Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ten Books Needed in the Perfect Bookstore

I love bookstores to an almost absurd degree. I can spend a good few hours just wondering around a bookstore taking in the pages. When I lived in Japan I used to take a train to Tokyo just so I could go to the bookstores there that had English language books (ok that and to go a few of the bars in Tokyo).

In 2001 when I went back to Japan, I was astonished to find so many great bookstores – to the point that locating a store with copious numbers of English novels was no longer a great discovery – I have to admit it took some of the joy out of the whole enterprise. My wife and I also went to the west coast of Canada and the USA, and there I revelled in the huge bookstores in Vancouver, LA and San Francisco – not to mention the famous City Lights Bookstore.

And while I do spend a fair bit of time surfing nothing will replace the joy I get from a bookstore – it’s the tactile nature I need.

And yet, sigh, I have yet to find the perfect bookstore. The store with all the books I want (and at the time I want them!). A few years ago I came up with a list of 10 books that I would ensure were in a bookstore, should I be foolish enough to ever run/own one (foolish, because I am sure undertaking such an adventure would ensure I no longer loved bookstores or books).

The list is now lost in time, and was no doubt in need of updating anyway. So here is my list of 10 books that the perfect bookstore must have.

A few caveats – this is not a list of the 10 best books, my 10 favourite books (though some are here), nor even the 10 hardest books to find - there’s no point saying every good bookstore needs a copy of some obscure work that is now out of print. These are my choices for my perfect bookstore – no doubt each person has their own selection. These are the ones I look for when I enter a store for the first time (and invariably find at least some of them missing).

10. George Orwell - Down and Out in Paris and London

London Every bookstore needs a good selection of Orwell. If it doesn’t have 1984 it should be automatically disqualified from calling itself a bookstore. But the perfect store needs to go that bit extra. Down and Out in Paris and London is Orwell’s first work and is not too obscure. It’s not as unread as Burmese Days and not so popular as Animal Farm. It is a brilliant work of reportage – faction before faction became a genre. His account of working in a top Paris restaurant (“Hotel X”) makes one relieved for the introduction of health regulations. It needs to be in the perfect bookstore because it alerts the buyer that not only are the obvious books by famous authors to be found here, so too are the lesser ones. It means the owner might actually be a reader.

9. Thomas Kenneally Confederates

Conf Kenneally is my favourite Australian writer and for a while there in the late ‘70s to late ‘80s he was as good as anyone going around. Speaking as an Australian, the perfect bookstore must have a good Australian fiction selection. I would be tempted to go with something like Henry Handel Richardson, but to be honest I only ever see her Fortunes of Richard Mahoney in second hand book shops, and I found The Getting of Wisdom a bit slow going. Peter Carey and Tim Winton are usually in easy supply; ditto Kate Grenville. Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark can be found even in a run of the mill airport lounge bookstore due to the Spielberg movie. Confederates though is a bit more of a challenge. It was nominated for the Booker Prize – so it’s not too obscure, and is his best book in my opinion. It was also the first book I read by an Australian author that made me realise Australians did not only need to write about Australia. It is a great Civil War book – far better than Geraldine Brooks’ March or Cold Mountain. Finding it in a bookstore means the owner looks beyond the works that have either been mentioned by Oprah or have been turned into films, and that they are not afraid to keep the back catalogue of good authors.

8. Alexander Solzhenitsyn One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

scan0005 Some works are just imperative to assure the buyer that the owner knows books are not just about stories, but are valuable and necessary contributions to life. Failure to have this book just screams, ‘I am a soulless money making operation’. It’s also a stupid business decision – Ivan Denisovich is on just about every Year 10 reading list. Sure the store should also have The Gulag Archipelago, or Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, but I’ll be kind and set the bar a bit low. This is a slim book that takes up little space on a shelf, but it indicates so much.

7. William Shirer – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

200px-TheRiseandFalloftheThirdReichAll good bookstores have a history section, and any history section worth its salt will have a big proportion devoted to WWII titles. The standard bookstore will have a slather of Stephen Ambrose’s works like Band of Brothers, or Citizen Soldiers, also you’ll find Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad or Berlin. If you’re in Australia there will be the latest by Peter Fitzsimmons. If I was being incredibly hard on the bookstores I could have suggested the need for a great WWI history like Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, or the essential novel of the nuclear age – The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes; but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the first in Australia outside of second hand bookstores, and the second I have never seen in Australia anywhere. And the fact is, if you are going to have a WWII section, and you can’t be bothered having the book by which all other histories of Nazi Germany are based, well then, I ask you – why bother?

