We could fill cemeteries with neglected books

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books“There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” – as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age – the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid.” – The Guardian in “In theory: the unread and the unreadable”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón writes about a “cemetery of forgotten books” in his novel The Shadow of the Wind. This cemetery is a library maintained by the secret few who know about it and who may lend you a volume if you will protect it for life. After reading the article in “The Guardian” which led me to The Neglected Books Page which led me author Jo Walton’s lengthy 2010 Neglected Books: The List (with a science fiction and fantasy focus), I wondered if we should build a cemetery, that is, a library, of forgotten AND neglected books.

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You probably have some favorite authors and books that never seem to catch on with the general public. With my Georgia focus, I can usually name several Georgia authors who seem to be lost in the shuffle even though they have won awards and/or had a book or two made into a movie. While I’ll probably read the upcoming Dan Brown book Inferno, I don’t usually follow fads. Reading outside the latest fad, I’m usually able to think of wonderful books that are being overlooked.

“The Guardian” article mentions information overload. That’s certainly a factor. Adults aren’t known for reading a lot of novels per year. Perhaps high school and college literature classes made fiction seem boring. Perhaps the latest reality show, movie, or trending Internet story gets in the way. There are plenty of reasons.

One can also say that small press authors, not including those published by old-line prestigious small presses, are likely to feel neglected. For the most part, small press books do not get reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly and major newspapers. There usually are no noteworthy interviews with small press authors or off-book-page stories about their work. With few exceptions, their books are not entered into awards competitions, included on the media’s best-books-of-the-year lists, optioned for movies, or remotely on the radar of most prospective readers.

If you ask a major critic, book reviewer, literary magazine, or publishing magazine what a neglected or a forgotten book is, it is normally considered one from a major publisher that was well reviewed, but had lower than expected sales and was allowed to go out of print. Books by popular authors that don’t catch on like the authors’ other works are also in the “neglected” category.

The cemetery/library in The Shadow of the Wind resonated with me in part because of the novel’s notion that “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.” In “real life,” a secret library that almost nobody knows about won’t serve our need. Perhaps books need patrons or people who love them and talk about them or people who share them with their friends. Perhaps we need more adventurous readers who will commit to buying five books a year that are not on the bestseller list. We need more reviewers: writers often wonder why people say, “hey, I loved youshadowofwindr book” but then don’t follow that up with a reader review on GoodReads or Amazon.

I think I’m only talking about band-aids here unless more people find more reasons to read. According to ParaPublishing, 27% of adults in the U.S. don’t read books for pleasure (based on figures from a few years ago). What books are the remaining adults going to pick from: an old and forgotten book, a book from a small press author, or the book sitting in the bookstore window and at the top of the national bestseller lists? No wonder so many books are forgotten and/or neglected and/or passed over—depending on your definition of those terms.

Years ago when literature and other liberal arts courses were more valued in high schools and college than they are now, most of the students in my classes came from families where their parents read almost no books. The students learned from home that reading wasn’t valued. Our town’s public library has reading classes for kids, and I love seeing the kids there. But I wonder, is the excitement of the reading program reinforced by parents at home or are the kids just dropped off at the library by parents who need time to run some errands elsewhere?

Reading is an investment in time more than an investment of money. I get offers via e-mail, Facebook and GoodReads for free downloads and sample chapters. I read a lot, but I can’t keep up with the deluge. I try to promote new authors on my blogs and on Twitter, but sooner or later, I want to read the books I hear about rather than free books I’ve never heard about. It’s book overload even for those of us who read a lot.

riflogoPerhaps reading just isn’t a modern-day avocation and perhaps it’s too late to change that. Can reading-oriented groups help or did we let lack of reading get so far out of hand that the problem is too broken to fix? More and more people are writing and publishing, but their viable readership seems to be getting smaller no matter how much time we all spend arguing about whether e-books should be almost free or should sell for enough to support the authors who wrote them?

  • So, what books and authors do you like that have fallen into the neglected or forgotten categories?
  • What happens when you tell your friends about these books? Do they yawn and then spend another evening watching reality TV shows or reading only the top ten book on their genre’s bestseller list?

Malcolm

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4 responses

  1. You could fill several cemeteries with neglected books, not just one. I’ve added this to my Amazon Wish List. Which will never shrink to a manageable length, which means more neglected books…

  2. I personally believe that, very long-term, Facebook, Twitter, video games and script-less movies will not survive through the workings of survival of the fittest. And then good books will re-surface again.

    • I keep hoping all this stuff is just a phase or a bad dream, Montucky, and that the day will come when I see people carrying books around rather than taking pictures of themselves walking down the street which, for goodness knows what reason, other people seem to enjoy watching. How dumb is that?