We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover. This is a case in point. On the back of Laurence Crossè’s ‘A Novel Bookstore’ (2009) a reviewer describes it as ‘an Agatha Christie-style mystery…’ It is not.
Which is not bad thing. ‘A Novel Bookstore’ is instead a meditation on novels and the importance of literature and I am very grateful to the friend who knows my passion for books, for giving me this absorbing novel.
The narrative starts with writers who are being mysteriously attacked. A male writer, blocked and alcoholic; a female writer who is Ferrante-like, working under a pseudonym. She fears she will not be able to write again: ‘the clandestine secret nature of her undertaking was the very wellspring of her inspiration’ (p. 52).
We take a step backwards from the action, and are then given a manual on how to open a bookshop and a manifesto on how to stock it. The dry tone and steady pacing do not a thriller make, but ‘A Novel Bookstore’ is eminently quotable as it describes the importance of literature and the way to judge a good novel.
Literature is a source of pleasure…it is one of the rare inexhaustible joys in life, but it’s not only that. It must not be dissociated from reality. Everything is there… Novels don’t contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and, in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched. There are books where, as you read, you wonder: What would I have done? It’s a question you have to ask yourself. Listen carefully: it is a way to learn to live. There are grown-ups who will say no, literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life (p. 150).
Not all literature is equal however. A good novel is not a bestselling novel. It is not one where the name of the author takes precedence over the title on the cover. Peter Carey is mentioned in the lists of good books. Yeah! An Australian! But I can understand why some authors would bristle when their name is not mentioned.
So why are there only certain books on the shelves of this little bookshop in Paris? As their bookshop comes under attack as elitist, Francesca, one of the owners of The Good Novel, writes an open letter to explain.
We need some books, the good books, the necessary books because:
those masterful novels are life-giving. They enchant us. They help us to live. …necessary books, books we can read a day after a funeral, when we have no tears left from our crying, when we can hardly stand for the pain; books that will be there like loved ones when we have tidied a dead child’s room and copied out her secret notes to have them with us, always and breathed in her clothes hanging from her wardrobe a thousand times, and there is nothing left to do (p. 278).
The manifesto goes on for pages and every word resonated – and hopefully will for anyone who reads seriously. And for anyone who is trying to write ‘books that cost their author a great deal’ (p. 279). Laurence Crossè acknowledges the years, the self-doubt, the backache, the panic at the risk of failure that goes into writing.
There is a love story in here as well. A sad, unfulfilled, unarticulated set of fraught circumstances and emotions. Maybe that is a very French thing.
The message to take away? Perhaps, don’t judge a book by its cover nor its sales figures. And: read, and read and read.
Image of books on a shelf by Mark Buckawicki