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Notebook: (2) Heartland Vistas
Read Part One of this post here
I am of course a very amateur observer here and Josh and Danny (and their publishers) know a lot more about this than I do. When asked Danny says with a note of weariness that booksellers talk about this sort of thing all the time. But I think with humility I might pose the counter-case to Josh a little differently than he puts it in his book. Josh represents a theoretical antagonist who considers the decision to stock books that Josh considers harmful to be making a purely commercial decision, or to place the moral decision-making weight on the customer; such a bookseller in his portrait rejects the idea that they can make meaningful choices about what books to stock or recommend. To such a bookseller “the bookstore is simply the place to go in the neighborhood to buy the books they already know they want” and “curation is almost entirely a sales-prediction skill.”
I wonder though if there might not be room for another kind of bookstore, in which visitors feel that the answers are more open-ended and there is an invitation to weigh and come to conclusions for themselves. My editorial upbringing taught that readers are more likely to trust in a conclusion when they have been given the material to arrive at it on their own, that it is natural to resist overt direction, particularly when it relies on ideologically coded language that predetermines the case. Some of us find nutrition in an environment in which we are given more freedom to exercise judgment, feel more respected when decisions are not made for us, find closed systems sometimes airless and confining. A bookseller might suspend the idea that they are already in possession of right and wrong answers without abandoning discretion in their curatorial decisions.
Josh advocates excluding from the conscientious bookstore authors who have supported President Trump, but it was not clear to me where he would draw the line. Would he exclude in-their-time influential and seriously argued figures like David Stockman, Niall Ferguson, Allan Bloom, Kenneth Pollack, Charles Murray? Danny raised the example of J. D. Vance, who used the platform given him by his book Hillbilly Elegy to rise to elected office. After Heartland I visited Open Books in Chicago’s Logan Square, a bookstore with a clear agitator drift, but their politics section had books by John Bolton, Frances Fukuyama, Rudy Giuliani, Henry Kissinger, and Ben Shapiro. There is clearly room for variation of practice here. I can imagine a bookstore saying no to empty celebrity PR-driven books by politicians and media figures and ruling out a lot on that ground alone. Perhaps sometimes one wants to take a look inside and get a feeling for a book with which one disagrees without actually buying it; sometimes one needs to understand the opposition in order to formulate an argument against. In my experience I share this comfort with ideologically eclectic environments with some people from more marginalized backgrounds, though perhaps they are closer to my age.
A question that is as interesting and salient to me, though, as the question of the moral positioning of the bookseller is the question of who comes in the door. I certainly agree there is plenty to value in bookstores that serve as sanctuaries and meeting places for the like-minded. The open threats and harassment Danny recounts Black booksellers receiving is certainly an argument for the need for their existence as a place of refuge and protected exploration. When I moved to Greenwich Village the Oscar Wilde Bookshop was one of the few places in the country you could openly browse serious literature by gay people (“as [founder Craig] Rodwell and his mother placed books by queer authors on the same shelf” when he opened the store in 1967 “they redefined the meaning of homosexuality. It was no longer simply a deviance or a disorder. It was, instead, a coherent category—with shelves of books to prove it,” Jim Downs wrote of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in The Atlantic). The original meaning of “safe space” was not that everywhere must be safe, but that sometimes it is nourishing, even necessary, to be able to go somewhere where you can share ideas with people with common experience and not expect to be pummeled by the daily assaults that you get most everywhere else. These have always existed, the club, the sewing circle, the barber shop, the corner bar. In the past their boundaries have been less explicitly defined, self-policed by social exclusion. In our more mixed-together world—a good thing!—they perhaps need to be more consciously demarcated.
