Way Way Back | Newberry

Way Way Back

I ran into a rare volume of antiquarian interest last week, and had time to flip through its, oh, two dozen pages in quest of entertainment and enlightenment. It is called “How to Run a Book Fair and Why Would You?” It is a manuscript put together by me, just a little under twenty-five years ago. Unfortunately, I had time only to set down a few basics before I turned to other things (probably a truckload of books.)

It is not without interest. I can see, in my discussion of how many categories is enough depending on how many boxes of books you have, that Computers was to be a new category at the 1995 Book Fair. I see myself stating a number of things you can find in the blogs, and one or two things where you will find me stating the exact opposite of what you’ll read in the blogs.

But what I found most interesting, tucked in between a diagram of how to tape boxes (top and bottom) and notes on the benefits of a half-price day (which must have been new in 1994 or 1995) is a sentence I thought would be useful, typed on the text of a blog. This is why people go in for archaeology, ketchup croquette. This is a primitive blog which I wrote for customers at the 1994 Book Fair, when there was hardly any Internet at the Newberry at all and I’m not sure the word “blog” existed. I believe I wrote this, typed it up, found a way to the copy machine, and ran off examples as handouts to unwary customers.

Yes, yes, I AM going to let you read it. One or two bygone allusions may slip past younger readers, but here is “WAY BACK ON THE BACKLIST: The Old Bestseller, July 30, 1994.

You could buy it at the store. The Book-of-the-Month Club would bring it to your door. An abbreviated version was available in Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. But you could have waited until now, thirty or forty years later, and pick it up at any garage sale in North America. Who wants to hang onto an Old Bestseller?

A.J.Cronin, Frank Slaughter, Anya Seton, Frank Schoonover, Storm Jameson, Frank Yerby: the book you won’t read because Aunt Myrna had a dusty copy sitting in the guest room ant her summer cabin year after year. Or because your grandmother was crazy about it. Or because “I thought that was pretty hot stuff back when I was sixteen.”

It’s a conspiracy, you know. The publishing industry doesn’t want you to read the Old Bestsellers because then you won’t spend $29.26 for this year’s bestseller. We’re taught that if a book hasn’t been reviewed by the New York Times in the past four months, it’s a waste of our time. These Old Bestsellers are just landfill, we’re told, filled with antiquated, artificial values (as opposed to 1994 artificial values) and beneath contempt.

There are people who could tell you different. The want lists of secondhand book dealers bristle with Taylor Caldwell titles. Many an otherwise respectable woman has stepped into a dusty bookstore, turned a little red, and whispered, “Do you have any Grace Livingston Hill?”

Frances Parkinson Keyes was able to support herself in the manner to which she was accustomed: there must have been something in her books. Can an old romance novel really become obsolete if a kiss is still a kiss and a sigh is still…. And that’s another thing: how come the old movies become American Movie Classics but the books gather dust? It’s easier to find the videocassette of “Forever Amber” than the book.

Even if fiction can become obsolete, a belief held by otherwise apparently sane people, that should be no reason for consigning them to the dumpster. Maybe Peggy Gaddis has lost her kick now; we can at least read her to find out how once our distant ancestors found their thrills. The Old Bestseller tells us where we came from.

Where we came from, friend, is a culture that made Peyton place a bestseller. We proceeded to a culture that made Jonathan Livingston Seagull only the second book to sell one million copies its first year in print. And where are we going? Madison County. I thought you knew.

A generation that will keep Robert James Waller on the bestseller list for longer than the hostages were held in Iran, but sends D.E. Stevenson and Willard Motley to the recycler along with the broken storm windows, is doomed to endless reruns of the Mighty Morphin’ Power rangers. Don’t let this happen to you.”

(Note: Yes, someone did break it to me that Frank Schoonover was a bygone illustrator, not an author. For the rest: did you hear there’s a new Power Rangers movie in the works?)

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