Bookworks Presents Today's Shelf Awareness for Readers

Bookworks Presents Today's Shelf Awareness for Readers

Like many people, I was both "appalled and wryly amused" by Amazon's recent misunderstanding, misquote and mis-invocation of George Orwell in its ongoing battle with Hachette. While it may just be coincidence that Orwell was name-dropped in the middle of a confrontation between an online retail giant and a publisher, it is also appropriate, given that he often wrote about his relationship to books and the book business.

In his essay "Books vs. Cigarettes," Orwell observes that "reading is one of the cheaper recreations.... And if our book consumption remains as low as it has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive."

As a former bookseller, I've long been intrigued by Orwell's brief experience in the profession, the fruits of which crop up in his work. I love the Orwellian bookseller, though I'd never hire one in my bookstore. Like dyspeptic Gordon Comstock inKeep the Aspidistra Flying, who contemplates his dismal fate amongst the stacks at Mr. McKechnie's bookshop, where the "small dark room, smelling of dust and decayed paper, that gave on the office, was filled to the brim with books, mostly aged and unsaleable. On the top shelves near the ceiling the quarto volumes of extinct encyclopedias slumbered on their sides in piles like the tiered coffins in common graves."

Orwell recalls his own time as an Orwellian bookseller in the essay "Bookshop Memories" with irresistible sarcasm: "Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop."

Still, he did call bookselling "a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman." --Robert Gray, contributing editor
(This is a condensed version of a longer column that appeared in Shelf Awareness Pro.)