Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Reviews: Daly, Zaid

Hey, remember when we used to talk about books around here? Appearances notwithstanding, I have actually been reading the darn things this year, though not at the pace to which I have been accustomed. There are some great ones in the "done" pile, so I'd like to dish on 'em before they go the way of Billy Collins' quadratic equation.

In approximate order of reading, since the last installment:

The House Without the Door
by Elizabeth Daly
(Felony & Mayhem, 2006)

The publishing arm of mystery bookstore extraordinaire Partners & Crime turns out another winner with this reissue from 1942. The ALP, recalling my fascination with the trippy Christie-meets-colonialism Devil in the Bush, picked this one up for me, and I proceeded to once again sink into the strange alternate universe of pre-War America. The oddest and most interesting thing about this book, aside from the genuinely unexpected revelation of the villain at the end, is realizing how much people in our own city in the 1940s spoke a foreign language, or at least a highly inflected dialogue. When is the last time you heard someone refer to "nerves", aside from getting on them? What could the description "he hasn't a nerve in his body" possibly mean? -- is he insensitive? cowardly? fearless? paralyzed? Not to mention the fact that the plot hinges on a lady acquitted of a notorious murder, but so paralyzed by societal approbation that she daren't leave the house -- hard to imagine in our no-publicity-is-bad-publicity world.

The most enjoyable aspect of the book, however, may be the amateur detective, Henry Gamadge (whose earlier adventures I'll have to look up), and his happy marriage and unusual acquaintances. It reminds me a little of my beloved Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy, but with a little less slapstick and a little more of the disturbing and exhausting side of sleuthing. A good absorbing read for the cold winter evenings we had earlier this year, and a highly recommended addition to the Felony and Mayhem stable.

So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance
by Gabriel Zaid
(Paul Dry Books, 2003)

I picked this up because it was a staff pick at my hometown Brooklyn store BookCourt, and I'm so grateful to those fine booksellers for bringing it to my attention. I took this book with me to Winter Institute, and talked about it to everyone I met (I still owe Bookseller Chick a copy -- one of these days, I promise!) It's a series of short essays by a Mexican writer who is apparently "widely published throughout the Spanish-speaking world," but whom I had never heard of. And it turns out that his insights on the world of books, reading, publishing, and bookselling are some of the most original and vital I have read in years.

Here's the first passage I marked in the book, the first one that set me aflame with book nerdy excitement:

"Book people (authors and readers, publishers and booksellers, librarians and teachers) have a habit of feeling sorry for themselves, a tendency to complain even when all is well. This makes them see as a failure something that is actually a blessing: The book business, unlike newspapers, films, or television, is viable on a small scale. In the case of books, the economic threshold, or the minimum investment required to gain access to the market, is very low, which encourages the proliferation of titles and publishing houses, the flourishing of various and disparate initiatives, and an abundance of cultural richness. If the threshold of viability were as high as it is for the mass media, there would be less diversity, as is true of mass media. Let us suppose that only one of every hundred titles were published, but for readerships the size of film audiences. What advantage would that scenario offer? None at all, because those titles are already being published today: they're our bestsellers. On the other hand, the ninety-nine books not of interest to a huge public would be lost. The film business requires the elimination of 99 percent of all possible films. The book business doesn't. If the book is appropriate for a broader public, it can reach a broader public. If it isn't, it may still be viable, as long as it is of interest to a few thousand readers."


Holy cow! A different way of thinking about small book sales, eh? It's the "long tail" without the jargon: an intellectual thinking about the market in language that make it seem actually worth our time as readers.

It's possible that I've fallen in love with Zaid's book because he reflects my kooky optimism about the future of books, but his is an intelligent and tempered optimism. He has plenty of negative things to say, too: about the problems with publisher returns, about the difficulty of getting the right book to the right readers (and booksellers' sometime failure to do so, as so much of the responsibility rests with them). But what sticks in my mind are the inspiring ideas and images that thread through all of the essays: that books are part of a great cultural conversation, enhanced by the rich diversity of all those small audiences; that the books in our lives are like constellations that we build for ourselves, star by star, link upon link.

If you happen to visit McNally Robinson this month, you'll see So Many Books on our own staff picks display. It has passed from one reader to another, and will pass on to others: one way of getting the right book to the right reader. This is one I'll be evangelizing about for years to come; though it's a brainy little nonfiction paperback, it's truly one of those books that could make you fall in love with books all over again.



Out of time for this morning, and since I'm headed off to a NAIBAhood gathering on Friday, you may not see me again this week. In the meantime, tell me what book or conversation or phrase made you think about books, reading, or publishing in a new way.