Friday, March 29, 2013

Thoughts of a Bookseller

When asked, in the normal flow of conversation, what I would do if I won the lottery, I, without hesitation, reply, "I would open an independent bookstore that sells new, used, and e-books, and whatever else, and I would hire the employees I know would be experts at saying, 'This book is amazing, you should read it!'" It would be a destination for anyone that just needed a good book. I say this with the full knowledge of the economy presently, and of the insane thought of doing something that would, in most places in the world today, be an utter failure.  But I don't think it would be.

I've come to the conclusion that I love reading.  But I love selling books more.  That reading is both a pleasurable time, an escape to another world, to experience other lives and to see emotions through the minds of other people. It is also a mechanism to gain knowledge of a product.  Much like eating the newest brand of Cheerios. But of course, much more enjoyable.  For reading a book results in reviews, at least, that's what I do after I've read a book and digested it, taken it apart, applied it to my life, related it to every experience I've had, applied philosophies, ideas, poetry, prose, art, and music to every nuance, painted the words in colors with a paintbrush upon a canvas, and sculpted a response to the words of another human being.  What does all this creation do?  It sells books on Amazon, or delivers information on Goodreads.  My thoughts languish out on my blogs and
my reviews for anyone to pick up and chew like licorice, and then to go buy the book and read it.  It's the end result, the conclusion of my efforts. And more than likely, I will never know the rewards of it, but it's good enough.

I've been a bookseller now for 10 years, and have always ended up on the merchandising side of
bookselling.  For good reason.  To enter into a bookstore, there is a clear division of workers. Thought processes that, when analyzed, become a picture of the relationship between the person and the books.  Selling books requires intimate knowledge of the books themselves, so when you know the books, you begin to love them.  There are very few retail locations in which the sellers fall in love with the things they are selling.  Cars maybe, motorcycles, those curmudgeons who love their rusty junk on American Pickers, but it's hard to imagine a grocer falling in love with the boxes of Cheerios.    When a box of cereal becomes outdated, it gets sent back, or thrown away (after credit is given, of course).  The same thing happens with books, but it's much harder for some booksellers to give up the books that are on the shelves that, for whatever reason, don't sell.  It could be the type of customer that frequents the store, or the fact that, shockingly, there are some authors that just don't sell well, no matter how popular they are.  I've blown the dust off of more the late Maeve Binchy's novels.  Case in point, I tried my hardest to merchandise the biography of Ted Turner at Borders some years ago.  I stacked them wherever I could stack them, thinking that, we're in Atlanta, and Ted Turner, for whatever you may think of his political stance, created the 24 hour news channel, something that has radically altered the way we think and communicate.  You could argue that Turner is as important in the history of the spread of ideas as Gutenberg was for the printing press.  But they didn't sell.  Even marked down to 50% off, they didn't sell.  So back they went.

Truth is, I took it as a personal affront that the books didn't sell, because it was somehow my fault that the customers didn't see the books, didn't see the value of the words within the pages.  That's why working in a bookstore is very hard, for a fine balance of revenue and merchandise credit must be there for a bookstore to make any profit.  When bookstore owners decide that they simply can't return the books because they love them, that's when they go out of business.  That's even true of the Friends of the Library bookstore at the Nancy Guinn Library in Conyers.  If we keep all the books forever, waiting for someone to come in, plop down a dollar, and take a book off, we'll never make any money because their won't be any new books, and thus, no one will come to buy the old ones that have already been seen month after month.  There are other workers in a bookstore that are adept at separating their love of books from selling the product in front of them.  They make valuable inventory workers, although many times there are disagreements between inventory and merchandising people.  It happens in every bookstore, even the FOL one, depending on the attitudes of the workers.

