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What Are You Reading? Woodstock’s Sonny Saul Makes Time to Read

  • Sonny Saul of Pleasant Street Books & Cards in Woodstock, Vt., upstairs in his shop on Sept. 19, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Sonny Saul of Pleasant Street Books & Cards in Woodstock, Vt., plays a piano that belonged to jazz artist Art Blakey at his shop on Sept. 19, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/20/2018 10:00:12 PM
Modified: 9/20/2018 10:00:29 PM

Instead of asking Woodstock resident Sonny Saul the usual question for subjects of this page’s “What Are You Reading?” column, I posed it this way to the proprietor of Pleasant Street Books the other day:

“What do you have time to read?”

Not as much as he’d like: In addition to processing and categorizing “hundreds of thousands” of rare and antiquarian books as well as general-interest volumes every year, Saul, 69, also composes piano jazz, performs twice a week at the On the River Inn in Woodstock, and frequently hosts jazz concerts amid the tomes that fill two floors of the red barn into which he moved and started expanding his collection in 1986.

“Over the last decade especially, I’ve had to be a disciplined reader, to make time on purpose,” Saul said this week. “Bookstores and music will both take all the time that you give it, and then take some more. If I practice piano at the end of the day, I have to calculate, ‘When am I going to read?’ ”

When he does, Saul is focusing these days on the writings of Turkish-Kurdish activist Abdullah Ocalan, and of Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a former Black Panther serving a life sentence, more than two decades of it in solitary confinement, in Pennsylvania on a conviction for murdering a police officer in the 1970s.

Saul’s son, Quincy, an environmental activist and artist who plays clarinet in his spare time, recently introduced him to both men’s works. Quincy Saul is a co-editor of Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz. Shoatz’s supporters, many of whom dispute his guilt, believe he is essentially a political prisoner because of his beliefs in overturning the social and political status quo in the United States.

Ocalan, founder and leader of the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party, aka the PKK, is confined at a Guantanamo-like prison on Imrali Island. Turkey’s intelligence service captured him in Kenya in 1999, reportedly with help from the Central Intelligence Agency, and after his native country eliminated its death penalty to gain favor with the European Union, the Turkish government sent him to that large rock in the Sea of Marmara.

During his years in prison, Ocalan has evolved, Saul said, from advocating for armed struggle to gain a separate nation-state for Kurds from Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, to promoting loosely-organized democratic confederations of Kurds that would confer full, equal rights on women.

“He’s sort of like Che Guevara — a theorist, but also an action guy,” Saul said. “His perspective is that it took 5,000 years to get into this mess, so we’re not going to get out tomorrow. … He’s written four long books on these theories (among them War and Peace in Kurdistan: Perspectives for a Political Solution of the Kurdish Question), and I’m in the middle of reading them all.”

Ocalan’s work inspired Saul to write a jazz composition divided into the titles Apologia, Identity, Struggle/Solidarity and Beyond History We Are Nothing, which he performed at the bookstore last May to raise money benefiting a campaign serving refugees from Syria’s Afrin region.

Sonny Saul said that Shoatz and Ocalan both are better known in Europe, for their books and their activism, than in the United States.

“I almost can’t explain what draws me to writers like these,” Saul said. “It’s like, you hear some music and you know it’s great. You don’t have to wait for the world to confirm it.”

Saul added that with his recent fixation on Ocalan, “I have not been a good fiction reader lately. The last thing I read was Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum.”

Saul said that he’d like to return, at some point, to the novels of Knut Hamsun, who won the 1920 Nobel Prize for literature for his epic Growth of the Soil.

“His reputation suffered a lot because of his support for the Nazis when they invaded Norway,” Saul said. “Before then, his work greatly influenced many novelists of the early 20th century. He’s a humanist who depicts wonderful characters. You read Growth of the Soil and you think of its main character, ‘That’s an amazing person.’ To be able to imagine such a person and to give him a life to pursue, you must have deep character and soul.”

If and when his current reading interests run their course, Saul doesn’t sound worried about finding new ones to pursue.

“People come into the store who know a lot about something,” he said. “If I know enough to ask them, they can give me a lecture on a subject. Some of them will bore you, but some people have great knowledge and are fascinating. The bookstore’s been fun for me that way.

“It’s kept my intellectual interests alive.”

To recommend an Upper Valley resident, from any walk of life and line of work, for a story about what they’re reading, contact David Corriveau at or 603-727-3304.

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