Robert Gray: Reflections (Not Resolutions) for a New Year

My literary resolutions are always the same: Read more, write more, and when otherwise unoccupied, read and write more. --Author Ben Ehrenreich in Jacket Copy

While I love that quote, New Year's resolutions are not for me. "Reflections" are more my style, and this week I've been reflecting on the fact that it's been over eight years since I started a fledgling blog called Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal, which gradually evolved into this column for Shelf Awareness.

When I first decided to write about being a frontline bookseller, I wanted to convey a sense of the magic that so often occurs during that critical moment when a book finally escapes the clutches of the industry and enters the domain of the reader. Years after leaving the sales floor, I'm still intrigued by the narrow gap bridged on a daily basis as one bookseller somewhere in the world reaches out to physically hand over a copy (or, even better, a stack of copies) to one customer in a gesture that is both routine and ceremonial.

For my initial Fresh Eyes blog entry in 2004, I said I hoped to be more of a traveling companion than a guide on this reading and bookselling journey. That was how I'd always handsold books, beginning conversations not with a directive ("Read this!"), but with a question ("Who do you love to read?"). 

Reflecting this week upon the curious path I've taken professionally, I can see the trail behind me, marked clearly by the books I've read and the extraordinary "book people" I've met, both inside and outside the industry. The trail ahead, however, is largely unmarked (though not without promise) for all of us, even if our various job descriptions do propel us relentlessly toward the future, engulfing us (New Year's resolutions notwithstanding) in the usual tangle of deadlines, sales projections, ARCs, pub dates, event planning and all the other working parts of our fragile, book trade time machines.

Cuban chess legend José Raúl Capablanca was once asked how he could play so well and so fast on exhibition tours, where he might face two dozen or more opponents at a time. His answer, perhaps apocryphal yet irresistible here, was: "I see only one move ahead, but it is always the correct one." 

Few of us are geniuses (or legends, for that matter) and knowing the "correct" move has not gotten any easier in this business, as is evident from the good news/bad news roller coaster we all ride daily--bookstores opening or thriving or closing; publishers succeeding or failing or merging; authors finding readers or not; and, of course, all-consuming technology taunting "fiber-based" texts.

It can be confusing and even disheartening at times, but I draw strength, as I always have, from a single image: one reader... reading.

Now another year has begun, and we wonder if we should enter it with fear, like medieval peasants terrified by the prospect of an invading army or disease (or, these days, another unanticipated technological marvel) coming over the distant hill. But like cocktail hour, it's always the Dark Ages somewhere. As a character in one of John Berger's stories replies to an irate woman who has demanded to know "what century in God's name do I think I'm living in?... How many, Madame, do you think were not dark? One in seven?" It is, as it always has been, the best and worst of times. We literary peasants adapt to survive.

In the midst of it all, miraculously, readers keep reading. "You absolutely have to respect the reader because they're smart enough to pick up your work," author Marcie Hershman advised writers at a lecture I attended years ago. She was right. They are. We should. I do.

Those readers are everywhere. You just have to pay attention. "Wherever I met another person with even the least appreciation for artistic excellence, I was overcome with joy," observed 17th century Japanese poet Bashō. "Even those I'd expected to be stubbornly old-fashioned often proved to be good companions. People often say that the greatest pleasures of traveling are finding a sage hidden behind weeds or treasures hidden in trash, gold among discarded pottery." Sounds like a handseller in the making to me.

On reflection, 2013 will belong, once again, to readers. May they find your bookstores and your books, and may that narrow, ceremonial gap between the book trade and its patrons be bridged again and again in ways old and new. Maybe that's a New Year's resolution after all. "Nothing's worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes," Bashō wrote. "Yesterday's self is already worn out!" --Robert Gray, contributing editor (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now).

Powered by: Xtenit