Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Book travels

One more good thing happened over the weekend (well, several, really - but this is the only one I see fit to mention here) - Ryan stopped in at a bookshop on the coast and found this little item for me: Book Traveller by Bruce Bliven, Jr. (Dodd, Mead 1973). Only 64 pages long, the text originally appeared in The New Yorker. This book was a real surprise, because I thought I had all aspects of books-about-books covered at this point - bookshops and booksellers, libraries and librarians, publishers, printers, typography, bookbinding, editors, agents. But here is a book about George Scheer, a sales rep for numerous publishers for nearly thirty years, with his take on the book business and what it's like to sell books for a living, as a middleman. Interesting to read that many of the same issues plaguing the book business today were in fact also plaguing the book business then, just on a different scale. Book Traveller details a trip Blaven takes along with Scheer on a leg of his sales route through the South. The book is a very tidy piece of journalism as well as a good hard look at how new books used to get into the hands of the people who wanted them most, the real readers (us!). Scheer says, "'These are the people who buy books constantly for themselves - books they intend to read and keep. There are people who cannot imagine getting through life without a lot of books. '" (p.15) For a decent living, Scheer talks booksellers into buying good books from him for their shops, for these very readers. And Scheer himself is of course a booklover and deep reader, which makes this book doubly pleasant.

Blevin ends the book with Scheer's summation of the nickel-and-dime bottom line of most book-related businesses, and Scheer's emphasis on how necessary book people are: "'It takes both talent and industry to operate a successful bookshop. There are people, fortunately, who have enough of both. And an adroit bookseller can make a good living for a lifetime, in a joyous occupation.... For my own part, as a liaison between my publishers and my bookstores, I like to think I'm helping to keep bookstores alive and healthy - a contribution, in a small way, to the survival of American letters.'" (p.62) Besides fine sentiments such as these, the book is just plain fun to read because of their trips to bookshops and interactions with booksellers, and Scheer's obvious love of his work, as well as Blevin's silent but seemingly approving omniscience.

Dodd, Mead must have known that they wouldn't make money on this little book, but they also knew that it deserved to appear in book form. They must have just liked it, or Blevin, or Scheer, or all of the above. So they published it in a very nice little hardcover, in full blue cloth and thick green endpapers, with a color-coordinated and very groovy dust jacket. Good for them, and good for us, over thirty years later. The jacket flap reads, in part: "In a time when commitment and involvement are thought to be the exclusive realm of youth and mechanization maddeningly encroaches on every industry, this simple testimony to a man who cares about his work is both eloquent and reassuring." Yes, Dodd, Mead must have liked this little book very much. And I do, too. I swear, every day brings me some book I never knew of before. What a gift - it sure makes life a lot lighter.

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