Review of “The Collected Works of AJ Fikry” by @GabrielleZevin

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Like,” he repeats the word with distaste. “How about I tell you what I don’t like? I do not like postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, post-mortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be – basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful – nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mashups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and – I imagine this goes without saying – vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translations. I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of my pocketbook require me to. For your part, you needn’t tell me about the “next big series” until it is ensconced on the New York Times Bestseller list. Above all, Ms. Loman, I find slim literary memoirs about little old men whose little old wives have died from cancer to be absolutely intolerable. No matter how well written the sales rep claims they are. No matter how many copies you promise I’ll sell on Mother’s Day.”

It is rare that a book can so perfectly, completely and utterly capture the heart of a hardened bookseller. We are so often disappointed – books won in expensive auctions that are just flat soda, stories of the author being picked up from the slush pile and given that special chance. So many promises and so many galley proofs fall to the wayside. Goddammit, everything is the next Harry Potter, or Time Traveller’s Wife, or Book Thief.

But like this book promises, we endure the disappointments for the chance that something will be exhilarating.

This is truly the book I wish I had written. This is the book that encompasses the love and joy that books truly bring. That books are how we know and love others, how we stave loneliness and cure our pains. That books make us better people, and are the bridges between the islands we risk becoming.

The Collected Works of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the story of a little bookstore, on a little island, and its owner. AJ’s wife has died, he is a deteriorating mess, and it seems that his store won’t survive the winter. On the night his extremely rare copy of Poe’s poetry is stolen, a toddler is left in his store. AJ, freshly widowed and increasingly poor, is smitten by Maya and takes her in.

The book follows AJ, Maya and later Amy, and it is the story of books, of love, of children and bad marriages and great friends. It is stories and weird cocktails and publishers, and it moves with a swiftness that brings this book to an immensely successful closure.

This is a bookseller’s book. This is for every bookstore owner and manager who has ever sat through a subscription meeting and had to take the awful drek we need to sell so that we can afford to keep literary fiction. It is for every bookseller who ever had to endure that awful insult ‘I could get it cheaper on Amazon’. It is for every bookstore that has had to close its doors, it is for every librarian with a stack of unloved books. It is a book that sings to our literary hearts, and it is one of the most precious books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and I will likely reread it a thousand of times.

Please, please read this when it arrives in South Africa this May. I can promise you that it will become precious to you, that Ameila, Maya, AJ and Lambaise will become great friends to you, and you will be richer for it.

Tony Blair, A Journey and the Armchair Activists

Despite the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a handguide to how abusive relationships start, and that Game of Thrones is an airbrushed Medieval Europe where feminism and civil rights are things that happen to other books, I would never call for these books to be banned or burnt. You’d think this would be evident, but it really, really isn’t.

Part of my job is monitoring social media, and on the basis that Tony Blair is speaking at the Discovery Leadership Summit, an impassioned bandwagon-hopper has told us that we have blood on our hands for selling his books, for he is a war criminal. We should do a Tutu and remove ourselves from the equation. Here ends the rant. (Except it was much longer than this, and I don’t think anyone needs that in their lives right now. EDIT: It’s now a loooong Facebook thread all by itself. A guy screaming into the void all alone.)

Now, I agree that Blair is – to use a Valley Girl phrase – a complete tool. He agreed to follow America into a rather stupid and pointless war (although what war isn’t?) and while thousands of Iraqis have died, no one has really taken responsibility. I agree that is entirely unacceptable and there should be some kind of consequence.

But taking his books off the shelf really isn’t the answer.

The guy who wrote in to complain obviously doesn’t know much about publishing or moneymaking, or even common sense, it would seem. Let’s start with the first problem: if we ban one book, and are seen taking a stance on one political view, we will be swamped with demands to ban other books that upset people. We might be told to toss out Dawkins, or anything about the Pope, or a book about Julius Malema or Steve Hofmeyr. The minute we concede any ground in this matter, my time on social media will become exponentially painful as I field complaints about how we stock atheist books, or religious texts or some treatise written by a crazy person that people still study in philosophy.

Secondly, it is not the place of a book store to be the moral guardian of the nation. We have enough self-righteous Brittas around for that. Any place that makes money cannot be expected to toss valuable income down the drain to take a stance that is as transient as it is unnecessary. This is the second half of a very long recession. Bookstores have been particularly hard hit. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll skim off that to say that no sane bookstore is going to listen to three customers complain and toss income potential down the drain. Life must go on, and we do not need to close more stores or retrench more staff. Besides, in three weeks this will have been a non-event and no one will remember that we took a couple hundred books off the shelf (if that many). In any case, if we ban it, Amazon will still sell it. This is a company that sold dolphin meat in its Japanese store; I doubt Blair will bother them much.

Thirdly: Blair is not making as much money off these books as people might think. Once his advance is paid, the publisher (Cornerstone) has to fight to get that money back through sales. The sales aren’t setting the world on fire, which is a pity, since the proceeds are going to the Royal British Legion. I feel sorry for the publishing house, who were probably hoping to make big cash off this so that they could take a risk on a worthy debut author. Remember, publishing houses take a huge risk on any book, and the more money they have to take those risks, the better. Besides, if no one wanted to publish Blair, he could have done it himself. The age of gatekeepers is over.

Fourth: let him embarrass himself in the written word. There’s really not much harm in watching him desperately try to exonerate himself and no one buying it. And nothing destroys a writer’s ego like seeing their book piled high in the back of the warehouse, returned by stores who had customers too smart or uninterested to buy it. The kind of book that gets donated to charities or gets pulped.

