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Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Novel Bookstore

It's a booklover's fantasy -- opening a bookstore that only stocks the books you love, the books you think are worth reading. This is the premise of Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore: Francesca and Ivan open a shop in Paris that only sells good novels, the best of the best, carefully selected by an anonymous committee of eight writers. The shop is an overnight hit, drawing the kind of booklovers who border on obsessive. But it also draws a great deal of hatred and vitriol; they are attacked over and over by those claiming they are elitist and snobby, and accusing them of destroying both the book industry (publishers who focus only on the bottom line, not the quality of what they sell) and writers whose novels were not chosen (schlocky writers whose books are not entertaining enough to do well in other, more conventional stores). These attacks culminate in acts of violence against some of the committee members, which open the book. Most of the story is told in flashbacks, to a sympathetic officer who is investigating the crimes.

Neither the success of the bookstore nor the hatred it generates is surprising -- people are passionate about what they read, and an unfortunate number have difficulty distinguishing between subjective and objective quality; in other words, that a book that is enjoyable and satisfying is nonetheless not necessarily a great work destined to join the canon. Instead, as the book shows, people latch on to this idea of extreme egalitarianism where everything is the same and the act of choosing in and of itself is elitist.* And from what I've read elsewhere, France seems particularly susceptible to this sort of thinking, as an over-correction to the excesses that led to the French Revolution. Not everyone is like this, of course, and one of the pleasures of this book (as in the Thursday Next novels and in Moers's The City of Dreaming Books, although these are stylistically very different) is seeing people who take literature very, very seriously.

Too seriously, sometimes. The main characters, and the book itself, would have benefited greatly from a sense of humor. There is also a romantic subplot that was frustratingly slow; although there were excellent reasons for why the relationship had to develop so slowly, the complete inability of the lovers to be straightforward with each other in any way drove my up a wall. Nonetheless, the book was quite enjoyable (if not quite up to the standards of the bookstore in question, heh). Now excuse me while I draft a business plan for opening a similar store in Manhattan; I know the store would do quite well, if only the rents weren't so obscene.

*Making this a book version of sorts of the movie The Incredibles.

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