Monday, October 02, 2006

Fighting an Urge

As I've stated, I'm an unpredictable reader. I recently jumped from Denisa Mina's crime novels to Dorothy Day's autobiography right into my current book, a biography of Tennessee Williams. So I'm not much of a demographic for any publisher to target.

I read an article like this one this morning about author Mitch Albom and I'm left feeling a bit confused. His books? Well, I'm not a fan. They are the very definition of milquetoast. Two years ago around Christmas, my oldest sister - not a big reader, admittedly, but discerning nonetheless - put down his novel about the people you meet in heaven and said, to her, it wasn't just boring but actually quite bad. She has since had a child, become briefly illiterate, she claims, due to her lack of time to read while said child was an infant, and now is an avid reader of various Nora Roberts' series - just like her mother. Anyway, I've dipped into his books and walked away unimpressed with his writing, but not offended. He's aiming for a very solid middle ground and landing there. His publisher is packaging his books in a simple but effective way, and you can't beat that price point. And hell, in an article I read last week, he was being interviewed from a homeless shelter, where he was doing some volunteer work. Between that and the point of his writing, he's probably a real good guy, good people.

So what to say about the promotion of his books at Starbucks? Well I hate Starbucks. I find their coffee dreadful, and am quite convinced that anything they do that seems like a good thing - like when they started offering old coffee grounds for compost for free - is just another marketing scheme to make yuppies feel better about stopping for some over-caffeinated concoction with a name that makes any person using it sound like an uppity asshole. How often do these Ralph Lauren nightmares stop at starbucks while shopping in the Back Bay (or insert some other overpriced shopping district in your own city), strolling through designer shops with some tacky, oversized, over whipped-creamed, over sweetened, overpriced cup o' sludge? But alas, they sell coffee and coffee products, not SUVs, so they're not as actively destroying the world as others. They make an effort environmentally. And hell, they're selling books and thereby encouraging said yuppies to read.

They're selling books. Just let that sink in. I'm telling you, I don't know what to make of this. In some ways, it's good to make books more widely available. I think of the debate that happened in London while I was there, when a big box chain - B&N or Borders, I can't remember - opened on the Charing Cross Road. People wrote obits for the independent stores, new and used, up and down the historic street, remembering the crotchety cashiers, cranky owners, and overall unhelpful staff in some of these stuffy, elitist shops. And I remember saying to people that, while I'm not happy to see some garish store invading the charm and grit around an area of London I grew to know quite well, I did apprecite that the store would be accessible, that people too intimidated by the previously mentioned old guard in these small shops would happily (if anonymously) march right into this new bookstore that appears more like the Virgin Megastore than a private storage cellar on an old manor estate.

So now books are for sale at Starbucks. Talk about accessible! But the questions of what they're choosing - Albom in this case - and the question of whom they are squeezing out... I'd rather see independent booksellers throw a coffee machine in the corner than see Starbucks push into the bookseller's business. I've had this argument with my mother regarding Oprah: do you appreciate something that gets more people to read, or do you remain critical and even negative until the kind of reading you'd like to see is achieved? And if you have an idea of the kind of reading you'd like to see - of an engaged readership actively expanding their mind with a diverse collection of books, fiction and non-fiction, from foreign writers in translation, young writers just starting out, authors experimenting with style or shattering our notions of basic concepts we generally take for granted - are you saying you know what the masses need? I criticize Oprah, but am I the fascist?!

Starbucks selling books. I think it's a problem. I think they could have buddied up with local booksellers and done some cross-promotion - something independent booksellers and coffeeshops should be doing all the time. It seems Newtonville Books' "Books and Brew" event program has been successful in having readings followed by food and drink at local restaurants. We don't need Starbucks selling books. Maybe we don't need to make it quite this easy - can't people take their machiatos down a storefront or two to an indy store? This is interest in corporate sales not national literacy.

Albom isn't a bad guy, and I'm sure he's supportive of local, independent booksellers (I don't know him and his work well enough to prove this, but...). I don't blame the author in this case. It's an unsurprising partnership between his publisher - the corporate bohemeth Hyperion (part of Disney family, I believe) - and Starbucks, and it will result in many of the 2.2 million books being printed selling out.

I still maintain that a responsible author would not be filling Disney's coffers with more riches, and his own, but would rather find a press doing work that's changing the world for the better, and help fill those coffers. In the process, he'd help other writers looking for outlets through which they can publish books for positive change. But that could mean that Tim and Julia wouldn't be able to pick up his book while buying vente soy lattes. That's quite a price to pay.

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