Places and Books

I recently had the opportunity to travel to a new town and spend the night there.  This is a rarity in the days of pandemic and I’d forgotten the magic of waking early in a new place and looking out the windows at the deserted, artificially lit streets.  It’s so peaceful and full of wonder.  The place we were staying was next to a public library and I noticed that there was a light on in the cupola in the pre-dawn hours.  I like the idea of books watching over us in the night.  Often when I’ve traveled to conferences I’ll arise early and look out on that orangey, artificial light while most other people are still asleep.  Even the city in pre-dawn can be a peaceful place.  This is a pleasant displacement since it’s only temporary.

One of the things about the pandemic is that it has accustomed us to life just so.  The controlled environment of home.  There’s a comfort to routine, but there’s wonder in breaking it as well.  When it’s not a conference and still a new city, I begin to look for a bookstore.  One of the common misconceptions—perhaps bolstered by the cookie-cutter experience that has been Barnes and Noble—is that bookstores are all the same.  They aren’t.  Each reflects the minds of the owners.  They reflect their knowledge of their public.  New ways of looking at things.  I suppose this fascination with books has been enhanced by my starting to read some Jorge Luis Borges again.  Those of us who read for pleasure are in the minority and we find the open book to be open arms welcoming us in.  Welcoming us home.

I always travel with books.  My travel bag carries my laptop and my reading.  New technology having to learn to adjust to the old.  I’m not a particular fan of technocracy.  I’ve always preferred paper to plastic.  In a new town I look for authenticity.  We lived for many years in Somerville, New Jersey and one of my concerns was that it couldn’t seem able to support a bookstore in the shadow of that equalizing Barnes and Noble.  The new owner, James Daunt, believes that bookstores should reflect local interests.  His own stores in Britain are cathedrals to books.  Unlike other industries, bookselling isn’t all about the business.  Much of it is about the place.  We travel to see new places, and we read to visit them as well.  And perhaps to reflect in the artificial orange glow before the city awakes.


Clash of the Titles

Well, it seems I may be stuck in publishing for a while.  At least it’s a place to learn.  The inside story, it turns out, would be very helpful for authors to know.  Let’s take titles for example.  An editor sees a basic misunderstanding on the part of many academic authors.  Hey, I’ve even done it myself.  To correct this misunderstanding it’s important to see that academic publishers see different basic kinds of books.  One of them is the academic monograph.  No matter what the author thinks (I know the feeling of working on a book for years and supposing everyone else will be interested in the topic) academic books are of limited appeal.  Their main buyers are academic libraries and academic librarians want to know at a glance what the book is about.  The title has to say this, even before reaching the subtitle.

We’re all used to the idea of seeing books with clever titles in the bookstore.  (Remember bookstores?)  These are trade books.  Some of them are from academic presses, but these are books that have often been worked over by editors and marketers and publicists to make them more appealing.  The title can be clever, with an explanatory subtitle, because the target buyer is a bookstore rather than a library.  It’s difficult for an author to admit that this tome that has consumed your waking life for years, and maybe even decades, is primarily something a couple hundred libraries only will buy.  And family and friends who feel they need to support your efforts.  It’s a hard reality to face, but it often comes down to title.

What are you going to call your book?  My own most recent effort, Nightmares with the Bible, was written for a trade readership.  The publisher, however, had the library market in mind.  For success in the library market, the title works against the book.  No matter how accessibly your book is written, no mere mortal will pay $100 for it.  (Some of us will feel compelled to dish out that kind of cash for a title we really must read, but we are the exception rather than the rule.)  I like my title, but it was a mistake.  It should’ve probably gone by its subtitle, slightly modified, The Bible and Cinematic Demons.  In my mind as I wrote it, I had an educated but popular readership.  The publisher had different ideas, unclear to me when the book was put under contract.  Now it’s time to give this post a popular title so that it will be read. And hopefully taken to heart.


Ode to Bookstores

The pandemic has changed everything.  You knew that, of course.  Like many people in fields of regular job uncertainty, we’ve curtailed spending as much as we can.  Never very securely established after Nashotah House, we’ve managed to get by by not thinking too far ahead.  I can’t imagine retirement (if there’s still a job left to report to).  Even more, I can’t imagine a life without books.  The only way I get through each day is by trying not to think about it.  Still, I miss bookstores.  Pre-pandemic, when jobs at least felt somewhat secure, we’d often nip into one of the many local independents of a weekend.  Missing browsing shelves sorely, we stopped into Book and Puppet over in Easton, when on a trip to buy produce at the outdoor farmer’s market.

It felt strange, the thought of going into a store that wasn’t dedicated to groceries or hardware.  Masked, of course, but would there be lots of people there, crowding the air with germs?  No.  There was maybe one other customer in the place.  I have to admit that I was a bit disoriented, trying to read over spines on a shelf, not wanting to touch anything.  I’ve tried hard to curb any spending during these highly uncertain times, but could I imagine a world with no bookstores?  Would I even want to?  Books, you see, give me hope.  My vision of heaven is October and a never-ending stack of books (and, of course, friends).  Books allow for escape and exploration.  Life will continue after the pandemic in books.

