Thursday, April 21, 2005

Best Cellars

I work in an independent book store and very often I’m asked to recommend titles. This can be fun as I can hype my latest favorite book or author and turn a person on to something they’ve never read before. Other times it’s a battle of the stereotypes: guy books, boy books, best sellers = good. My diplomatic attempts to dissuade the customer from limiting themselves to pigeon holes is usually met with blank stares. For the record, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “guy book” or “boy book”. I do think, however, there is “chick lit” and “women’s lit”; the former being light, insulting and pink and the latter being heavy, depressing, and mauve.

The third stereotype I trip over all the time is the notion that best sellers are good. “I mean, if so many people bought it, it must be good, right?” No. Often I’m accused of being a snob for decrying this idea. Just because it sells a lot, doesn’t make it good; just means it sold. Moreover, as this article from Saturday Night points out, best seller lists (AKA: BS Lists…uh huh you got it) come with an agenda. The numbers are often merely educated speculation on what booksellers would like to see walk out the door. This isn’t new or local. In his book Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999, Michael Korda shows how consistent lists have been for as long as they’ve had lists: self-help, religion, blockbusters. Yet, the canon rarely makes “The List”.

This begs the question, what would I put on my Best Seller list. As with music, it really depends on mood. I have to be in the mood for a tome, or science fiction, or feeling chancy, or in dire need of a belly laugh. Right now, David Mitchell’s second book, number9dream, sits by my bed half-way read. I loved his latest, Cloud Atlas, so I scoured the public library for another. He’s a master at structure. Sounds all literary, right? But as my scriptwriting instructor once taught me, every story has a beginning middle and end, but not necessarily in that order. So Mitchell is on my list. Unfortunately, he’s gathering dust on the New Book table at the store.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is on my list. Brilliantly funny and tender. He’s simply a great writer who took me into the head of a kid who turns out to be a hermaphrodite. Smart and human. So naturally I’m eager to read Virgin Suicides which inspired well deserved Oscar winning scriptwriter, Sophia Coppola to direct the film of the same name. Speaking of virgin, both were the respective artists’ debuts. Man, if you’re gonna lose it, what a way to go.

Simon Winchester makes it on my list, particularly The Meaning of Everything. In it, he documents the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Dry? Not a chance. Funny, detailed, and wholly readable.

Anything by Terry Prachett, Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore and Jeanette Winterson make it on the list, too. Manda Scott’s Boudica series is a fun read (lots of Roman entrails at the business end of a Celtic sword), so I’ll hold a place for her. Walt Whitman sits high on the list. And my number one spot is reserved for The Bard. With all their talented wordplay, no one holds a candle to Ol’ Willy.

Did they sell tons? Who knows. Better still who cares. An emotional response equals good art. Did you weep? Did you laugh? Did you beg for mercy? Excellent! That’s what matters.

1 comment:

jb said...

Hi Carol, me reading your blog is like eavesdropping on your phone onversations, if I was your roommate. I should read the bookstore entry to my mum, who is in an older-ladies book group. She scorns the mauve,which some people choose, yet they always seem to pick 'female' books. Except recently she chose "The Polished Hoe" which they all disliked. hope you are well, Juliane