Thursday, June 11, 2009


Because I work in retail, whatever my personal reservations, I must accept certain tenets of the trade as given. Whatever the evidence to the contrary, however I may question the wisdom and or efficacy of the publishing calendar, there are inescapable yearly arrivals at the bookstore that will require displays of such numbing predictability as to make the soul weary. It is as pointless to resist these things as to pin the leaves back on the trees come Autumn or sport mittens in April. It is accepted practice, dating back at least to the rise of Hallmark, that come May, the most insipid anthologies of guilty appeasement to neglected mother-love will crowd in like so many pastel hybrids, only to wither and die come April, when baseball books will clear the field. Graduation gifts, if anything even more sickly sentimental than the odes of May to baby birthing, will come in June, as do cumbersome history tomes, golf books with punning titles, and the memoirs of masculine ineptitude that announce Father's Day. That publishers persist in perpetuating these seasonal cliches ought not to surprise anyone. Publishing, if it ever was, is most certainly no longer the province of gentlemen leisured by grandpa's millions, intent on creating cultural occasions and setting trends, but of agents and pitchmen, of market researchers and bourgeois bean-counters whose tastes were formed at shopping malls and whose idea of literary culture is as a minor sideline of corporate entertainment production. How else are such people to see the publishing year but as a progression without change or progress from traditional marketing opportunity to traditional marketing opportunity, from "inspirational" title to "inspirational" title, from Mother's Day to Father's? Doesn't seem to matter that most of these celebrations, of however recent invention or tired familiarity, seem seldom to call for a book as the perfect expression of filial love in a world crowded with online florists and instant gift certificates to Red Lobster, Mom could yet be tempted this year by a new kitchen memoir or Dad by a new collection of dusty sports columns. That booksellers continue to order the same pap year after year, only to return nine tenths of it before Christmas, bespeaks either a touchingly antiquated belief in a culture largely untouched by feminism, technology and the fading power of the printed sentiment of greater length than a greeting card, or, more likely, a growing desperation to use something, anything, that might motivate a sale among the "post-literate."

Being just a clerk, it does not fall to me to resist the annual tide of Spring banality in any but small ways. I might sneak an ironic title or two into a display meant to celebrate traditional values; slip Colette in amongst the contented mothers or try to sell a progressive or two among the reactionaries daddies, but the idea of not doing mild floral signage for Mother's Day, or not displaying huge phonebooks of baseball statistics come June, of possibly making a Graduation Day table of books that might actually appeal to the tastes of those under twenty five; a table full of manga, guides to local dive bars, and hip, postmodern fiction, is not within my brief. Like so many things in the modern bookstore, this is really none my business. Retail bookselling, like publishing, tends to be plotted nowadays well off the sales floor, well in advance of sales, according to marketing plans, schedules and campaigns -- there are professionals making these commitments of resources and promotion, and we booksellers really must learn to trust their superior educations and priestcraft. After all, look at all the book sales generated by such targeted announcements as posters reading "Spring Into Books!" and "Dad's Day!" at our great commercial rivals like Barnes & Noble, etc. You just know that sort of thing brings in the readers, otherwise why would so innovative a company plaster their uniform display windows cross-country with such chirpy slogans? They must be doing something right, right?

And so Father's Day rolls inexorably 'round again and all the usual, forgettable books pile up. But, as happens every year, there are the rare titles lost in the testosterone clouded huddle that deserve a better fate, a broader audience, actual readers even among those unlikely or utterly disinterested in reproducing. I've plucked such a one out and read it straight through in just a few hours, and with genuine pleasure. Yes, it would be a good gift for Dad. It would also be a fun summer read for anyone else with a passing interest in American history, car culture, domestic travel and or the passing popularity of the fruit-plate as a diner staple.

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, by Matthew Algeo, just published by Chicago Review Press, is the kind of frivolous brief history of a far from significant moment in the recent past that all but defines what escapist non-fiction is meant to do; it entertains without invention or speculation, by telling what is little more than an extended anecdote about a powerful personality in an unexpected setting, in this case, the last ex-president to not pimp himself out on the corporate Chautauqua, Harry S. Truman. Seems Harry and Bess, finally free of the White House, enjoyed driving their new Chrysler cross-country one very hot summer. Harry was to give his first political speech after leaving office, and they both wanted to visit their dear daughter Margaret in NYC, so the Trumans packed up the trunk and took off.

Algeo reconstructs the trip from biographies and newspaper stories and his own retracing of the travels of Harry and Bess. The result is a charming book that delights in the history of cars, motels, diners and the common folk touched by history as it happened by. The book is full of eyewitness accounts and touching interviews with survivors of the period, as well as a considered and unironic pleasure in the company of the former first couple and the cops, gas station attendants, the waitresses and the family friends encountered on the way. I can think of few books with which I've spent a happier summer's evening. And, in honor of the Truman's preference for good Midwestern diner cuisine, I finished the book over a light supper of cantaloupe and cottage cheese. It was like spending lost time on my Grandmother's porch, this book.

I can only hope Algeo's book won't get lost amidst the usual dross of Father's Day. I hope to save it for inclusion in our Christmas catalogue. Yes, I know how depressing it is to be contemplating Christmas in June, but, remember, I am subject to the laws of retail. I can only do what Io can do.

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