|photo: Johnny Ring
Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, authors of The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You (The Penguin Press; September 30, 2013; $26.95) have some prescriptions especially for booksellers.
What ails you, bookseller? Quite a lot, it turned out when we asked around--from the independent bookstore's struggle to compete with the online retailers to the conflicted feelings borne toward that all-important third party: the customer. Luckily, remedies and restoratives abound on the shelves of your very own store. Choose your ailment from the list, then administer our novel cure.
Ailment: Going under, fear of
Cure: If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
The economic downturn affects everyone in retail. But as a bookseller you have every reason to be positive, trading as you do in the least expensive, most adaptable and most transportable form of entertainment money can buy. Beat the downturn-- and your fear of going under--by re-infecting your local community with the reading bug, and what better novel to help you do it than If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Italo Calvino's novel is a hymn to the pleasure of being so caught up in a story that to be prevented from reading to the end is utter torture. You know it; your customers know it; but we all need to be reminded from time to time. Hand out copies of the novel to your workforce so that they infect everyone they meet with the contagious passion within.
Ailment: Competition, fighting off the
Cure: Gold by Chris Cleave
To survive in the competitive bookselling market, a ruthless and determined streak may be imperative. Zoe and Kate in Chris Cleave's Olympic novel have this streak woven into their Lycra body-skins. Friends since teenagehood, the two passionate cyclists are both going for gold in the 2013 Games. Cleave stitches their backstories into the narrative in such a way that their battle for victory becomes deeply compelling: one contestant lost her brother when she was 10; the other must stay strong for a child with a terminal disease. Their desperation for the highest accolade that sport can offer will seep through sweat and tears into your own heart, pumping you with the necessary adrenalin and drive to push ahead and leave your competitors far behind.
Ailment: Choice, overwhelmed by
Cure: I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelssohn
The fact is, you can't expect to read every new book that arrives in your shop. But should it be the new novel by A.M. Homes, the latest literary ingénue who everyone's raving about or the third novel in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian trilogy which you never quite got round to?
Making intelligent choices about your reading is the difference between swimming and sinking in the sea of books available these days. Jane Mendelssohn's lyrical imagining of what might have happened to the famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart had she survived the plane crash in which she disappeared shows how unhappy we can be made when besieged by the world and its demands. Earhart and her alcoholic navigator, Noonan, create for themselves a Robinson Crusoe-like existence on their desert island, both undergoing a heady transformation in which simple, sensual pleasures are all that matter. Let them inspire you to pare down your to-read list. You don't have to read everything; but read what you read with focus and as few interruptions as possible--as if you, too, were marooned on a desert island with nothing else to do.
Cure: Lady: My Life as a Bitch by Melvyn Burgess
Bookish sorts are often shy, sticking their noses in books from childhood onwards as a way of avoiding others. But what happens when the author you most admire materialises at your counter, offering to sign their books? Do you swoon? Do you stammer? Do you blush?
You grab a copy of Lady: My Life as a Bitch. When teenager Sandra accidentally knocks over an alchy's beer one day and is accused of being a "bitch," she at first doesn't notice that her body has obeyed the slander. Running away on suddenly speedy feet, she finds she's unrecognisable to her own mother. Despite all her attempts to convince her family that the mongrel barking on their doorstep is actually her, she soon finds herself out on the street. Gradually, she casts aside her human notions of shame and civilization, and embraces a more doggy approach to life, reveling in the smells of other canines, in the joy of chasing cats and in the simple contentment of a full belly. Reading this surprising novel will have you shaking off your self-consciousness once and for all, leaving you to wag your tail with reckless joy at the mention of your favourite author's name, then drooling happily at his or her feet when they pitch up.
Ailment: Writer's block
Cure: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
You love to read, you love to talk about books. And possibly you also love to write, harbouring a dream of publishing your own book one day. If so, you'll almost certainly suffer from writer's block at some point in your life.
The remedy inflicted on the blocked novelist-father in I Capture the Castle is nothing short of genius; but to tell it would be to give away the plot of this charming novel. Suffice to say that Mortmain is cured because his observant youngest daughter, Cassandra, realises he needs a few, basic elements to be in place before the words will flow--including the Encyclopaedia Britannica and someone to do the cooking. Copy the cure as you read, and you might find yourself featuring in your bookshop in more ways than one.
Cure: The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann
Let's face it: you work with books because you love books--not because you love people. Dealing with the general public is never easy, and sometimes you wish those pesky customers would just go away and leave you to read in peace. You secretly dread the sound of the bell that announces the arrival of a new customer.
If you find yourself entertaining such misanthropic thoughts from time to time, Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner is your medicine. Gregory has good reason to shun society: he married his mother, killed his father, and is himself the offspring of a brother and sister. When he discovers his incestuous origins, he shackles himself to a rock in the middle of a lake and stays there for 17 years, drinking the "milk of mother earth" and eventually shrinking to the size of a hedgehog. Back on the mainland, the pope dies, and two bishops have a vision which gives them to understand that his successor is to be found... you've guessed it, on an island in the middle of a lake.
It all turns out for the best. Gregory discovers that his hatred was for himself, not everybody else, and once he has forgiven himself he becomes the greatest pope of all time--admired for his wisdom, clemency and understanding. Take a leaf from Pope Gregory, and before you know it your heart will jump in delight at the tinkle of that bell.