Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Changing tastes

Recently got a text from a former colleague who is now also working furth of the book trade: a relief, she says, as she's rediscovered her enjoyment of books. Orwell experienced something similar:
But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro.
I'm not sure that I ever had to lie about a book (this is one of Orwell's characteristic, too-strong assertions; time and again one admires the cadence and force of one of his sentences, and agrees with the bulk of the sentiment, while being unable to entirely submit to his fiat) but one does have to learn the market, recognise what certain types of people are likely to want to buy, and simply accept that one won't approve of an awful lot of it.

In my experience, even when I was asked for advice, people very rarely took it: instead, I would present them with no more than three options, often only two, and let them get on with it. You could actually see them making their decision in the first few moments, and even when they asked about the merits of Y over X, they would almost always go for their first choice. It was very, very rare for customers to actually listen to what you were saying. Perhaps I didn't lie often enough - or maybe I should have read Gladwell's Blink. Certainly it proved that the cover of a book is terribly important.

Anyway, since leaving bookselling I've had the opposite reaction to my friend: books no longer seem as vital as they once did. Partly it's because I am no longer in the daily swim of things, peripherally aware of even the dross which contributes to the front-of-store bricklaying, let alone the fruitful oddities of customer orders. I don't regard this with any particular sadness. It's a reflection of growing older, changing priorities, developing new perspectives, and in any case I've always been of the opinion that one should never forget that books are, in the final analysis, a handy source of fuel. What matters is the stories, which don't rely exclusively on print.

The process actually began prior to leaving, when Bastardstone's saw fit to introduce staff searches. No longer could you blithely bring in your two or five or twelve titles, proofs, sample chapters, library copies: everything had to be signed in, every day and - this was what drove me hog-wild with fury - had to be witnessed by other people. What in the name of fuck was this? Scotland in the 21st century, or the 17th? I could just about have tolerated the signing-in, on the grounds that if anyone had suspicions of jiggery-pokery, there would be some means of checking what one declared against what one possessed. But the introduction of the staff searches, the proofs becoming store property until being signed out, and the everyone-is-guilty-until-proven-innocent-before-the-kirk attitude killed off the last of my enjoyment. I stopped bringing books into work, and nearly stopped buying them.

Because I needed something to do on the bus I began listening to classical music again, after a nigh-on twenty-year hiatus, and so got back into Beethoven, discovered Mozart, Copland, Boccherini (through, yes, Master and Commander), and am making some progress with Schumann who, it turns out, was my maternal grandfather's favourite composer. I can recommend the following recordings in particular:

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20; Clifford Curzon with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten

Beethoven Piano Sonatas 8, 14, 21; Wilhelm Kempff

These are very well known pieces, and recordings, to anyone who knows anything about classical music, but I pass them on with the unashamed enthusiasm which only an amateur or newbie can muster. The Kempff has some dropped notes here and there, but I understand that's almost inevitable unless you are Maurizio Pollini; both Curzon and Kempff seem to me display concentration but not overt seriousness, they're not showy but they don't let the music play itself either.

Finally, here's a link to a YouTube video of Vladimir Horowitz playing Schumann's Traumerei in Moscow in 1986. If I read it right, this was his first return to Russia in over sixty years. The reaction of the audience is fascinating.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Crazy - if you don't trust your staff that much then why do you have them working for you? Also a move which is bound to alienate rank and file staff and exacerbate the them and us mentality by having management treating all workers effectively as suspected thieves. And in an industry that relies on people knowing about the books it's another mark of how far off the base the leadership has gotten.

Back then (and indeed still now) I get sent a number of books and graphic novels from publishers for possible plugs and reviews and I recall one manager one day taking me aside and saying actually any such books sent to me were the property of Bastardstones. I pointed out they were addressed to me, that I used my online reviews instore to boost sales too. I als pointed out if they took books I was sent and then sold them when they have not been invoiced for them and paid for them as stock then they would be committing fraud and I would have to inform the publishers to that effect. Got very disgruntled look from manager, but he dropped it anyway. Why he was bothered when my in-store reviews were helping sell more books in my section is beyond me.

Oh and on advising customers, well yep, that can be true that some aren't really listening, but I had a lot who did. Still remember bloke who loved the movie Dark City, was told to ask 'the SF guy' about any book on it. There isn't one, I told him, but have you read Kafka? It's not the movie, but read it and see where the film got some of its themes - he took some and came back for more after thanking me. Likewise lady came in regularly for SF&F for her boys, kept changing recommendations as they got older, she once told me between the recommendations I have her and the reviews on the old Alien Online site we used to write for they were shaping her boy's reading and they loved it. Which is a great thing to hear.