by HUGH GILMORE
In Part 1 of this series I sought a theme to guide this year’s reading. Rejecting the classics, or re-reading old favorites, I decided to read everything published by Europa Editions. Founded in 2006, Europa publishes English translations of European writers. Its books are sleek, pleasant to touch, offbeat, and wisely entertaining. It has published 90 authors so far and will publish its 100th title this May. I thought that number was doable in a year.
Reading only fiction for 12 months seemed as appetizing as a liquid diet. But I hoped it might pull me away from my typically crass cravings for adventure yarns and adrenalin-squeezing survival-after-disaster stories. And hence make me a better person and easier to live with.
Such a quest meant stockpiling a bunch of Europa Editions. I’d need to have five at hand at all times, with plans for more. But on New Year’s Day I had only one Europa title, “The Jerusalem File” by Joel Stone, a detective story of marital disintegration with romance and politics embroiled in it. It turned out to be quite satisfyingly philosophical also. (How could it not? The author was born in Brooklyn! Who knew?)
I thought I’d probably finish “The Jerusalem File” on Jan. 3, but that was the day I promised to take my dear sister (Gilly Phipps, whom many of you know) down to the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. Her first day of chemotherapy. It would be a long day and I knew that at some point Gilly would fall asleep and I’d go take a walk.
When the time came in mid-afternoon I stepped out to the sunshine and cool air and walked up to Penn Books at 3601 Walnut St. What could be better than an hour spent in a university bookstore?
I walked over to the fiction section, found the A’s, and began looking for Europa Editions books. But that’s not so easy with so many thousands of books. Leisurely browsing would take forever. I needed a system. Maybe I could form a “search image” of what a typical Europa book looked like so if there were any here, they’d practically leap off the shelf at me.
I took “The Jerusalem File” out of my shoulder bag and studied it, trying to absorb its “gestalt,” as it were. Europa Editions books have a distinctive, branded look. And at the base of the spines of all their books stands their stylized logo, a stork.
(That’s what I’d look for – like) indoor bird watching.
I probably missed a lot of good books, but once I started stork hunting, I moved quickly. In the B’s I found Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” but I’d read that last year. In the C’s I made my first hit, Rebecca Connell’s “The Art of Losing.” Thank goodness – the process had become tedious already. With thousands of books ahead.
By the G’s, my aching eyes were tired of being used as optical scanners, but I kept going. At the M & N’s I had to step around a female employee who knelt beside a triangular, half-filled book cart. I said hello. She looked up. I told her what I was doing and asked if she knew an easier way of finding Europas. No, she didn’t.
Thanks anyway, back to work. In a half-hour I’d finished and had found only three Europa books. I’d expected more. Surely, in a college bookstore … I went back to the young woman, now kneeling in the O’s. I watched her for a few seconds. At first I’d thought that she’d been resupplying sold stock. Now I realized she held a list of books to pull.
“Are you filling orders?” I asked. (That’s the way we used-book sellers think – why else would a bookstore remove brand new books?)
“No, these are going back to the publishers.”
“How long have they been there?”
“It varies, but usually about three months.”
I walked away. Holy cow, three months, and one of them had been Christmas break for the university. What a cruel world when you think about all the work and all the hopes and dreams an author puts into writing a book. Very discouraging.
The antidote to this downer would be to buy my wife, Janet, a gift book. I walked through the gift mugs, teddy bears, license plate holders, sweatshirts, and novelties to go upstairs to the Foreign Literature section. Up there, back in a sloppy corner, I found only a single shelf of French language books. “French for Dummies” and some dictionaries. That was all. I asked for help.
The two employees I talked to were equally stymied. Not a single work of literature in the French language. An old-timer was consulted. She said they stopped carrying foreign language literature about three years ago.
I walked away stunned. A university bookstore in a major American city – an Ivy League university that carried dozens of teddy bears and a hundred sweatshirts and mugs and not a single book in a language other than English!
I’m not sure why – maybe my sister’s chemo, maybe the disappointment that always follows when you decide to buy someone you love a gift and then can’t find it, maybe disgust that a university bookstore allots more than half its space to non-books, maybe the idea that the young woman with the book cart downstairs was enacting a version of “bring out your dead” – I don’t know, but I put the books I’d labored to find back on the shelves and left the store. Darned if I’d give them my business that day.
I knew I was taking a risk. What if I woke up tomorrow morning without a Europa to read that night? That was a chance I’d just have to take. I aimed my steps toward a land where books are valued as something more than “inventory” – the used-book shops on campus.
To be continued.