BALKANIZING THE BOOKSTORE.

Here is an interesting question for readers. Dr. Boli asks it partly to provoke an interesting discussion, but also because he simply does not know the answer.

He will begin with the background. Suppose, hypothetically, you walk into a bookstore looking for a famous novel called Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. You go to the fiction section, and it isn’t there. Nothing by Mr. Baldwin is there. So you ask a helpful bookstore clerk, who informs you that James Baldwin is kept in the African-American Fiction section, and points in its general direction. You find a place marked African-American Fiction, but you still find no James Baldwin. So you find another clerk, who informs you that James Baldwin is kept in the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered African-American Fiction section, which is over there next to the Electrical Wiring for Persons with Hispanic Surnames section.

This experience is a bit off-putting. You were looking for Go Tell It on the Mountain because it was a very good novel; you ended up being pushed into a back corner of the bookstore whose message seems to be “James Baldwin writes pretty well for a colored homosexual.” It makes Dr. Boli want to pull his own beard out by the roots. Does James Baldwin need this sort of handicapping?

But on the other hand—for there is another hand—

Many years ago, Dr. Boli found a late-1700s copy of The Female Quixote by Mrs. Lennox on a book-sale table. He spent his 25¢ and was rewarded with one of the most charming books he had ever read. It was his own little secret for many years: a novel that deserved to stand with the best of the eighteenth century—with Fielding and Sterne—and a novel that clearly foreshadowed the style of Jane Austen, who almost certainly read it. Yet no one else knew about it.

Then came “women’s studies” programs at universities. Now, Dr. Boli has always had a strong distaste for the idea of “women’s literature.” Even if one were to argue that women’s accomplishments in other fields were debatable (which Dr. Boli would not argue), surely the field of literature is one where the sexes are demonstrably equal. Anyone who said that Jane Austen writes pretty well for a girl would deserve the contempt that would be poured on him by readers with taste. Jane Austen writes like an angel sent by the heavenly powers to show us how fiction is done.

Yet it is true that there has been unreasoning sexism in literature, and perhaps the most telling demonstration is the fact that Mrs.  Lennox was neglected for two centuries while books by less talented male writers sat comfortably on the “classics” shelf of your local bookstore. When the “women’s literature” professors went searching for representative works by female authors of the eighteenth century, they came across Mrs. Lennox (perhaps having read that Dr. Johnson thought she was brilliant, thus judging a female writer by a man’s opinion of her, and proving something very amusing about themselves), and they snatched her out of her obscurity. Today it is possible to walk into any well-stocked bookstore and buy a copy of The Female Quixote, well-edited and attractively bound. The same thing has happened to numerous other deserving female writers, who have been rescued from the neglect of decades or centuries by the need to fill women’s-literature courses with reading material. But for “women’s studies,” these writers would have remained inaccessible to all but the most determined or the luckiest readers. Thus Dr. Boli himself has benefitted from the rise of “women’s studies” in a very concrete way: he has a pile of good books to read that he never would have discovered otherwise.

So here is the question to which Dr. Boli does not know the answer:

Is this categorization of literature by race and gender identity good or bad for literature as a whole? Does it relegate otherwise good books to ghettos from which they can never escape into the main stream of literary culture? Or does it bring to the attention of the literary world good books that would otherwise be neglected?

Dr. Boli’s instinct is to say that good literature is good literature, and should not be judged by the race or sex of the writer. On the other hand, he is not such a fool as to believe that we now live in the best of all possible worlds, where racism and sexism are dead. So he does not know the answer to the question, and invites opinions from all and sundry.

Here is the listing for The Female Quixote from Dr. Boli’s Eclectic Library:

The Female Quixote; or, the Adventures of Arabella. The second edition, revised and corrected. London, 1752. —A thoroughly delightful novel, a favorite of both Fielding and Johnson, that is at last getting some of the attention it deserves. There is a persistent rumor that Dr. Johnson himself wrote the last chapter; at any rate, he regarded the author as one of the best novelists of his age.

Volume I.

Volume II.

Comments

  1. John M says:

    I’d suggest different categorization methods for different purposes. The filing system for a bookstore which seeks to sell books may be very different than the way a college literature department categorizes the types of books discussed in their various course offerings. (Some genres need to be separated for customer convenience, such as mystery stories versus Westerns… but why go further than that in a book store?)

