Not to generalize too much, but others may have the same experience this time of year. I do pop into bookstores, particularly the two big chains (Borders, Barnes & Noble) quite a few times during the year, but those visits usually have a purposive character. At Borders I head for the nearest free computer to see if the book I’m seeking is in the store. At B&N I go straight to the category region (I know that store better); then, if that fails, I apply at the help desk. The visits tend to be in-and-out. Purposive.
My experience at Christmas time is different. I’m not at all sure quite what I want. I wander and at least superficially see the whole. Almost always, in addition, I also shop for music with a slip or two Brigitte hands me. In the slower, surveying mode, I’m always overwhelmed. Every year this or that image presents itself to me from “out of Spiritus Mundi”—as Yeats characterized the source of spontaneous inspiration. This year, despite the fairly careful arrangements of materials practiced by both retailers, nonetheless the image of an overwhelming flood came to mind, a flood that, as its waters finally recede, leaves behind in mixed and close proximity incongruous objects—the discarded fender, dead squirrel, lost doll, plastic bag, the broken beam. That feeling arose especially at B&N this year. The store nearest our house groups books on tables in the aisles by such labels as “new and recent,” “bargain,” “special interest,” and yet other collective categories. In these arrays vastly different kinds of books are mixed; the incongruity therefore is great.
For decades now—but with increasing force—the commercialization of publishing has become ever more evident. The concept of “book” as it exists inside me—unrevised from its formation in the 1940s—has enormously expanded. I resist updating my concept and therefore book stores have become strange spaces. It amazes me what people will read and, if not read, exactly, what they will expend their money on. But visible amidst the random mixture of everything imaginable left by the great storm of money are patterns; these are also produced by commercial calculation.
These patterns—which I first noted two decades ago but which probably began much earlier—is that every year now, unfailingly, all authors with high name recognition will have, must have, another new opus ready for sale. And these books, competing with new stars in publishing (Sarah Palin, for example), are on conspicuous display as you enter the stores.
A distant relative of mine, A.L. Gabriel, a priest, wrote Student Life in Ave Maria College, Mediaeval Paris (1955). In that quite fascinating and indeed entertaining history (let us not be deceived by titles) I first encountered mention of books so equipped that they could be chained to walls as they sat on lecterns. We’ve come a long ways, baby…