By Alan Caruba
I am back from walking the many aisles of Book Expo in the cavernous New York City Jacob Javits Exposition Center. For a charter member of the National Book Critics Circle and longtime—very longtime—editor of Bookviews.com, a monthly report on the best in new fiction and non-fiction, Book Expo is the annual equivalent of the hajj to Mecca.
It is filled with booths and the booths are filled with books. Eager publicists, sales people, and even editors can’t wait to show you their latest “titles.” In the book world, all new books are “titles.” In some booths, famous authors sign copies. In others, authors who have achieved a smaller measure of fame or eager to be famous have their new books as well.
There are several genres of books that I try to avoid. I am deeply skeptical of all manner of books that involve any form of “enlightenment” beyond what one can find in the family Bible, Old and New Testament. Books that recommend you meditate while burning incense or candles, sit cross-legged in the middle of the room, et cetera, don’t work for me. Prayer? Pray where you are, any time you need to, which in these times is often.
One is reminded of the way there is no end to cookbooks and, alternatively, books on how to diet. Travel books seem to thrive. Self-improvement and home-improvement books abound. Books on various aspects of health and medicine do well. There are novels, novels, novels.
By mid-morning, the aisles are jammed with people. Book Expo draws bibliophiles and those from the far-flung community of people who make their living selling books. It was quickly becoming difficult to navigate the aisles and I am reminded once again why I receive anywhere from three to five books every day but Sunday. That’s easily a one hundred or more books a month. I have heard estimates of 200,000 new books a year and I have no reason to dispute the figure.
I love to read. My favorite topics are history, politics, biographies, and books on current events. I read almost no fiction nor do I read all of the seventy or so books that are recommended in my monthly Internet site. I read enough of each to make a judgment as to their content, their organization, their documentation, and attention to general literary standards.
Bookviews.com used to attract some 60,000 to 80,000 visits a month, but it is down to half that these days. The book industry is feeling the contraction of the economy too and the book sections that used to grace newspapers like The Washington Post and others are swiftly becoming a thing of the past.
On the first day of Book Expo, however, you would not know that. The place is thronged and, after a transit of its many aisles, the presentation of every kind of book on every kind of subject, one is comforted in knowing that the book industry is soldering on, forever in pursuit of the next bestseller. In our society, authors still have prestige, no matter what they have written.
Indeed, one measure of success in America is to have written a book. Many of our former Presidents wrote memoirs. Ulysses S. Grant wrote his in order to leave some money for his family because he was pretty much broke by the end of his life. When Harry S. Truman went home to Independence, Missouri, all he had to his name was his WWI army pension and the family farm which he was forced to sell. These days, books by former Presidents like Clinton generate big bucks. President Obama, unable to find a more important topic, wrote two memoirs before he even made it into the U.S. Senate.
There is even a vast industry for those who want to self-publish rather than run the gauntlet of getting a publisher to take it on. Writing a really good book requires talent. It requires dedication. Personal vanity is a very bad reason to write a book.
The curmudgeon in me wants to say there are too many books being published these days. The short answer is yes. I can’t say that, though. The reason is that, among the hundred or more books that I receive monthly, I inevitably find several of great merit. They often provide a blazing insight into the minds of people whom I need to understand or events and personalities that left their mark on human history. There are books that explain the science of the Earth and beyond to me.
Books have largely made me the man I am today. Show me someone who does not read books and I will show you someone lost in the fog of propaganda, manipulation, and the lies that pass for the news of the day. Books can tell you who you are, what you believe, and why. They always leave you changed in some fashion.