I had an unusual quandary to extricate myself from this afternoon, one that I would hazard a guess falls neatly into the "kind of problems you want to have" column. Laurie and I went to the major chain bookstore in town in solidarity with my middle niece. My middle niece's ballet troupe was performing a small sampler show in the children's section of same bookseller as a fund raiser. They had their show and then, if you bought a book and told the people at the counter you wished to support the troupe, the store would give a portion of the sale to the dance troupe (and neatly write-off the charitable donation this near to the fiscal year's end.)
Of course, it takes little to compel me to buy a book, especially when my parents are in town and went even the further step to pay for the books that we wanted. In essence, I was told "Go and pick out a book."
This happens to me more often than you'd think. I think it's partly because we're poor and partly because we are surrounded by people who love us. So often I am given a sum of money as a gift with the stipulation that it is to be spent on books (because otherwise I will use it to pay bills.)
So, I've been on an Evelyn Waugh kick lately; and the other day I almost picked up a copy of Brideshead Revisited, but stopped, mainly because the cover was from a recent film adaptation and I found myself not terribly interested in carrying around a book with such a horrible cover. I mean, I've done it before, I've lashed myself to great books with embarrassing covers, but I was sure with such a classic I could do better vis a vis cover design. Today, finding myself in that position, I did indeed find one I could stomach a little more. But then I wandered the shelves and walked past I book I'd been meaning to read for a long time and I ended up purchasing that instead.
The book I bought was Liquor, by Poppy Z. Brite. She is a fantastic author. She, like many other modern authors, has an online presence and often lets readers see into the life of the author to some extent. Many of you know that I am a fan of author Caitlin R. Kiernan . In fact I would, apologetically to the wounded party, probably say I am an even bigger fan of Ms. Kiernan's work than I am of Ms. Brite's work (although this is purely personal taste and by no means meant as any form of denigration of the brilliant work of Ms. Brite. I would heartily state that both are of the finest writers working today. It's simply a matter of if I were given a choice between a Kiernan novel and a Brite novel, I would personally probably gravitate toward Kiernan first. Recommendation wise I would endorse either with equal gusto to anyone. And anyway at least with Brite's more recent foodie fiction, we're talking apples and oranges here with the standard intentional pun). Kiernan similarly has a very strong web presence and often writes on the subject of the life of a professional writer. What so often strikes me about them is that they both have written works known the world over. They are some of the greatest living professional authors, and yet they are unable to seek medical attention when they need it. They are selling autographed copies of their books on e-Bay to make rent. I recently bought a t-shirt of Kiernan's new (and fantastic) book, The Red Tree, which my step-daughter often notes I seem to be wearing almost every time she sees me nowadays.
These authors are still struggling to keep the electricity on; and these are even people with moderate names in the business who get interviewed in major magazines. Also out there are some people I actually know personally, like Robert H. Morris or Brendan Constantine (or me!) who do not have works published by major publishers and whom you actually have to seek out to buy their books. People who not only have to have day jobs, but really have little to no hope of ever being "discovered." One begins to realize that there are not only lost masterpieces out there in the dunes of time, they are as many as the grains of sand on said dunes. Which is part of why I highly encourage everyone to sift through smaller presses like Soft Skull or Black Sparrow or even smaller, underground ones which print books as good if not better than you will find elsewhere.
On the other side of that coin is the used book seller, of which I am one. I personally do not sell the works of Kiernan or Brite, partially because I want people to buy their work new, but also because I tend to keep anything I find by them for myself. Most of what I read are found in the category of "Classics" in bookstores which means they were largely written by people who are now dead. I have no moral qualms whatsoever about buying those books used or borrowing them from the library. In fact, let me get the library out of the way here. I have no problem borrowing anything by anybody from the library as 1) I am too poor to buy every new book that is out there, 2) a book in the library is a book that was bought, and 3) a book in the library is a book that could be picked up by anyone, enjoyed, and other books by that author are then sought out.
But one thing that you should know is if a text is from WWI or before, the text is most likely public domain. Which means that the publisher is making nearly pure profit off of the text. Although in the fantasy universe where I am filthy rich I would buy the entire catalog from Modern Library and Everyman's Library because, my goodness, but they print gorgeous books, I don't tend to buy them new in this reality. Although I would be more than pleased to receive anything from either of those publishers as gifts.
I will say that again. I would be more than pleased to receive anything from either of those publishers as gifts
Now, the book world is not a huge world in this time and place. As I've said, I tend to read classics mainly because time's refining fire seems to have largely made the gold easier to find as the dross has burnt off. In any modern age there will be a surfeit of crappy books as publishers throw things against the wall to see what sticks. It's more difficult to find the greatness, although I would hasten to add that this is not an excuse for laziness in the reader. The reader ought to dig for the gold. Especially since someone out there might be starving for your book dollar, your economic vote toward their continued existence as an author.
I'm also not talking about New York Times bestsellers. David Sedaris, as much as I love his work, can probably demand around 10 grand or more for a speaking engagement. Morality is not a movable feast, but I would point out that there is a subtle shift here that one might note. I can tell you that the used book seller is not a wealthy man. I can also tell you that having your book on the New York Times bestseller list generates a lot of money around your work. Unfortunately I cannot tell you this from experience.
And here we hit a little choppy waters ethically speaking. One ought not seek a career as an author for fame and fortune, but sometimes (rarely) they find them just the same. If someone is on the New York Times bestseller list, I really don't have much of a personal problem with buying their books used as the used bookseller probably is a bit more needy than the author at that point. But there are also exceptions to that personal rule of mine, especially if I can cast my economic vote. Recently I bought a copy of Neil Gaiman's, The Graveyard Book, in hopes of casting one vote toward him staying on that list another week (and, hopefully, casting my one vote against the Sarah Palin "book" which also came out that week.)
This doesn't even touch on the ethics of publishers and literary agents. Or of eBooks although the ethics of those really ought to be exactly the same as the ethics of hard copies. Plus I am of the semi-Luddite group who believes that eBooks will never really take off or, at the very least, shall never surpass tangible books, which are one of the most wonderful things human beings have ever come up with. I would not turn down the gift of an e-Book reader, but I think I will probably one day die as I've lived, with my living space full of books.
Heck, I would like to see a society where art and literature are created out of the abundance of the hearts of the artist with no need for concern over their own welfare, because the society recognizes what they are doing as valuable. Which brings me around to my larger point. You've probably noticed that I don't have a lot of clear-cut answers. But I do have one. Everyone should read. Everyone should kill their televisions. They are not helping at all. Everyone should spend less time on the internet. Everyone should bring a book, carry it with them everywhere, read passionately and insatiably. Reading should become one of the hippest things one can do; and I'm even willing to say that people who do not read and remain willfully ignorant should probably be social outcasts. As it stands, rather the opposite is true. We live in an anti-intellectual and willfully ignorant time. I really do think that if most of the people read more the world would be a much better place. So, in the end, the real ethic of book buying that I want to proclaim and proselytize is simply this: Buy and read books. Lots of them. Give them as gifts. Talk about them constantly. Discover and grow. It's one of the better things you can do for yourself and for the world.
Good books, that is. There is such a small percentage of people reading and a small percentage of those are reading good books. Read good books. In fact, only read great books. That is my advice to you. Read great books and be noisy about it.