A Busy Weekend in Books

If you aren’t busy enough already shmoozing at the International Festival of Authors, rooting around at the St. Michael’s College Book Sale, or trying to read 40 Canadian novels before November 7th; there’s an extremely exciting alternative available to Torontonians (and her visitors) this weekend: The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair.

After a month-long marathon of the University of Toronto’s excellent book sales, book-hunters might be inclined to give this one a miss, but step back for a minute and reconsider.  This is not just another book sale.  For the first time in fifteen years, Toronto will be hosting some of the biggest and best rare and antiquarian book dealers in the English-speaking world in one spot, and attempting to pull off a show that compares with the excellent New York and Boston International fairs.  This is a significant step above the lack-luster local Toronto Book Fair & Paper Shows.

Pre-register: this will get you a coupon for $5 the entrance fee, bringing it down to a very reasonable $10 for unlimited access for the whole three days of the show (October 29th, 30th & 31st).  Roughly 50 dealers are scheduled to be showing there wares at the cozy Metro Toronto Convention Centre site.  Among these will be the excellent and approachable local dealers like London, Ontario’s Attic Books and Toronto’s own (organizing force) Contact Editions; as well as big International names like Baltimore’s Kelmscott Bookshop and Maggs Brothers of London.

While firms like Maggs and Adrian Harrington can be reasonably counted on to bring some high-visibility (and high-priced) rarities, don’t think this is just a show for established collectors with deep pockets.  The promises of “something for everyone” are likely to be well-founded.  I’ve always loved looking through Attic Books’ reasonably-priced early-20th century children’s books, or David Mason‘s specialty, the “1st Canadian editions” of important works.  While a show like this isn’t for bargain-hunting cheap used copies of paperbacks, you can still find some under-appreciated treasures in the $10-$50 range.  Furthermore who wouldn’t want to go see some of the higher-profile books or documents?  I might not be able to afford a $275,000 map, but if I should be so lucky, I’d love to glimpse one.

For the amateur collector, this is also an excellent opportunity to approach dealers who don’t keep open shops and sign up to receive their catalogues.  I don’t think I’m the only person who reads catalogues for fun: they’re a treasure trove of bibliographical information, a good way to make wish-lists and the best way to get an idea of what books cost on the market.  The catalogues themselves are also frequently beautiful things.  See the wonderful offerings from Oak Knoll or Roger Gaskell as examples.  You’ll never wonder why so many people collect 18th century scientific treatises ever again.

For full details, visit the Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair’s website.

All complaints aside, I’m still excited…

…about the Canada Reads “top 40” to be announced Thursday!  In the end I folded and submitted a recommendation against my better judgement (it was a past Canada Reads winner, but given I suspect MANY past Canada Reads winners will be on the list, I’d like one on there that actually feels “essential”, to me).  The final list will be, I suspect, a bit of a Janus, with half the list being over-read, popular books the likes of Book of Negroes and Three Day Road, and the other half the product of write-in campaigns organized by enterprising or beleaguered authors.  And honestly, that’s not a bad mix.  If it makes it that way into the final five, we’ll have a fun little reading list.

I am nursing a little wish-list.  Books I’d like to read, but in all honesty probably won’t get to anytime soon if they don’t make the Canada Reads cut.  The sad truth is that for all my whining, I’ve actually read very little “recent” Canadian literature – not even the big sellers.  So with no further ado, here is my top-5 dream-list!

Canada Reads 2011 (If Charlotte Got To Choose)

1. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (I know, I know…)

2.  DeNiro’s Game or Cockroach by Rawi Hage (I’m not picky.)

3.  Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey (“epic”, “historical” and an Atlantic Canada Reads nod? I’m in!)

4. The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (I need to laugh now and again, by god.)

5. Elle by Douglas Glover (More history – this time with added feminism!)


I’ll have to hold out until next year to get my fix of older titles.  I was so hoping to see certain names on a Canada Reads list — those authors have the misfortune not to have published anything major in the last ten years.  Canada Reads panelists of the future, how I hope you’ll Google me…

Canada Reads 2012 (If Charlotte Got To Choose)

1. The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

2. Anything by Josef Škvorecký (Swell Season?  Bass Saxophone? Two Murders in my Double Life?)

3. Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche (Tell me a 16-book Canadian soap opera from the 1930s wouldn’t be dead fun to read.)

4. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (Poetry, queer lit, historical fantasy and international cred all in one.)

5. Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint (One of his best, I think – short stories.  Pretty please?)


Good luck to everyone tomorrow!

Dear Publishers: It’s called a “slipcase”.

