Thursday, May 19, 2011

"We buy him on our hands and knees"

There are innumerable reasons why some writers, however important, lauded, or influential they may have been in their time, slide into obscurity. For some, it’s a matter of style or the dialectic of literary history. Others fade because their preoccupations have grown unfashionable or have become dated or, most damning of all, now seem quaint. Others are not championed by influential critics, or their books are too big or small or serious or not serious enough or have ugly covers or are published under inauspicious circumstances or, due to the vagaries of the alphabet, are found on the often-neglected bottom shelves of bookstores and libraries. As David Marr remarks of the Australian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, an author who in his later years grew acutely aware of his own obsolescence: “We buy him on our hands and knees.”

If I hadn’t been a bookseller for the past ten years, I wouldn’t have given the latter condition much serious thought, but the longer I’m involved in bookselling, the more convinced I’ve become that there are unfortunate practical elements that deter people from discovering certain authors. I wouldn’t go so far to argue that a book at ankle level is doomed to eternal obscurity or moldy decay, but there are extra-literary factors to take into account when considering the fate of neglected authors.

At Green Apple, this quintessentially ramshackle and labyrinthine bookstore—and therefore the kind in which books, and their readers, are easily lost—I pay attention to this most closely, and feel it most achingly, in our literature section, where the bottom row of books spans AugiĆ©ras, Ducornet, Hrabel, B.S. Johnson, Morante, Shafak, Unt, all the way to Zweig. From an aesthetic view, it’s hard to deny that the shadows settle nicely there, down around your feet—and although I’m convinced that inveterate book lovers are drawn to these gloomy depths and are willing to dirty their knees and fingers to pluck the overlooked from the gaping jaws of the returns cycle, many of us are content to sail along with our eyes at the steady horizon of face-outs and display tables.

In other words, many readers prefer the new. This is inevitable for many reasons, not the least of which is the sheer number of books published every year. Besides, the new adorns itself in contemporary splendor, and is alluringly placed at eye-level. The new requires only the slightest of motions: a step inside the bookstore and it greets you there, offering itself to anyone willing to half-extend their arm. The new is not torn, bent, yellowing, or spotted with mold. It doesn’t smell of decaying paper or insidious cigarette smoke. It is immaculate and offers itself to you unrepentantly. The new does not need to remind you of its existence: it’s in the newspapers, on the blogs, its authors are on talk shows. Your friends are talking about it.

But what happens when the new is pushed out by the newer? Despite the bookseller's innate sentimentality, we're of necessity a ruthless bunch who very early and very quickly realize that shelf space is always at a premium. But what of those books we loved two summers ago? What of the vagaries of the alphabet? The sometimes odd corner in which a book will suddenly find itself placed or misplaced? The cul-de-sac into which a poor doomed novelist’s masterpiece will drift over time? (There’s as much a geology as there is a geography of shelving.) There are plenty of these nooks and crannies in a bookstore, especially one as cluttered, crammed, and cavernous as Green Apple.

You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t a book lover. With that in mind, I’ll propose a simple experiment: on your next visit to Green Apple, or whatever bookstore you frequent, take it upon yourself to get on your hands and knees, to crouch, to dig, to wipe away some dust. Ignore the talked-about new novel, just this once, and let serendipity guide you.


AuntTom said...

I always go serendipity when I go into bookstores which is hy I try to stay out of them because as soon as I go into them I don't know where I am.

Anonymous said...

If Cole Hamels does it, then I will.