    That said, perhaps a knowledgeable clerk) who can make recommendations, such as: “Oh, you’re looking for ‘Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered African-American Fiction’? Check the fiction section for the following authors and/or titles…”

    Or for less erudite bookstore staff, perhaps an index of titles and authors – possibly a kiosk with Internet access.

  2. Maypo says:

    I suppose one could ask the opinions of the residents of the Balkan Peninsula if it is ever wise to “Balkanize” anything. I would wager the majority would agree that it is not. The politicians and war-mongers in the area might disagree, but the average citizen likely would. Perhaps the analog to “politicians and war-mongers” in your story are likely “academics and diversity-grievance-mongers”.

  3. Captain DaFt says:

    “Or for less erudite bookstore staff, perhaps an index of titles and authors – possibly a kiosk with Internet access.”

    We once had an excellent system for finding books of any genre, unfortunately, it fell into sad disuse with the rise of computers.

    I’m referring of course to the Dewey decimal system, familiar to all but the latest generation.
    With it a person could easily find any book in a library, and indeed, any similar books that one might not know about. Good bookstores used it to sort books into intelligible categories.

    Alas, with the rise of the computer database, it has fallen into sad disuse, and if one does not know the exact title of a book, The Author’s exact name, or its ISBN, they’ll find themselves out of luck locating it anywhere.

    Good luck asking a librarian, that once proud profession has fallen to the point where a ‘librarian’ at most libraries is a minimum wage part timer, and totally reliant on the same database that proves so inefficient to locate books.

    I’ve often found that even entering a strange library, I’m more capable that the ‘librarian’ on duty of locating books, since the Dewey decimal system was still being taught when I was in school.

    Bookstores are worse, for each has its own unique ‘system’, as Dr. Boli has noted, and even less knowledgeable staff than the modern library, that makes locating books of the same genre an exercise in futility, and if you don’t know a particular book’s ISBN, good luck finding it!

    As an aside, if you want to induce stress in one of the minimum wage staff in a library or bookstore, ask where the books on CP/M are located. Most search databases used in bookstores and libraries don’t recognize any non alphabetic/numeric symbols in a title.

    Dewey Decimal system: http://www.library.illinois.edu/ugl/about/dewey.html
    ISBN search: http://www.isbnsearch.org/

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Merely mentioning CP/M is enough to induce stress in anyone who remembers the days of black screens with green letters.

      Almost every library Dr. Boli knows about has converted from the Dewey Decimal system to the Library of Congress system. A professional librarian would doubtless have opinions on that subject. The practical result, of course, is that most subjects are found in two completely different locations: older books on the Dewey side, newer ones on the Library of Congress side.

      One thing few library-goers realize is that your library has to pay for a license to use the Dewey Decimal System. Dr. Boli does not know how much expense influences the widespread transition to the Library of Congress system.

      • Maypo says:

        The first computer I spent real money on was an Osborne “sewing-machine” portable computer. Green-on-black 5″ CRT display. Running CP/M. And, in keeping with this month’s theme, I purchased an aging IBM Selectric typewriter and hacked it so that I could print to it using a serial interface. My first professional resume was printed using that and what passed for a word processor in those days. You have not truly lived until you have written a long document on a 5-inch green on black CRT display. Good memories.

      • Captain DaFt says:

        “Almost every library Dr. Boli knows about has converted from the Dewey Decimal system to the Library of Congress system.”

        Interesting. None of the libraries I patronize uses the LCC. Though they’ve mostly abandoned the DDS for finding books, they’re still stacked on the shelves accordingly.

        I wonder if that’s a regional thing, or just the usual case of inertia.

      • Captain DaFt says:

        “Merely mentioning CP/M is enough to induce stress in anyone who remembers the days of black screens with green letters.”

        CP/M is usually remember fondly by most of the older type I know that worked on it. (Mentioning WordStar tends to prompt one of them into a rant against Microsoft Office.)
        In fact, up until 1998, when I moved, My insurance agent still used his old CP/M system to do business. His had an orange on black screen as I recall.

        • Dr. Boli says:

          That color was called “amber.” The green-monitor advocates and the amber-monitor advocates used to get into fistfights, and Dr. Boli recalls—though it may be his memory playing tricks on him—that the amber-monitor advocates succeeded in banning the green monitor in Europe on the grounds that studies had shown amber was less likely to lead to eyestrain.

