Yesterday, I moderated a panel put on by the Book and Periodical Council. The session’s title was “What Rules Reading: Ranks or Reviews?” (I trust that frequent readers of this site will be able to divine on which side of the equation yr. humble correspondent falls.) While I was prepared for a healthy debate about diminishing review pages, the migration of criticism to an online environment and the concomitant rise of amateur “citizen” reviewers, precious little time was devoted to these issues. Instead, the panel focused more on the utility (or lack thereof) of bestseller lists in driving book sales.
In the course of the discussion, I floated the idea that bestseller lists created what are essentially self-fulfilling prophecies: if, as one of the panelists suggested, people consult bestseller lists to find out what books they should be reading in order to contribute to discussions around the water cooler at work, do such lists not simply create demand for books that are already selling in large(ish) numbers, leaving a whole raft of equally worthy (if not infinitely more worthy) books unnoticed by the general public? Ancillary to this, why do publishers and booksellers put all their effort into publicizing books that are already selling, as opposed to paying attention to other books that people might not be aware of due to budgetary restrictions for marketing, lack of visibility in bookstores, etc.?
The answer to these questions was illuminating. We’re all in the business of selling books, said one panelist, and if the bestsellers by people like Dan Brown are what the public wants, that’s what should be front and centre in bookstores. What interests me about this comment is not the idea that booksellers should heavily promote things that the public is already aware of; from a retail perspective it only makes sense to put your heavy hitters up front. (Although booksellers might want to take a cue from department store philosophy, which often counsels putting desirable items at the back of the store, so that customers have to walk past all sorts of other things they didn’t know they wanted in order to get to the one item they are actually looking for.) What interests me is the assumption, which I’ve come across with wearisome regularity, that books as products are equivalent to, say, toothpaste or dishwasher detergent.
This assumption is so wearisome, so apparently ingrained in our consumerist psyche that it prompted no challenge from the panelists or the audience, which was made up of publishers, librarians, and other industry players. It prompted no response from yr. humble correspondent, who should have had his wits about him. What I should have pointed out is that books are a product to be sold, and booksellers and publishers obviously need to make money to stay in business, which means moving units. But unlike toothpaste or dishwasher detergent, books are also cultural artifacts, records of our distinctly human heritage, and so should not (in the best of all possible worlds) be treated simply as line items on a P and L sheet. Books like The Lost Symbol and Twilight – the ones that frequently make the bestseller lists and find premium placement in bookstores – are entertaining diversions, but they are also flashes in the proverbial pan. What passes for today’s water cooler conversation will be forgotten next week, next month, or whenever the new big thing comes along. However, carefully crafted works of literature, works that often risk getting lost in the noise of our apparently insatiable blockbuster mentality, endure: why else are we still reading The Iliad, The Faerie Queen, or Dead Souls in 2009?
At their most sublime, the stories contained in works of literature speak to us about our common humanity, they help us understand how to be human. And that’s much more important than merely moving units.
Toronto’s Pages Books & Magazines closed its doors for the last time yesterday, 30 years to the day after it opened at the corner of Queen St. West and John St. Blog TO does a good job of summing up what the iconic indie bookseller’s disappearance means for the city:
The end of Pages is, ultimately, the end of the pre-digital counterculture that thrived on Queen West, before the chain stores and sushi joints, when good book and record stores were vital to the city’s loose but thriving Bohemia – the place where you went during the day, before the bars and bands and after-hour booze cans. As [proprietor Marc] Glassman talks about what he’s about to lose, it’s obvious that one of the things he’ll miss most of all is being a compere and matchmaker to that unruly community of writers, artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers, and journalists.
“I can’t tell you how many fantastic, beautiful, brilliant women I introduced to so many pretty okay guys,” he says with a grin.
For those Toronto denizens who face the prospect of being tossed to the maw of the Big Blue Monster with a kind of Beckettian resignation, there is one last blowout for Pages scheduled for September 8 at the Gladstone Hotel. It’s called The Afterword, which is appropriate, somehow.
It’s not a good day to be a book lover in Toronto. According to an e-mail press release that was sent out this morning, Pages Books & Magazines, the downtown institution that specialized in small press, cultural theory, avant-garde, and literary titles is shutting its doors as of August 31. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Pages’ debut on the corner of Queen and John Streets.
Skyrocketing rent is blamed for the closure, although the press release also mentions the character of the Queen Street neighbourhood, which is not what it was 30 years ago:
“When we opened on the corner of Queen and John 30 years ago, it was where artists lived and worked,” says proprietor Marc Glassman, who heads up the Queen West Business Improvement Association. “Now our neighbours are CTV, The Gap, and Club Monaco.”
Or, as NOW Magazine puts it:
The neighbourhood Pages will leave behind isn’t – and long hasn’t been – the one it helped forge. The store, which opened in 1979, is no longer part of a punk-inhabited art scene. The ’hood’s long been ultra-FCUK-ed.
Earlier this year, Pages received a six-month stay of execution when the landlord agreed not to raise the property’s rent, but that agreement expires at the end of August. Glassman had been scouting an alternate location for the store, but found nothing suitable. The loss of the alternative independent will be deeply felt by literary types in the city, who counted on Pages to stock the kind of edgy, idiosyncratic fare that big-box chain stores wouldn’t carry. Glassman says that he’s not ruled out reopening elsewhere should the opportunity present itself, but for now, it looks like the end of an era for the city.
Another Toronto-based institution, Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading, is also being shuttered, at least in its current incarnation. In a message on her site, Wilson said that after three years, she’s decided to wrap up her project in literary voyeurism, which has become a popular destination for online literary types. She plans to keep the site as a personal blog.
According to Wilson:
I’m renewing my efforts to craft a collection of microfiction loosely based on the over 300 sightings amassed here. This will be, I hope, the first in a series of such collections. I haven’t abandoned my novel; I’m simply allowing myself to own that this is voodoo that I do do (she said, doo doo) so well. That I should also enjoy writing it as much as I enjoy eating orange creamsicles and drinking french-pressed coffee is what makes life hella kinda cool.
The decision to shift focus comes a scant two months after expanding the site by bringing on writers from other parts of the country. Vancouver’s Monique Trottier, Montreal’s Saleema Nawaz, and Nova Scotia’s Ami McKay will publish their final Seen Reading posts in the first week of August.