Friday, November 17, 2017

Books nobody wants

Among the many banes to a secondhand dealer's existence, four unloved genres reign supreme: textbooks, theology, celebrity autobiography, and military history.
Paul Collins, Sixpence House

We buy textbooks only when we are taking certain classes and are required to buy them. When I was in college it seemed the required textbooks had often been written by the professors teaching my classes. I can understand why textbooks would be difficult for secondhand bookstores to sell, especially if the stores are not located in a college town and/or the books are no longer being used in any class.

As for theology or religious books of any kind, they do seem to get little attention in secondhand stores or used book sales. Titles by certain authors may be exceptions to the rule. I'm thinking of such people as C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Henri Nouwen.

Celebrity autobiographies don't sell well in secondhand stores because a) they are usually not well written and b) celebrities come and go. Some people might once have been eager to read a book by Pat Boone, for example. But who would be interested now? The same is true of political autobiographies. Even during the political campaign for which a book was written, few people wanted to read them. Later almost nobody does.

It's amazing to me how many books on military history are published each year, so somebody must read them. (I've read quite a few myself.) A shelf of military books in a secondhand store may get little attention, but to a certain reader, probably a man and probably a veteran,  it can be considered a goldmine.

Looking at the question from the perspective of a book buyer, rather than a bookseller, I could add other categories to this list. Take former bestsellers, for example. Most people who wanted to read a book like The Bridges of Madison County have already read it. Now there are countless copies of the novel out there and relatively few people interested in buying them. Most people want to read today's bestsellers, not yesterday's. I usually skip over such books very quickly when I am shopping. Sometimes there are exceptions, however. A couple of years ago I bought several secondhand books by Alistair MacLean, once a bestselling author, because I had neglected him at the time but was now interested in seeing what I had missed.

I ignore most self-help books when they are new, so naturally I ignore them when they are used, as well. Again there may be rare exceptions.

Finally there are self-published books. When you have to pay somebody to publish your book, you will probably have to pay somebody to read it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Literacy for peace

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else's thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person's vantage point.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Among the many reasons Steven Pinker gives in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature for the gradual decline of human violence over the centuries (see "The decline of violence," Nov. 13), one of the most important may be the spread of literacy. As more people learned to read and the printing of books and other materials increased, rates of violence gradually declined.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Why might that be so? Pinker answers that question in the lines above: Reading almost anything gives us another person's point of view. There's an American proverb that goes something like, "Never criticize a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins." Reading puts us in those moccasins. Even if we still disagree with what writers are saying, we can at least see they have reasons for their viewpoints. Rational argument becomes a better response than fists or bullets.

Of course, books can sometimes lead to violence. Abraham Lincoln was not entirely joking when he said of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, that she was the "little woman who wrote the book that started the great war." Yet consider the impact books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird have had on race relations in the United States. Such books put white readers in the "moccasins" of black Americans. Other books help readers understand the points of view of American Indians, Asians, Moslems, Mormons, atheists, evangelical Christians, Republicans, Democrats or anyone else one might feel a compulsion to take up arms against.

Movies, television and now the Internet have broadened what Pinker calls the "technology for perspective-taking." Almost every day, through one means or another, most of us are exposed to how other people live, how they think, how they feel and what they believe. Sometimes this may make us angry, but rarely does it make us violent.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The decline of violence

The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

I have read enough history to agree with Steven Pinker's thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature that the trend of human existence has been toward less violence, less cruelty and more tolerance. Yet most people, aware of ongoing wars, global terrorism, mass shootings, the soaring murder rate in Chicago and the violent protests on certain college campuses whenever conservatives try to express an opinion might believe otherwise.

Pinker takes nearly 700 pages to make his case, and though he often strays from science into opinion, it is a sound one. War, if still commonplace, is not as common as it once was. Nor is the mistreatment of animals, the owning of slaves, the burning of witches, the torture of criminals, the spanking of children, the beating of wives or the persecution of minorities and, despite what has been taking place at those college campuses, those who hold unpopular points of view.