6. Vikram Seth – The Golden Gate

Golden Seth has written a few other novels – such as the massive A Suitable Boy, but this one by virtue of it being a verse novel sets it apart from other books, and means the bookstore owner has taken a bit of a risk. To be honest this was a more popular title back in the late 80s early 90s, and it has dated a bit, but it’s also a book that often finds itself onto the reading list of first year university English courses which means that if you find it in a bookstore, chances are the store is near a university. Such a sign is always a good thing – university students flock to bookstores for obscure titles on reading lists, and any owner who wants to build up a good clientele will get a copy of the reading lists and stock them. And that is a good bookstore to be standing in. It’s also a good book for snobbiness sake as you can refer to it as The Golden Gate by Vikram ‘Sate’, and demonstrate that you know the correct way to pronounce his name. I of course have been calling him ‘Seth’ for the last 20 years…

5. Peter Biskind – Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Easy Books are not all there is to life. There are movies as well! This book by Peter Biskind is the first port of call for anyone interested in finding out about films. It’s not a great book – in fact after a while I got sick of the whole they took some drugs, made some films, Dennis Hopper went mad, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were interested in making money routine. It also made me hate just about anyone involved in making any film in the 1970s. But hey, this is about necessary books, and if you don’t find this book in the store, then you’re in a bookstore that has no idea about popular culture, no idea about film literature and probably is nowhere near a university offering film studies. So this is a good one to check is there.

4. Thomas Mann – Buddenbrooks

Budden A real personal choice. Mann was a great novelist, much underrated, and much forgotten. Buddenbrooks is my favourite novel of his and also has kudos for being less likely to be found on a bookshelf than The Magic Mountain. The Magic Mountain is often considered the book that won him the Nobel Prize, but in actual fact it was Buddenbrooks that the Nobel Prize committee referred to when they awarded Mann the prize in 1929. Finding this book always gladdens my heart. It makes me feel like I am among friends; it’s absence always causes a bit of sadness, for I know the bookstore and I will never be truly connected. Everyone has a favourite book; all serious book lovers have a favourite book that few others have read, or is out of the mainstream. This is mine.

3. John Dos Passos – USA trilogy

Parralel Now the bar is really getting raised. Only once have I come across all three of Dos Passos’ works in an Australian bookstore – the Adelaide Borders store – but every time I’ve gone back they’ve had either The 42nd Parallel, but not 1919 or both of those but not The Big Money. I’m pretty sure the only way to have them in Australia is to import them, so they are pretty expensive, and they are not ever going to be at the top of the best seller lists. I could have put in any of the novels by Thomas Pynchon, or perhaps some less read Salmon Rushdie – say Shame, or maybe the brilliant Jorge Borges’ Labyrinths. In fact any number of works more suited to a third year Modernist or Post Modern literature course could have fit here – anything by Italo Calvino would fit the bill perfectly. But it is my habit to always look for this group of three novels – perhaps because I own the first and want the second and third. Finding this in the store really shows the owner knows his or her stuff, and is also prepared to import some more esoteric works that let the buyer know they are not standing in a newsagency pretending to be a bookstore.

2. Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

P&P Austen is going to be from now until the second coming the most popular writer of 19th Century fiction. Pride and Prejudice will for that length of time be her most popular novel. These are just facts; you can dislike them, but there is no getting away from them. Of course the perfect bookstore needs this book, because if it doesn’t, it means the owner has no interest in making money, and will soon be going out of business. The bookstore may have all other nine selections, but if it doesn’t have this it won’t be around for much longer, and the perfect bookstore cannot go broke!

1. James Joyce - Ulysses

Ulysses Because if you’re not going to stock the greatest novel ever written, why the hell even bother opening for business in the first place?


Anonymous said...

Foyles in London, Charing Cross Road, was a brilliant bookstore for the ultimate browsing (not only was it the largest, but also the most confusing bookstore) - you could literally get lost in it (pun intended). I have since heard that it has "standardized" in line with other bookstores - a real shame.

LiteraryMinded said...

Great list! I'm happy to have read three of them, and with another just bought ;-)
I like the cut of your jib, I'll be back.

Cookie said...

A fine list, but you forgot Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Greg Jericho said...

Cookie, I haven't read it. Just never felt any great desire to - all the footnotes etc just struck me as rather too wanky.

Love his other stuff though - esp his short stories.

os.c said...

Lovely stuff. This is an important and stimulating debate, on one level for the argument over inclusions/exclusions, but on a higher level for the debate over the role of bookstores. Should we lament the demise of Borders or the head franchise (if that's what it is) of A&R? Losing any bookstore is lamentable. But the conversation should be cognisant of the difference between bookstores, and stores that sell books.

Andrew Elder said...

Great list!

The Penguin imprint of modern books with the light green spine has dos Passos' USA trilogy in one volume. I was a big fan of his, and still think you should read 'Manhattan Transfer' before going to New York (or even if not going there).

Greg Jericho said...

I remember that imprint Andrew, should have got it. I read his Three Soldiers, but not Manhattan Transfer. Reading about it makes me think I should definitely get it.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say that the Feynman lectures on Physics are an essential read here. Despite him stating “If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize.” he really does paint a very clear picture of why science is awesome.

buckleboy said...

For what it's worth, a publisher tells me Borders have gone out of business not due to the rise in online sales but due to poor management by the new owners who don't get books.