First the good: there’s lots of neat info in this book about antique map collecting and about the history of maps in general. Anyone with a passing interest in maps will find that the The Island of Lost Maps contains a number of absorbing digressions about adventurous mapmakers from centuries ago. Miles Harvey’s book also, however, bills itself as an account of the crimes and ultimate downfall of map thief Gilbert Bland. As Harvey writes early on in the book, Bland never agreed to talk to him, and the crimes themselves, while interesting, are not compelling enough to carry the 400-some pages that it takes Harvey to tell the story. The book is a 15 page magazine article enveloped in hundreds of pages of discursions and asides about various cartographic topics as well as a great deal of melodramatic meta-narration about Harvey’s efforts to tell Bland’s story:I was trying to map the life of a man – an anonymous and elusive man, a man I did not know, and a man who demonstrated no desire to meet me. And even all that might not have been so bad if I had somehow been able to find a way inside his head, to put myself in his shoes. But Bland and I were very different people. Other than a few shared superficialities – both of us white males, both right-handers, both map lovers – our common frames of reference were few.It’s as though Harvey, realizing that he is devoting a tremendous amount of writerly energy to what is, in the end, a rather straightforward crime committed by an uninteresting man, feels the need to overexplain himself. Over and over he tells the reader how fascinating this crime is and obsessed he has become with telling Bland’s story, and after a while it seems that Harvey has forgotten about his readers and is simply trying to convince himself. The best creative nonfiction seems effortless (John McPhee’s books, for example), but Maps reads like it was a tremendous effort to write.
I’ve talked about “sale books” once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some “sale books,” I decided to revisit the topic. “Sale books” are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like “clearance” or “all books on this shelf $5.99 or less.” It’s usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who’s who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season’s new offerings from a publisher. Let’s call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn’t sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you’re merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren’t worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with “remainder houses,” companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can’t resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It’s written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.