The reasons are many. For one thing, people everywhere seem to be getting smarter. IQs keep rising. Smart people are more likely to realize that violence may not be the smartest way to solve a problem. (Again those college protestors stand as a notable exception.)

Before the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, human rights were not something most people even thought about. Now, in much of the world at least, everyone thinks of and speaks of rights. You can't walk into a doctor's office without being told of your right of privacy. All those groups of people who once had few rights now have them written into law. Recognizing the rights of others has led to less violence. (And once again those college protestors are an exception to the rule.)

Stronger central government, a government with a license to put down violence with violence when necessary, has been vital to the pacification of the populace. When someone damages your car, you call the cops; you don't try to resolve the matter yourself with your fists or a gun.

Trade and international organizations, says Pinker, have made countries less inclined to go to war. Why invade a neighboring country when you are already getting what you want from it through trade?

Pinker develops these ideas, and others, in great detail, complete with graphs and illustrations. Much of what he says will surprise you, much will probably anger you. Whether or not he is correct on all points, I think he is right on the central one: Human beings are less prone to violence than we once were.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Battle of generations

Nancy Pickard's 2006 novel The Virgin of Small Plains threatens now and then to become a traditional murder mystery, a traditional romance or a traditional supernatural fantasy, but Pickard cleverly controls these impulses and instead gives us an original novel not so easy to place into any category.

Mitch Newquist and Abby Reynolds, the offspring of two the most prominent families in the small town of Small Plains, Kansas, are just teenagers in love when the story opens. Then Mitch witnesses something so shocking, so horrible that it forces, him into exile. What he sees involves the body of a dead girl and the actions of both Abby's father, a physician, and the sheriff, the father of their friend, Rex Shellberger. Hearing his story, Mitch's father, the judge, sends him away, telling him he must never return and never reveal what he witnessed.

Years later, following the death of his mother, Mitch, now a lawyer, does return. Rex has succeeded his father as county sheriff. Abby, in a dead-end affair with Rex's worthless brother, still pines for Mitch. The older generation remains steadfast, unwilling to talk about that dead girl or to tolerate any attempts to get at the truth of who she was or how she died.

Meanwhile, the dead girl has become something of a saint, her grave attracting pilgrims seeking healing. Many of them claim to have found it.

Pickard's twisty plot, a succession of surprises, comes down to generational battle, the young punished for the sins of their elders without understanding what those sins are or why they should suffer for them, their parents believing that some things, including that girl in the grave, should stay buried. The real miracle wrought by the Virgin of Small Plains is the power of truth revealed.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

In praise of stand-alone mysteries

Publishers like series mysteries because readers like them. Once we get to know and like a character or a group of characters, we want to read about the same characters in different situations. New characters can make it more difficult to get interested in new novels. Thus, when we go to the bookstore, most of us are more likely a purchase a book with characters we are already familiar with than a book from a different, untried series or a stand-alone book, even if it's by an author we have read before and liked.

Writers, however, can be of two minds about series mysteries. On the one hand, they can provide a steady income, or a growing income as the series gains in popularity. They also give an author a framework of characters with which to start each novel. Much of the work of writing a novel is already done because the major characters have already been created.

Elizabeth George
The downside is that series books tend to become formulaic. There can be less opportunity for creativity and originality. Some writers, such as Elizabeth George, combat this by creating a group of characters and sometimes switching the focus from one to another. Her books are usually thought of as Inspector Lynley novels, but sometimes her main character is Barbara Havers or Simon Allcourt St. James, the forensic pathologist. She has said that she originally intended St. James to be her main character until Thomas Lynley took over the lead role.

Another way mystery writers try to feed their creative impulses is to develop a new series of books, sometimes written under a different name. Some writers have several different series going on at the same time.

Another problem with a series of books is that it challenges credulity. How many times can an aging spinster like Jane Marple, living in a quiet English village, realistically become involved in a baffling murder mystery?

Some writers manage to break away from their series and write successful stand-alone novels. Laura Lippman is a prominent example. She made her name with her series of Tess Monaghan mysteries, but now she writes mostly stand-alones like I'd Know You Anywhere and Life Sentences. These books may have, if anything, expanded her audience.

