Sunday, November 9, 2014
It's true. Sometimes I do speak to customers at the bookstore where I work as though I've read every book, ever. I don't mean to. The truth is, working every day with so many new books, reading reviews, conversating with coworkers at the Information Desk, it can start to feel as if I had indeed been reading every new book, and every old book, and every rare book, every day if not since Gutenberg then certainly since the day I was born, with nary a pause to so much as eat. (Clearly, I ain't been missing many meals.) It's not true, as I say, but it can feel as if. As if, indeed.
Every day or nearly, someone asks me if I've read some new-ish novel, or popular biography, or what have you, and it's just easier to nod and smile while they describe how wonderful the book is, or how wonderful it was made to sound in that review in the Times, etc. Nodding and smiling are two of the fundamental skills of the successful bookseller. (And by successful, I mean still employed.) I nod. I smile. I ring up the sale.
I don't mean to lie. If the question is direct, "Have you read this?" and the customer pauses for my answer, I will answer honestly, yea or nay. (More often nay, it seems nowadays, a fact I regret professionally if not otherwise, but then no one seems ever to ask me, "Have you read Goethe's autobiography?") That said, it's usually encouragement rather than an opinion I'm being asked to provide, thus all the nodding and smiling. If pressed about a new book I haven't read and never will, I will usually resort to some acceptable variation on either "it's a popular title" or "people seem to really enjoy it."
It's a rare customer who wants to be talked out of buying the book in his or her hand.
Lots of people, as I've already suggested, simply want to tell someone, even if it's only me, why more people should be reading the books the speaker reads. I get that. Do it myself, sadly -- here, for example.
Such conversations on the sales floor however can be a trap, of course. There are regulars -- can't really call them customers as such as I seem seldom if ever to have sold a book to any of them -- lonely, older gentlemen, mostly, who will corner well neigh anybody unlucky enough to happen by. Said sad souls will then relentlessly chat up their captives on books about the American Civil War, say, or UFOs, or the history of Boeing Aviation. To intentionally bore people has always seemed to me a sin, more venial than mortal certainly, but none the less a sin. As ol' Erving Goffman once said, "Readiness to become over-involved is a form of tyranny practised by children, prima donnas and lords, placing feelings above moral rules that should have made society safe for interaction.” Indeed.
That is not, however, the Moral rule about which I am most exercised at the moment. It's not so much a sin of commission I confess -- I do try not to lie -- or even omission, as I don't think I am obliged as a retail-worker to be ruthlessly honest with smiling strangers about the books they want to buy. Call it then, the Sin of Osmosis. As in the case of the habitual book-bores, it's more self-deception than not. I really do think I've read more books than I have, thus the lying nod and the deceptive smile.
There are books that I seem to see every day for months, if not years: bestsellers, blockbusters, books on a display too near my desk for too long, books I've been finding for student-reading-lists for a decade or more. I've seen the covers so often and I've come to know something, roughly of the content, until I begin to mistake familiarity with actual experience. After roughly ten years of selling Jared Diamond's book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, it honestly feels as if I read it back in 2005 when it came out. (I did not.) I've been selling Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist -- and buying used copies to sell, in various covers and editions -- so long now, I swear I read the damned thing cover to cover before deciding I hate it. (I did not.)
Less forgivable, or more, depending, are all the more recent, popular books I read about in Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times Book Review, the new to new-ish books I've talked about and sold so often it seems entirely plausible that I must have read them, or in them at least. Sometimes, that last concession to popularity is true. I do still take popular books home, or at least to lunch now and then, just to get some basic sense of the thing. For example, I did indeed read a bit of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.
We just saw the Ben Afleck movie. It was entertaining, completely, rather gloriously, hilariously improbable. We enjoyed it immensely. (By the last act, I wouldn't have been the least surprised had Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith popped up in cameos as Jay and Silent Bob.) I understand that the novelist, who adapted the screenplay herself, and the film's director, David Fincher, agreed to alter the ending from the book, so as to give a twist for the many fans of the book. I wouldn't know.
I never finished the book. When it rocketed up the bestseller list, I borrowed a copy. I read enough. Then a friend, misunderstanding me when I said I was reading the book, thought I said I'd read it and pretty much told me the end. That clinched it. I was done.
Film is a strange medium. The more realistic the detail, and the acting, the move forgiving of story it becomes. Therein the magic, I suppose. Contemporary fiction, on the other hand, for me at least, needs a compelling voice; some novelty or wit in description, structure and language to hold my interest. Moreover, if a novel is written in a realistic way, every absurdity of plot and character needs to be anchored to some idea larger than the story, it must be about something, must say something in an interesting or unexpected way. Otherwise, as became the question with Gilliam Flynn's novel, why would I spend my evenings with such awful people?
And they are awful. Gone Girl is basically a revenge fantasy; a bad, upper-middleclass marriage gone crazy. I love this sort of thing on the ID Channel over a lazy weekend. It happens. As a longish novel about white, suburban assholes with trust-funds and gym-abs, told in uninteresting prose, I couldn't care.
Too often nowadays in fiction, unsympathetic characters seem to be mistaken for interesting people and unreliable narrators for interesting writing. Is there anything more boring now than He Said, She Said as a narrative device? Do we really need another popular novel to tell us that a woman scorned, etc.? Or that Missouri is boring?
The worst bit for me when I was reading Flynn's book was the creepy sensation that the reader was meant to find her story... empowering, somehow, as if there was some feminist undertone meant to make the mayhem somehow okay or the pot-boiling more palatable for being smart. Revenge fantasies can be serious, feminist and satirical -- see Fay Weldon -- but this wasn't that.
At least not so far as I read.
And there's the problem again. It really isn't fair for me to review Gillian Flynn's book because, as I've said, I didn't really read Gillian Flynn's book. It feels like I did, but I didn't. I read maybe eight or nine, very short chapters. I read some of the reviews -- including the review in the New York Times Book Review, the sole function of which would seem to be let the reader not read the books "reviewed" and still be able to talk about them. So, when customers in the bookstore have asked me, "Did you read Gone Girl?" I probably smiled and nodded, but it wasn't entirely true, that smile, now was it?
I'm ashamed to say it will probably happen again. My apologies to Ms. Flynn, and to any and all of her readers for letting myself to alternately endorse and decry a novel I didn't really read. In my defense, I can't read everything we sell at the shop. I do need to know a little something about a lot of books. I try to be encouraging. I try here to confine myself to what I know; to the books I've read, and the experience I have had of the reading I do. Still.
I'd like to say that hereafter I will try not to lie. I will try to neither grin like a gibbon nor frown like a toad when asked an honest question like, "Have you read Gone Girl?"
Well, it's been a very popular title for us. Honest.