Thursday, May 6, 2010

Not Seeing the Forest for the Wasted Trees

We get books across the Buying Desk almost every day that, had I no one to answer to but my imaginary trust-fund-trustees, I might buy -- just 'cause. Beautiful, delicate old things, some of 'em, not necessarily of particular artistic or historic value, but odd old volumes of memoirs, full of charming illustrations, or some justly forgotten novel, beautifully bound, but unreadable, or pulp paperbacks, interesting if at all now only for their cover-art; objects pleasant to have about the place even if seldom or never opened or read again. I've certainly seen books just like this in almost every used books shop, and I've worked in used bookstores where these useless antiques were segregated to shelves, usually near the back of the shop, under a sign reading "old but interesting," or "worth another look." Booksellers are notoriously reluctant to let such books go, hoping that just the right interior designer will want to buy those 12 volumes out of twenty of some early 20th Century encyclopedia in full leather, to smarten up some illiterate's condo, or that some collector of children's literature will happen by and be thrilled to find a stray volume of Clarence Budington Kelland's "Mark Tidd" in a pile of old books. This does not happen much, certainly not often enough to justify the waste of shelf-space, certainly not in a bookstore like the one in which I work where stock must justify itself within a defined period of time or be disposed of in a clearance sale or a donation to charity. Professionally -- if that isn't too grand a word for what I do -- I don't hold with cluttering up the floor with such dead wood, but that doesn't mean that I'm never tempted, personally.

Some winsome little volume of gentlemen's sartorial advice, bound in pretty polka-dots, and dating from two turns of century ago, may be full of delightful quaintness, but it won't sell. However mildly amusing the helpful hints on how best to maintain one's gloves on a bachelor's budget, or how to select a dressing gown, however handsome the pen & ink illustrations of fancy men in celluloid collars, however often the word "gay" may innocently occur and be now less innocently read, and no matter how little the seller paid for such a book and how little is asked for it, ultimately, as an investment, such a book is worth less than a mortgage backed security from Goldman Sachs.

Likewise, a weighty volume of Dutch Reform theology, printed in aid of family devotions and intended to rest, unread, next to the family Bible, even if bound in ribbed and tooled leather, all gilded edges and heavy cream pages, with decorative endpapers and shadowed onionskin over the stern photographic portraits of its stern contributing ministers, could not, as book to be sold, be any more worthless if it came with a gilded box of matches attached to the sewn ribbon.

These two examples I take from my own bitter used books buying experience, by the way. Admitting that neither was ever by definition a very good idea, let alone a good book, I ought to have known better.

I like nice old things. Hell, I hope one day to be a nice old thing myself. (Indeed, should I live so long as to go at the hinges or split my binding here and there, when I am a volume short of a full set, I sincerely hope that the judgement made of my value will not be as ruthless as those I pass on old books I pass on every day.) But as I sometimes have to rather cruelly explain to perfectly nice people bringing me their late grandma's old books in carefully sealed plastic baggies, old is neither good nor bad in books -- and I suppose by extension, though I would certainly never want to suggest such a connection to our older friends coming to counter -- in people either. We don't much like the word in this country, presumably because, as a nation we aren't, and because we therefor have trouble judging what is and what is not worthy of reverence, but often as not, old is just old, and grandma, at least in her taste in books, may have been no better than she was, as a reader or collector, I mean. In books at least, age may not wither, but custom can certainly stale, and while it is a mug's game trying to predict what, if anything, in contemporary books will have value a generation or two hence, I can say with some confidence, after handling what must by now be thousands, if not tens of thousands of books, old and new, that most books, most new books and most old books, are, for want of a better word, junk.

So it ever was and will be.

In all the present handwringing over the fate of "print culture" in what now passes for the fourth estate, there is one fact too little acknowledged by either the promotors of the latest technological gizmos and gimcracks or the defenders of corporate publishing; no one seems to be willing to admit that with books, as with most truly valuable things, it is not so much the "format" that needs defending -- as books have yet or are ever likely to be affordably bettered as the means by which we preserve and communicate our culture -- but rather that it is the indefensible worthlessness of much if not most of what is and has ever been printed in books that ought to embarrass us all.

Most books, eventually if not from their first conception, are bad books; a bad book in the sense I mean being one that need either never have been written, and if published, never reprinted, or books the utility of which lasted barely longer than the time it took to accept their return for pulping. This is not a moral pronouncement, or rather, if it is, it is a judgement on the morality of waste rather than taste. It is not vulgarity or inanity or even the obvious insanity of the author that makes a book bad by this standard. All the lumber lost in making computer manuals need not be mourned overmuch, as there was a time, and not so long ago, when such hideous blocks of all but unreadable print served a purpose. Even the most laughable and or unscientific advice on raising children, or begonias or goats for that matter, might once have deserved the dignity of print, if only that it might be challenged, corrected and bettered by the books that came after. Setting aside what I might think of this work of fiction or that, ancient or modern, in poetry or prose, if the author, against all odds, saw it into print, the satisfaction of that moment, however fleeting was something to which the author, and the author's mother I suppose, if no one else, were entirely entitled.

