By the Book: Book buying isn’t taking a holiday

12/17/2011 3:34 PM |

I don’t know why people always say “I hate to say I told you so” when it’s perfectly clear that “I told you so” are some of the sweetest words in the language and people love to say them. What I am loving right now is that I told you so, dear readers, months and months ago, that all the gloom and doom about bookstores closing, books not being bought or read and the written word just lining up with the rest of the world to go to hell in a handbasket is at least a slight exaggeration, if not a downright alarmist fabrication.

Apparently, the first few weeks of the Christmas shopping season have been terrific for the booksellers this year, according to an article by Julie Bosman in the Dec. 13 New York Times titled “E-Books,Shmee-books: Readers Return to the Stores.”

Customers are attracted to this year’s vibrant selection and are not deterred by the higher prices of some titles. Books that might not have been expected to flourish in a time of economic gloom are flying off the shelves. Both ‘Harry Potter Page to Screen’ and ‘The Louvre: All the Paintings’ cost $75, ‘Mountain: Portraits of High Places’ weighs in at $85, while ‘The Art Museum’ published by Phaidon retails for $200.

Besides the coffee table books, regular nonfiction seems to be especially popular this year. ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson, ‘Catherine the Great’ by historian Robert K. Massie and the memoir ‘Then Again’ by actress Diane Keaton are doing well in the biography section, and a book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is a popular holiday gift, as are new fiction titles by bestselling authors like Janet Evanovich, Stephen King and Michael Connelly. Other big successes are ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, ‘IQ84’ by Haruki Murakami, ‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman and ‘The Angel Esmeralda,’ a short story collection by Don DeLillo.

So perhaps the end of the world as we know it is on its way, but not here just yet. There is fear among the bookish that these e-book shmee-book reader things and tablets of various sorts will be given as presents this December and that subsequently all of civilization will crumble in January. It may happen. But meanwhile, it is more than interesting to me that the American Booksellers Association saw a 16 percent jump in the week including Thanksgiving, compared to the same period a year ago. Apparently people like going to bookstores and buying actual books to give as holiday presents to their friends and relatives during the great, dark gift-giving season and I, for one, think that’s terrific.

A terrific book that many younger readers will be given this year is ‘The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.’ Here’s the story behind “Chronicles”: In 1984, Chris Van Allsburg put out a book called “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” that had beautiful, mystifying, full-page drawings, each with a caption and the title of a story that the drawing was supposed to illustrate. The construct was that a person named Harris Burdick had brought just the drawings to a children’s book publisher on spec, the publisher loved them and wanted to see the complete stories, Burdick promised to bring them the next day, then disappeared and was never heard from again.

Since the book was published, it has been used as a springboard by teachers and librarians to inspire creative writing. Countless young people have chosen their favorite from the 14 drawings and let their imaginations create completed stories.

“The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” includes the original drawings with their titles and captions, but it has 14 different well-known authors each tackling one of them and writing it their way. Some of them are quite marvelous. Like its predecessor, the book is a great publishing idea and this one may help to introduce readers to some interesting writers, but I hope the original book will still be used as a springboard for other stories. This must not be the end of the mysteries of Harris Burdick, just an example of some ways of looking and thinking about them.

Also for younger readers: ‘Wonderstruck’ by Brian Selznick, the author/illustrator who won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’ which was the first time the Caldecott had been won by a novel. The Caldecott was designed to be awarded to a picture book, but “Hugo” is both a novel and a picture book and so is “Wonderstruck.” Both of them are very indebted to yet another format, that of film. Martin Scorsese just released the film version of “Hugo,” which features a most amazing opening shot that zooms down into and through Paris until you are inside the walls of a train station, where you meet the eponymous orphan whose adventures will immerse you in the earliest days of film itself, with Ben Kingsley as magician, impresario and film director George Melies. “Wonderstruck” may prove equally photogenic in a few years, but in the meantime, there is the book: hardcover, large, expensive and irresistible, apparently, to the holiday-minded, book-buying public.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.