Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bookish Musing

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…

2 comments:

  1. Boy, I had the feeling of battling the flood today too at France's BIG commercial bookstore, La FNAC. I went early so as not to have to stand in line for an hour. I knew what I wanted and where it was shelved. It was supposed to be an in-and-out affair...Right. After I'd fought my way through masses of ambling booker buyers to the Manga section, I learned it had been moved upstairs with video games and DVDs...mmm interesting. So I fought my way back via the medical section where there were only about three books on gynecology. Ah, bon?
    Through all this fighting, I had a memory of going to the FNAC in 1992 just before Christmas with Max who was just a month and a half old baby at the time. I think it was the first time he took the metro...Oh the stress! Not a good plan. Things have not changed much.
    But the plethora of reading and viewing materials is overwhelming. Shelves three meters high, stacks of books in every direction, an army of salespeople manning the cash registers, names flashing out at one : Sarkosy, of course, Johnny Halliday, Martin Winkler whose book latest book I've just finished. Thank GOD I knew what I wanted otherwise the flood would have washed me away and drowned me!

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  2. Strengthened by the Hard-to-Cut coconut milk, however, I trust that all went well...!

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