All this brings me to Nancy Pickard, another writer who was able to break away from the series rut and write successful stand-alones. For years she had moderate success with her Jenny Cain mysteries and then her Marie Lightfoot mysteries. Then in 2006 she published The Virgin of Small Plains, a stand-alone novel set in her native Kansas. Since then she has written The Scent of Rain and Lightning, now a motion picture. She has expanded her readership, to me at least, and freed herself to create outside the box mandated by established characters and storylines. Perhaps I will review The Virgin of Small Plains next time.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bedtime reading

Many busy people get a chance to read only when they go to bed at night. What puzzles me is how busy people can stay awake to read anything once they hit the pillow. I've never been able to read more than a couple of pages before it's lights out.

Reading in bed can accomplish one of two things: either put one to sleep or keep one awake. I have never understood those who say a certain book kept them awake all night. Why read thrillers or edge-of-the-seat mysteries at bedtime? Isn't going to bed usually about going to sleep, not staying awake? Another poor bedside book would be something challenging that requires one's full focus, such as a textbook or a literary novel, unless falling asleep, not understanding what you are reading, is your main objective. I recently used a collection of poems by G.K. Chesterton as my nap time reading, one  or two poems a day. The poems helped me sleep, but I feel I shortchanged the poetry.

Clifford Fadiman
In his essay "Pillow Books," written in the 1950s, Clifton Fadiman argues that to use books to either put one to sleep or keep one awake is a misuse of those books. To read through the night "is to trespass upon nature," he says. But "dull books soothe only dull brains -- a moderately healthy mind will be irritated rather than rested by a dull book," he argues. He favors a middle ground, a book that is interesting but not too interesting, relaxing but not too relaxing.

To Fadiman, Anthony Trollope is the perfect author for bedtime reading. "He never fails to interest, but not too much; to sooth, but not too much," he writes. Reading Trollope, or any comparable author, one can turn off the light whenever one chooses. They are books one can easily put down, but which one will be eager to pick up again the following night.

As for me, I never read novels of any kind before sleep. For a time I tried reading short stories, but it could take me weeks, even months, to read a single story of moderate length, simply because of my inability to read more than a couple of pages a night. Most nights I am too tired to read anything at all. Besides I have always been able to find other times during the day to read, so I have never felt that bedtime was my only chance.

For my bedside table, I favor books with very short segments. Meditations can work if they don't require too much concentration. Better are books of quotations or light verse. I have long felt Ogden Nash to be the ideal writer for late at night, and I have one of his books beside my bed right now.

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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Girl becomes detective

Constance Kopp doesn't think of herself as a detective until the very end of Amy Stewart's engaging 2015 novel Girl Waits with Gun, and if not for messages conveyed by the title and cover drawing, readers wouldn't either for much of the book. Constance is an unusually tall, unmarried woman in her mid-30s who lives on a New Jersey farm with her two sisters, Norma and Fleurette. It's 1914. She just wants to collect the money she thinks she is owed by Henry Kaufman, a business owner, after he and his carousing friends damage the sisters' farm wagon with their car.

Kaufman doesn't think he should have to pay, even maintaining at one point that the horse and buggy ran into his car. Soon the sisters get threats, some delivered by bricks thrown through windows. The threats usually has to do with Fleurette, an alluring, overly-dramatic teenager. Constance will do anything to protect Fleurette, including learning how to use that gun mentioned in the title.

Meanwhile there's a girl whose baby boy, Kaufman's son, is missing, and an overworked sheriff who takes Constance's complaint seriously but is handcuffed by lack of evidence and the fact that Kaufman has a business (even if it is his sister who is actually running it.).

All this, a mostly true story, may not sound like enough plot to power a 400-page novel, especially one as compelling as this one, but Stewart keeps her focus more on character than plot, and her characters are wonderfully rich and always fascinating. Constance has a deep, dark secret. Steady Norma wants only to run a farm and raise her pigeons. Fleurette seems like a typical teenage girl, but then much, much more. These three, plus the sheriff and a few other characters, are sufficient to support the novel, as well as bring us back for the others in the series.