Sunday, February 8, 2015

memory and loss as the wheel turns in the book business

Maybe it’s just in the nature of dinosaurs to think we are indispensable.  But as a wave of leave-taking sweeps over the book industry, I’m reminded nearly every day that we’re not just losing great people, but also their institutional memory.

A sharp bookseller with ordinary memory will recognize good customers by name and recall the last few books they bought.  Not to mention arcane details like ISBN prefixes and the quirks of publisher co-op policies.

The institutional memory operates at a higher level.   It records slow-moving changes in tastes, dips deftly into a deep pool of author and title knowledge, and remembers how the latest subject fad turned out the last time there was a bubble for it.  Typically, there’s a broad scope awareness of the book world born of decades of interaction with publishers, authors, other booksellers.

By definition, it takes years to develop institutional memory, and it’s not just a skill that can be learned by simply trying hard.    

Many of the sharpest institutional memories are housed in the heads of the visionaries who opened stores in the 60s and 70s because they couldn’t imagine a career in the world of business- maybe the last generation that didn’t worship money.

Younger booksellers are stepping up at Indies all over North America, bringing energy, digital smarts and their own kind of wisdom to the industry.  A decade ago I was pretty pessimistic that the book business would survive the passing of the dinosaurs.  But having worked with some of these twenty and thirty-somethings, it’s clear that they will survive our departure.  Yet it will take years for them to rebuild the store memory that resides in the brains and hearts of the old timers. 
When I pitch Helen Vendler’s wonderful collection of essays this month (The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar), I refer buyers to her previous essay collections for hints on how this one will do.  Booksellers who instantly go to their computers to see how they did with those titles often find that books published in 1980 and 1989 don’t show up.  (And you weren’t alive then, I sometimes grimly think to myself.)
But the bookseller with the long memory (and a dozen lovely people immediately come to mind here) will immediately recall these books, and the selling of them, without reference to screens.

When MIT Press releases a new edition of the absolutely transformative Bauhaus, first published in 1969, the long memories see the book in the mind’s eye, and recall its fifty year life in the bookstore.

One of the most important books on the spring Harvard list is a deeply felt memoir by a human rights activist lawyer- John Sifton’s Violence All Around.  The book stands on its own merits, but it seems relevant to me to point out his family connections: his mother, Elizabeth Sifton, is a legendary FSG editor of enormous stature; his grandfather, the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, needs no introduction.

Or so I thought.  Both of those names drew blanks with my buyers until I presented the book to Les Kreyer- another legend- at Follett last week.  Les immediately appreciated how these two names would have influenced the author, and made the book more interesting.

Les is the quintessential old school bookman- erudite, with sophisticated interests, yet someone you’d be happy to have the proverbial beer with.  When I pitched another book on the spring list, Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening, “the first dissertation drawn in comic form”, he compared it to the way Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was received in 1918.  Not that Les was around in 1918, but institutional memory!

Maybe I’m reading too much Modiano and Sebald lately, but I’m keenly aware of ghosts, transience, and loss.  We’re on the cusp of losing a generation of book people.  The young whip-smart staff now running Seminary Coop in Chicago (and other stores) has access to tools we never dreamed of to make bookselling profitable.  But it’s the handling of books physically, the “shelf awareness” that comes from touching and reading the books and engaging customers about them, that’s at least as important in building memory as blips on the screen. 
Book people of a certain age are dying off, it can’t be helped.  My friend Adena, who spent a stellar career in the book world, lamented the other day that the only time she recognizes names anymore in the Publishers Weekly “Personnel Changes” column is when there’s an obituary. 
And as for retirements, who can begrudge the bookselling lifers wanting some time to actually read?  It’s been a hard business.

So hats off to the new generation, and good luck.  But don’t forget to remember, remember, remember.


1 comment:

  1. John, I have had some similar experiences. Of course, not to sound like the old duffer that I am, but in reading your piece I couldn't help but think of the old card systems that many stores used to track inventory before the universal adoption of computers. At a place like Kroch's and Brentano's or your former employer, cards were rarely disposed of as long as the book was selling a copy or two each year. Title information was not discarded because a machine required it.

    No, I am not suggesting we go back to that system, but I think the differences in the two approaches is a partial measure of how things have changed.

    As to institutional memory I think publishers and editors also (along with booksellers and librarians the ones most likely to retain this) need to keep it going, but, let's face it, if the book-buying public no longer cares about this sort of history then it will disappear, not entirely, but its presence will be weakly felt and the stock in bookstores and the choices on publishers' lists will be the poorer for this loss.

    I think you raise profound questions that can be applied to our educational system, our newspapers, our culture in general. But, we will keep plugging, because I believe university presses value this "institutional memory" more than many others.