From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.
Author Jeff Deutsch is the director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago. In 2019 the Co-op was incorporated as the first not-for-profit bookstore whose sole purpose is bookselling. I’ve never been there, though it sounds fantastic, but then I’m an easy sell. For me, every bookstore is fantastic. One of my favorite things about living in the Seattle area is the wealth of great new and used bookstores scattered all over the city and suburbs. I can be found out there fairly often myself, browsing, if I can manage it, for hours at a time, and buying as many books as I can afford plus maybe 5-10% because if you have to over-spend on something, damn well better make it books. Anyway, Jeff Deutsch clearly shares that passion for bookstores and has taken a surprisingly deep dive into the book browser’s, reader’s, and bookseller’s lifestyle in what is actually a short little book.
Though you might not find much in terms of writing advice here, I hope that we all share a love of books. Can anyone write a book who doesn’t love books? I don’t think so… anyway, I don’t think they should. Authors need to be readers first, and stay readers along the way. You might like audiobooks… okay by me. You might have a Kindle or other device packed with e-books… also okay by me. But this book and this post are for people who love, most of all, the physical object, found in the physical place.
I collect books, but even before that I bought books—lots of books—and if there’s a bookstore nearby you will find me there, so this was a book definitely meant for me.
In Praise of Good Bookstores is made up of five chapters, covering what the author has identified as the principle components, or responsibilities of good bookstores:
Here we’re treated to this bookseller’s categories of bookstore browsers, though he admits the list is “non-exhaustive.” I usually fall into the category of “the chef, who trusts their senses to help them identify the most delectable ingredients,” and am often, instead, “the general, who sees the stacks as a thing to be conquered,” but what I really want is to be “the idler, who just wants to while away the hours among books.” I’m sure you’ll find yourself in at least one of his categories.
I love all bookstores, but big bookstores with lots of different books are always my favorites. This bit had me nodding along:
Of the 28,000 titles the Seminary Co-op sold in 2019, nearly 17,000 were single copies. In other words, each of those 17,000 books was sought by a unique reader. Emerson’s “extraordinary relative power” of books to intoxicate us and no other is rendered visible by this number. Simply put, book discovery can’t be mass-produced; it is a highly individualized endeavor. As Shils points out, it is the availability of many slow-moving lines that makes a good bookshop. This means that, from a purely profit-driven perspective, the good bookstore is bound to stock books it shouldn’t. And that a good portion of those 17,000 books would not have been discovered that year if they weren’t on our shelves.
That would have been a shame.
Here Deutsch gets into the distinction between something with a sort of utilitarian value and something, like a book, that contains within it an expansiveness far beyond the physical components used to construct it. What is the value of an idea? And especially an idea that travels to us, person-to-person, through potentially enormous expanses of geography, time, and culture?
I don’t continue to derive pleasure from—nor even recall—what I had for breakfast last week, much less last year, but I can tell you what I was reading when I took my first bookselling job in 1994: Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Goneby James Baldwin. The list price of the 1969 mass-market paperback edition, which my mother bought soon after it was published, was $1.25. In 1994, when I read her copy, the value would have been $5.23—or about the price of a couple of slices of pizza with a friend. As it turns out, Baldwin’s novel now costs $17, which, had I purchased it in 1994 for $17 would have been as valuable an expenditure as I made that year.
A whole other post, I think, unpacking the rising cost of books in adjusted dollars, but the value proposition remains strong. In the end, I absolutely agree with Deutsch when he writes, “The most important things in the world seem impossible to measure.”
I’ll just leave this chapter with…
There is something solemn about mornings, when the world is quiet and the shop is calm. The books are illuminated by a dim natural light. When empty, the bookstore is filled with community—with aspiration both communal and individual—and when full, the bookstore often maintains a quiet usually obtainable only in solitude. The arguments and enthusiasms contained in the volumes on the shelves create their own communion with the individual reader, while also providing a mechanism for discourse. It is a public square, no less articulate for most often being mute.
We readers have felt the companionship of books, and many of us have found ourselves at a loss to explain to the underliterate among us the power and nourishment we receive from our books.
…next to which, in the margin, I wrote: “oh hell, yeah!”
In this chapter, Deutsch quotes Milan Kundera:
Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature?
For me, time slows down in a good bookstore, like orbiting too close to a black hole, and I wouldn’t be at all upset if I could never escape.
Finally, in the epilogue, Deutsch answers, at least to my satisfaction, the simple question, why books?
In some way, we are all wandering people, wandering in search of our communities, in search of ourselves. Books and the landscapes they create, both as objects and as mechanisms to deliver the hopes, dreams, moods, principles, and wisdom contained between their covers, are exceptional tools to cultivate our own interior landscape, which, after all, is our portable and permanent homeland. And so we may understand, shape, and immerse ourselves in the external world, creating what Robinson calls a sense of the possible, that we might become a more generous community.
Now, go to a good bookstore and buy In Praise of Good Bookstores.
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