Bookshelf real estate

I was waiting in line at the check-out at a woman’s clothing store, and the woman in front of me placed not only her dainty, silky purchase on the counter but also the four books she was carrying with her, all by mystery-thriller writer John D. MacDonald:

Spotted at the ladies' clothing store
Spotted at the ladies’ clothing store

Rather an incongruous assembly of items from a day’s shopping. I suspect she had probably purchased the books at the local independent bookstore only a couple blocks away.  Perhaps she was planning a slinky night of reading to in bed.

I had to do some research on MacDonald, having never read him.  He was a prolific author.  In addition to five works of non-fiction and five collections of his short stories, he wrote 43 novels, PLUS another 21 novels devoted to a character named Travis McGee, all between 1950 and 1987.   This means he was churning out almost two and a half books a year. If you look at his wikipedia entry, sometimes he was indeed publishing three or four books per year, especially in his early career.

Of course, MacDonald doesn’t even come close to squeezing out the amount of creative juice that truly prolific authors have managed. I poked around and found this list of the most prolific writers in literature, each of whom had authored at least hundreds of titles. (Interestingly, many of the top authors were romance writers. Does that say something about romance novels? Or about romance novelists?  Or about romance?) How do these authors find space for their own books on their shelves?

I used to shelve books at the small public library in my town, and as I recall the following authors seemed to take up the most space, both because of the number of books and the number of copies that the library felt it needed to stock: Danielle Steele; Andrew Greeley; Barbara Cartland; Tom Clancy; John Grisham; James Michener. (Michener was in a class by himself; his books were just enormous.)

At least as far as my own bookshelves are concerned, I think the author with the most physical space in my life has been L.M. Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily of New Moon series.  She also wrote some stand-alone novels that I absolutely had to own, too.  I think these are still lined up on the same shelf in my parents’ house where they have sat since I last read them in the early 1990s.  If I recall, I received the entire series of Anne books from a family friend, and I tore through them, and then needed to own the Emily trilogy, and when I was finished with those, I found a few more of Montgomery’s smaller works, which I also adored.  I think that the draw with her work was that it was always familiar: the main character always lived on Prince Edward Island, always had a Dickensian childhood, always had a special bosom friend with a contrasting personality but who remained a steadfast companion, and there was always that boy who grew up with her and became her true love.  And I somehow I remember their names to this day: Gilbert; Teddy.  (And the bosom friends?  Diana; Ilse.  These memories are taking up valuable real estate in my brain!)

The tendency to read everything that an author generates probably comes from the same place as our habit of turning to the same brand of product, or same clothing store, in dependence on the familiar.  Our brains are wired to to recognize and rely on patterns, and let’s face it:  authors tend to use cookie cutters for their books, filling them with slightly different ingredients but leaving the basic shape the same.  Even the titles of their books convey this as an assurance (or obvious marketing ploy), like the alphabet mysteries of Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi) or the Fifty Shades series (or so I’ve heard).  And that is pretty comforting: once you like one book, the likelihood is that you will like other books by the same author too.  It’s a lovely feeling to discover a new author, and even lovelier to find out that there’s a shelf full of his or her work available to me.

I asked friends to reveal the authors taking up the most space on their bookshelves, and its hard to come up with a theory or pattern based on the range of genres and writers, except that most of the names are awfully familiar to bibliophiles:

  • Dana Stabenow
  • Stephen King
  • Mark Twain
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Isaac Asimov
  • John Grisham
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Maeve Binchy
  • Diana Gabaldon
  • Shelby Foote
  • Rick Riordan

I’d love to hear more about reader’s real estate — please add to the comments below!

Books About Books

Recently, I coaxed a couple of vegetarian co-workers out to lunch at a deli-type place near our office. I had enthusiastically described to them the deli’s black bean patty, which I was hoping to sample again that day. As luck would have it, only two patties were left, and due to my unselfish nature I ordered something else so that the patties could go to my veggie friends. (Happily, they both really enjoyed their patties. This may mean that I will have more competition for the black bean patty. Perhaps I should have thought that through a bit more.) I was rewarded on the way out of the deli by a sneaking glance at the book being read by a lunch guest at an outdoor table . Because I was with co-workers and had to keep up a facade of professionalism, I did not have an opportunity to snap a photo. But I did discretely glance at the pages and spotted the title on the right side: Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown.

The Amazon summary of this book sounds weirdly enticing to a book lover:

Three sisters have returned to their childhood home, reuniting the eccentric Andreas family. Here, books are a passion (there is no problem a library card can’t solve) and TV is something other people watch. Their father-a professor of Shakespeare who speaks almost exclusively in verse-named them after the Bard’s heroines. It’s a lot to live up to.

The sisters have a hard time communicating with their parents and their lovers, but especially with one another…. and now, faced with their parents’ frailty and their own personal disappointments, not even a book can solve what ails them…

I’ve noticed that a lot of books that I read are centered around female characters who are bookish, or well-read (often, depending on the setting of the book, too well-read for her family and potential suitors). Typically, the focus on these characters’ bookishness works only to help establish the personalities of the characters and the people around them. Authors love their main characters, and want to give them attributes that they think are appealing, or that they think are most appealing about themselves. Authors tend to be a bookish crowd. They tend to think that bookishness is appealing. I tend to agree. But I’m getting a bit bored with running into the same personalities over and over in my books. It’s like finding each Dan Brown book beginning with Robert Langdon getting a call late at night while he’s visiting some European city. (I swear, I’m pretty sure that’s how most of his books begin.)

So isn’t creating a character who is self-professed book-lover a bit … lazy? We all know what a bibliophile’s personality means. Introverted, contemplative, open to new ideas, smart. But bookishness rarely drives the plot. An example is a great page-turner, The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. The main character’s father runs a bookstore, and the main character — Margaret — is a bibliophile herself. But … who cares? She didn’t need to be. I suppose the book wouldn’t have been improved by her being a podiatrist or dental technician or a pole dancer, but those options certainly would have been more unexpected and interesting.

On the other hand, a plot that is driven by books, or by bookishness, requires a bit more commitment, thoughtfulness, and strategy by the author. Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote a book like this, a terrific read, called The Shadow of the Wind. Here’s Amazon’s summary:

Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julián Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.

Now in a book like that, the book is the thing. The book cannot survive without the book and the reader behind the book. Ruiz Zafon keeps the theme going in two other books that are part of “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series. Plus, in looking up Shadow on Amazon, I discovered books by other authors that seem to be driven by readers and by, of course, books. Arturo Perez-Reverte’s (is there a trend here with Spanish-language authors?) The Club Dumas is about a book detective named Lucas Corso, a “middle-aged mercenary hired to hunt down rare editions for wealthy and unscrupulous clients.” (Now, that sounds like a great job!) Here’s the plot:

When a well-known bibliophile is found dead, leaving behind part of the original manuscript of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, Corso is brought in to authenticate the fragment. He is soon drawn into a swirling plot involving devil worship, occult practices, and swashbuckling derring-do among a cast of characters bearing a suspicious resemblance to those of Dumas’s masterpiece.

Returning to where I started, I might need to give Weird Sisters a chance. The reviews are good, and I’d be curious to see how far the author takes this book concept. But my musings about Weird Sisters may inspire me to look up The Club Dumas first. You never know where a bilbliovoyeuristic moment (or a black bean patty run) will lead you.

Any readers who can think of any other book-driven tales, please add in the comments below!