By Lewis Manalo
NEW YORK: In Spring 2008, when David Del Vecchio opened Idlewild Books in New York City, he decided to take a different approach to the bookshop: rather than organize by genre, the books would be organized by place. Often when traveling for his previous job with the UN, David had had to scour the shelves of a bookshop to find all the travel guides, novels, and nonfiction for that country where he was going. With Idlewild, the idea was to help the well-read traveler find everything he or she needed on one shelf. For example, if you’re headed for Brazil, you’ll find Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands sitting next to Bossa Nova by Ruy Castro and more guidebooks than you can fit into a carry-on. As the buyer for Idlewild Books, the unique set-up gives me a few unique problems, but some of the problems I face here are common to all bookshops. They just feel a little worse.
Over ten years ago I took my first job as a bookseller at Biography Bookshop in the West Village. Back then, our store’s bestseller was a massive, hardcover biography of Benjamin Cardozo, and though in ten years publishing may have changed and I may have changed stores, one constant endures: there are always customers walking up to my counter with the hope that I’ll have that one particular book they “haven’t been able to find anywhere.” Telling your bookseller that you’ve tried every other shop in the city before you’ve tried his won’t gain you any sympathy (I’m thinking, “Why, after all, didn’t you just try mine first?”) but I always do my best. In those few instances when I can’t produce the book, the customer always has to ask, “Why not?”
Though the answer is usually that the book is out of print or out of stock, very often the book is not American and has never been available in the United States. Since I started working at Idlewild, it’s very often the case that the book has never been published here. Now, in the face of all of these requests I can’t meet, the paltry amount of world fiction printed in the U.S. has become a personal embarrassment. For every customer who asks, “Why doesn’t the shop have more titles by Mian Mian?” “Only two titles by Cendrars?” or “Where is all the Clarice Lispector?” I can only offer an apology.
As Emily Williams explained in last Monday’s Publishing Perspectives, much of the American publishing world does do a great job of printing international titles. Groups such as Words Without Borders encourage works in translation. Small presses such as Archipelago and Open Letter specialize in printing literature from other languages. But as a bookseller, to concentrate on translation misses the point: readers like a good story. And many of those stories unavailable in the United States are already in English.
For example, the author I have always gotten the most requests for whose work is unavailable in the United States is the Australian Bryce Courtenay. Despite Courtenay being one of the bestselling authors in the English-reading world, until Idlewild began selling imports from the U.K., the only title of his I could offer customers was The Power of One. That book certainly deserves to be read, but why are American readers denied Courtenay’s historical novel Jessica or his latest bestseller, The Story of Danny Dunn?
One answer often heard, which clearly bears more than a little resentment, is that Americans only like to read about Americans. But nothing could be more wrong. Last year, Steig Larsson may have been the only author in translation to break into the top ten of The New York Times Besteller List; but as long as American publishers have been shilling world fiction, American readers have been snatching it up. In addition to Steig Larsson, readers here love other Scandinavian detective fiction, such as the work of Henning Mankell or Arnaldur Indridason. If you’re an American in your twenties, it seems that Haruki Murakami has to be a staple of your literary diet. And one can’t forget that the main character of the bestselling books of the last decade was a certain British orphan attending a very British wizard academy.
From where I stand behind the counter, speaking to hundreds of customers a week, Americans are hungry for books from around the globe. Like the moviegoers addicted to French films, there are readers who need their regular fix of French mystery novels or Latin American magical realism or Japanese horror fiction.
Just as the cinephile searches out the obscure filmmaker worthy of attention, the bibliophile searches for that author, whatever his or her origin, whose work can open the door to a whole new world. My stories to follow in the months to come will each highlight a non-American author whose work is hard to come by in the United States. Most of these authors were brought to my attention by a reader looking for the work of a great writer they’d heard of but whose books they just couldn’t seem to find. Though the work of these authors is often not available from American publishers, someone in America has been looking for them, and if you are lucky enough to get your hands on one of their books, if you’re like most of my customers, it will probably be something you’ll enjoy.
CONTACT: Lewis Manalo directly to offer suggestions for this series.
WATCH: A book trailer for The Story of Danny Dunn
READ: The first chapter (PDF download).
DISCUSS: Name Your “Lost” Books