Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Borders

Goodbye, Borders

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Yesterday, my editor’s assistant emailed me with a draft of the back cover copy for The Icon Thief, asking if I had any comments. While I don’t think I can post it here yet—it’s only a preliminary version, and I’ve requested a number of small changes—I can say that it does a nice job of selling the novel, condensing a very complicated plot into a handful of punchy paragraphs. And after years of work, it’s immensely satisfying to see all the pieces start to come together. Between the cover art, the marketing copy, and not least the change of title, my publisher has turned an unformed stack of manuscript pages into an attractive object indeed, one that I hope will stand out on store shelves.

These days, of course, the idea of books being displayed on shelves at all is starting to seem obsolete. The bankruptcy and closure of Borders, especially, is a depressing story for readers and authors alike. (Even their liquidation sales are less attractive than they seem.) I’ve written before about how the decline of physical bookstores also heralds the end of browsing, that peculiar process in which you go to a bookstore looking for one thing, or even nothing in particular, and leave with a few titles that you never even knew you wanted. Online bookstores, though they’ve changed my life by giving me access to books I could never find elsewhere, aren’t built for those kinds of happy accidents. And for a novelist, the loss is even more troubling.

For most authors, a debut novel is less like the launch of a major Hollywood blockbuster than a direct to video release. You’re on a crowded shelf, competing with a lot of similar titles, with only your cover art, your title, and maybe a short description to help you stand out from the rest. It’s frightening, but exhilarating: this is survival of the fittest in literary form, and the major publishers are very good at creating packages for novels that push all the right buttons. Now, with the end of browsing, this expertise is being tested as never before, and while it’s already evolving into new, surprising shapes, a few things have remained constant. Even if it’s at Amazon instead of Borders, a great title and cover certainly can’t hurt a novel’s chances.

All the same, the downfall of Borders, which in many communities was the only physical bookstore in town, is a major loss. When I was growing up, it was a big deal to take a trip to Waldenbooks. It wasn’t a great bookstore, but I didn’t know that at the time, and I was happy to spend hours browsing among the glossy rows of paperbacks. Now Waldenbooks, a Borders subsidiary, is closing as well, which makes it all the less likely that a bright young teenager in a town I’ve never seen will pick up The Icon Thief by chance. In some ways, the fate of these stores was only a matter of time, and things could easily have been different. But I still can’t help wishing that they’d managed to hold out until March.

Written by nevalalee

July 27, 2011 at 9:15 am

Posted in Books, Publishing

Tagged with ,

The end of browsing

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A while back, I wrote a post about intentional randomness as a creative tool, explaining how I sometimes use Shakespeare and the I Ching to generate ideas. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I’ve neglected to discuss the single most useful source of creative randomness, and the one that has given me the most pleasure over the years: other books. In particular, the neglected books, often obscure or out of print, that you discover by accident, when looking for something else or nothing at all—which is when your mind is most receptive to unexpected influences. And the only place where such discoveries can really take place is a great used bookstore.

Jorge Luis Borges famously said that heaven, for him, was a sort of library. For me, it’s more like the perfect used bookstore: musty, crowded, cheap, and only vaguely organized. Libraries are great, but their very rationality, which is otherwise such a miracle, greatly reduces the chances of a spontaneous discovery—although I’ve recently taken to roaming the shelves of the Sulzer Regional branch here in Lincoln Square, hoping that I’ll stumble across something unexpected. To find something really special, though, you need something like the massive dollar bin at the Strand in New York, or the late lamented basement of The Ark in Chicago: a chaotic jumble, a mildewed treasure hoard, a browser’s paradise.

And the discoveries you make are unforgettable. I still remember the moment, something like fourteen years ago, when I first saw The Anatomy of Melancholy at Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley. More recently, I found The Road to Xanadu at Bookman’s Corner here in Chicago—a wonderful bookstore that looks like the remains of another, larger bookstore that exploded. The Portable Dragon all but leapt off the shelf two months ago at Pegasus Books. Even a chain like Borders has its occasional surprises: my copy of David Mamet’s On Directing Film, which faithful readers will know I treat almost as a religious text, was picked up for something like five dollars in the Borders bargain bin.

But even Borders, alas, is closing most of its Chicago stores. And as Noel Murray recently pointed out on the AV Club, the death of such big box stores, on top of the independent bookstores they replaced, threatens to mark the end of browsing, which had already been dealt a mortal blow by the coming of Every book imaginable is available online, at least for a price, which would have dazzled my younger self, who looked eagerly forward to his monthly trip to Waldenbooks—but it also threatens to eliminate the happy accidents for which I still spend hours at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest and Newberry Library Book Fair. In the old days, you had no choice but to browse; now it’s something you need to make time for. And you should. Because you never know when you’re going to find the book that will change your life.

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