January 23, 2012


A couple of days ago I was browsing through my local Barnes & Nobel bookstore, looking for the paperback edition of “Cleopatra” by Stacy Schiff. The cost of the hardback was astronomical so I’d planned to save a few dollars by waiting for the soft cover. When I found it, I was disappointed because it, too, was expensive. I left the copy on the shelf and began browsing. Perhaps I’d find a new Martha Grimes mystery or a fresh talent in the “just arrived” section.

Christopher Paolini’s new dragon adventure was available. I’d read his first novel, “Eragon” and had bought the sequel but half way through it, I’d stopped reading.  The young writer was familiar with his genre but he hadn’t enough life experience to endow his characters with depth. I walked on. Stephanie Meyer’s third novel from her “Twilight” series was also sitting on the shelf. Here was an adult who wrote like a child and after reading her first book, I’d abandoned the series.

If I had any humility, I’d blush as I disparage these two authors. Certainly, their bulging bank accounts testify against my opinion. Yet why they should flourish while greater talents toil in darkness remains a mystery. Susan Stoner comes to mind. She writes good historical fiction. “Timber Beasts,” her first novel, has believable characters, a compelling plot and period authenticity. If justice were at work in the book business, she’d have a wider audience.

(courtesy: Barnes & Noble)

I continued to browse, looking for something to read and then it struck me. Little of the store’s floor space was actually devoted to literature. The major displays were for e-readers, electronic games, puzzles, and racks and racks of books on how to pass SAT exams — together with Spark Notes that summarized classics so that one was relieved of the burden of having to read them. And, not surprisingly, several shelves were devoted to “Dummies.”  Of course, I exaggerate. A few books on philosophy and religion could be found at the entrance to the public toilets.

But why be hard on Barnes and Noble for abandoning their original purpose?  Amazon began as a bookseller, too. Now Hemingway must compete with camping paraphernalia on the site.

Years ago, a famous Wall Street pundit, Peter Lynch, admitted most of his successful stock picks came from observing traffic patterns at the Mall. If his measuring stick is still accurate, then the aisles at Barnes and Noble cause me to fear for the future of good writers and, as a consequence, good readers.