Gothic Shoppers, if you haven’t yet read Jonathan Lethem’s front-page New York Times review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, do so immediately. Not only will you have the pleasure of being introduced to one of Latin America’s greatest writers (if you don’t already know his work), you’ll get to read a seriously good piece of critical writing.
What’s impressive to me about Lethem’s review is that he’s able to be so eloquent about Bolaño’s book despite the fact that he’s clearly ga-ga over it. When I encounter a book that knocks me out that way, I practically lose the power of speech (My co-workers may wish to contradict me on this, but for now I’ll run with it.)
Now, as booksellers, we pride ourselves on being able to find the one book that’s the right fit for the customer in front of us. The more difficult a request is, the happier we are. The perfect book for a one-armed leftist gun-nut with a soft spot for kittens? Check. A birthday present for a vegan teenager with a fondness for vampires, speed-metal, and needlepoint? Got you covered. We live for these kinds of questions. One of my favorite bookselling memories is of working at the now defunct Europa Books in Austin, TX, with some seriously killer booksellers. A customer wandered in and asked, “What’s the saddest book ever published?” We all stared at him for about five seconds before telling him to come back in a week. Thus began a raging debate among staff, customers, people on the street, booksellers in other stores, in other towns. I don’t now remember what book we settled on, though I do remember arguing at various points for both Remains of the Day and Dirty Work. Heck, I don’t even remember if the customer ever came back into the store. What I do remember is the joy of trying to find The Right Book For That Guy. That’s one of the great pleasures of bookselling.
But sometimes I’ll read a book that just floors me, and the right book/right customer thing falls by the wayside. From that point on, there is no right book except for THE book. I go from being a bookseller to being an evangelist, and as I mentioned before, I lose my ability to talk intelligently. All I can do is put the book in someone’s hand and say: READ THIS. If asked why: BECAUSE I SAID SO.
We’ve all felt like this from time to time, I’d guess, and not always about books. When I first saw Soderberg’s The Limey, or first heard Duke Ellington’s Stompy Jones, I picked up the phone and called everyone I knew to suggest (demand) that they become converts like me. When I do get that feeling about a book, though, my need to get people to read it is somehow more urgent than what I experience with a movie or a piece of music. Maybe it’s because I’ve made it my career to get books into people’s hands, or maybe it’s because of a sense I have that any book, without a little help, could go entirely unread before going out of print.
The last book I felt this way about was Steve Erickson’s Zeroville (my review can be found here). I picked up the book purely because it was published by one of my favorite independent presses, Europa Editions (no connection to the aforementioned store). I wasn’t ten chapters into it before I was forcing it into the hands of my good friend and fellow bookseller David Felton. Together, we forced that book on as many people as possible, usually –though not always—with great results. We were manic over the book. We drove our friends nuts. We were in the grip of a fever and hellbent on contagiousness. We tried to be as eloquent as Lethem is in his review, but the best we came up with was: THIS BOOK IS AWESOME.
I guess what I’m saying, Gothic Shoppers, is that it’s possible you’ll walk into our store at some point and see a wild-eyed bookseller, clutching a hardback, coming at you like the freaking Ancient Mariner. He may be babbling incoherently, gesturing wildly, or just running around you in circles. Don’t be afraid; it’s okay. He’s just got a book he needs you to read.
BECAUSE HE SAID SO.