Monday, November 29, 2010

the book of the year

A university press publishes a memoir that was written over one hundred years ago, containing material that has already been published in many other incarnations over the past century. The book is a heavy slab in a diabolically uncomfortable trim size. The prose is fragmentary, confusing, and is composed in a tiny, dense typeface. Though there is a small and mainly uninteresting black and white photo gallery, the vast bulk of the book has no graphic interest whatsoever. And over a third of it is scholarly apparatus.

In short, it would seem that everything has been done to make this book unappealing to the so-called general reader.

And yet, in many places, the Autobiography of Mark Twain is out-selling George W. Bush and most other nonfiction practitioners this year, and is the improbable must-have literary sensation of the season.

What gives? I’ll leave the deconstruction of the book, the man, and the zeitgeist to the cultural theorists. But two things about Twain mania make me very happy:

1) There is apparently a vastly underestimated population of sophisticated readers capable of dethroning the latest trendy, empty-headed zombie celebrities from the best seller lists.

2) If there is any remaining doubt about why this country desperately needs its university presses, with their commitment to big thinking, long-term publishing and scholarly excellence without regard to instant profitability, the University of California Press has proven it beyond a doubt. Every book-lover owes them hearty thanks.

The Autobiography itself is wonderful, and this can’t hurt. Twain’s obsessive interest in the commercial aspects of the writing life has a particular contemporary resonance, and there is indeed a laugh on every page. But many smart, wonderful, worthy books flow from serious presses every year and head straight to the remainder bin.

And it doesn’t hurt that the book has a to-die- for back-story: it’s like unearthing a time capsule.

And it hurts even less that the New York Times and all the major media who take their cue from it elevated the book to front page status. But the reporting was after the fact, so appearing on the bestseller list can’t just be put down to Times buzz.

Speaking of buzz, and in the spirit of the book, which is nothing if not a 400-page collection of digressions, I will digress.

I remember from bookselling days the “second wave” customers who clamored for particular titles once the buzz had achieved a certain threshold. These customers were often odd ducks, since the intensity of their need for the book (“What do you mean you’re out of it? How is that possible?”) seemed disproportionate to their apparent interest in the actual content.

We can assume that once the natural Twain audience has been satisfied, this secondary market will kick in. They are perhaps not so interested in Mark Twain per se, as in the chance to give or own a big important book that has been anointed by leading cultural gatekeepers.

One key element of this secondary buzz economy is scarcity. While sales are certainly lost when a book like this is out of stock, it’s important to also factor in the elusive but potentially added sales generated by the die-hards who will not rest until they find a copy. The more bookstores they go to, the more determined they are to get it. Every bookseller who has ever worked a holiday season is familiar with this phenomenon. It’s nice to see such a deserving title be the beneficiary of it this year.

Having seen the presses I work for chase demand and struggle with print run decisions on successful titles, I have great sympathy for California’s dilemma. It’s no consolation to the frontline booksellers, who have to deal with disappointed customers who may end up buying online. But risk and guesswork are involved in every stock decision a bookstore makes. When we actually have a bona fide, authentic, grassroots success, it pains me to hear people lambasting the damn publisher for not keeping up with demand. Then again, come to think of it, how Mark Twain of them!

Anyway, there’s an obvious solution to this scarcity problem but it’s one I don’t think my bookseller friends would like too much: e-books. One of the many unremarked upon implications of an increasingly digital book world is that “out of stock” would essentially be a quaint, antique, bad old days memory. On the one hand, hooray! On the other hand, careful what you wish for. What would a book world without scarcity-fueled secondary buzz be like?

As I wrestled my copy of the autobiography into some tolerable physical position the other evening- don’t even try holding it open with one hand- I finally surrendered to the idea that reading Twain’s memoir was not going to be physically easy. From time to time- horrors!- I even wondered if it might be easier to read on a gadget.

But there were so many passages of transcendent beauty, so many chapters during which I lost track of time and stopped paying attention to the brick on my chest, I began to not notice my reading platform. I was too lost in the prose.

This seems like an argument for the printed book in spite of it all. But it also seems like the sort of experience the reader of the digital edition of the book might be having. I can imagine her saying “Twain is so good I stopped noticing that I’m staring at a screen.”

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