Yet another use for books (other than reading them): pile them up and use them as a bar.
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
The Millions numbers many excellent novelists among its staff. Today we reveal the cover of longtime staffer and contributing editor Edan Lepucki’s upcoming book, Woman No. 17.
Following her New York Times-bestselling dystopian novel California (and subsequent Colbert Report appearance), Woman No. 17 is a “sinister, sexy noir” about art and motherhood set in the Los Angeles hills (as evidenced by the cover’s David Hockney blues and iconic L.A. view). Look for this May 2017.
[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Emre writes:The joyous Sunday nights at college became my biggest tormentors upon joining the ranks of working people in New York. I’d get the blues every Sunday around 9 p.m., and in an effort to stave off Monday would stay up really late – usually drinking and watching TV.One such Sunday, I was so preoccupied with reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections that I did not even leave my bed the whole day – except, of course, to hit the toilet, get more coffee, make Bloody Marys and nibble on some cheese. The whole day passed and before I realized it, the book was finished, it was 4:30 a.m. on Monday, and I was thoroughly exhausted and depressed by the outcome. I called my boss, left a semi-drunk, highly strung-out message saying something along the lines of, “Dear Boss, it’s 4:30 in the morning, I cannot sleep and am terribly depressed. If I come to work tomorrow, I might go crazy. I am taking a mental-health day,” and hung up.When I went to work on Tuesday everyone seemed very concerned about my well being. My boss said it was totally OK to take mental-health days as I saw fit. And I thought, “it worked!” Or did it?Megan Hustad responds:I’m going to say yes, it did. Probably. But only because on an average day you were pretty reliable and conscientious. (If you remembered to call in with your regrets at 4:30 a.m., drunk, yes, I’m guessing “conscientious” applies.)You ever notice how some people like to arrive at the office a little late, say, fifteen to thirty minutes late, but every single day? And then there are those who are already stationed, pouring their second cup of coffee, always at 8:55? The first group, often, tends to think they’re getting away with something. (Or that being blasé about hauling ass to work in the morning is akin to joining the Wobblies. Subversive!) But truth is, making a habit of fudging procedure generally backfires. (There are brilliant exceptions, but…takes too long to explain here.) When the boom comes down, it comes down hard, and the chronically late types find themselves nitpicked and chastised for minor infractions. Seemingly more buttoned-down types, however, get to deviate wildly from norm on occasion, take huge allowances, or commit major indiscretions, and — more often than not — get away with it.Oh, and it’s not only that mental-health days are sometimes necessary. Here’s a line from John Wareham’s 1980 Secrets of a Corporate Headhunter: “Sometimes fail to arrive at all: your absence can be the talisman of your presence.” A perfect attendance record won’t get you the corner office, he argued, and if you’re also seen at every last party, you should probably make a point of not showing up once in a while. (In other words, don’t be all Eva Longoria and get dressed for every “hey, there’s a new Treo model, we’re rolling out the red carpet!!!” event to which you’re invited.) I like this advice. Uselessness rating: 2For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
Abebooks, the Canada-based book listing service has acquired Bookfinder.com, a search engine that compares prices of books from a variety of sources including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells and hundreds of other smaller stores. They also list books from Abebooks site. Bookfinder.com founder Anirvan, in his blog post announcing the sale, said We will remain an independently operated and managed entity based out of Berkeley, but we’ll now also be able to draw upon our Canadian friends’ technology resources and industry expertise to help us develop our ideas, and make this an even more useful service for book buyers and sellers.What’s in this for Abebooks? Presumably Bookfinder.com generates a decent amount of affiliate revenue by referring shoppers to all of these different book stores. Abebooks will get that revenue and they won’t have to pay Bookfinder.com referral fees any more. I’m guessing that Bookfinder.com generates a decent fraction of Abebooks’ traffic. Abebooks will now have some control over that entry point. I know a lot of serious book people use both sites to help build their libraries, and I’m sure they’re hoping that this partnership will result in more features not fewer.Also, if you’ve never used Bookfinder.com before, you should give it a try. It’s great for comparison shopping, and it covers books from all eras, including older books that typically aren’t available through Amazon. I also use Bookfinder.com to price old books. Wondering what that old book you’ve been holding on to is worth? Search for it on Bookfinder.com and you’ll see what various retail establishments around the world are selling it for.