Half My Life In a Bookstore

Please note: for this sequence of events (and thoughts) to take its intended effect, listen to “Decks Dark” by Radiohead. On repeat, if possible. Failing that, “#41” by Dave Matthews Band works pretty well as well.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have to have something to focus on when I go elsewhere. So when I went to Ashland this afternoon, I figured I’d see if any other Zadie Smith books (presently reading White Teeth) were to be found at the Book Exchange on Pioneer Street. I walked in and took notice of the classics shelves near the front door. As I am a bookseller by trade and an aspiring author at heart, I feel that heart go out to these old tomes on which rest the literary basis for what works make up the loam that is the (physical, in print, of course) fare at your local bookstore. Dickens, Twain, Frazer’s Golden Bough. Both fiction and non were well represented. A few stood out that I’d like to take on at some point in the future. Namely Norman Mailer’s Gospel According to the Son. Which I promptly pulled from the shelf and thumbed through, reading the first page or two to no avail. I put it back. Maybe I won’t check that one out. William Burroughs caught my eye and as my favorite author (William Gibson) lists him as a primary influence, I figured I’d give his works a once over. I noticed his book My Education. Upon realizing that it was a book of his (literal) dreams, I was again inspired to continue writing and eventually publishing (here’s a list of the dreams I could recall up 'til 2013). I placed that one back on the shelf as well and seeing nothing else in the classics shelf, elected to make my way to the fiction area and to Ms. Smith in particular to see if there was anything else by her that I needed. When I’m in the throes of a new author, I seek to learn all I can about them and their oeuvre.

Published in 2000 to wide acclaim, Zadie Smith’s debut novel tells the story (thus far) of a middle-aged man who gets another lease on life after trying to end said life while parked outside the shipping lane of a halal (Islam for “kosher”) butcher’s shop whose proprietor will have none of his trying to upset and unseat his daily routine. Three chapters in it’s turning out to be quite a read; I’m enjoying it immensely. In much the same way as the Dickenses and Twains of the old (publishing) world paved the way for their predecessors, the post-modern crop of bright young things owes much to Smith’s novel conventions.

As the title of this post might suggest, I have indeed worked half my life in a bookstore and so I could appreciate the placement of the classics where they were. I have, have to respect ideas that have been able to survive for hundreds of years (or more). But most of the dreck that lay beyond the foyer of the place was not only familiar to me, but eminently dismissible. I endeavor to read White Teeth between Spring and Summer term because it not only won two different (prestigious) “first novel” awards and has survived—i.e. remained in print—for sixteen years. Understand that for post-modernity, that’s no small feat. I should add that when it was released in paperback, there were four different cover colors. Mine was the tangerine orange. There was a pea green, a sky blue and then a red (more of a vermillion, really). Upon arriving at the ’S’s, I see that they indeed have White Teeth (in the red variation) and feel a bit of pride (through the “transitive property”, I suppose) in knowing that I’m reading something not only is still in print, but that a used bookstore has in stock (another distinction, of sorts). I plucked it from the bottom shelf and noticed that, for a red copy (as I briefly considered buying it to send to my brother), I’d have to pay a dollar more than I did at the used bookstore from which I procured it in Medford earlier this week. I thought better of it as I already told him I’d send it to him when I was done. Oh well. Orange is one of my favorite colors anyways.

As a bookseller, I can show you different titles that share the same stock photo. I can arrange authors in a spectrum of fiction genres and tropes and relate books to one another in ways that aren’t immediately discernible. After a while, one begins to see patterns to the publishing world. The phrase "by turns" has made its way through the cover-blurb scene and is now on its way out, just so you know. And it’s one thing to be picked up by even a minor publishing house. But when once gets that viral exposure and then makes it to the bestseller list, they’ve essentially “made it”. But then there’s that poignant feeling of failure when one updates the weekly bestsellers and removes the longstanding title for placement in its home section. The feeling comes back when once the bookseller makes to return to the publisher a former bestseller for lack of sales. Please understand, to have a book published is a heady and high honor. But just like anything in this world, the fifteen minutes of fame will indeed come to an end. Best to have something unique, something viable and fresh. If, in the case of Zadie Smith and her White Teeth, you are able to hold out for sixteen years, more power to you. Keep writing either way.

