Monday, February 1, 2010

I'll Have the Rice Pudding

It isn't unusual for booksellers to read what they don't like. We do it all the time. A new novel becomes a surprise bestseller and catches us all unawares, and despite the unfamiliar name and the unpromising premise, we feel obliged to know something about the source of all this unforeseen chatter, scarcity at the distributors, sales. So we borrow a copy, when the book finally comes back into stock, and we try it. We like it, or we don't. Usually, we don't, but not always. The point is, it is part of our job to suggest books, to make connections for our customers. To do this successfully, we have to know what people are reading. Simple as that. We don't have to like a blockbuster, or even the increasingly cynical and self-defeating reliance on blockbusters in both publishing and bookselling, but we have to know what is going on, like it or not, to do our job. Our interest then, as booksellers, is not so much a matter of satisfying a personal curiosity, or even sharing in a common, cultural preoccupation, though we're hardly immune to either impulse, but in selling the next book to the reader of whatever is making Americans mad for romantic, teenaged vampires, or paranoid fantasies about the secret influence of the Vatican, because we might, if your father or your sister really liked that one, be able to suggest another, maybe even a better book. (Booksellers are snobs you know, but we are just as venal as anybody else "in trade," come to that.)

An established writer -- know to me but never read -- suddenly, or seemingly so, breaks from the mid-list, is widely and effusively reviewed, and is, after how many years and how many books? unexpectedly anointed as a neglected master; awarded an unexpected prize, his backlist reissued in an a uniform edition clearly intended to suggest elevation to the cannon, or dies and is suddenly remembered posthumously as having been far better than anyone important had really bothered to notice in time to tell him, in say, The New York Times. And here I've been, selling his books, though not in great numbers, for years without reading one. Again, my obligation is to have some sense of what the fuss, if not the author was about, when my customer asks. I needn't agree with the fuss, or the author, but in reading at least one book, I needn't look like an idiot, entirely reliant of the reviewers to tell me who's been writing all this deathless prose, right under my nose, all these years.

Then there are the established classics one has always meant to read but didn't. We all know, readers and booksellers alike, how often we actually manage to tick anything off that list. BBC television adaptations seem to be a great motivator, its true, but otherwise, one always rather secretly hopes someone else on the bookstore staff might have tackled that three volume set in college.

For booksellers though, there is another list, a sort of subset of "the classics," with which we are personally acquainted, probably as a result of some well-reviewed and definitive biography of the author having been published, and rather than read all fifteen hundred pages of that, or just the convenient synopsis of life, controversies and major titles that is the traditional review of such a new biography on the front page of The Sunday Times Book Review, we decide to give the old oeuvre another go, though we hated the stuff the first time we tried it in college, or because of some other increasingly remote motivation. In this category, for me, I find all those avant-garde experiments of yesteryear I read, or tried to read, because, well, one did, back then. When Dalkey Archive published Dominic Di Bernardi's translation of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's novel, London Bridge in 1995, I tried again to understand how this antisemitic, misanthropic, little elliptical shit was still the darling the cognoscenti, still being translated, still being made apology for and still, evidently, being read anew. As should already be clear, the second reading went no better for me than the first. Loathsome man. More importantly, loathsome books.

But I can only say that, even if only here, because I tried, no? I can't say just that in the bookstore, of course, to a customer looking to buy a copy of Journey to the End of Night -- why would I? and possibly lose the sale? -- but I can feel fairly confident that I'm not wrong thinking it. What's more, I can probably recommend another title with the phrase, "If you're interested in that, you may want to read... " without a blush.

I mention all this grudging, grubby job-related reading not looking to be congratulated for either my devotion to the business, or to just add another damning example to the record of my general snootishness. I'm thinking tonight of all the books I've read, or read bits of, because I thought, as a bookseller, I ought, and of all the books other booksellers have read for that same reason, and I'm beginning to wonder if, in so doing, we haven't been wasting our time.

One of the most common displays in independent bookstores is made up of suggestions for further reading, usually with a sign that says, "If You Enjoyed ___, You Might Also Like..." This kind of thing pops up everywhere when a book becomes popular. Likewise, a major movie adaptation sets off a similar rush to suggest further reading. All our training, or better call it experience as there's blessed little actual training in most of our backgrounds as booksellers, tells us that this is what we do best, that in our desire to make lasting connections with our loyal customers, we need to be hooked into not only the latest reviews and promotions, but be at least as aware of the wider, popular culture as, say, a shoe salesperson, or the marketing director of a fast food chain. Shouldn't we know something at least about what is or is not happening... out there?

Well, yes, of course we should. I don't mean to suggest that we should ignore the world around us, or pretend that we only sell the books we like. I'm not even suggesting that those booksellers who want to shouldn't read Dan Brown, or try a novel by Céline. I'm only thinking how much better I've been at selling good books than bad. Seems a simple thing, doesn't it? Obvious? But it isn't as simple as it seems.

I just think I may finally understand that bad books: idiotic, puerile, trivial, insidious, badly written books, seem to find their readers just as easily as good ones, and that I don't know that I've ever really convinced anyone looking to buy a bad book to read a better one by proving just how much better the best books are by making the comparison for myself.

How long does it really take to see that The Lovely Bones is an awful book? fifty pages? ten? one? Didn't I know I wouldn't like it before I'd cracked the cover?

I begin to suspect, much as I may tell myself that I was doing yeoman's labor in taking home Twilight, that I really needed to get a handle on just what was making adults read such stuff, all I was actually doing was looking to confirm my own assumption, arrived at well before I'd read the book, that the book was an exercise in retrograde, antifeminist female infantalization, that far from a harmless bit of supernatural romance for adolescent girls, it was, in fact, symptomatic of nothing so much as a general reversion to the worst kind of yadda yadda yadda. Or not.

Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter what I think about bestsellers. The popularity of professionally promoted new books operates in complete independence of my opinion. As an independent bookseller, I am now irrelevant to the process of selling such books, good or bad. (Even the long cherished idea that we ever had such influence seems a little doubtful to me just now, but I'll have to allow the possibility, at least in the years before I settled in.) Likewise, I have absolutely no say in what gets reviewed in the few remaining major American newspapers, or what passes for the organs of opinion in this digital age. I can no more predict who will be pegged as a genius, neglected or otherwise, by academia this or any other year, than I can explain the why anyone in their right mind would want to write a new biography of Koestler, let alone read one.

I'm just thinking aloud now, but I wonder if I do a disservice to my customers in imagining I have anything valuable to contribute to any discussion in which my every instinct tells me I have no part to play, or at least, nothing nice to say, as my mother might put it. Working in retail, I'm forced to assume a tact not natural to me. So why belabor the point, and make myself more than a little crazy, and continue to waste my time, by reading books I do not want to read? Surely, that is the definition of a self-defeating activity for a person past the likely midpoint of his personal actuarial table, and with some many good books unread?

Better I should just read what I want, and have the books I like to recommend, and maybe find more of the same to use at my job, than flatter myself that anyone should give a tinker's damn what I thought about The Help. Happy to sell it, with a smile, and maybe think about losing the smirk.

I think I'm working myself up to some kind of resolution, don't you?

The truth is, my job is indeed, in part, about making connections for readers, but I don't have to eat the latest energy bar to recommend the rice pudding, if you get my meaning. Who asked me, after all?

I love rice pudding, don't you?

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