I think I may have mentioned the USA Today bestseller list before. It’s fun because it ranks the top 150 books, not just the top 20 like most lists, and I also like it because it doesn’t separate books by category, so you can see how those self-help books stack up against those mystery novels. I also think it’s interesting to see which classic novels make appearances on the list. For example, this week – barring classics making the list due to movie tie-ins – we’ve got Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at 93. I also recently noticed that you can use the search box at the top of the list to search its entire ten year history. For example, I now know that Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which happens to be next to me on the shelf) was on the list for six weeks in late 2003, peaking at 108. Interesting.
The New Yorker has unveiled a new version of its Web site, and while I applaud its clean look, the addition of much more content accessible from the front page, and RSS feeds, there is one major problem: links to much of the site’s content from the years the magazine has been online are, as of this writing, broken. This means the many, many links to New Yorker articles and stories in The Millions archives no longer work, rendering posts like my roundup of the magazine’s fiction in 2005 much less useful. On the other hand, perhaps they used the redesign as an opportunity to clear out the archives so that more folks would buy the Complete New Yorker.See also: Kottke takes a more in depth look at the redesign.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut— and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
In Elmira, NY, six high school students banded together to break the Guinness Book of Records marathon reading record. Says the AP:They whizzed through more than 20 beloved children’s books, including the six-volume Harry Potter series, seven Goosebumps thrillers and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. They wrapped up their epic, 128-hour performance on the school auditorium stage with Oh, the Places You’ll Go, a Dr. Seuss classic.Meanwhile, in Albany, other long-distance readers, among them William Kennedy and Andy Rooney, joined forces for a 24-hour reading of Moby Dick, as part of “Why Melville Matters Now” weekend at the Albany Academies school.
10. Angstrom and Zuckerman Fistfight in Heaven, by John Updike, as told to Philip Roth“World-weary Lieutenant Nathan Zuckerman’s got one day left until retirement. But when the district commander pairs him with hot-headed rookie Rabbit Angstrom, s–t gets bananas..”9. Moms are Not Nice, by Christopher Hitchens“The next in this droll Englishman’s series of fearless attempts to speak truth to power. To be followed in 2009 by Your Furniture is Ugly.”8. War & Peace Redux: The Official Restored Director’s Cut (with Deleted Scenes and Commentary)“Finally, experience this great novel as the author intended it! 3,000 pages of previously unreleased material flesh out Prince Andrew’s sordid backstory, and introduce us to one of Tolstoy’s greatest creations, ‘Crazy Uncle Louie.'”7. Cookin’ with the Franz, by Jonathan Franzen“Learn how to cook, the Jonathan Franzen way!”6. Tammy O’Shanter and the Curse of the Missing Cowpoke, by Michael Chabon“Once again, the award-winning novelist puts his unique stamp on our favorite fictional genres: in this case, Horror, Western, and Leprechaun.”5. Bigger Than You and You are Not Me or Him and Her, by Miranda July“Envelope-pushing first novel.”4. How We Became You and What It May Mean, Someday, Someday, Never by Dave Eggers“Envelope-pushing story collection.”3. Ten Days Later in the Hills, by Jane Smiley“A group of chatty and libidinous zombies retreat to the Hollywood Hills for a week of stimulating politico-philosophical dialogue and sexual athleticism. That’s right: zombies.”2. A Perfectly Fine Generation, by Tom Brokaw“Just in time for Father’s Day, Brokaw brings Baby Boomers a much-needed reminder that, hey, they’re just fine.”1. Finite Jest, by David Foster Wallace“The expurgated version (180 pp).”[*Editor’s Note: Not Actual Books]
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion
Noah’s post reminded me that I’ve been meaning to direct readers to an amazing project being undertaken by Chicago-based photographer Jason Lazarus. “The Nirvana Project” asks participants to document, in words and images, the people who turned them on to Nirvana. A gallery of the responses Jason has received so far can be viewed at www.jasonlazarus.com. (click on “images,” then “Nirvana.”)Jason is contributing a photo to a book I’m doing, and asked me if I wanted to contribute something to “The Nirvana Project” in return. Here’s what I came up with: The person who introduced me to the band Nirvana was a kid named Jeff Smith, who had a mullet and a habit of peeling skin from his palms and fingers and eating it during class. He wrote, “here we are now, entertain us” on the blackboard of my 7th Grade math classroom. We were the kids who got to math class early, if that says anything about the Nirvana audience.It even has the virtue of being true. Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with a picture of Jeff Smith to go along with the text. But if you’ve got a photo of your Nirvana sherpa, check out Jason’s project statement and participate.