Mark Athitakis Newsletter #18

Shelves, silence, banished artists

Front Matter

Marie Kondo, the latest iteration of the Queen of Clean every generation seems to wind up with, recommends that I thin the herd of books in my home; I resist this deeply. Yet my friend and sometimes editor Anne Trubek has absolutely had it with sending printed review copies of books to the media; I’m sympathetic. Is this hypocritical? Books can be a mess, and figuring out what to do with them is a messy business, especially when they’re part of your livelihood.

I suspect that most of the people who subscribe to this newsletter know about advance review copies (ARCs), but just in case, here’s how the system (dysfunctionally) works. Months before a book is officially published, publishers print ARCs, which are little prayers that are sent to media outlets and bookstores in the hopes of stoking purchases, coverage, or any of the other things that might improve a title’s fortunes in the marketplace. For a freelance writer like myself who wants to get review assignments, having ARCs on hand is a useful way to pitch editors. I get a lot of unsolicited ARCs in the mail, and I’m dutiful about sorting through them. They’re arranged chronologically on a separate shelf in my office, so I can see my options at a glance. If an editor is looking for pitches on titles coming out in May, for example, I can respond quickly.

This sounds practical and efficient, but the truth is that it’s mostly wasted effort; at least 90 percent of these books will go from the publisher to my doorstep, from my doorstep to my shelf, and then from by shelf to recycling bin, unopened, once the publication date has passed and there’s little hope for coverage and I have no interest in hanging on to the book. (How best to dispose of ARCs is an ethical minefield of sorts, which perhaps deserves its own newsletter riff at some point.) The publisher has wasted time and money sending them; I’ve wasted time shelving them; trees have been felled on their behalf to no meaningful purpose.

Anne, rightly annoyed at this expensive ritual, is inclined to give up on ARCs for the books she publishes and instead email PDFs of titles to reviewers. This would put a crimp in my ability to underline and scribble margin notes, but it has advantages too; I can more easily search on words and phrases that might help be better tease out themes I want to write about. Still, if publishers went strictly with digital ARCs, my sense of what I have and what I don’t would be harder to access, if not vaporize. (That’s especially true with the kind of digital ARCs available through tools like NetGalley, which sets time limits on their availability.)

I suppose I would eventually make my peace with an all-digital process, if it came to it. But I would still want to have hard copies of the books I truly care about. Files become corrupt and Kindles die, but the codex is forever. Kondo isn’t really telling people to only own 30 books, I know, but household spareness and visual austerity is plainly her gig; she commands me to preserve only the possessions that “spark joy” for me. Fine; walls of bookcases in my house spark joy. Still, that shelf of ARCs spark only the possibility of joy. If there’s a better way, I’ll dispense with the shelf.

I’m waffling on this because books provoke all sorts of mixed emotions. Bookshelves are memory palaces; I can look at most of what I own and gain some recollection of when I read it, how I received it, a certain passage or plot turn that’s stuck with me. It means something to have physical books. But bookshelves are also blessedly chaotic and uncertain places; they are full of books I haven’t read and many I wonder why I keep around. The confusion this all sows doesn’t move me to cut back on my shelves; rather, to the extent I have the available shelving, I’ve learned to appreciate their fluidity. I could do the same with a hard drive full of PDFs. Maybe. In time. With difficulty.  

What I’m Reading

Jane Brox considers Thomas Merton’s peculiar relationship with silence as a Trappist monk who was a public figure. Rachel Donadio reports on Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, which once again seems destined to be received as prophecy in his native France and trolling everywhere else. Stephen Holmes writes on Francis Fukuyama’s and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s books on identity. Lionel Shriver lets fly a cri de coeur about what #MeToo has done to our available options as arts consumers. (I’d be more sympathetic if I felt that The Cosby Show was really and truly memory-holed---I can watch it on Amazon Prime right this minute---or if I felt that I was lacking in entertainment options at the current moment.) And I serve on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, so I’m busily reading many of the titles that were nominated for its awards earlier this week.

End Notes

One of the books up for the NBCC awards is Robert Christgau’s essay compendium, Is It Still Good to Ya?, which does what all good music books ought you---send you to the music. His enthusiasm for M.I.A. across a series of articles is infectious, and going back to Kala a decade after I heard it has been delivering a much-needed morning jolt.

Thanks for reading. Send more Billy bookcases and correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.