Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Aisle of the Forgotten

Establishments that sell used books mean one thing to me as a reader and something else entirely as a writer.

I've been a bookstore habitue since high school but didn't discover used-book shops (or is it shoppes?) until college. Now I can't stay away from them. No other type of place in my experience has offered excitement and tranquility in equal measure. No other type of place has so transported me.

The thrill of discovering a beautifully written, bound, and/or illustrated book is a thrill with shimmering edges that never go dull. Add to this the unexpected, occasional joy of easing the covers apart and finding an old bookplate or bookmark, a flattened four-leaf clover or rusty rose, a Victorian calling card or WWII ration coupon. The crispness of the text in a seventeenth-century volume is astonishing. Each letter has visible depth. The yellow brittleness of some twentieth-century paper is poignant. Leaves flake at the touch.

When I started writing, I saw older books -- some of them, anyway -- in a different light. Because I haven't lived in or near a large city in a while, I've been getting used books at resale shops and library sales. It's at the former that I've found row upon row of the Forgotten.

The Forgotten are usually novels with modest bindings, missing dustjackets and, often, the former owners' signatures scrawled on the inside front covers. (Sometimes, on a rear flyleaf, you'll even find a penciled grocery list.) They were written by women with names like Helen Constance Wiggins and men with names like J. Henry McElroy--names sturdier than the authors' books and reputations turned out to be.

Every time I see one of the Forgotten, I feel a drizzle of sadness. And I smell the unmistakable odor of kinship. I imagine how Mary Kelmsford Johnson must have felt when she got that letter of acceptance from her publisher -- how her pride swelled, how her future suddenly blazed with brilliant promise. She'd become an AUTHOR. People would read the words that flowed from her heart and take those words into their hearts. She would leave her mark on history . . .

How seldom it turns out that way. For every William Faulkner or even Louis L'Amour, there are untold hundreds of Bertram R. Youngbloods and Margery D. Pilsmeyers. Their legacies are books with cheap, scuffed brown or blue bindings, sans dustjackets, languishing on resale store shelves. Not a single shopper is willing to fork over a dollar, or even a quarter, to read their once-precious words.

So here we are, a whole new crop of hopefuls, wondering if we should make book trailers and invest in refrigerator magnets to help our stars shine brighter. Here we are, waiting with crossed fingers and bated breath for our accolades, our five-somethings reviews and bestseller rankings, each time our words appear before the public. And when that recognition doesn't come, we feel the breath of Helen and Bertram and Margery stirring the hair on our napes as they whisper, "Don't worry. Someday your work will be welcomed. We've reserved a place for it in our aisle."

What a profoundly humbling adjustment in perspective.


Clare London said...

Wow. Lovely post and very thought-provoking. It does, indeed, remind us to keep perspective before we get too far up into our own Hype.

Jenre said...

My, my, we are maudlin today aren't we?

Cheer up, Chuck. Revel in the fact that people are reading your books NOW and, you never know, you may be one of those authors who is remembered in 50 or 100 years.

K. Z. Snow said...

Been in the doldrums for a couple of days. No biggie. It's not like I'm firing up my oven or anything. "For this, too, shall pass."

Clare, tell Jen how weird writers are. Come on, you know! ;-)

Clare London said...

*sigh* Jen, she's right. We're weird and totally self-indulgent. LMAO But you're right, we should be grateful and excited with the NOW.

However (KZ will understand), I'm sitting watching the rain through my window, trying to make my vampire story seem remotely interesting, and reading other people's work which is FAR better than mine. Oh my. LOL

KZ, I love that phrase - not like I'm firing up my oven. LOL

Happy week, all of you! ^_~

K. Z. Snow said...

Well y'know, Clare, with age comes perspective. I do believe it's a matter of realism rather than self-indulgence.

As much as we love what we do -- and maybe because we love what we do -- it's impossible to be all happy-happy joy-joy, constantly, about authorship...unless, of course, one's butt is firmly planted at the top of the heap.

Nora Roberts just posted recently at DA about how she doesn't want to bother with a blog or Twitter account or any of the other online social and promotional venues. As I read her posts, I kept thinking, WTF? Well, DUH, you're Nora effing Roberts! You could be lying in bed belching out what sounded vaguely like vowels and consonants, and people would pay to hear it...then give you glowing reviews afterward!

azteclady said...

You just made me cry.


K. Z. Snow said...

Hi, Aztec, and welcome! It's really a pleasure to see you here. Love your thoughtful posts at Karen's blog.

I'm sorry! It wasn't my intention to suck the joy out of anyone's life. (God knows, the daily news does that quite effectively.) This is just something I've thought about, and believe all authors should think about now and then when they start getting too full of themselves.

We are, most of us, small, struggling fish in a very large sea. There aren't too many Moby-Dicks in our midst. ;-)