I’m thrilled to death that publishers are getting behind fancy private library editions; big, beautiful hardcover tomes for display or general celebration of bookness.  We’ve had a particularly meaty month at my bookstores – doorstoppers are coming fast and furious.  Northwestern University Press has published an all-in-one edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, translated by the ubiquitous Burton Raffel.  Yale’s Autobiography of Mark Twain – volume ONE of THREE – weighs in at about 700 pages.  We continue to sell out of copies of Joseph Frank’s 1000-page abridged (from 2500 pages) edition of Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time.

I love big books, I do.  I have a probably unhealthy attraction to works that exceed 500 pages; the more the merrier.  But if I may – as a bookseller and a collector – make a suggestion? These books look lovely sitting flat on a table, but as time passes they inevitably make their way to shelves where they must stand upright, or into paperback editions where they are nearly as thick as they are tall.  They puff-up, tilt and sag.  The Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace published by Knopf published in 2007 is probably a case in point – in paperback, the book inevitably looks old and used after a mere two weeks on the shelf.  It is too big.  The binding – especially in paperback – can’t hold shape with so many pages.

This is an easily remedied problem.  It’s called a slipcase.  You’ve seen them before, a nice cardboard sleeve that hugs two or more volumes together in one tight box.  Penguin released a beautiful trade version of The Arabian Nights translated by Lyons & Irwin in 2008 which housed three hardcovers in one slipcase.  See how manageable each volume is?  No slipping, sliding or flip-flopping around.  No puffy, humidity-soaked pages or disintegrating “perfect” binding.  And one wide canvas for all your design needs!

You can have your cake and eat it too: all-in-one editions without asking one binding to hold all those pages in one.  And wouldn’t it be nice? A 3-volume slipcased edition of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy?  Davies’ Deptford Trilogy?  Penguin, please, bloody Clarissa? We will all thank you for it.

Again with the Digital Books

Last year I posted in some depth on the subject of academic ebooks – a different subject entirely from frontlist/trade ebooks, let me state right up front.  We’ve had some difficulty selling digital books, and I thought I’d update for 2010, with a view on providing some data to academic ebook publishers.

IT ISN’T WORKING.  Whatever you are doing, stop.  This year, like last, digital “codes” for textbooks was a COMPLETE BUST.  Of one title, we have sold to date 750 traditional textbooks (which include the code for the digital book), and 2 copies of the “code-only”.  The response at the cash is overwhelming – absolutely nobody wants to pay $55 for “nothing” – a piece of paper that gives them access to information for 12 months.  They are willing to pay extra to “get something”.

Similarly, we thought we’d experiment this year with shorting orders of books which could be found online for free (the texts of which can be found at Project Gutenberg or similar).  Students want free books, right?  They love technology?  Once again, the response was overwhelming in favour of “real” books.  Paper books of open-source texts are so cheap anyway that students will pay the $3-$11 to get that “something”.  About the texts online we hear you “can’t make notes”, “I don’t like all that scrolling”, “At least I get to keep it this way”, etc.  The ephemeral nature of an ebook is not lost on these kids.  There is a value to permanence.

Now, there are things that could be done to encourage the sale of the digital book.  The paper books could be sold *without* the digital codes thrown in for free.  Given the ultimatum, more students might go for the digital book over the paper one.  Make the digital texts better suited to printing – that might help too.  But I ask myself, why?

For what are we trying to force digital books on the unreceptive audience?  And I do feel like I’m forcing the issue. Whether it be sending students away when we sell out of a book, telling them to “read it online” (one student has just now informed me that she wants the real book because they can bring a text to their open-book exam, but not a print out.  Another consideration.) or desperately explaining that the “Infotrak” online content isn’t costing them anything extra, and no, they can’t buy it without it; selling students on the idea of digital media is like pulling teeth.  The instructors aren’t onside either – we had one case where we had to send back 350 copies of a textbook because it came bundled with a DVD & online content the instructor didn’t want, and the publisher couldn’t understand why.  (There we sat on the phone having the most unproductive conversation: Them: “But it’s free.” Us: “But they don’t want it.”)

Why are we doing this? Audience reception is part of what has always made me uneasy about ebooks.  Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse?  Was there some great need for a new way to read texts, thus came the ebook?  Were readers clamouring for this technology?  No, technologists came up with something new and they’re trying damn hard to sell it.  Publishers are a wreck, bookstores are panicking and readers are grudgingly trying to find a way to like the technology.  The only people who are happy are the technology manufacturers.

But another year, another step closer to the supposed internet generation.  Maybe next year will be the big year for digital delivery of textbooks.  Or maybe it won’t.  Maybe now that the shine has worn off, we can start having a serious discussion about what constitutes value added.  Right now the product we see looks like ill-considered trash to be thrown out with the cellophane wrapper.  Or maybe if the technology manufacturers are so keen on a Kindle in Every Backpack, they’ll start bundling those for free with the texts.  Just a thought.

