Book sales speak volumes about our frantic lifestyle

July 23, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT THE BIBELOT book store, on Reisterstown Road in northwest Baltimore County, Sherry Kurland peers into a computer and comes up small. The computer lists book sales over the past two years. At Bibelot, they sell thousands and thousands of books, entire train loads full of books. But certain books do not seem to sell very well, and they happen to be among the grandest in the English language.

"Ulysses," Kurland says, coming up small.

"The Great Gatsby," she says, coming up small again.

In her computer, in the current year, she sees no sales of James Joyce's "Ulysses," the masterpiece about a day in the lives of a group of Dubliners. Last year, there were six sales of "Ulysses." For "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic tale of Long Island socialites in the 1920s, Kurland finds no sales this year. A year ago: two sales.

What makes these findings so striking is a new poll of authorities in history and literature listing the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. "Ulysses" was voted the best book of the last 100 years; "Gatsby" finished second. These books are masterpieces, as everybody (except, perhaps, today's readers) knows.

Kurland, information desk supervisor at Bibelot, peers into her computer again, for a random check of more books on the Top 100 list: Joseph Heller's "Catch 22" (seventh on the list), 13 sales this year; John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath (10th), 12 sales this year; Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" (fifth) 12 sales this year; William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" (41st), 15 sales; J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" (64th), 41 sales; Jack London's "The Call of the Wild (88th), two sales; Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" (74th), seven sales.

James Jones' "From Here to Eternity" (62nd), had one sale this year. "That was last February," Kurland says. "I thought maybe Frank Sinatra's passing would spark a few more in the last month," since Sinatra starred in "From Here to Eternity." "But it hasn't," she says softly.

We're in a list-making mood these days. The century wanes, so we desire a summing-up, an official declaration of the best and (sure to come, as inevitably as the flip of a calendar's page) the worst.

Several weeks ago, the American Film Institute offered us what it called the top 100 American movies of the century. (To which I say: "Hah!" And "Hah!" How do you list the best movies and leave off "The Pawnbroker" or "Sophie's Choice" or "Young Frankenstein" or Buster Keaton's best stuff or ?)

But I digress. The list of 100 best novels will have its own detractors (How do you leave off John Updike's "Rabbitt" series? Or Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun?" Or James Baldwin's "Another Country?")

But there's no arguing that, in sum, the list reminds us of the richness of the human imagination, and the consuming need we have to tell stories to each other. But it leaves us asking: How many of us are listening?

In the Baltimore County Public Library system, its records indicate "Ulysses" has been checked out 667 times -- over the past 20 years. "Gatsby" has been checked out 3,071 times in that period -- but, says information services librarian Kenna Forsyth, "A lot of this is due to school reading lists. It's assigned reading. But, what the heck, whatever works."

In the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library system, Deborah Duke, head of collection management, says, "Nobody's breaking down the doors for these books." But there are some interesting trends.

For example, Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," (No. 4 on the Top 100 list), the tale of a middle-aged man's lust for a nymphet, currently has several copies checked out -- all in large-print editions.

Also, there's a steady run on African-American authors, such as Ralph Ellison ("Invisible Man," No. 19 on the top 100); Richard Wright ("Native Son," 20th); and James Baldwin ("Go Tell It on the Mountain," 39th).

Some of this is assigned school reading -- but some of it, a hunger to catch up on a history shoved for generations into a tiny corner of the American psyche.

"None of the classics are being taken out," says Duke, "like today's best sellers, or like summer beach reading. But the beach reading will be forgotten in a few years. These will still be read." We hope. At the Bibelot book store, Sherry Kurland notes, "The big sellers? Out here, it's a lot of self-help stuff. Psychological stuff, relationships, divorce, money. Whatever Oprah recommends."

We live in frantic times. There's wall-to-wall TV news, and the Internet. The remote control brings us countless cable channels. In such an atmosphere, reading takes on new importance: It slows the world down; it lets us proceed at our own pace.

This new list of the century's greatest novels isn't going to meet universal acclaim. But maybe it'll provoke some of us, who have heard names, and titles, but never quite got around to discovering what all the fuss was about.

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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