One can be assured of very few things these days. But I will hazard three certainties for the next three months. Tomatoes will ripen. People will think about sex. And articles about how no one reads anymore will be published.
The "death of reading" march goes across our browsers, but in the publishing world, books still needs to be sold. Hence Book Expo America, the yearly meet-and-greet in the cavernous New York City Javitz convention center. The past two years of BEA were deemed "grim," as publishers worried about the internet and declining sales. But this year, the consensus seemed to be that things are "not as bad as we feared." In these recessed times, that counts for something.
I attended BEA for the first time and with great enthusiasm, but, as always when I am surrounded by thousands of strangers, I found myself seeking quiet corners to read instead of packed author breakfasts starring Barbra Streisand. From the aisles upon aisles of publishers, I gleaned certain things. Among them:
1. People are still reading. And they bucking every prognostication by choosing to read really, really long books. The buzziest book of BEA-the book advertised on the badges we all wore around our necks, in fact-is Justin Cronin's The Passage. The novel features vampires, a post-apocalyptic America, some secret government conspiracy, and viruses. It is just shy of 800 pages and pre-publication word is that it delights all the brows: high, middle, and low. We will probably all be pretty tired of The Passage by August (and certainly by the time the Ridley Scott movie comes out). And yet I feel certain that many of us will lose at least a few days inside Cronin's universe; this one will be a hit.
2. Literary novels continue to have both buzz and cache. Leading the pack is Julia Orringer's The Invisible Bridge. In a Los Angeles Times review of the book, Tim Rutten writes, "If you're still looking for a ‘big' novel to carry into the summer holidays-one in which you can lose yourself without the guilty suspicion that you're slumming-then Julie Orringer's "The Invisible Bridge" is the book you want. " Orringer's novel about Hungarian Jews during World War II will not only be great, it will also class up your beach towel.
3. It can be hard to find the independents. Where do you get the lowdown on that quirky book you know you would love, if only you knew about it? Not at Expo. Thanks, then, for TheRumpus.net, a lively literary webmagazine, has rolled out a new book club that offers a monthly selection of great lesser-touted titles and a chance to talk about the books with like-minded folks.
4. The book form is still unwieldly for many types of writing. Poems need not be bound into the slim volumes they are now, and when it comes to short stories, why do we need 10? One great short story could stand on its own on, say, your iPhone. Long-form journalism needs venues other than the disposal daily news or the deathly-for-sales anthology. Until we invent the best delivery vehicle for these not-really-booky types of writing, though, paper between two covers will have to do. I am excited about The Fiddler In The Subway: The Story of the World-Class Violinist Who Played for Handouts…And Other Virtuoso Performances by America's Foremost Feature Writer by Gene Weingarten. Wiengarten is a brilliant feature writer for the Washington Post, and the title story, about the famous violinist Joshua Bell playing in the DC Metro, is rapidly becoming a classic of narrative non-fiction.
5. We are publishing way, way too many books. At BEA I felt this viscerally for the first time something I have suspected for awhile. We could pulp a few hundred thousand without losing any of our lively book culture. I would love to attend another BEA that advertises itself as featuring "the fewest books ever!"
So there you have it. In the meantime, let those "no one reads anymore" articles keep popping up on my search engine. I can handle them. Because for this summer at least, I will also have tomatoes to eat, sex to think about and great books to read.