by Campbell Geeslin
The good news is that independent bookstores are making a big comeback across the nation, registering a growth of more than 30 percent since 2009. Sales were up around 10 percent last year. This information from the American Booksellers Association (the indies’ main organization, with more than 2,200 stores) appeared in The New York Times.
Francis X. Clines wrote in the Times that readers “want to embrace books in all three dimensions and to select them in a tactile, less anonymous marketplace. Booksellers are fellow readers who converse knowledgeably and jot down their current favorites on helpful bookshelf notes.”
NEW TITLE: Eric Foner, Columbia University historian, has been awarded The New York Historical Society’s American History Book Prize for his latest work, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.
The book, said the Times, “reconstructs the clandestine efforts by black and white abolitionists to help fugitive slaves passing through New York, a city with deep connections to the Southern cotton trade and the textile industry.”
The honor comes with a prize of $50,000 and a title, “American Historian Laureate,” to be presented at a black-tie dinner at the Historical Society in April.
EARLY HIT: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the “eighth story” about the fictional lad from J.K. Rowling, written as a two-part play, hit the top of the bestseller lists less than 24 hours after it was announced—and five months before its expected release. The book is being held until the day after the play opens in London on July 30.
The Guardian said the action takes place 19 years after the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry will be “an overworked employee of the ministry of magic, a husband and father of three school-age children” grappling “with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs.”
OBSESSED: “The Ground Shared by a Driven Author and His Protagonist” was the Times headline last week on an Alexandra Alter article about Ethan Canin and his fifth and latest novel, A Doubter’s Almanac.
The story, Alter writes, is about a “brilliant mathematician… who proves a famously impenetrable conjecture as a young man, then destroys himself trying to top his crowning achievement," a theme she sees as connected to Canin's own struggles as a gifted writer “who has often set impossible standards for himself.”
“You’re trying to do something that’s never been done before,” Canin told Alter. “You’re trying to invent something. It’s this desire to do something of no apparent import, against all odds, to which you’re driven by an inexplicable obsession.”
PIN-UP PLACE: An article by Susan Burton about a bestselling author in Sunday’s Times Magazine began: “When Dana Spiotta was working on her fourth novel, Innocents and Others, she sat beneath a huge bulletin board pinned with her sticky notes and research materials: lists of relevant words (passion, transformation, intimacy) and ‘seeing’ devices (zoetrope, stereoscope, camera oscura) and photographs of Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard and the Maysles brothers.
"'It’s like walking into the book,” Spiotta told me. ‘You feel it all around you.’”
LIARS LOVE IT: “Britain is racing to address the fact that only 4 percent of Britons have read War and Peace, with Leo Tolstoy’s doorstopping epic entering the UK’s book charts for the first time.”
The Guardian's Alison Flood's tongue-in-cheek piece on the popular success of the BBC's latest adaptation of a canonical work was one of many that have run in British papers since the series launched in December. Most cited as well a BBC survey that found that “War and Peace was in the top five works of fiction people are most likely to lie about having read.”
“Judging by our recent sales," Waterstones Books' Joseph Knobbs told the Guardian, "an awful lot of people have finally crossed this classic off their must-read list. Four different editions of the book have hit our bestseller list, shifting an almost equal number of copies each.”
WHAT KIND DO YOU READ?: The Times research and analytics department asked 2,987 subscribers, “Do you still read physical books, or do you read them on electronic devices?”
Thirty eight percent said they read only physical books. Four percent read books on electronic devices, and fifty-eight percent said they read in both forms.
ABOUT CRITICISM: A.O. Scott, the Times book critic, is the author of Better Living Through Criticism.
In a review of that book, Daniel Mendelson (author of Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays From the Classics to Pop Culture) wrote: “The critic’s job is to be more educated, articulate, stylish and tasteful—in a word more worthy of ‘trust’—than her readers have the time or inclination to be: qualities eminently suited to a practice that (as Scott rightly if too glancingly points out) has validity and value only if it is conducted in public.”
DEATHS: Harper Lee, 89, died last week. Her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) won a Pulitzer, became an American classic, and sold 40 million copies. Her former pastor in Monroeville, the Reverend Thomas Butts, told the Times, "She did not want to do anything that put her in the public eye."
Umberto Eco, 84, died last week. His first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980) sold more than 10 million copies. He also wrote more than 20 nonfiction books. He was quoted in the Times obituary: "I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekends, writes novels."