ETA: Apparently I’m not alone!

“What to Read” Works Itself Out

Want something with a strong, character-driven narrative? Literary credentials?  Depth and length? Elif-Batuman-inspired-Russianness?

How about a brand-shiny-new Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago?

I think I’m in love!

A Short Note on Books I Will Probably Never Read

About Cormac McCarthy’s latest, Michael Chabon says, “The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greater fears.”  The rest of Chabon’s analysis in his essay Dark Adventure, in Maps and Legends, served as just as much of a warning-off: this is a book I will probably never read.

Never say never, I know, but I have to tell you I have no stomach for horror or gore at the best of times, and I am absolutely intolerant of harm and death of children.  Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes floored me with its scenes of baby theft-and-murder swaddled in an otherwise feel-good tale.  Jodi Picoult’s short story “Weights and Measures” in Neil Gaiman’s Stories collection had me tearing up at the cash register at work – I mean, I had to stop for fear that I’d start bawling in the middle of the store.  I don’t think I could ever take an unapologetic, stark look at an unforgiving end-of-the-world scenario starring a little boy who is afforded no innocence.  It ain’t happenin’.

I admit I have similar fears about Emma Donoghue’s Room.  I understand the material is presented with innocence and humour, but the subject matter gives me the shivers.  Is this a mommy thing?  How did it treat the rest of you?  Is my squeamishness unfounded?

Characters vs People

Somehow I grew up biased against non-fiction.  I suspect it has to do with the libraries of my parents, stacked wall-to-wall with excellent literary and Canadian novels, interrupted only by old university textbooks.  At first non-fiction seemed boring and later, when I came to know a thing or two about the Public’s reading habits, I associated non-fiction with reading celebrity memoirs or true crime accounts.  Non-fiction was either academic or low-brow.  I forced myself to read non-fiction about 1/3 of the time: I considered this a sort of penance paid for self-education.  Mostly these books were about science, politics, environmentalism or food.  Things about which I felt I ought to be Educated.

So it surprises me to some extent to find that, over the last few years, some of my favourite books have been non-fiction: Eleanor Wachtel’s collections, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading and Deep Economy by Dave McKibbon.  The extent to which I am beginning to prefer a good collection of essays, or a memoir, was made obvious this week as I read Michael Moorcock’s contribution to the Neil Gaiman-edited short story collection, Stories.  Moorcock’s contribution, also called Stories, starts out “This is the story of my friend Rex Fisch…” and launches into the history of a group of writers.  It took me three or four pages to realize that what I was reading wasn’t fiction, but autobiographical.  The shift in my perspective, the sudden sharpening of my interest was a physical sensation, like putting on a new pair of glasses.  Suddenly, this was the best story I’d read yet.  A dozen pages in I hesitated and wondered, maybe this is fiction after all?  Can anyone write fiction that true, that compelling?  All those characters, dates, events, histories, relationships!  The depth and complexity of the story Moorcock is telling seems impossible to replicate in fiction.  Maybe it’s the lack of descriptive landscape, and of poetic language.  Maybe just knowing it’s true makes me more curious.  But something is different.

The best book I’ve read in a long time is Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.  No, maybe not the best.  Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was amazing.  So was Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators.  But I haven’t been as engaged by any book this year the way The Possessed engaged me.  The books is a series of vignettes of Batuman’s time spent In Academia, from life as an undergrad, to post-graduate assignments in Russia in the dead of February.  She sets out explaining that she wanted to be a writer, but that the right path, for her, was to study literature, rather than to study writer’s craft.  The experiences she subsequently racks up, from a summer in Samarkand studying “Ancient Uzbek” to helping to coordinate a conference on Isaac Babel certainly made for meaty retelling.  Somehow I can’t imagine workshopping stories in New Jersey can provide quite the same anecdotal kick (but I could be wrong).  The Possessed was side-splittingly hilarious, insightful and inspiring.  These were good stories.  The complex connections she can draw between her life, the lives of her beloved Russian masters, and the universal experience of life did justice to her ambitions.  I’d read anything Batuman writes now, right down to a laundry list.  She has authority, experience, insight and style.  What more can a novelist boast?

Now, as a life-long devotee of The Novel, I feel I need to engage with something longer and deeper, with characters I can root for and despise, and longer plots I can follow.  I need something that can reaffirm my faith in the novelist’s ability to write as true and as deep as an essayist or memoirist.   Batuman makes me crave Tolstoy – Anna Karenina? – , Moorcock tempts me to explore Dashiell Hammett – I think I have The Thin Man on my shelf – and Michael Chabon now has me re-eyeing Sherlock Holmes.

What would you recommend?  Who are the best story-tellers, the best crafters of narrative truth and story?  I’m in the market for a new book…