Friday, February 3, 2017

Shelf life

We normally think about shelf life in terms of groceries or drugs. Such staples as bread and milk can be kept on display in grocery stores for just a brief time before the bread goes stale and the milk turns sour. Canned goods, by contrast, have a long shelf life, perhaps a year or more.

It occurs to me that shelf life is a term that can be applied to books, as well. A week ago I visited the Friends of the Library book sale in Largo, Fla. The book I saw the most copies of, by far, was Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. I counted seven hardback copies of Palin's 2009 memoir. This fact suggested two things to me. First, if that many copies showed up at one used book sale in one community, a lot of copies of that book must have sold. Second, a lot of people are now disposing of their copies of that particular book. In other words, it was a book with a short shelf life.

I suspect that most books by and about political figures have short shelf lives. In general I don't want such books on my shelf for even five minutes, but even those people who buy them probably don't want to keep them a long time, certainly not after their subjects have faded from then political scene. Now that Barack Obama has left the White House, I suspect many copies of The Audacity of Hope will be showing up at used book sales.

I make a distinction between serious biographies of former political figures like Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt and books by and about current political figures. During last year's election, virtually every candidate was the subject of at least one book. You cannot be a serious candidate for the presidency these days without either writing a book about yourself or hiring someone to do it for you. Most of these books do not sell very well, and once the election's over they are virtually worthless.

Back in 1988 when Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time was a surprising best seller, Charles Krauthammer wondered in a Washington Post article why so many people were buying copies of a book they probably couldn't understand even if they bothered to read it. "They only want to own them," he wrote. "Not out of snobbery, I think, but out of a kind of reverence. Not many people read their Bibles, either. But they like having them around."

Books with a long shelf life tend to be those we have "a kind of reverence" for. These may be religious books, favorite books of poetry, certain cookbooks, certain reference books and books that were special to us at certain points in our lives. Such books as Charlotte's Web, Alice in Wonderland, The Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, Of Mice and Men, Brave New World and To Kill a Mockingbird have extremely long shelf lives for certain people.

The condo association library that my wife and I oversee in Florida depends entirely on donated books. It frustrates me that so many of these donations are books by James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts, David Baldacci and the like. I would love to see a bit more variety. But these are donated books, books that many people buy but few people want to keep around long after they finish reading them. In other words, books with a short shelf life.

I expect a copy of Going Rogue to turn up any day now.

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