So then just what are the bad books I mean? What then defines junk? I can only contribute my own unscientific observation of more than twenty years experience selling books, and by no means do I propose the following as a comprehensive catalogue of offenses against sense committed even in just my working lifetime in bookstores. (Some bad books, blessedly, one can forget before they've even been marked down and or returned.) As I've suggested already, I wish someone better qualified than myself might take up this problem and address it honestly. But since no one has, so far as I have seen or read to date, I think I might at least start the discussion, as best I can, by offering here a short list of what I've come to recognize as worthless books. Anyone may add to this, object to any part of it, or elaborate any reasons they may have for finding even the idea of such a list objectionable, as I would welcome any reasonable conversation about this, at least if I'm offered lunch first. But I do think this is something worth bringing into the discussion of why traditional publishing is in crisis, or any serious discussion of the future of books, publishing and bookstores, and so I think I'll just have a go.

Here then, my (partial) list of bad books:

Anything for which the publisher paid to a "celebrity" in an advance more than that "celebrity" has either earned by honest labor or contributed in either taxes or charity to the common good.

Any book that reproduces on paper what wasn't worth the time wasted giggling at it on Internet.

The proceedings of any conference for which the intended and honestly anticipated audience was present to hear it at the time.

The "novelization" of anything.

Cookbooks, travel guides, and or local history of any area or region that exists only in so far as it provides an excuse to market books to disparate, if not entirely unrelated people and places, as all part of an otherwise meaningless, but potentially flattering niche brand. (Just here, I'm following the popular mantra of the day and "thinking locally." Just how is Wyoming anything to do with Seattle, or Portland anything to do with Bellevue, Washington, let alone Idaho, other than all being part of some ill-defined geography called "The Northwest?")

Any and every children's picture book ever illustrated by the author's own school-aged child -- or anybody else's, for that matter.

The sequels to and or knock-offs of any fad already passed before these can be rushed into print.

Any American academic defense of or argument against an intellectual novelty already abandoned in its European country of origin.

Journalistic, poetic or photographic memorials of any disaster in a book, the full proceeds of the publication of which do not go to relieve the suffering of those affected.

The collected wit and wisdom of any serving or recently retired member of Congress, unindicted or otherwise.

Any anthology organized only by the common experience of its contributors of any non-life-threatening or even disabling discomfort.

All celebratory volumes intended only to congratulate the reader for having reached either a certain unremarkable age or for having earned a diploma in anything.

Every book that earnestly or otherwise describes at length the irrelevance of books.

The hardcover catalogue of any exhibition that primarily features empty rooms.

Any book designed to be opened in more than three ways.

Titles published exclusively to promote popular consumer goods and or to offer previously unsuspected uses, or recipes for same.

The spiritual, financial, or political advice of any felon, serving, paroled or released, or the wife, best friend or mistress of same, that does not benefit financially the survivors of the crime entirely or at least to the exclusion of the criminal, his relations, friends, etc.

The memoirs or biography of anyone under the age of twenty one still living and not known to have "led a revolution" in anything other than fashion, pop culture or a dangerous new way to ride a fast moving object.

Any book devoted exclusively to mocking unfashionable haircuts.

Novels not by Jane Austen, featuring characters taken from the novels of Jane Austen, and marketed to an audience that has no intention of ever reading Jane Austen

Biblical or Qur'anic exegesis meant to refute any physical law.

Any "special edition" of a book already in print, made "special" by enlarging either the number of photographic illustrations or the format of the book or both, and or by restoring what the original editor, rather than the publisher, convinced the author to leave out.

Anything dependent on a caption to make it amusing.

Abridgements of any book read successfully by children of a previous generation.

Any book shaped like the object it commemorates.

Books whose titles must be read aloud to make the joke explicable.

All books about golf.

I know that is is far from a complete list, as I said, but it is a start. I should like to hear anyone responsible for publishing any two or more examples of the kind of book described above explain to me how the possibility of not publishing such stuff undermines the culture, or the future of publishing, when I should think it is in doing so they do just that. (It's hard to argue for the durability of "print culture" in a room full of wasted paper.) Were we in the book business, even at so increasingly irrelevant a level as independent bookstores, to reject even just the junk on this little list we might save if not our business, perhaps at least our souls.

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