January 20, 2011
What kind of Bookie are you?
I waver back and forth every six months or so between my two great loves: books and books.
On the one hand we have books, the kind I sell and read, the kind I review, the kind we can all engage in because of their uniformity, ubiquity, and accessibility. These books are current and relevant to most people; they are supported by communities who are in turn supported by a vast network of publishers, creators, reporters and fans. Life with these books is exciting and relevant as well as personally fulfilling. There’s industry gossip, bookselling drama, public spats over criticism and clubs and challenges to engage in. These books are professionally relevant to me: I need to know them inside and out as a bookseller, and any future profession I might be made to take up will also likely hinge on my involvement in them. Which is alright, because I love these books.
But sometimes these books wear me down. Most of them are good but not great. They pass, like fads and fashions. Nevertheless there are a lot of them, and keeping current means slogging your way through a lot. For a slow reader like myself, there’s a sense that much of it isn’t worth my time. There’s continued pressure from authors and publicists to laud a book I was indifferent to. There’s pressure from communities to read books or blocks of books in order to participate in the public conversation, regardless of if they hold any individual interest. You need to know everything this year, but if you’ve forgotten it all by next year that’s alright. These books feel transient.
The other hand holds books, the timeless guardians of knowledge. These are the books I study, read, and collect. Nobody living is in any hurry to claim these as their product. They can be found in attics and libraries, garage sales and boxes on the street corner. It’s not always immediately evident what they are, where they came from, and what secrets they might hold. Decoding them and identifying them sometimes takes a lot of knowledge and research. But they are unique and surprising, often beautifully crafted. You might be the only person you ever meet who has the pleasure of enjoying any one of them. Reading them and knowing them puts you in the company of the giants of Western civilization. They are also professionally useful, bookselling to academics as I do. I’m rarely as happy as I am browsing the hushed booths of an antiquarian bookfair. These are the books of my dreams, and I adore them.
But then, these books are often remote and inaccessible. Those that aren’t held close to the chest in libraries can be prohibitively expensive. Even where easily acquired, these books need specialized knowledge, research and hard work, sometimes, to identify and even read. Communities of like-minded readers and collectors are hard to find, competitive, and sometimes hostile. People who do not share your mania will find discussions of books like these inaccessible and most likely boring. Professions specializing in books like these are scarce, hard to break into, and quickly becoming obsolete. Engaging with these books is lonely business.
Anyone who thinks these two loves have anything at all in common is kidding themselves. People who love books and people who love books rarely overlap or have anything to say to each other. Yet, look. The Private Library featured this week a short introduction to Fanfare bindings. How could any warm body deny how beautiful these are? Or, meanwhile, even the driest academic or bibliographer gets excited once or twice a year when the latest Parker novel by Richard Stark is released, or in a year some massively deserving body like Hilary Mantel wins the Booker. I really wish there was much more overlap between these two worlds. I would love to see contemporary publishing publish less and take more care with the books they produce, drawing more from history and less from fashion when picking and producing their goods. Academic and antiquarian readers, meanwhile, have got to get with the program and make better use of social media and communities to spread and share knowledge about and enthusiasm for their object of interest.
I shouldn’t feel quite so two-headed when enthusing about one book or another. They are all books, right? Haven’t we got some more common ground?