Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Books That Are Left Behind

I have been haunting the bookstores lately, as I am in between books and searching hungrily for the next one. It's a panicky feeling, having no book to read. I keep scanning my bookshelves, looking for something to catch my eye. I struck out at home, so I ventured to the two big bookstores, looking for something new.

It had been awhile since I had ventured into the big box bookstores. I've been hanging at my local independent bookstores, and striking out, so I've been to two larger bookstores in my area, to try them on for size. Rather than notice what they had, I was busy noticing what they didn't have.

My first beef: the lack of poetry sections.

When my husband worked at a big box chain, they had a kick-ass poetry section. It could have been due to the neighborhood, or due to the diligence of their workers. But it rocked -- it had old stuff, new stuff, local stuff.

At one of the big-boxers-who-shall-remain-nameless, I wandered for 20 minutes to find the poetry section. When I finally asked an employee, she guided me to a section adjacent to the sex books. It was only 1 eight foot tall book shelf high. That wasn't even the worst part.

The worst part was the books that it contained -- past their prime anthologies in the "Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul" style, aging rock/pop stars' books, and the "classics." Oh, and the "how to write poetry" books. This selection (or lack thereof) brought to mind two issues: first, why would anyone want to write poetry with these books as their only examples? Secondly, isn't the best tool for learning to write poetry reading current poetry? Grrr...

My second beef: remaindered books

While I am all for cheap books (who isn't?), the variety and depth of both chains' remainder section was astounding. It felt like the reject wall at a junior high dance. A Mary Cheney memoir sat next to a Hilary Clinton bio, special edition selections of Dostoevsky slumbered with their Jane Austen cousins, bargain priced art books gathered dust in the corner. I felt bad for the books, with their embarrassingly low prices and their precariously over stacked piles. But at the same time, I didn't want to buy them. I was lured by their prices, but then turned off by their content.

These two beefs lead me to a question: what does the publishing industry value? It seems, with these two highly unscientific case studies, that there is a value of quantity over quality, conformity over diversity. Of course, publishing is a business, and a not very lucrative one at that, but this side of the business is unseemly. Rather than print zillions of "hot for the moment" memoirs that will eventually be remaindered and forgotten, why not publish quality work that people will pay to read?


Aaron M. Wilson said...

I was there. It really sucked. The-store-that-will-not-be-named only had big-time publishers too and mainstream authors. They didn’t even have William Gibson’s newest novel. Ick. Ick. Ick. Icky.

Marie said...

I totally agree! Where have all the good poetry books gone? Even at the biggest book stores, the poetry section is as small as you described, with the same list of authors who have been on that shelf for years...It must be as you say, the money in the publishing business is not there...we are the minority..
Where do YOU find new authors and books when you are choosing for your poetry book club? It seems you always have very interesting choices.

As a teacher, I think we don't start the value of poetry early enough...or if we do, as I do, it's not continued throughout the seems that it's an elusive understanding..a mystery that people are afraid to unlock...instead of enjoying the beauty and sound of words and allowing them to just be...I'm awaiting that day of bigger poetry sections. In the meantime, I shall build the poetry warriors...

Jessica said...

thanks for your comments marie. I think, unfortunately, as readers we have to hunt for good poetry books now a days.

with the books I found for book club this month, I started by looking at last month's Poetry magazine and picking an author out of there that I hadn't read before (ws merwin). Then I looked up his latest book on amazon and looked at their recommendations based on who had purchased other books besides merwin's, which led me to frank bidart. Bidart led me to "crush," which I didn't choose, which led me to "fever almanac." Crush was a Yale Younger Poet's winner, so I picked "frail craft," which is this year's YYP winner. I put kevin young on there because I like him and liked his two other books that I have read by him (jelly roll and black maria.)

so even though I'm railing against the big box stores, I'm using a virtual big box store which has a pretty awesome code that refers poetry to me.

I'd be interested to hear how other poets haved picked books to read...

Crafty Green Poet said...

Something that I am very impressed by and grateful for is that in our local second handand independent bookstores it'sreally easy to find great poetry these days. I don't go into big bookshops. I often wonder though what publishers and booksellers value.