As long as we have spent a little time on vocabulary already this week, I thought I could mention another word you might not have seen. It’s a word you wouldn’t run into in a sane and orderly world, because there would be no place for it. But in a world in which everything is off by a quarter of an inch, it does its job. That word is “oversold”.
Something oversold is something which has been sold to more people than actually had a use for it. It is the expression of a fad, an item that you went out and bought because your neighbor bought it, the talk show hosts joked about it, the newspapers said everybody else was buying it, and you didn’t want to be the last one on your block without it. Yes, gizzard goulash, Mom was right. It is a proven marketing fact: if our best friend jumped off a cliff, most of us would, too.
What this means to a poor but hardworking Book Fair manager is that at some point, anywhere from six months to ten years later, hundreds of people will be tidying up the bookshelf and exclaiming, “Whatever did I buy this for? Better send it to the Newberry!”
No, I was NOT going to complain about The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood again, nor even yet The Bridges of Madison County. I will not make reference to the 8-Week Cholesterol Cure or Callanetics. There are less obvious bestsellers which I see in stacks at the Book Fair.
Once upon a time, our poster boy for oversold was a man named Napoleon Hill. It was with a note of glee in my voice that I would announce, two days after the Book Fair, “Well, here’s our first copy of Think And Grow Rich for next year!” There were weeks when it seemed every other donor had a copy of Think and Grow Rich to pass along. Alas, those days have retreated into the dust of ages. We still see Napoleon’s legacy from time to time, but nowadays we can boast a mere four or five copies come July. If I live long enough, I may see the day when that little black paperback is rare and collectible.
Its place was taken by My Life by Golda Meir. Did EVERYBODY in Chicago buy this in 1975? Does everybody in Chicago have to bring it to me when they’re cleaning? It, too, is not coming in as often as it used to, but I had two copies on Wednesday and another on Tuesday. I have nothing against Golda, having worked for a while in the Golda Meir Library (I’ll tell you about that someday, unless you’re lucky.) And I’d rather see her big blue autobiography than another copy of Iacocca, by Guess Who. There’s a persistent rumor, unconfirmed, that all his employees were required to buy a copy. If this is true, a lot of them sneaked over to Chicago to discard theirs. I may give it a place of its own at the Book Fair next year, unless I decide to pair it up with Be My Guest, by Conrad Hilton (about which the same rumor persists).
Not everybody in the world GETS the joke in The Far Side, but it is clear that everybody bought the books. The same goes for Calvin and Hobbes AND for Dilbert. I excuse those of you donating these same books over and over and over for two reasons: I like to be in the business of passing Calvin, Dilbert, and The Far Side along AND I have browsed in places like Barnes and Noble to find once-thriving cartoon book sections now limited to the half dozen comic strips the publishers want to bother with, and very little else. So you can’t help it, tuna torte; I understand.
Likewise I forgive you all the copies of Arthur Miller, Aaron Copland, and even Henrik Ibsen. I figure there are plenty of professors ordering you to go buy “Death of a Salesman”. But even though I understand that, back in the day, college students had to read Herman Hesse and Kahlil Gibran or turn in their turtlenecks, I have to ask. Can’t you pass your copies along to some beloved grandchild rather than to me? I know you bought the Hesse in paperback and read each and every book to death, folding back the covers and underlining the best bits. (Because I’ve seen ‘em.) But Kahlil Gibran was in hardback. It’s perfectly suitable for passing along as a family heirloom. You don’t HAVE to fill my shelves with it. If everyone who reads this blog would just think twice about donating Kahlil Gibran, I promise it wouldn’t cut into my Prophets.