Sunday, September 07, 2008

A Rich Feast of Pullman and Other Tangential Thoughts

I'm back to reading The Idiot right no. I hope to finish the book before I depart, so to avoid having to pack the hardcover with me. Right now I would rather spend the time reading and not blogging, but I can't seem to stay away from the laptop.

I understand this blog has been on a dry spell book-wise for a very long time. To compensate for this, I'll highlight Philip Pullman's selection of 40 titles for Waterstones's Writer's Table.

What I love most about Pullman's list is the variety. This is a true reader's list, one that I admire and set me to make notes for my own reading list. His Dark Materials series was a masterpiece of fantastic imagination. His reading list hints at the deeper pool of his literary inspiration.

Boyd Tonkin remarked on the richness of the selection in The Independent:

Against the dreary agribusiness of today's book trade, Pullman's ideal landscape is a dense peasant patchwork of contrasting genres, styles and eras. From such rich soil new masterpieces sprout. How apt that among his choices is Exercises in Style by the Parisian prankster Raymond Queneau, a theme-and-variations piece which tells the same yarn in 99 different ways. Look in chain bookstores these days and you will more often find 99 stories told in exactly the same way. We should relish the feast on Pullman's table while we can – and watch out to check how visible Queneau or Pessoa remain when this sumptuous banquet has been cleared away.

I had some time recently to think about what makes a good bookstore, and what makes a good reader. With the chain bookstores taking over the market these days, the selection available are getting more generic. Take a look at the bestsellers for different chain bookstores, and often you can't tell one from the other.

We need readers who will continue to demand good literature; we often forget that we, the readers, have the economic power to dictate what bookstore carries. We need to read widely, across genres, gender and languages if possible. Reading is the greatest freedom - and the most civilized form of rebellion. We should be the ones dictating what we read, not allow that choice to be made for us by some unknown book prize committee, or Oprah.

Pullman's list, as Boyd Tonkin points out, reminds us of the richness of literature that we need to continue to seek out, for our own sake. Great literature grows from rich soil, and monoculture can ruin the eco-system of the mind.

That said, bookstores have a responsibility to the readers. I understand it is a business (I am in the business of book-selling) Profit matters, because a profitable bookstore is able to keep its staff employed, pay for its purchases and maintain a book culture within the area.

A lot of booksellers seem to have forgotten that a bookstore is a knowledge-based industry though. You are not likely to find the Pullman selection highlighted in your usual chain bookstores. (That fact that this is a Waterstone's initiative warms my little bookseller heart. Perhaps all is not lost in the book industry) The list is too eclectic. In most bookstores, what you will find being highlighted is the usual New York Times bestsellers or its equivalent.

A bookstore has to be more than just clearing stocks and selling large quantities of books. A bookstore needs to be staffed with knowledgeable readers who are eager to share what they know about books. They should always be on the look-out for exciting titles to introduce to the customers. To be able to do that competently, the booksellers have to be people who read deeply, and widely.

*** I apologise if this post suddenly goes off-tangential. As I mentioned earlier, I was thinking about the responsibility of a bookseller recently, and how we need to do more in promoting the book culture. So much more effort needs to be made, but often we choose the easiest alternative. It is so much easier to throw out 300 copies of The Secret, or the newest Oprah Book Club selection. It takes more effort to promote an unknown author who deserves better recognition, and the sales may not amount to much. Yet it is necessary, because selling books is not the same as selling a pair of shoes, or a T-shirt or a frying pan. Books are about the heart, at least, that is so for me.

And the customers - the readers who come to our bookstores - who rely on our expertise as booksellers - are short-changed because we do not make the effort.


Ana S. said...

I love the variety too - comics, children's books, classics, science books, fantasy, philosophy, fairy tales. It's so eclectic and unpretentious. Also, I was happy to see The Book of Disquiet in there :)

Melwyk said...

I feel that librarians have the same responsibility to literature, and it was such a shock to me to realize as a young and naive new librarian (some years ago now...) that there are many librarians who DON'T READ. I try to do my part to read with wide variety, and Pullman's list is inspiring. (as are your very own aspirational lists)

darkorpheus said...

Nymeth - You zeroed in on The Book of Disquiet too? :) Seeing that title made me want to read it now - I basically want to read everything now.

But again, the book is packed in one of the boxes.

This is starting to be a theme to my life. :(

Melanie - That always makes me wonder: why be a librarian if you do not read? Or the other side of the question - why work in a bookstore if you don't enjoy reading?

I had the same surprise when I first started working in the bookstore - A LOT of people in the booktrade do not read. Which is why a lot of them just approach the trade as BUSINESS rather than a place of love, I suppose.

So sad, isn't it?

Carl V. Anderson said...

I certainly believe that a great deal of personal touches and small things can be done even in chain stores to tailor things towards readers while still making a profit. I think you just have to have staff that are creative and that will focus time on readers as individuals as well as doing those things that keep the big books moving. The potential for profit and for repeat customers and word of mouth customers is huge that way.

darkorpheus said...

Carl - That's always the key to a good organisation - employing the right people, and then creating the environment that will help retain these staff. But if the management is more concerned with profit over staff welfare and development, then these people leave.

One of my friend was applying for a job at a chain bookstore many years back. The manager interviewing her told her they didn't want staff that read too much, because they will be too busy reding and browsing the books to work.