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Bookish Diversions: Surprise! You Need This Book
Bookstores and the Problem of Discoverability, Books as Decoration (Ugh), Books as Prayer (Yes), Kids and History, More
¶ Surprise! You need this book! No, you didn’t even know it existed until a moment ago, but that’s what a good bookstore does! It provides an environment for discovery: “The most important product sold by a bookstore is not the books themselves but rather the browsing experience. The good bookstore is designed to lure the customer deeper and deeper inside, in search of that serendipitous discovery: the book one had been looking for without even knowing it.”
¶ The problem of promotion. Marketing has vexed publishing since forever. In the first century AD, Roman poet Martial recommended people buy his books in the new codex format—pages instead of scrolls. No one listened. The new format took a few hundred years to catch on. A couple of millennia down the line, social media provides a partial answer for marketing challenges. People are, for instance, using TikTok to build their reading pile. And a new publisher is basing its entire publishing and marketing strategy on finding the overlap between authors, social-media influencers, and potential readers.
¶ Book vending machines? We could always try these again. Follow the thread for recent examples in Bucharest and Japan. There’s also the book-delivery van option.
¶ Is there anything more depressing than buying books merely for decoration? It’s like keeping a Mercedes in your driveway to impress the neighbors but never driving.
¶ The mystery of James Patterson. Some dislike him: “Celebrating Patterson for everything he’s done for literature feels a lot like celebrating the microwave for everything it’s done for food.“ Yet he sells millions. What gives? “Patterson’s common touch may have something to do with his onetime day job in advertising,” suggests one reviewer of his new memoir. But for a man so “relentlessly bullish on storytelling” he “seems never to have formulated the story of his own life.”
¶ Novel petitions. “Can attention to an everyday activity, like reading or writing, also be prayer?” Why, yes.
¶ Book critics on Mars and Venus. With wearisome gender wars flaring up in fiction, Johanna Thomas-Corr weighs in: “Less eat-your-greens hectoring and more playfulness in literature would do us all a lot of good. Instead of making contemporary fiction yet another arena for virtue-signalling, sanctimony and bad-faith assumptions about the contents of each others’ souls, let’s make room for genuine mischief and mess, experimentation and individuality.”
¶ The lessons of history. “History has been written in a kaleidoscopic array of ways. That is all to the good. Yet the historical work that has endured has very often been that which addresses timeless problems about the human condition.” Novels can do that, too.
¶ Two quotes from one of my favorite novelists, Eugene Vodolazkin, both from The Aviator, trans. Lisa C. Hayden (2018). First:
I thought about the nature of historical calamities—revolutions, wars, and the like. Their primary horror is not in the shooting. And not even in famine. It is that the basest of human fervors are liberated. What is in a person that was previously suppressed by laws comes into the open. Because for many people only external laws exist. And they have no internal laws.
There is crap in every person. When your crap comes into resonance with others’ crap, revolutions, wars, fascism, and communism start. . . . What is notable: the good in others souls does not respond the same speed as the crap.
¶ Sometimes the good does catch up, as in America’s Civil Rights struggle, something pictured in—of all formats—children’s books. ”Books allow families ‘to come together—an adult and a child—and say, ‘Let’s talk about this.’”
¶ Worlds without end.
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (1994).
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