By John Wyse Jackson, Zozimus Bookshop, 84 Main St, Gorey, Co Wexford.
As I write, the newspapers and magazines are devoting pages and pages to lists of the favourite books of the year, chosen by various celebrities. While this is a mildly interesting procedure, and occasionally serves to remind us of a good book we might have forgotten, it’s frequently less than honest. Nothing is more indicative of the incestuousness of the literary and academic world.
Take a look yourself. You will find that novelists tend to boost novels by their friends – or even by their spouses. If they haven’t any friends or spouses (and it is surprising how often this is the case with novelists), they recommend other books published by the firm that publishes them, and expect their stablemates to do the same in return. Historians often mention books on their own subjects that are written by other historians, though if you read carefully between the lines you may find that praise is faint, and contempt thinly-veiled. A few people even choose books they wrote themselves, jokingly apologizing for doing so – as if that made any difference.
That’s not all. Very rarely, you may notice, have any of the chosen books appeared on the bestseller lists. For the celebrities, Christmas offers a rare opportunity to show how intellectual they are. There is a certain cachet in suggesting books that nobody else will have read, the obscurer the better. During the 1980s and 1990s, the accomplished literary swagman Clive James became proverbial for listing volumes about high culture that were written in unlikely foreign languages, reminding readers that he was not merely a TV critic and jokester, but an academically minded polymath and global thinker as well.
This is a guess, but I would estimate that less than half of the recommended books have actually been read by the people who recommend them. (In case you were wondering, there’s no doubt, that Clive James had always reads his choices – even the ones in Serbo-Croat or Finnish – for he really IS an academically minded polymath and global thinker.)
The Christmas lists generate many sales and, naturally, publishers are inordinately interested in them. Flown with Yuletide wine, they can be overheard at book parties gloating to each other about how many of their titles have appeared as choices on the book pages this year – but then, why wouldn’t they? After all, they have often orchestrated these successes themselves: a quiet word in an ear here, a drink bought there, a secret kept, a half-offer made, a favour called in. It’s easy enough if you know the right people.
I’m being cynical. Being a bookseller who sells only secondhand books these days, I have little time for new books at all. Visits to even the most elegant bookshops make me realize how attenuated is the choice of goods on offer. The best book on any particular subject is not necessarily the one that has just appeared – in fact, it rarely is. When Richard Ellmann’s masterly Life of Oscar Wilde is available secondhand at Zozimus Bookshop, then what IS the point of paying four or five times the price for the latest biography of the same writer, which isn’t nearly as good? Why should the latest TV gardener’s glossy album on how to prune fruit trees be any better than a paperback manual from the 1950s? Methods of pruning, after all, haven’t changed at all.
Accordingly, when the mandarins that lurk behind the Edmund Burke Institute asked me to contribute a Christmas Book List, I decided to do just that, literally. Rather than adding my voice to the acclaim earned by the 2013 crop of festive choices (Julian Barnes, Colm Toibín, Fintan O’Toole and friends), admirable though these no doubt are, this year my Christmas Book List (which will appear here next week) contains only books ABOUT Christmas. And none of them will be new!