Category Archives: commercial


Blast from the Past

Passing through Harrisburg last Sunday night on an impromptu Pennsylvania getaway, I found myself with a half-hour to spare and figured I’d check out what was said to be a terrific used-book store, Midtown Scholar Books. But nothing I’d read or heard about it quite prepared me for this:

….and what you see here are just two of the store’s six levels. Needless to say, I spent a lot more time there than a half-hour, and a lot more money than I had intended. As it was Sunday night, things were slow. But you could tell this was a terrific social and cultural hub in the neighborhood, with an art exhibition space, a café, a big stage for readings, a large children’s section, and that wonderful open gallery, filled with more books as well as secret reading nooks, ringing the second floor.

I was knocked out by the place the way I was by Powell’s the first time I saw it. I also felt rocketed back to the recent past—the pre-Amazon, pre-Kindle era–when New York City boasted fabulous destination bookstores, most of them on Fifth Avenue. Emporiums for new–not used–books, and often for records as well (we had records in those days, not CD’s), these were places with stunning architecture, knowledegable staff, and  huge selections. Rizzoli, Scribner’s, Doubleday, Brentano’s—you could spend an afternoon caroming among them down Fifth Avenue.

Great large-scale bookstores still exist, and it remains a pleasure to spend time in places like Strand, Barnes and Noble on Union Square, and the aforementioned Powell’s in Portland, Oregon.  And Rizzoli has found a new home, further downtown on Broadway and 26th St.  But I wish I could pass on to another generation the sheer thrill of walking into one of those Fifth Avenue architectural beauties, where you felt surrounded by possibility and enriched by the sheer elegance and grace of these vast literary temples. In a more casual way, Midtown Scholar brought back that sensation to me. I’m glad it’s around, and it gives me a good reason to look forward to my next trip to Harrisburg.


What’s in a name?

Yesterday, I tweeted this piece about how reading literary fiction (vs. popular fiction) develops our ability to understand and decipher social cues that power our relationships with other people.   My initial reaction to the article was, “Hmmm, interesting.  Makes sense.”  I think all self-respecting bookworms would agree that books teach us much more than facts and big words, they teach us human behavior.   So, of course literary fiction would sharpen our abilities to identify emotional and intellectual motivations and apply them to ourselves and our real-world dilemmas.  After all, wasn’t that the point of all those tedious essays we wrote in high school and college about why Emma Bovary was so delusional or why Ahab couldn’t just leave that dumb whale alone?


But something about the piece troubled me, and my “Aha!” moment came when I read this slightly different take on the New School study.  In the first article the examples of popular fiction were Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  Literary fiction, on the other hand was represented by Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov.  Okaaay, who decided that Gillian Flynn is more popular than literary or that she should be featured in the same sentence as Danielle Steel?  Before you Steel fans get all worked up, I am not casting aspersions on that author’s prodigious body of work.  I am merely saying that just because a book sells a lot of copies and hangs out on the bestseller lists for a while does not make it “popular fiction” as the literary snobs among us think of it any more than tiny print runs and fewer sales make something “literary.”  And so claiming that Flynn’s brilliantly crafted, psychological thriller is for the purposes of this study less literary than Obreht’s book* seems to point to a major fault in the findings if, in fact, that is the criteria for judgment.

All of this, of course, takes us to the old publishing pastime of arguing over whether something is literary or commercial.  If sales are the basis for categorization, then Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, and, yes, Mr. Dickens would all be labeled popular fiction authors.  Of course, the study makes the point that a “literary” work is one that is more concerned with its characters’ internal processes and less with plot and action, thus forcing us to work harder at deciphering motivation.   But haven’t we all read many plot driven novels that have been raised to the literary canon?  Ahem, Mr. Dickens, again.

Personally, I think that most fiction flexes our mental muscles.  Even formula romance (or mystery, or science fiction) forces us to look for motivation and emotional cause and effect.  Maybe some books make us work harder and, therefore, give us the brain equivalent of a six-pack, but my sense is that I’ve learned a thing or two even from wildly popular fiction that I may not have by reading only highbrow stuff.

What do you think?  Is it possible that the bias in this study is “literary”?  Can you think of samples of popular fiction that forced you to bring out  your empathy/social decoding tools?



*In the interest of full disclosure, I hated that book.

Why are the books always better?

I watched Gatsby the other day. Excuse me, let me clarify. I tried to watch yet another disappointing movie adaptation, another beloved-book-turned-train-wreck-of-a-movie. And I’ve never once gushed over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus like so many do. No, I went in with reasonable expectations. Expectations even Leonardo DiCaprio with all his talent and all his movie-star swag couldn’t help the movie live up to.

So cheers to good books that can’t be experienced any other way than through the written word. Gatsby was flawed from the start. People have tried to make the movie before…and all have failed. Some other good examples of poor movie adaptations: