Peter Miller has run an architecture and design bookshop in Seattle for 35 years. Recently, he moved Peter Miller Books three blocks north, into the front space of the Suyama Peterson Deguchi Architecture Building. 

A former member of the Seattle Design Commission and an honorary member of the AIA, Miller lives with his family in Langley, on Whidbey Island and takes the train into town every morning. In spring 2014, Abrams Books will publish his first cookbook, “Lunch at the Shop."

Valerie Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?

Peter Miller: My nightstand is skewed a bit. Now I have a cookbook to finish, I’m reading other people’s books about food, to see how and why and what they focus on. Some are well written, some are awful and some are clever — which is sort of in between. At the moment, I am reading a memoir by food editor Judith Jones, “The Tenth Muse, My Life in Food.” It’s so proper I am amused to have nearly finished it. At the end of it are recipes, six of which end with, “serve with a pitcher of heavy cream.”

You’re writing a cookbook? 

A year ago I proposed to Abrams Books that they should publish a cookbook titled “Lunch at the Shop,” a collection of anecdotes and recipes from making lunch at this bookstore for ten years. And they accepted. 

Have you found any cookbooks you admire?

The Canal House Cookbooks, from the restaurant in Lambertville, N.J., are impressive. “The Canal House Cooks Every Day” won the 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for general cooking. 

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

Perhaps it is the laptop that has made words type too quickly, but it is not, to my mind, a time of great books. Timely ones, but not great ones. The time will come again, but this is not it. 

I have been reading paperbacks by Evelyn Waugh for example. Now, no one is likely to rush to Waugh, but if you can dig out time, he was a brilliant writer. I am trying to start “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis, and everyone keeps saying how I will love it, but we have just moved the bookshop and my humor is probably too nicked to get the hang of it. I will try again deeper into the summer.

How many years was Peter Miller Books on First Avenue near the market? Why the move, and why now?

I was there for 25 years — my daughter was born the day after we moved in or I would have said 14 years. We moved because we had to. The corner was now too expensive. I wish we could have had a couple more years there — we were not recovered from the past three years of slowdown and fear — but it was not possible. George Suyama, from the architecture firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi asked that we move into his building. It is not as directly linked to foot traffic, but the space is wonderful — it is the proper place for us.

Do you read fiction as well as the design and architecture books you sell at the shop? Do you have a favorite novelist or two?

I was trained to read literature — which means I needed to learn to read for pleasure, for I was trained to probe, not enjoy. Once I finally learned how to combine the two, pleasure and probe, then a great waft of books came by — William Boyd, Le Carre, the Italian novelist Gianrico Carofiglio — that I would otherwise have never seen. Julian Barnes (“Sense of an Ending”) can really write.

For whatever reason, I have a habit of not wanting to know what is popular. So I had no idea that “Mr. Chartwell,” by Rebecca Hunt, was about a big dog and a woman falling in love in London. Reviewers grumbled that the book was a conceit — but if you shut up and simply read it, it was brilliant and true, and that is a lot.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 12, 6:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Those lunches are timeless creatures. Iv'e only had a couple but you forget what continent you are on and maybe more importantly you feel in the moment. Can not wait for the book.

Posted Thu, Jun 13, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for a thought provoking interview.

I was stopped in my tracks by Peter's observation "Perhaps it is the laptop that has made words type too quickly, but it is not, to my mind, a time of great books. Timely ones, but not great ones. The time will come again, but this is not it."

I shared that comment with my Buddhist brother in Boulder, and here's what he fired back:

"I had the same thought not long ago! Bill Shakespeare used a goose quill and an ink pot -- surely the least inefficient data entry method known to man -- but it didn't cramp his style. My people would say it's the speed of the mind, not the speed of the machine (although they are deeply interwoven) that's landed us in this vast wasteland..."

And then he went on to lament the loss of his old Hermes manual typewriter!

readerboy

Posted Thu, Jun 13, 2:05 p.m. Inappropriate

This is not a Golden Age for literature nor, in fact, for anything else.
It runs deeper than the intrinsic bias of electronic media, though certainly that may be a contributing factor. I think we are simply in an era of stagnation and decline. The old order hasn't quite accepted the fact that it is dying and the seeds of the new order are still stirring unseen beneath the surface. So what we get is a dreary diet of irony and cleverness -- lots of it.

Just waiting around sure ain't much fun. But I fear there is little choice but to endure it.

woofer

Posted Fri, Jun 14, 8:52 a.m. Inappropriate

"It is not a time of great books'.

Oh woe is us.

Following are a few of the novels I've read over the past year.

'2066' by Roberto Bolano

'Everyman for Himself' and 'The Bottle Factory Outing' by Beryl Bainbridge.

'The Patrick Melrose Novels' by Edward St. Aubyn

'Riddley Walker' by Russell Hoban

'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante

Riddley Walker dates from 1981 and is a 'great book'. The others are more recent and perhaps haven't been around quite long enough for a definitive vote for 'greatness' all are brilliant novels and have a reasonable chance of standing the test of time.

For what it's worth even Henry James had his doubters:

'Oscar Wilde once criticised him for writing "fiction as if it were a painful duty"

There are plenty of worthy books. I'm not certain how many great readers there are though.

Posted Sat, Jun 15, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Peter Miller Books is truly a treasure -- not that many cities even have an architecture and design bookstore!

By the way, we now hope the second edition of SHAPING SEATTLE ARCHITECTURE: A HISTORICAL GUIDE TO THE ARCHITECTS will be published in 2014.

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