But since I began Book Post in 2017 I have been preoccupied with a somewhat different idea, the idea of building, around books, institutions—book reviews, bookstores, libraries—that could begin to advance, however tentatively, the beginnings of an agreed-upon, shared culture and repository of information, institutions that carry durable ideas past ideological membranes, that pump them through the nation’s tissues and organs, that offer comingling for those who too often in our moment see themselves as either inside or outside a discourse. A bookstore sits on a street in a town and suggests a portfolio of ideas, ideas that the passerby is invited in to consider. The sense of the plural, of trusting the reader to use judgment, to weigh options, to exist in a world of multiple things as a conscious agent, is, in this variant, the point.
The communities described by Josh and Danny seem like life-giving things, but I do think there is room for another kind of environment, perhaps acknowledging that people can be in a state of growth, can be more open to change than they realize. We need more cultural domains that offer this proposition. I think maybe a large number of the booksellers at the Heartland Fall Forum tend more toward this category, though it’s perhaps a quieter contingent. They serve customers who are bombarded with bullying messages; they invite them into a more liminal area, to consider and weigh. One of the ironies of being an editor is trying to hold in your mind two ideas at once: (1) the argument of this essay or book needs to hold up, the argument needs to be logical, well defended, and (2) I am open-minded. As a person who trusts the experience of learning, I deep down think that learning will bring people to the ideas that hold their own.
One way in which contemporary bookselling has opened itself up to bringing people in the door is the growing inclusion of genre fiction—especially romance. The romance shelves are inviting in many readers who didn’t used to think bookstores were for them (I wrote about this a year or so ago). I asked my bookselling partner Janet if she thought romance readers—who can devour hundreds of books a year—were drawn into other areas of reading by finding themselves in a bookstore, and she gently chastised me. Don’t think of yourself as trying to change people, she said. She told Danny’s Heartland panel, People will buy whatever they want to buy, whenever they want to buy it.
In his book Josh tries to soften the authority of “good taste” that might bolster his position as a recommender of books. “Rather than thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ I think of books in terms of ‘success’ and ‘failure.’” But I think this is too binary, or linear. There are many ways of being good, many ways of growing, in all directions, through reading. As Josh describes it, his own recommendations lead readers toward the contemporary, the experimental, often the translated (tastes not unlike mine); Josh and Danny both celebrate small presses that make available more “adventurous” and “cutting edge” work. I feel that Janet’s humility has a balancing virtue to Josh’s enthusiasm. I’m here not to tell you what’s right but to offer some paths, and I trust you to find your way.
An aside: it struck me reading these two books that this new youthful model of independent bookselling has some consanguinities with the culture of the writing program. When I worked in a bookstore in the eighties there was the same commercial emphasis coming from the publishers on “frontlist,” or new books, but it was my feeling that readers were not so oriented around what was most recent in writing. The Vintage Contemporaries series was just out: marketing young writers as young writers seemed novel. The communities described by Josh and Danny feel like communities where readers often share the perspectives of writers, their eyes are on the field of real-time creation. This idea of identifying passionate readers as themselves writers has also been an explicit part of new models in publishing like Andy Hunter’s LitHub and Catapult publisher/writer’s center. I think this is an extremely valuable and positive extension of the academy’s writer-communities. I wish more of the academy were outward-looking in this way, in trying to foster reception for their ideas among the larger public. This special community of reader/writers is again a group that benefits from being brought together. Creating that sense of shared space is in creative tension with the other function of bringing people in the door and widening the circle.
Read the third (sigh) part of this post here!
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. A few weeks ago she appeared on the Short Fuse podcast with Elizabeth Howard to talk about her editorial origins and her work with Book Post. Have a listen!
Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to our paying subscribers’ in-boxes, as well as free posts like this one from time to time to those who follow us. We aspire to grow a shared reading life in a divided world. Become a paying subscriber to support our work and receive our straight-to-you book posts. Coming soon: Joy Williams on Leonora Carrington! Anakana Schofield on Clarice Lispector!
Detroit’s Source Booksellers is Book Post’s Autumn 2023 partner bookstore! We partner with independent bookstores to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life across the land. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about Source’s story in here in Book Post. Read found Janet Webster Jones’s acceptance of the 2023 Voice of the Heartland Award here.
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