The fear has gripped many of us, I suspect.  I’m old enough to retire, but not well-off enough to do so.  Our house requires a two-person income at our level (highly educated, under-employed), and the pandemic rolls on.  I think of the Black Death—I’ve read about that too—and how history changed because of it.  In this pandemic we’re dying (all but the wealthiest) piece by piece.  The most vulnerable first, of course, but the middle class may well be in the sights.  The owner of the bookstore said he wasn’t sure how long he could hold out.  Just last year at this time I was participating in the Easton Book Festival that he’d organized.  I had a book-signing at the nearby Moravian Bookshop.  I can’t remember a time I felt so hopeful, knowing I had another book coming out, and if we survive long enough, another after that.  I really shouldn’t, but I’m in a bookstore.  I’ll buy one in hope that the future may just offer a place to keep it.


Open a Book

With all the talk of premature “reopening” one development does seem to bring cheery news.  Germany and Italy, it is reported, are considering experimenting with opening bookstores.  Bookstores, at least in the United States, tend not to be crowded except around the winter holidays.  More importantly, they are places to go to find printed knowledge—not the internet knowledge that shifts by the second.  This cheers me because it shows that people still trust books.  With all the talk of going digital, which is okay, we sometimes forget that the human experience of reading has, for the last several centuries, been book based.  I’m as guilty as the next guy for looking trivial stuff up on the internet.  I always feel uncertain, however, if I don’t check it against a book.

Nielsen, the people who used to bring you television ratings, also track books at point of sales.  One of their findings is that books have remained solid sellers throughout the pandemic.  Granted, a lot of them are children’s books—it’s one way to entertain the stay-at-home kids—but several categories have fared well.  Books on staying in shape, and survival, and how to do things we used to know how to do (planting a garden, or making bread) have boomed.  I suspect people have felt some comfort in reading.  Books are reassuring.  They’re a sign of normalcy.  Having said all that, I’m not sure I’m ready to go back into a physical bookstore just yet.  Infection rates have slowed down around here, but they’re still high.  And other people who miss bookstores as much as I do might form a crowd.

Bookshop.org has arisen to give back to independent bookstores.  Yes, the prices aren’t what you’ll find on Amazon, and yes, you’ll pay for shipping, but they support your local indies.  This doesn’t seem to be a bad idea during a crisis.  One of the more charming aspects of the Lehigh Valley is the number of bookstores in the area.  I am looking forward to an “all clear” when we can emerge like post-apocalyptic survivors and stand blinking in the sun.  In my vision of that day, there will be birds singing and trees leafed out.  The air will be clean.  We’ll stare at our neighbors, assured that if we accidentally brush against them, or stand too close in line, we won’t do so at the risk of exposure.  I’ll stand there for some time acclimating to the new reality.  And then I’ll head for a bookstore.


New Habits

We are a family of readers.  Still, during the pandemic things change.  Not only is my wife working from home, my daughter is also here, doing the same.  This seemed to be the most logical thing, given that her housemates weren’t working from home, and who needs pointless potential exposure?  What became clear to all of us is that pandemic normal was actually close to our normal normal.  I mean, I don’t get out as much on weekends now, but other than the panic, Monday through Friday are pretty much the same as always.  Awake obscenely early.  Start work before sunrise.  Finish work, eat supper, go to bed.  The real change has been on my reading habits.

When things are “normal” (if that word can ever apply to me), during the time my wife drives home from work, I read.  I also read in the morning and before going to bed, but that latter doesn’t last long if I’m tired.  Now, however, we’re all here and after work is over family time begins.  I don’t begrudge this for a nanosecond, but it does affect my reading habits.  You see, self-isolation has been a way of life for me long before the pandemic began.  Not necessarily because I wanted it this way, but I have always tried to preserve time for books.  I don’t have the reading time of a professor, so I have to carve it out of personal time.  In situations like this even bibliophiles have to admit that people are more important than books.  Still, with only essential businesses open, and Amazon delivering only essential items, books have fallen between the cracks.  Some of us consider them essential.

My daughter said the other day that not being able to buy books was worrying.  Indeed it is.  We’re pretty well stocked here for reading material.  I’ve got plenty of books I want to read, but I lack the time.  Also, one of my reading challenges specifies the particular types of books I need to target, including recent ones.  How am I to get them?  Our local library is closed.  As are the bookstores.  It’s beginning to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone—being isolated but not having access to new books.  At work they’re suggesting which television shows to binge watch during the long hours of enforced alone time.  Me, I standing in front of my bookshelves staring in wonder and indecision.  Pandemic or no pandemic, it is time to read.