My business goal is not world domination but simply to make enough of a living to buy groceries, see the dentist regularly, and get my dog to the veterinarian by selling good books to people who care about books and bookstores. Thank you for shopping indie, wherever you live and travel.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
What Does “Nonfiction” Mean to You?
Marina parking lot, full of snow
In my literary lexicon, there
is poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction, so I’m always a little confused when
a newcomer to my bookstore asks, “Do you have a nonfiction section?”
Nonfiction, in fact, takes up most of the shelf space in my bookstore.
One wall and a small part of
another is basically fiction—and then there’s history and travel (which I
combined, for the sake of convenience, when I made the move back to Waukazoo
Street), biography and memoir, philosophy, religion, self-help, health, sports,
law, economics, true crime, foreign language, natural history, physics,
astronomy, do-it-yourself, cookbooks, military. There’s even a category for
“islands” and another for “adventure.” So the answer to the question is not
“Yes, I have a nonfiction section,” but “I have many nonfiction sections.” Still, I couldn’t help
wondering, so when I ran into a fellow bookseller the other day, I asked him if
I was missing something.
I mean, back in the
old days (by which I mean 15+ years
ago) we did not say, “Back in the day.” Really! We said, “Back in the old days.” The first time I saw the newer reference to earlier
times, it was in print, and my inner editor was highly offended. What the hell
did the writer mean by that? But then
I started listening for the phrase and hearing it everywhere. I may never hear
it without an initial shudder or twinge, but I realize now that it’s a phrase
in common usage, clearly (I note with interest) accepted across the
generations, and one that has replaced my old way of speaking. (Sigh!)
Life itself has been newly
divided into five kingdoms (there were two when I was in school), so who knew
what new divisions might have been inaugurated in the world of books? Do you
see the source of my unease? Was there, I wondered, a younger, hipper
definition, some narrower definition than the one in my mind, for “nonfiction”?
The fellow bookseller I
asked, who as it happens is exactly my son’s age, reassured me. No, he said,
there is no new boundary for the term, and the people who ask need to be more
precise about what they want. What a relief!
But I’m exaggerating my
anxiety. What constitutes “nonfiction” for any particular bookstore browser has
never been a problem, because I don’t mind asking questions in return to get
closer to what a customer wants, I don’t expect everyone who comes into my bookshop
to use my vocabulary and intuit my way of categorizing books, and it’s a nice
opening for conversation. It’s certainly preferable to “Is there any
organization at all to how these books are arranged?” Can you believe someone actually asked me
that once? No, I just put those identifying tags on the shelves to encourage
About half the books I read
every year are nonfiction. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That
Can’t Stop Talking was the first one
of this year, and I wrote about it at length in January. Meditations on
Hunting was a gift from a dear friend
and as much philosophy as sport. Many of my friends would find it morally
repugnant, I know, but I was fascinated by the argument Ortega y Gasset makes
for hunting (and fishing, he allows, but then does not explore this aspect) as
the only true way human beings (and he says “men,” but I see no reason to
restrict the argument in that way) can reconnect with the precivilized life we
had in common with other, still wild animals. The author makes particularly
scathing remarks about “hunting” with a camera but says nothing, I couldn’t
help noticing, of drawing or sketching or even tracking without killing, and
isn’t “to hunt” to seek, to search for, to follow? In the end, I’m not sure I
bought his whole argument, but it was fascinating to follow the trail of his reflective
thought through woods and field....
Deadly Spin I've also written about already so won’t say more here, and
next in my 2013 nonfiction reading was The Jefferson Bible, something I’d heard about for years but never before
read. Jefferson’s purpose was to separate the message of Jesus from other
material in the Gospels. Jefferson didn’t care about miracles but about the
teachings of Jesus, and I’d say that his idea was that to be a Christian meant
to follow the teachings, rather than to get too hung up on belief in miracles.
despite repetitions within them, were fascinating. What would he say today, I
wonder, about cordial American business relations with the government of China?
Finally I treated myself to
Adam Gopnik’s book of essays on winter. Gopnik never disappoints me. Although
this one has been more of an indoor winter for me, as opposed to last year’s
outdoor winter, it was satisfying to reflect with the author on Western views
of winter born in the modern era and how they have changed over the course of
David has been reading
nonfiction, too, most recently the Frances Mayes book called Bella Tuscany, which he tells me I’ll love, as she writes quite a
lot about gardening. Is he escaping from winter in reading about life in Italy?
Nothing wrong with that, is there? He balanced the Italy escape last night with a book about the recent global financial collapse and told me a lot about Iceland and how its economy fell.
Are we recovering? The president thinks so. Do you? Can afford to indulge yourself with a good new book? I'll have an order arriving in the next couple of days.