Netherlanders are a thrifty, enterprising people. Their historic wisdom, a distrust of excess, I think, came from the constant awareness of knowing where they are, a sort of cultural GPS, possibly developed after the Tulip Bubble, the first capitalistic mania. When William of Orange conquered England during the “Glorious Revolution” (which was neither glorious nor a revolution), the English ultimately won the non-existent skirmish by hugging close William and his English wife Mary and stealing many of the cultural advantages the Dutch had enjoyed. We Americans shared that heritage, but the cultural GPS somehow dropped out of the inheritance.
In Delft, a university town once known for its porcelain that it had copied from the Chinese in days preceding intellectual property laws, the happy, narrow streets feature tens of bookshops. Most are small shops that remind me of the pre-Big Box days. Remember then? Remember the days before pimply-faced clerks in the now defunct Borders and the now struggling Barnes & Noble learned across the counter and smirked, seeming to say: “Super-size it!”?
Books by Dutch authors usually fill one table at a shop’s entry. Translations fill another. Books are cheaper and Dutch writers are more terse than those who write in English, for their books are shorter. Several memoirs of the war years sell for the equivalent of $15 to $18 and they fit nicely in the hand.
The translation tables are schizophrenic. Michael Connelly, Jean Auel, and James Patternson dominate with their obese, penultimate novels. Looking anemic and a little sour next to the American behemoths, the French authors, the macrobiotic intellectuals, offer worlds less physically threatening but psychologically more perilous.
In the largest Delft shop, a block from the principal canal, the sleek, oak shelves, none of which is full, have signs identifying the topics. I can make out the Dutch for “history” and “psychology,” though a couple of sections remain mysteries even when I scan the books. One section, however, poses no linguistic challenge. “Chick lit” contains more books than the cookbook section.