Name that book, or come as close as you can

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson served as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Paris before moving to New York to manage the global network of journalists for McGraw-Hill. He now writes from Bordeaux, France. 02.08.2013

I thought the book business was being choked to death by television and iPods but I must be wrong. Clean, well-lighted superstores are still going strong. Could customers merely be doing penance for spending too much time slumped on their living room couch? 

Without doubt, the mass marketing of mainstream books has come of age.

Suppose you want something a bit fresher, however. Finding real surprises in a bookshop is another matter. The big stores don't really love books. They are more focused on moving packaged goods and hearing lots of ka-chings all day. 

You have to go instead to the independent bookstores, and I recently found one near Boston with a staff that actually knows the publishing business. My wife recently asked a clerk there for a personal finance book by “Susan Shapiro, I think”. Without missing a beat, the clerk reached across the aisle and pulled off the latest tome by Suze Orman. Exactly right.

It’s not always so easy for the staff to respond. The manager says the more common request goes like this: “I’m looking for a new novel I saw somewhere last week. It had a purple cover. No, I think it was green. Maybe it was a paperback.”

Hearing these stories, I wondered who these book buyers really are. Why are they wandering around in a confusion of titles and authors? Do these books simply pile up uncracked? Isn’t there a better way to stop doors? 

Lately I have been asking bookshop managers for their explanations.

One optimistic London bookseller believes the mainstream book surge may hide a desire for peace and quiet. “People crave time for themselves, and reading is one of the few activities that by definition must be solitary,” she told me. 

Where the booksellers have something really disturbing to say is in the realm of favorite requests. The question over who wrote what reveals a book/reader relationship that is at best casual. All the following inquiries are guaranteed authentic.

A man with an apparent taste for the classics asked, “Do you have ‘The Red and the Black’ by Stendhal? If you do, I’ll take ‘The Red’ now and I’ll come back another time for ‘The Black’. 

Someone with wife trouble knew approximately what he needed: “I’m looking for a book by Sigmund Freud, a man who wrote a lot about women.”

Another had heard something good about John Irving and asked, “Do you have that novel called ‘The World According to Carps’”?

Only slightly askew, another request was, “How about ‘The Name of the Rose’, eco version”? 

A French bookseller I know insists he periodically gets inquiries for “Le Zizi dans le Metro”. (Zizi is French slang for penis. The character’s name is Zazi.)

Poor old Alexander Solzhenitsyn is mangled with the best of them. One young lady in London asked for something by “Soldier Nitsin”. Another wanted “Goulash Archipelago”. 

The staff of a French bookshop laughs about a man who wanted a copy of “Dangerous Lesions”.

One customer was sure he wanted to read “Cinzano de Bergerac”. 

“Au Revoir Tristesse” was on another lady’s list.

In Arcachon, near Bordeaux, where I live, they’re still chuckling about the pregnant woman who said, “I’m looking for ‘I’m Expecting a Baby’ but I don’t know by whom.” 

In the Russian fiction department, an avid reader was looking for “The Brothers Kalashnikov”.

Yet another had heard “Doctor Virago” was pretty good.

What becomes of these books after purchase is perhaps not worth worrying about.

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