For a few months I have been putting a couple of paragraphs of Book News at the end of the book reviews that our paying subscribers receive in their in-boxes. Given the momentous events of recent weeks, I’ve found the last two addressing themselves to some enormous upheavals in our world, and I wanted to share them with you, followers of our free list. If you’d like more where this came from, please consider a paying subscription! Part I (below) appeared last week with our review of a new translation of the Book of Job (speaking of calamities from above), and Part II is actually open just for today, here, with a multiplier book tip for the homebound: Vivian Gornick’s re-reading memoir, Unfinished Business. I hope you will find these useful. Please give us a boost and share if so. Those who work to provide you with reading need your help now.
Ann Kjellberg, editor
Book Notes, April 1, 2020 (online here)
Solitude and reading are natural friends, and in some ways the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in has strengthened our connections to books. The Guardian reported that the British chain Waterstones is seeing increased sales of big classics like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Dystopian fiction like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is also in demand. Among new work, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall follow-up, The Mirror and the Light, is a bestseller.
Meanwhile, parts of modern reading life that have drawn sustenance from in-person connection—like reading groups and independent bookstores—have hoisted themselves with energy into our new remote relationships. Novelist Yiyun Li, inviting readers to join her in tackling War and Peace, found herself with three thousand followers (see #TolstoyTogether), and naturalist Robert Macfarlane (reviewed for Book Post by John Banville) created a spontaneous international book group under the banner #CoReadingVirus (see The Guardian and Time for more). Theater, ballet, and opera companies, and museums, have also gotten in on the act, opening up their treasures for the homebound. Bookstores, facing an unprecedented crisis (to which we’ll return), received an outpouring of support from their neighbors, who contributed to GoFundMe campaigns, ramped up book orders, and nourished cash flow by ordering future books ahead of schedule and buying gift cards. Readers were ready to play springtime Santa and buy curated selections for others (in Lawrence, Kansas, Los Angeles, and Florence, Massachusetts, for example). During the first rumblings of social distancing many stores began offering curb-side delivery, and these programs persist in some states that have granted bookstores the status of “essential services,” allowing them to operate, within constraints, amidst state-wide lockdowns. (Some European countries have granted booksellers nationwide “essential service” status; for the moment book distributors are considered essential, allowing online ordering to continue while stores are closed.)
Authors have been encouraging their readers to order from independent booksellers (see this particularly creative approach by devoted Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai), and publishers are showing some fealty to independents by putting their weight behind Bookshop.org, the new alternative to Amazon that supports independent bookselling (see our Notebook on the subject), and donating to Binc, a fund that gives relief to booksellers in need. Bookshop.org founder Andy Hunter noted that the site’s sales had risen 1,000 percent in the last month.
Parents ordered piles of books to assist with teaching and amusing the kids at home, delivering steady print book sales even amidst lockdown during the week ending March 20. (The uptick in online ordering has helped staunch the bleeding at physical bookstores but comes nowhere near replacing their lost in-person sales.) Publishers have also loosened copyright restrictions to allow authors and teachers to read books aloud on virtual channels, and libraries and bookstores have begun broadcasting their story hours. Actors and authors have taken to the airwaves to read books to kids. As librarians noted, transforming their mission from a physical to a virtual space is a fundamental change for them. “What we’re being asked to do is really sort of contrary to what libraries have excelled at over the past 25 years,” Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the Washington, D.C., public libraries told Ron Charles of The Washington Post. “‘The programming, the civic engagement, the book clubs, the job search help—all of these things that encourage critical masses of people’ must suddenly be done differently.” Perhaps this transformative experience will have as one good side affect bringing people in remote areas and those who are homebound into closer connection with writers and their fellow readers. (Read more here.)
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