Sometimes you read a book where the author seems to have your same experiences. I suspect that’s why many of us keep reading, looking for connection. I just finished Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders and immediately began wanting more. Anyone who’s faced teetering stacks of rejection letters from agents will appreciate the story of Cecil Po, a bookseller in Tandomon. Like many of us who wind up in book-related industries, Po is at heart a writer. Like most writers, he’s down on his luck. When he discovers a deceased, truly third or fourth-rate writer who’s acquired some level of fame, a wild plot begins to hatch. The story is so compelling that I spent much of this past week wishing for just a few more minutes to read.
One of the things the story does exceptionally well is to point out the foibles of scholars. Self-important and self-focused, they often fail to see the obvious right in front of them. There are some laugh out loud moments here for anyone who’s spent time in academia. Po’s laconic commentary is no-nonsense and witty. It also seems to contain a rebuke for the big publishing houses that effectively limit what gets read. Anyone who’s tried to navigate publishing knows the truth of this tale. There are those who decide which writers will get noticed and then build them up to continuing successes. It even happens in academic publishing. Po, talented but uneducated, and—more importantly—unconnected, has resigned himself to a life of peddling books while knowing he has written better than some of what he has read. Brown takes the gloves off, but gently and politely.
There are tonnes of great, but undiscovered writing out there. Even those of us in publishing (perhaps especially so) find it difficult to spend the time we wish to on reading. There is reading and then there is reading. If people did more of it there might well be less pandemic to go around. And if more people read for pleasure there would be more demand for books. It might also lead to more people writing. The Traders is a fascinating little parable that draws you in with possibilities. Cecil Po is like so many of us who dream big but live small. I won’t put any spoilers here since the novel deserves to be widely read. And it’s just possible that the reader will discover a bit of him or herself between the covers along with Po.