So if you ever find me in a Goodwill someplace, or at the Library, come ask me what good books are out there.  I'll find books that I loved, and that I know you will, too.  The joy of reading is only compounded when you're able to spread that joy to other readers.  It's the paradox of having your own mounting collection of books at home.  I know people, who have stacks upon stacks of books, boxes of them, even ones they have read, and they will remain there until they die.  But aren't those books, now having imparted the information in their pages, now more valuable if the words are given to someone else to digest?  Should not a book be read, then given away to someone else?  Of course not..... how silly that is to think about.  These are my books, and no one is going to touch them.  Except that's wrong, and we all know it.  We have fallen in love with our books, and we cannot let them go.  So we go about our lives, with our houses on our backs, as Thoreau would say, except our houses are filled with books, ones we cannot give up, for fear of losing the imaginary worlds within if somehow the physical book vanishes.  It's a complex problem, but one I'd just as soon have as not.  Far more serious is the house with no books, and the owner does not care.  So I shall go through, and weed and prune my books, as a gardener would, and pick the flowers I'm least likely to miss, and they will get donated.  But ask me, and I'll tell you of my garden, of my treasures within, and you can read them if you want.  I'll gladly give you a book, as long as I can replace it.  Now I'll close this chapter, and go read my book.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Book Reviews: Two X Sci-fi

As much as Science Fiction told of mankind leaving Earth and exploring the universe, most authors spend as much time exploring the inner workings of the soul and consciousness.  The "science" in Sci-fi can relate as much to Psychology as to Physics and Astronomy.  To look at the unknown, the impossible as possible, takes not only a solid science education, but the mind and heart of a poet, the creativeness of the muses along with the empirical senses of the scientist.

For the many readers I have encountered that say, "I don't read science fiction, I can't stand all that "alien" stuff," I would rebuke them, saying that the unknown has always been a part of human literature, from Grendel in Beowulf to the White Whale in Melville's classic tale.  I would argue that science fiction has a direct line from the works of the greatest authors to the exploits of Luke Skywalker.  The same themes prevail throughout, the motifs echo through each work, whether the weapon be a sword or a lightsaber.  It is not beyond argument to say that David standing up to Goliath, with but the faith of God and some rocks, is not the same figure as Luke Skywalker standing up to Vader in Cloud City.

So it is that, needing books to read, and trying to stay away from the mindless babble of talking heads on Television, the dribble of escapist nothingness that espouses Truth but is not but useless trash flowing into the minds of today's people, I find myself drawn to the books filling my library.  I glance through the paperbacks, yellow with time, with sparse drawings of other-worldly beings and scantily clad women on the fronts, those with the "Bethany, Oklahoma Library" stamped on the sides, where my dad brought them home and somehow never took them back.  The science fiction of decades past, where the future times that men were flying to the stars has actually already happened (according to the book I finished, Man should already have a shopping mall on Mars, and a base on Mercury.), has an incredible draw to me now.  For I find that while the setting is futuristic and utopian, the themes are as classic as the works I have bound in leather atop my bookshelves.

I wish to review two books: The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny, and A Place Beyond Man written by Cary Neeper.

The Dream Master is the second full length novel written by Zelazny in 1966.  The title page informs the reader that it had been a serialized short story in a magazine.  Unfortunately, it reads like a fleshed out, stretched short story.  It becomes disjointed, a series of scenes seemingly unconnected and written at different times, so much so you can tell which parts are original, and which parts are added.

The main story deals with Render, a psychologist who has become known as a pioneer in the new technology of "Dream Therapy," in which he uses a holodeck type machine to enter people's dreams and control them, constructing and deconstructing (in every sense of the philosophical term) until the underlying causes, as Freudian as they may be, are exposed and can be dealt with outside of the sleep state.  Stepping outside of the boundaries his craft sets, he decides to help a blind woman, a professional psychiatrist in her own right, to "see" using dreams.  But, as things go when man tries to play "God," things rarely turn out well.  This is a book that would go along side Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven, Frank Bonham's The Forever Formula,  or Chayefsky's Altered States.  The latter most definitely, since they both deal with the idea of the collective subconsciousness, the idea that there are certain things we see and know that come from the primal state of our being, as a coding of our "form," embedded into our DNA.

Movie based on The Dream Master

Zelazny writes in spurts, in images, in hallucinatory frames, and I would imagine that, like so many other artists in the 60's (18 and 19), that some sort of stimulation was used to create the muse for these writings.  It would remind someone of Coleridge's 'In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan..." or T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland" (April is the cruelest month).  This is not to denigrate the story at all, rather, it rescues it from being unreadable.  In fact, Zelazny's usage of myths, whether we know them or not, of poetic fits in between sections of plot, is what makes this an actually good book to ruminate upon.  Masterful writing style, deep, thoughtful nuggets that you have to mine from the rocky wording, phrases that are pure gold, it makes the once award winning short story well worth reading, despite its obvious flaws. 

