Years ago I ran a gift shop that sold books on South Alamo Street. There were certain books I pushed into everybody's hand, just as surely as a drug dealer peddling in a parking lot. One year my tiny little shop moved more of one title, Independent People, by a Nobel-prize winning author from Iceland, Haldor Laxness, than any store in Texas. We also set modest records for Ernest Gaines' novel, A Lesson Before Dying, before Oprah Winfrey selected it. After that, everyone was reading it. Before Oprah, however, it was up to those of us who loved it to see that it found a good home.
About that time I read a book that I yearned to foist on everybody I knew. It was a great read, a stay-up-all-night turning pages book, the kind that drives you crazy, because just as you are compelled to keep plowing through the book, you look at the diminishing future pages with regret: It has to end sometime, and you just can't stand it when it does.
I wanted to share that book, but it wasn't yet published. The work of local author Paulette Jiles, the book bore the working title Friday at Noon. I read it. Local literary luminary Naomi Shihab Nye read it. In Canada, Booker prize winner Margaret Atwood read it. We were privileged enough to know Paulette, and we were reading drafts, but we didn't care a whit. A good read is a good thing. And, content with the memory of that last, glorious moment of redemption and wisdom that Paulette closes her novel on, we waited for the book to come out, in hopes of pushing it on someone else.
Many years later, the book is still under wraps. Another, different novel by Paulette has burned the best seller charts all year long, but Enemy Women, as good as it is, isn't as good as its abandoned sibling - which still sits somewhere as thumbed-through pages, weighted down with a paperweight, or (in true Paulette fashion) an old horseshoe or horse bit. Something with heft, to keep all those papers in place. Waiting for the readers to come.
This is a cautionary tale, because it suggests that there are many such manuscripts, many fabulous, compelling words of fiction and nonfiction alike, that are simply not getting into print. While that was doubtless always true to some extent, we have probably passed the golden age of publishing and entered its second dark age: Consolidation of publishing media has led to a handful of major corporations, none of them primarily concerned with publishing, owning all the major imprints in the United States. Companies like Disney, Viacom, and Time-Warner now dominate the publishing industry: It goes without saying that their major interests lie elsewhere. In the past 15 years, expansion by chain bookstores and consolidation of publishing have resulted in a peculiar phenomenon: More book-selling space than ever, but a narrower spectrum of titles being read by adults than ever before. In the main, what those bookstores are selling is pretty repetitive, and what those publishers are interested in is limited, as well. Overall book sales, which used to be heaviest in quality, mid-list titles, are increasingly focused on just the bestsellers. A smaller number of titles represent a greater percentage of total sales, so publishers are only interested in finding the big bestsellers, not the quality book that might produce respectable, but not blockbuster, sales.
Then there's the troubling question of just what is a book? To true readers, Martha Stewart's Gardening Companion just doesn't qualify. Sure, it appears in a binding, but it isn't something you can dig into, night after night, restless to see the story unfold. Most nonfiction and many biographies count as books, but self-help really isn't. Yet most publishing - and yards of bookstore shelving - is devoted to these temporary titles, in an industry that increasingly views books like television shows, hyping new releases every 90 days. There is a short shelf-life to books committed to faux painting, and series that include titles like Chicken Soup for Your Great-Grandmother's Dog.
Still, bleak as the landscape may appear, there are still some good books out there. Here are a few of them.