A teenaged boy approached the sales counter recently and asked if we had a particular item in stock. He wanted Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I almost gasped. That title has been lurking around in my brain since I began working at Annie Bloom’s in 2011. From the day I started on the job until the moment that young man opened his mouth, no customer had ever mentioned Stranger in my presence, and I was starting to think it might never happen.
The book was a huge hit with students when I was in high school during the late 1960’s, but its popularity has faded considerably during the ensuing decades. This isn’t uncommon in the literary world. The staying power of any book can be affected by the ebb and flow of cultural currents, social trends, and changing demographics. I’m always curious about what keeps certain titles anchored in our collective awareness while others are cut loose and fade away.
The Catcher In The Rye is definitely anchored. We always have a couple of copies in stock and they go out the door regularly, month after month. If all you knew about the book was that it came out in 1951 and the narrator is an unhappy kid who’s going home after being dismissed from a fancy private school, you might assume it’s totally outdated and irrelevant by now. But something about Holden Caulfield resonates with a lot of readers in every new generation. He’s a loner who feels misunderstood and out of place in society. He also appeared at a timely moment in US history. The years after World War II marked the beginning of our national concern about the values and attitudes of American kids. Terms like “juvenile delinquency” and “disaffected youth” quickly became part of everyday conversations.
Now fast-forward to 1970. Vietnam and the fight for civil rights sparked a wide range of protest movements. Young people were pushing back against the establishment. Instead of “disaffected youth,” the favored term had become “alienation.” Although Stranger In A Strange Land was published in 1961, its plot was perfectly suited to the counterculture attitudes of the late sixties. Valentine Michael Smith is a human who’s been raised on Mars by the native inhabitants and then rescued and brought to Earth, where he finds himself in a culture that is utterly baffling. You can’t get more alienating than that.
So why does one misunderstood loner stay popular while the other drifts toward obscurity? I should have asked more questions when that teenager came up to the counter. “How did you hear about the book?” would have been first, and then I should have followed with, “Who else in your circle of friends has read it, and why?” But I have to be careful about pestering unsuspecting customers with my personal literary polling efforts.
When I looked in our database it showed that we have not sold a copy of Stranger since June of 2008. But the book is still available so a comeback is always possible. It’s never been made into a movie and seems like the kind of project George Clooney would enjoy producing. But who’s the right actor for the starring role? Feel free to leave your answers for that question in the comment section.
Now I’m wondering how long it’ll take for another customer to ask me for the book. Since I foolishly discarded my own copy during one of those “I don’t need this stuff anymore” purges that happen after college, I’m planning to get a replacement edition for myself and keep it at the store for informational purposes. That teenager? He didn’t want to order one because he was just visiting for the day and then heading home to Eugene. But I’m looking forward to seeing him again someday and discussing the meaning of “grok.” As I like to say to every visitor from any location, local or far away or even interplanetary: Come back anytime. Don’t be a stranger.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. He continues to blog about politics and popular culture for Huffington Post and also contributes to the “Modern Parent” blog at the Christian Science Monitor.