If there is one thing the editor of the Catholic Review of Books is obsessed about it is bookstores. He doesn’t only obsess over them for sake of the books he wishes to read, but he is fascinated by them as sociological statements. Expect several essays to appear on the subject of the bookstore in time to come.
My visits to Canada’s sole big box store book store is always a time of amusement, bemusement, happiness and dismay. Although I am talking about a Canadian store, I don’t imagine I would feel any differently about the US equivalents.
I love books. I love learning. I love the written word almost regardless of the subject to which it is directed. I spend most of my time in the Christianity, history and biography sections; surprisingly little in fiction/literature; I also enjoy the philosophy and poetry/literary theory sections. I never go to the self-help, cookbook or bestseller shelves. When you prize something so greatly – and here I mean the acquisition of knowledge – you cannot help but form definite opinions on things relating to it and be quite prickly with regard to how you feel it is being treated by others.
Generally speaking, the people who work in these stores aren’t your rank-and-file idiots, although not generally scholars either. They are about the least you would expect from someone working in retail, if not a bit more than that. I can speak with all due humility about rank-and-file idiots because I have myself been one: one time I worked in the plumbing department at a building supply store. There’s no shame in it, it’s just bad for business. The clerks are obviously told to take interest in books when they are dealing with customers. It shows. And that’s good.
But I don’t want to talk about the store itself here as much as I want to talk about the books themselves. I’ve written before about the poor offerings customary at these stores. Now I want to talk a little bit about what makes for a good book (or a bad book.)
It is my opinion that perhaps 80% of the books that are written need not to have been written, and I am being quite liberal here. ‘Need’ is a particularly ambiguous term. I will here define it as something that in any way has the capacity to make someone better for having read it. But even ‘poor literature’ can be good – like sappy religious literature that is in some sense inspiring. Poorly constructed fiction can be good too, in that some ‘uneducated’ pallets might enjoy it – children, for instance – and be edified by it.
Books today are more driven by commercial factors than ever today. Despite the digitization of life, books still constitute a huge market. For instance, in the relatively modest market that is Canada, in 2012, over 50 million printed copies were sold, which made almost a billion dollars. Big money can be made. The Harry Potter brand is valued at about $15 billion, which includes nearly half a billion books sold. A mere fraction of that would be still be very lucrative.
So, how to make money from books? – ask the writers and publishers. Even publishers and writers that are interested in education, edification, evangelization, and entertainment still need to worry about profitability. In my field of Augustinian Studies, one will note that every few years a new edition of Confessions is released while others of his books have still not yet been translated into English. Why? Confessions makes money. Professors use it in their courses. And yet not one of the translation made in the last thirty years has been in any sense required. Many of them are good, believe me, but necessary? – no.
Money effects what is written and how it is published or presented. I’ve noticed that some old books are slightly updated or revised to make them appear either new or better. They do it with toothpaste, so why not with books? Today I was going to purchase a copy of Epictetus’ Handbook (Enchiridion) which was published with the title “Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness” (see illustration). But as I am no expert on Epictetus, I wasn’t sure what I would be getting here, so I didn’t take the risk by buying it. I don’t like abridgments and there was no real indication from this book itself whether this was the full text or not. Judging from the Oxford University edition, the Handbook is a very small text and so this version likely contains the whole of it, but you can get it in an Oxford U P edition where it takes up but 30 pages. In Art of Living, HarperOne makes a whole book out of it of 144 pages. It does this by enlarging the print and printing but one small paragraph per page. I call that a shameless money grab. Caveat emptor? Not if the Catholic Review of Books has anything to say about it!
A previous trip to the bookstore, in this case, with a pre-teen accompanying me, taught me that another great way to make money off of books is to do what they do with movies and TV: make another version of something that’s popular. And so we enter the realm of young reader dystopian fiction, which seems to consist in little more than reiterations of The Hunger Games. Earlier it was reiterations of Harry Potter and Twilight. Originality might pay off but there is far more risk involved. Hence, the endless stream of superhero movies.
Another way in which inflating profit deflates the quality of books lies with sham-scholarship. Take the most popular books on religion and those colorful and controversial aspects of history like Nazism. Sometimes these are one in the same: books on the Crusades, the inquisitions, ‘alternative Christianities,’ etc. Since I have spoken about this before I will just mention it here in passing. There are many great studies out there on these important topics. The problem with the bad ones (usually written in a larger font, with a provocative title and a tantalizing cover picture) is that they drown out the good ones.
And then there is an altogether special brand of book: the pointless, “here’s my unlearned opinion about some stuff” book. These are the kinds of books that airheads buy, or people buy for other people who either have no interests at all, whose interests defy description, or cannot think outside of the frame of pop culture. Examining Amazon’s bestsellers, one comes across “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” for instance, as well as a cookbook entitled, “Thug Kitchen.” Is one surprised to find among Amazon’s ‘Hot New Releases’ a book entitled “Effortless Healing”? One might also find listed there “Team Dog: How to Train Your Dog the Navy Seal Way,” “Everyday Supermodel,” “The Food Babe Way,” and “Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome.” I really don’t need to say anything about these, do I?
Have you ever wondered why used books stores are better than these big chain stores? I will tell you why: the absence of the pointless, “here’s my unlearned opinion about some stuff” books. Why are they absent? No one has yet considered them worthy of preserving. They are produced because they appeal to a certain type of superficial mind-seeking-depth but they have no staying power, no lasting appeal, since they have no quiddity, as the Scholastics might have said: they are not much more than random assortments of words.
Perhaps next time I’ll write about the pictures of people that appear on the covers of biographies. You know, pictures of people like Trudeau, Hillary Clinton, Einstein, and, yes, best of all, Steve Jobs.