          The people who remember WordStar fondly are the same people who think that stone axes are much more natural than those bronze things all the kids are using today. This is not an endorsement of Microsoft Office (Dr. Boli prefers LibreOffice), but given the choice between WordStar and Microsoft Office, Dr. Boli would hold his nose and use Microsoft Office. Or a fountain pen.

          • Captain DaFt says:

            Amber vs. green, Windows vs. Apple, Emacs vs. Vi, Linux vs. the World, etc., etc. I never really understood the fans that insist that their chosen one is the one true one. I use either what fits the current task best, or whatever is available for the job.

            But… Stone ax vs. Bronze? Pah! Give me a good club any day! Much less blood to clean up afterward.

      • Sean says:

        Semi-professional librarian here. I worked in a Dewey establishment in high school and an LOC house in college.

        As I recall, one advantage of Dewey was the greater ease of reading their numbers when you have a cart stacked high and are squatting in front of a dimly lit bottom shelf with an armload of 800 page tomes. LOC’s series of random characters is a misery to interpret, though it might become relatively easier if you worked with a collection big enough to make it worth classifying your Deweys out to the 10th decimal.

        Of course, LOC is much more flexible and its categories do correspond better to the ratios of different books being churned out today. But if you wanted ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’, why on earth did you go to a library?

  4. Marian says:

    As a public librarian, I dislike the breaking of fiction into genres because it limits the readers ability to stumble upon a delightful gem. Genre divisions tend to lock readers into certain sections and eliminates the possibility of an avid reader of mysteries stumbling onto “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”, for example, and discovering that, in fact, they do like some science fiction. Getting rid of the genre system also removes the difficulty of where to classify a book. To use the illustrious Miss Austen as an example, where do you put Northanger Abbey? Is it a Romance? Suspense? Mystery? Any of those categories may apply but, unless three copies are purchased, the book can reside in only one.

    Secondly, the Dewey decimal system is not without flaws. Where, for example, would one put a book about cooking from the kitchen garden that includes both recipes and gardening suggestions? Does it go in 640 with the cookbooks or 630 with the gardening books? Depending on the size of the library those two areas may be separated by one or more shelves. A librarian familiar with their collection, and armed with a well-maintained computer database, can easily help readers find what they are looking for.

  5. Ben Ieghn says:

    I have to wonder how many students enrolled in “woman studies” programs question why George Eliot appears on the reading list, and if there is a bookstore section for women who write as men?

  6. Bookstores and Libraries have very different priorities in where and why they shelve books.

    Libraries want the collection to be arranged in a logical and orderly fashion so librarians can quickly re-shelve returned books, find a spot for newly-acquired books, and help patrons quickly find any specific book or a book on any specific subject. A patron checking out six books when one will do represents a failure: those five extra books are not available for the next patron, a lengthened time before the books are returned, and additional work for the staff eventually reshelving them or special-ordering a book via inter-library loan for no additional revenue (unless the patron spends so much time reading the extra books searching for the info they seek that they end up paying late-return fines).

    Bookstores want definable demographic categories of customer, or definable subtypes of customer, to be able to quickly and easily find a whole shelf of books they might be interested in, and for every book to be surrounded by other titles that appeal to the same sort of reader as impulse buys. If a customer walks into their store seeking a specific book, or a book on a specific subject, and leaves the bookstore 5 minutes later with exactly what they came in for, then the bookstore staff have failed to do their jobs. Their job is to talk patrons into buying more books than the one(s) they came in for, and they not only don’t care if they sell out of a title, they WANT to do so. Special orders mean extra revenue, not just extra work/costs.

    This is why the library across the street from my house lumps all novels and other works of fiction together into one huge section, arranged by author’s last name, while the bookstores nearby divide them into niches like Mystery, Science Fiction, and Classic Literature, arranged sometimes by author’s name, sometimes by release date.

  7. Jason Gilbert says:

    I have not read all the comments above in detail, but I simply think that Dr. Boli is talking about the marketing and branding of literature as opposed to the value of the literature itself. Since the binding of the very first book, publishers have been making writers miserable with branding and marketing shenanigans. Branding and marketing are trying to get people who may not have been interested in a book to buy it. For people who are actively seeking books (or anything else), marketing usually just gets in the way. I am sure my grand kids will be complaining about some other way of re-arranging books in the bookstores and libraries.

  1. […] few days ago Dr. Boli asked what his readers thought about the classification of books by race or gender identification. Mr. Craig Conley of “Abecedarian” fame points out a limitation in Dr. Boli’s original […]

  2. […] Balkanizing the Bookstore […]

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