The Tower of Biblioteca

“And books — she swallows like dumplings.”
— Sholem Aleichem

According to Bowker (the company that issues ISBN numbers), 316,480 new titles were produced in the United States in 2010 alone, which was up from 302,410 in 2009. That figure does not include the “non-traditional sector,” which includes print-on-demand and self-published books, which had increased 169% from the previous year to 2,776,260 titles in 2010. That’s more titles issued in 2010 than there were people living in the United States. Self-publishing has grown more than 375% since then.
Somebody caught on fire, but it isn’t sultry firefighter, Jane Coolwater . . . unless you count her fiery romance with the burn victim she just rescued.

Read whatever you want, but considering those numbers, is it really possible for the casual reader to connect with those authors best suited to them? Even the most devoted bibliophile must, out of pure necessity, breeze past dozens of bookstore titles without a second glance, never knowing which of them could have been life-changers. There are only so many books that one person can read in a lifetime, so many that will fit on a shelf. Few people can accommodate all of the recommendations from friends, family, colleagues, and well-meaning strangers into their busy schedules. Too many classics and “must-reads” serve more as cultural anchors, engendering a shared water cooler experience, rather than speaking to the intellectual and emotional needs of the individual.

Readers waste too much precious time sifting the wheat from the chaff, particularly when so much of the chaff is backed by savvy marketing campaigns. The fiction market really isn’t all that different from any other in that regard. Performers, like Justin Beiber or Kanye West, are just front men for their respective teams of producers, songwriters, lyricists, sound engineers, stage managers, etc. who are responsible for crafting the product and building the brand. The end product damn well better be palatable, because a huge amount of money goes into polishing the turd.

“I’m sensing things more clearly than I ever have in all of my life. I think that it is ‘you’ who should get out of his car and join me on this road to better understand the importance of the choices that we make in our lives.”

In an episode of The Book Group, a BBC television series, an aspiring author has just completed his first novel. At a meeting with a prospective publisher, he asks the editor what he thinks. “I think it’s not very good,” the editor replies after several significant pauses. “It’s bad. It’s really quite bad.” Following a thorough denunciation of the book, he goes on to say, “I think there’s a market for it. People who read a lot are by-and-large very stupid people. I mean, have you seen what’s on the bestseller’s list in this country?” He agrees to publish the book as yet another “affront to contemporary literature.”

It’s not about what’s “good,” but rather what sells. The strong surge in Young Adult fiction sales coincides with statistical evidence from the Literacy Project Foundation indicating that half of our country’s adult population would struggle to read a book written at a higher level. People want to read. The desire is evident, but we are a culture of readers rarely pushed to achieve past ninth-grade comprehension. Nearly half of American households neither read nor buy a single book in a year, not even weird sex tales about dinosaurs. We are #1 in war and #12 globally in reading how to wage it.

A person who “don’t like to read” is generally part of that passive audience who had a few not-so-great novels forced into their unwilling hands and then judged the whole of literature according to that standard. The same is true about all of us in terms of one thing or another. Whether it is a matter of time or inclination, few people are open-minded about everything. Socrates was famously quoted as saying, “I don’t like Mexican food,” to which Plato replied, “Well, then you have never tried Don Gilipollas!” It’s like that with books. Even when someone breaks down and accepts the recommendation, there is the chance that tastes will clash and the reluctant reader’s aversion becomes further entrenched.

Any problem can be solved by applying as much force as possible with no fear of overkill or collateral damage. If you see an obstacle, run at it full force, windmilling both arms and screaming. Understand, that this book was mostly written about keeping neighborhood cats off your lawn.

Of course, as an unsuccessful author (or emerging writer, depending on perspective), I have a vested interest in people trying new things and discovering new stories. I’d rather not be one of those writers who struggles his whole lifetime with depression and amazingly fun drinking binges only to publish a solitary book that may or may not be recognized as having literary merit a century after I’ve died in the gutter — oh, I just got it now, it’s penniless, not penis-less in the gutter. At least, that’s a relief!


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