Christmas. Shopping. Sigh. A writer is biased towards a book as a gift of choice, but it’s not an easy task, and it’s not getting any easier. As I strolled along aisles of a fantasy book store in Berkeley, and then its companion shop, a comic/graphic novel satellite, I gave my neck a workout, bending it right and left to read spines, recognize names of authors or perhaps be drawn by an eye-catching title. When I was a kid it was the front covers that caught my eye, especially those teasingly magical renditions upon fantasy or sci-fi novels. I remember how disappointed I was by the dense, plodding narratives that didn’t match the promise of the art as far as I was concerned. I abandoned fantasy as a genre somewhere in my teens; now I’m back, searching with discomfort on behalf of the next generation, and thinking the invention of Kindle is a good idea after all.
You see, until recently I’ve been a snob about Kindle; or rather, just an old-fashioned Luddite. Give me a bound volume with a solid feel to it, I’d say, joining other preservationists. Give me a redolent reading space filled with high shelves, with books squashed together in the thousands, astonishing visitors with the collective literary effort of mankind. When I visited the Oxford University library in 2013 a guide said that (once) every book published in the UK found a place in its rooms (meaning, one copy). No longer. As I concurrently understood, there are simply too many titles now being published for such a collection to exist under one roof. This fact is both sobering and healthy, though I don’t spend too much time considering the pros and cons of a more democratic literary landscape, one in which there are more books but fewer book stores. I keep the perspective personal, and thus suppose that while the situation has enabled the publishing of my thoughts, it has also thrust me out to sea, there to drift alongside countless other creators.
My drifting eye stirred my mind: I wondered what I might write that would compete with the fare on offer. I saw one older title, ‘Shades of Gray’, and felt sorry for its author, thinking that if he’d just added the word fifty he’d have been onto something. Finding a teen section, I sniffed haughtily at titles like ‘You Suck’ and ‘Bite Me’. I noted that these books were not Indie contributions; inside, there was evidence of agents and traditional publishers, which made me think that I was getting it terribly wrong, using proper words and aiming at reader erudition. Getting over myself, I found I was even more intimidated when revisiting the sci-fi section. Of course, science has always kicked my ass, knocked down my GPA, and generally lowered the self-esteem. I do not forgive, but I gave the back-page summaries a worthy effort, though old feelings of inadequacy soon arose. As a result, a character born of gene-splicing and artificial intelligence soon left me cold, rendering my effort short-lived. A book proclaiming an XY conspiracy was slightly more compelling, mostly because it seemed a feminist provocation, which sometimes intrigues me.
As ever, I found it necessary at some point to step back, take in the overwhelming volume, and silently ask it for help: Come, good story…come find me.
“Have you found it yet?” This was my wife intruding upon the reverie, thinking we were on a schedule. If that were the case, we shouldn’t have come to a book shop, I was poised to say. I hadn’t, I replied (referring to a kind of book my teen nephew wants), but concealed inefficient method by critiquing the shop’s organization. “I’d forgotten how difficult this was,” I lamented. In the end I cheated by texting my sister and asking her for specific ideas, therefore giving up on inspiration and old illusions. Big sister texted back soon enough, but back-tracked on a previous suggestion, that of a graphic novel series called Saga, which I’d vaguely heard of. It might have porn in it, my sister now worried. Well, I wasn’t quite sure what her standards (as in porn threshold) were, but soon realized that if I were to find a comic or graphic novel without scantily clad women, I’d likely have to find an old Archie comic, or something else with bubble gum fifties innocence all over it.
I did find something, actually: a darkish, yet sexually neutered yarn about witches that looked compelling, and was contemporary in its production. The artwork looked cool, anyway. As I approached the clerk, a middle-aged woman with an air of genial connoisseurship, I felt the irony of selecting a title by an old criteria that hadn’t worked for me. I managed to find humor with respect to the sex barrier, saying, “You know, I think this might be the first time I’ve looked through a magazine or book specifically to see that it DIDN’T feature naked breasts.” I got a laugh plus a feeling of success as I left the store. Mission accomplished, I thought, though I’m still seeking my kind of story.