What happened next was remarkable. The them of “white” and “teeth” as well as “orange” and “red” began to stand out. Before I begin, let me just say that, as orange comes after red in the spectrum, it wasn’t always that way for me. As a kid, whenever I’d get a new box of crayons or colored pencils, I would arrange them in a spectrum order that began with white and then moved to yellow, followed by orange then red. If you recall, the colors of the rainbow begin with red first and then orange. When I realized the correct color order (ROY G. BIV), something deep got corrected in me. I mean, if a man cannot order his colors correctly, what good is he? I look wistfully on my childish spectrum and the colors orange and red (and yellow) hold a special place in my heart as they were misaligned for years. This memory-module was activated in me upon seeing the red cover of White Teeth, knowing that I’d gotten an orange one. So when I stood up and turned around to the other side of the aisle and noticed The Whiteness of Bones by Susanna Moore (complete with orange spine) laying flat atop the rest of the books lining the shelf, I took a double take. I then quickly shelved it in the open space, like a gap between one’s front teeth.

I decided to go check out Science Fiction to see what they had of Gibson and was again greeted by the recurring theme. The title Bones of the Earth by Gilbert stood out next to the space that very well may have been the space from which I pulled the British copy of Gibson’s latest earlier this year. It was as if nothing had changed. I then went over to the graphic novels and saw the Bone series (in both black-and-white—its original printing, as well as the newer, colorized version) by Jeff Smith (no relation, as far as I know). Having read the colorized version, I could never go back to the black and white edition, classic as they are. It was by this time that Radiohead’s new song “Decks Dark” had shuffled on to my phone and as it’s the song I enjoy most from their new album A Moon Shaped Pool, I elected to put it on repeat.

Back in the music section, I noticed actor and comedian Stephen Fry’s Complete and Utter History of Classical Music and briefly remarked to myself that Morrissey had written a book about James Dean for which he is not remembered (The Smiths anyone?). It took me back to my ambitions that were awakened fifteen minutes prior looking at Burroughs book on dreams. When one endeavors to publish, to hang their future hopes and dreams, of fame and riches, upon that one book and fail to see that it speaks to a niche, they aren’t doing themselves any favors. I can’t say that they didn’t know they wouldn’t be remembered for their respective musical histories, just that the things that take so much time and effort on our part tend to fall by the wayside, unnoticed. Did you know that Fry’s Jeeves costar Hugh Laurie wrote a novel back in the mid-2000s (The Gun Seller)? It came and went. Best to have numerous irons in the fire, then. A James Dean biography (c. 2000) by Donald Spoto stood out as I continued to peruse. No mention of Morrissey in its index. There are, however, lights that never go out. My copy of the 33 1/3 series of album reviews profiling Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II was here. As I’ve already got that one, I felt warmth (pride) but no need to repurchase it.

So many authors have come and gone (both from the shelves and in my mind). It’s during the downtimes of my life that I look to read what I deem worth it. White Teeth is a perfect example of that. However, one of those authors would be David Mitchell, another is Patrick McGrath. While both authors were represented upon returning to the aforementioned aisle in the fiction section, none of the titles on hand spoke to me. Do you ever get the feeling that you want to read (watch, listen to) something only to find that maybe it wasn’t what you expected or desired? It felt good to sense the erstwhile feelings for those two authors return to dormancy, if die.

I read David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge two elections ago and have since noticed him and his books. He was represented in the fiction section (by a novel I wasn’t necessarily inclined to read) but also in the graphic novel area. However, upon further inspection the title bearing the name “David Mamet” in fact was authored under the pseudonym “David Mamet” by one Gwen Parry Branch. It was surreal.

I continued to notice the orange (and the red) books. All the Idiot’s Guides, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Penguin-printed Last American Man. Tom Peters’ blog compilation The Little Big Things, a 500+ page tome outlining the theme of “Excellence” as applied to business and life. I sat cross-legged on the floor looking through it to determine if it was worth purchasing. My stomach rumbled as I noticed Sam Keen’s (red) Fire In the Belly. It was time to go. I made my way up front and inquired as to their policy on buying used books before making the final decision on Little Big Things. I decided to get it as I emerged from the poetry section only to come face-to-face with Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a red novel from the early 2000’s. It seemed that—as long as I wasn’t thinking about it—the theme of red and orange and teeth and bones continued to stand out. I can’t say that there is anything resembling a mystical sort-of “book sense” that I have and employ subconsciously whenever I enter a book store or shop. But as much as I’ve been around books, I can tell you that it’s unusual to notice the things I did in the way I did today.

In closing, I remember Peters’ book from when it was released but never took the time to thumb through it. He says that he has (at time of press) over 1700 blog posts. That’s more than twice what I have for mine. And while I am willing to take inspiration and encouragement from any and every writer that has gone before, something about this book spoke to me. Perhaps it was the fact that I want to publish my own compilation but was flagging with respect to the idea that a collated and bound volume of my own posts seems like something no one would want to buy let alone read. His book (in bright, neon orange), gave me inspiration to keep going.

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