Amongst the flat characters are soliloquies of how technology has so placed us in a state of security, of peace, that we become bored, even to the state of having nothing, verily, to live for. He deals with the usage of stories, of myths, to recreate the heart-rendering sorrows that mankind has lost, and the sub-culture of role-playing that has surfaced so that man can actually face that danger, instead of being lost to banality.  This is a theme also taken on by Simak in A Ring Around the Sun, which was a masterful work. I doubtless will use some of Zelazny's thoughts in some of my future blog postings (giving credit, obviously), as they were truly amazing.    Having never read Zelazny's work before, I will certainly find others in my Dad's sci-fi collection pilfered from the Bethany, OK library so many years ago, and read them as well.

Having read Cary Neeper's second book, The Webs of Vorak prior to the first, it allowed me to first see the more mature creation before the beginning.  Tolkien, in his essay "On Fairy Stories" talks about the creation of mankind, the constant need for making something, in emulation of God.  Imagine taking a ball of play-doh, and, realizing that you could make anything you wanted, you set out to create a world.  This, as Tolkien calls it, is Faerie. In The Neverending Story, it is Fantasia, and in the PS3 game LittleBigPlanet, it is the Orb of Dreams.  But whatever the name, it is the molding by which we create our dreams, our novels, our gods (if you look at many of the myths from Greece, Rome, and elsewhere).  So Cary Neeper took the mold of her world and created Ellason and Vorak, and on them, she placed the diametrically opposite Vorakians and Ellls.  In 1975, she wrote A Place Beyond Man, which is the account of the first contact between the two alien species and human beings. You can tell that, in the beginning, the mold is forming, becoming the deep and solid world that Neeper wants us to explore.  Get there, she does, and it becomes a magnificent lesson in the humility man will have to have of himself to save the world he lives in and to venture forth into the universe, as so many sci-fi writers will want to have us do.

The fascinating part of the story is the character studies that each of the three main people present to us.  Conn, the Elll, is the personification of Dionysus, pleasure, enjoyment incarnate.  Orram, the Varok, is the antithesis, the voice of Reason, Apollo, standing firm with stolid emotions, using reason and logic to perceive the world.  (I reject the idea of other reviewers that Orram is simply a Vulcan rehash, even though there are similarities.) Thus, to follow Hagel's philosophy, Tandra, the human, is the Synthesis, the balance of emotion and reason.  But this is only one way to look at it. Another perception to each of the characters lies in the "widening gyre" of William Butler Yates.  Control of Orram's emotional states is only possible when the spiral is tight, compacted, governed by cultural and physical boundaries that are strictly enforced.  The same, remarkably, is the case for the Dionysian character Conn, who must stay grounded within the "school" of his amphibious culture.  Even Tandra, who must handle the first contact situation with a balance of emotion and reason, must keep herself in control of her faculties.   In all cases, the sprial unravels, and they must each help one another to return to the sanity which is inherent in their own species. In the strengths of their own characters, they can survive.

In the end, it is Tandra, and us as well, who must see that the first contact situation calls into question everything that we assume about ourselves as human beings, about our position in the universe, about the superior stance we take in the world, and in our own minds.  Tandra becomes much as Jodie Foster's character was in the movie based on Carl Sagan's Contact. There are few humans, as was seen in the movie, and as was rightly guessed by the Ell-Varokian team, that would have successfully reacted and adapted to finding other sentient species in the world, especially ones without the bi-pedal look of current Earth sentient beings (supposedly).

The original 1975 book, published by Dell (now Random House), is out of print, but was reprinted in 2011 by iUniverse.  Neeper is working on a revised edition of this book, which is scheduled for release in a couple of years.  I do recommend reading this book (before or after The Webs of Varok) instead of waiting, as it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, thought provoking, and great addition to the Science-Fiction cannon.  I only hope that more of the classic sci-fi books can be rescued from the shelves of obscurity and reissued to a public that needs to be reminded of just how amazing mankind is, what his potential is, and how fragile our world is, how dangerous it will be if the "centre cannot hold."