By now 2013 is a fast-diminishing reflection in history’s rear view mirror, mostly ignored as we focus on the traffic up ahead. There’s a new Murakami novel looming on the horizon like an eighteen-wheeler, and closer down the road is a nimble little hybrid fueled by an unearthly imagination, Lydia Davis’s latest story collection. The literary highway is so jammed with vehicles, in fact, that you might need a map to help you find your way forward.
I’m not quite ready to give up on the year just past, though. One of the few traces it left on the permanent record at Island Books is our most recent bestseller list. Casey Kasem did one every week, but our Top 40 list gets compiled annually, revealing to us and to our customers what their tastes really were. These aren’t the books that some expert said were the best, they’re the ones that our clientele wanted the most, the ones they voted for with their wallets.
Two things were notable about the 2013 list. First, how dominated it was by local talent from top to bottom. Spots one through seven were taken by Northwest writers, including Maria Semple, Daniel James Brown, Amanda Coplin, and Jess Walter. That wasn’t a flukish streak, either. Thirteen of the first twenty titles came from this region, including books by Tim Egan and Jonathan Evison. In all, 37.5% of the authors on the list hailed from Washington, Oregon, or Alaska. When was the last time you saw the Northwest roll over its competition so convincingly? Oh yeah, on February 2nd in a stadium in New Jersey.
When I noticed this statistical oddity, I worried at first that we had somehow become too parochial and were ignoring the wider world, but I don’t think that’s the case. There were a couple of titles on the list with an intensely narrow appeal, but the plain fact is that Northwest authors had a stellar year everywhere. Most of the books in question were hits across the nation and the globe. Combine that with the growing inclination for shoppers to buy local, seeking out what’s distinctive or unique through independent stores, and you’ll see the results we did. I don’t know if every year’s bestseller list will be as one-sided as this one, but I expect the trend to continue.
The other notable thing was the number of books on the list that I’d read myself. The total was slightly higher than I’d expected: one. Yes, just one. Does it sound better if I say that one, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, was by itself 2.5% of the full list? That doesn’t really get me closer to a passing grade, so probably not. How can I hold my head up as a bookseller when I’m so out of touch with my customers’ interests? Well, NWBL’s own Amanda MacNaughton has already made a good case for the defense on these virtual pages. The short version is that no one can keep up with everything that’s published every year and there’s no shame in that. I’ll admit that it is a little strange to have skipped so many good books. And I know these are good books, partly because I’ve read others by their authors before, and also because I know how many people, including reviewers, my colleagues, and my customers, have thoroughly enjoyed them. I don’t hesitate to recommend them even though I’ve hesitated to read them.
It’s something about me, not the books. For whatever reason, I seem to be getting less and less interested in reading the most popular titles, even when they’re as geographically relevant to me as last year’s favorites were. It’s not snobbery at work–if anything, I’ve grown more willing to read for pure fun as the years have gone by. I think it’s because I’m so attuned to the promotion and discussion of these bestsellers that they feel like known quantities before I get a chance to open them. My impressions of them are probably wrong at least half the time, but those impressions are hard to overcome when there are so many other books I can turn to without prejudice. I had no idea what to expect from Kevin Barry’s There Are Little Kingdoms, for example, but I loved it. And I’m still not sure how to describe the experience of reading Kathryn Davis’s remarkable Duplex, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like novelty in my novels, what can I say?
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. Sometimes he fantasizes about opening his own shop, one that eschews bestsellers in favor of an eclectic selection of personally-chosen titles. He always comes to his senses when he realizes that Hamlet contains the perfect description of such a bookstore: “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.”