Let the bookstore speak, and let the customers make their own decisions. It is not the place of the angry armchair activists to dictate to the buying habits of others, or the selling policies of stores. At the end of the day, banning books is archaic and never seems to work anyway. Remember when Monty Python was banned? And Catcher in the Rye?

It is a lot more gratifying to watch Blair be hoisted by his own petard than to lose out on some much-needed sales.

The Life and Death of the Book Store

I don’t mean to wax lyrical and mewl like an old lady on her stoep with a blanket on her knees and a cat on her lap, but I remember drive-ins. The slap chips, the giant radios that threatened to crack the window, my parents smoking freely while we ran down to the playground just under the screen until the next movie. We could watch in our pajamas and fall asleep where we watched, and maybe the sound wasn’t great but it was better than the movie house because at least no one could throw popcorn at us.

Now, the drive-ins are nearly dead. One remains in Joburg, and for how much longer I’m not entirely sure. (Their offerings are outstandingly paltry.) They died for a number of reasons: muggings, poor quality food and film and the brutal Joburg winter that makes any outdoor activity impossible. With movies becoming more accessible, portable and affordable, the drive-in has become a sepia relic. Like so many other things, we absently miss them but didn’t really do much to support them and stop them from going under.

Which brings me to the constant cry of ‘the bookstore is dying’! The Mail and Guardian posted this article about the death of the bookstore. Interviewing several bookstore owners as well as my boss Ben Williams, the article attempts to offer a multi-faceted view of the book industry. I appreciate the efforts and the statistics are nice to have. Let’s have a look at some of them:

On May 29, The Nation ran a piece by Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He reeled off dizzying statistics: there were about 4 000 independent bookstores in the United States 20 years ago; less than half remain. About 2% of Americans had an e-reader or tablet three years ago, and by January this year the number had swelled to 28%. In 2011, he wrote, e-book sales for most publishers made up between 18% and 22% of total sales.

That article, ‘The Amazon Effect’ can be found in its entirety here. (It is lengthy, but definitely worth the read.) That article goes on to state:

 Just three years ago, only 2 percent of Americans had an e-reader or a tablet; by January of this year, the figure was 28 percent. And Amazon, despite watching its market share drop from 90 percent of the American e-book market in 2010 to about 55–60 percent today, reached a milestone just under three years after the Kindle was introduced. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books,” Bezos crowed, “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Jeff Bezos’ deeply irritating personality aside, the picture is a little grim for bookstores. Alongside the purported death of the publishing houses (we’ll still waiting for that), this year alone has seen the closure of several notable bookstores in South Africa: the Boekehuis, for example. The Wordsworth in V&A Waterfront. EB in Irene and Balito. And as the Mail and Guardian noted, Kalk Bay Books very nearly went under as well. Never mind the independents and second-hand stores that quietly drowned in debt and silence without anyone noticing.

However, it doesn’t mean that all bookstores will become a thing of the past. In the panicking about ereaders, a great number of people forget that 3 million Kindles and 15 million iPads in a sea of 7 billion people is pittance. (I guess because only white readers matter? But I digress.) And while global literacy rates and access to books is not as high as I would like (especially in Africa), there are millions out there who don’t have Kindles and who will still buy paper books. After all, it is sheer idiocy to assume that people who don’t have Kindles/iPads/Nooks don’t matter. What matters, as it always has, is marketing and accessibility. I have discussed before why paper books are so expensive in stores, and those problems need to be addressed. One of the bookstore owners in the M&G article put it quite succinctly:

‘The death of the bookstore is bullshit,” Mervyn Sloman, the owner of the Book Lounge in Cape Town told me over the phone. He was clearly irritated by my presumption. “I own a bookshop and we’re not dying.”

Sloman opened at the end of 2007, not long before the global recession hit. While he admitted the industry was in flux and that last year was a bit rough, he said this year was looking up. “Part of it is about — and how to say this without sounding like an asshole — you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. If anybody thinks they can find a space, fill it with books and wait for people to stream in they are not going to last two weeks. But if you are prepared to work bloody hard and be creative and innovative, then it is completely doable.”

There has to be something better than wailing and whining about how we should all roll over and die, sacrifices on the altar of Amazon. What we should be doing is going back to books as art, as objects of joy and a celebration of the delicious, febrile nature of human imagination and endeavor.

It’s not over yet. Publishers are still bringing the world magnificent books, and bookstores are still lovingly curating them. Not everyone loves Kindle, and while Amazon is a giant, it is also unwieldy, unfeeling and unethical. The Amazon self-publishing ponzi scheme will collapse under the weight of its inherent mediocrity and the world will always value content, even if they have to pay a little more for it.  We should be focusing on accessibility, making books more affordable by dropping the customs tax or giving printers subsidies. In Japan, daily manga collections are published cheaply in disposable bundles. This makes a national art form accessible to all, and nicer colour versions are available for those who want them.

There’s always a better way of doing things, and while the solutions aren’t always easy, they are there. Publishers could treat authors better than they currently do. Bookstores can provide a personal and caring service that Amazon can’t ever hope for. How about some of the money spent on sport in South Africa being put to making printing books cheaper? Translating them into more languages? I refuse to accept that it is okay to bow under the pressure. The most important thing to start with is to abide by Douglas Adams’ advice: