Carlos Ruiz Zafón Predicts the Future of Books
The floorboards and the old cash registers have the aura of saints’ relics. E.E. Cummings carved that notch in the wall, Gabrielle Roy once kissed the door frame, and the owner understands Ulysses better than your Irish Lit professor.
Many of the pieces I’ve written for Bookstore Month at The Town Crier have dealt with sales figures, profit margins, statistics, and real estate costs. I’ve also alluded to this thing called the “romance of bookstores.” It creeps out of the nostalgic obituaries, the “best bookstore” lists, and the retrospectives on places like City Lights and Shakespeare & Co. They mention the redolence of paper, the eccentric owners, and the sometimes legendary figures who have read there or visited. And then there’s the magic of discovery: when you pick up a book by accident, by an author whose name you’ve never heard, and that book captivates you from the first words. It doesn’t matter if the writer is truly obscure, or if the source of the mystery is only your own ignorance.
The magic of discovery is at the heart of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel, The Shadow of the Wind. Set in Barcelona during the ’40s and ’50s, Zafón takes the mystique of the bookstore to its Romantic height as he builds a mystery thriller around a bookseller’s son’s accidental find. Daniel Sempere comes into possession of what may be the last surviving copy of a book by obscure novelist Julian Carax in a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The Cemetery is a secret repository of literature known only to a coterie of Barcelona’s secondhand booksellers. As Daniel’s father explains, “When a library closes, when a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here.” The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is as relevant to Spain in 1945 as it is to Canada in 2015. Despite Google Books and .pdfs of publishers’ catalogues and backlists, hundreds of books are forgotten almost as soon as they are published.
In the 21st century, there is a real sense that bookstores, libraries, and the paper artifact of books are in real jeopardy of extinction. When booksellers and authors are optimistic about the future of the book trade, they sometimes refer to a small guild of antiquarians and eccentrics that will preserve the outdated technology of paper. They will be the keepers of those stories that do not merit an updated format. Zafón also writes about an obsession to collect, to archive, in the fear of destruction, as do authors like Bohumil Hrabal and Rawi Hage, who have written about hoarders and collectors of books in ever less literate and ever more hateful and homogeneous societies.
Within the first 50 pages of Shadow of the Wind, Zafón lays out a defense of reading. A blind girl who had once heard one of Julian Carax’s novels says, “This is a world of shadows … and magic is a rare asset. That book taught me that by reading, I could live more intensely. For that reason alone, a book that didn’t matter to anyone changed my life.”
The power of a book that doesn’t matter is what makes independent (and used) bookstores in the 21st century necessary and vital. Publishing Houses that can no longer afford to take risks abandon books. Books have a sell-by date. When a bookstore purchases a book from a publisher or a distribution company, it can return that book for credit toward another title, as JP Karwacki at Argo Bookshop explained. Indigo operates on a model where all of its unsold copies of a new release go back to the publisher as a new season of titles come out. Independent bookstores are more likely to let a new release collect some dust, occupying the same space as strong selling classics and the latest, most exciting titles. The superstore model leaves no room for the chance discovery. Its entire inventory has either been canonized by sales or dictated by the seasonal fashions of increasingly consolidated publishing houses. Used bookstores are the antithesis of this model, especially those that actually risk stocking a recently back-listed title.
Reviews and awards are a book’s cultural validation. The bigger awards can have a real impact on book sales, but a book’s continued presence in stores and on shelves is far more important in the long run (and literature is a very long run) than a news cycle that is constantly making last year’s winners irrelevant. Regardless of which author is winning which award, the true marker of a book’s cultural importance is time, and the space-time continuum of the bookshelf is the most crucial part of a book’s lasting presence.
In an interview I conducted with writer Jason Price Everett, he brought up his theory of microliteratures. He argued that contemporary literature will move into a state that resembles coterie writing. Underneath the mass-distribution of bestsellers, books will be read primarily by people who know the authors, who write books themselves, and who pass their work back and forth. This more or less happens today on the small-press circuit. The bookstores that stock microliterature, the chapbooks and micropress titles, take some of the greatest risks bookstores can right now. When every square foot of space needs to be squeezed for as much revenue as possible, making room for unknown, unmoving titles comes at a big cost.
Zafón paints the Cemetery of Forgotten Books as the ultimate used bookstore. It’s a repository of everything ever written and left behind, of every flop, neglected gem, and underestimated novel. There are two ways to find a book: by hunting and by chance. In 2015, online distribution, and to a great extent, corporate distribution, eliminates the hunt and minimizes the chance. Online secondhand distribution saves time, equalizes prices, and puts readers in touch with used bookstores across the world. What that costs us are the unquantifiable elements, like mystery and accidents. When a bookstore captures even a shadow of the enchantment Zafón lends to books, then there is proof that it is more than just a business. Bookstores aren’t merchants of magic. They don’t necessarily promise adventure or serendipity. Still, these might be the best reasons to keep coming back.