‘A Novel Bookstore’ by Laurence Cossé
Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore is more philosophical meditation on literature than a novel. Sure, it has characters and a plot (a mystery, even) and a clever structure, but those things are incidental to the central questions of the book: what is a good book and who gets to call it such?
These are questions that have banged around in my subconscious reading mind for many years without me trying to answer them. My lovely co-blogger Kate has had to contend with these questions more actively in her graduate work on popular literature, while I’ve had the luxury of reading what I liked and not thinking too hard about why or if the chosen works are “good” books. The few times we’ve discussed the subject here on the blog, the best I came up with was the old, useless pornography definition: “I’ll know it when I see it.” Good books weren’t something I felt like I could define, so I just said I knew them when I read them and that was that.
But Cossé’s book made me think about this question of good books more directly. In A Novel Bookstore, Cossé’s idealistic characters create their perfect bookstore stocked only with “good” books, curated by a secret committee of “good” authors with some additions of further (“good”) books from the bookseller himself. The characters are sick of the publishing industry pedaling what they feel are subpar novels to an unsuspecting public and getting away with it. They want to raise the level of debate, open readers’ eyes, and change the face of publishing.
But what is a good book? It’s a question that gets increasingly sticky as the characters in A Novel Bookstore are alternately praised for their efforts by readers thirsty for “better” literature and then beaten down by readers and publishers who find them to be judgmental elitists. Who’s to say what’s good if a reader enjoys it? What right is there to call anything good or bad? Is there even such a thing as good and bad when it comes to something as subjective as reading?
After mulling it over for a few days since I finished the book, I came to conclusion that the “perfect bookstore” in A Novel Bookstore is impossible, not because the characters are elitist jerks (they’re pretty lovely, actually), but because each person’s “perfect bookstore” would be different. Theirs is perfect for a certain type of reader who likes a certain type of book, but that doesn’t mean those books are good, better, or even best. They are just a certain type. Each reader has such a different perception of what makes a “good” book — it could mean almost anything from poetic to entertaining to funny to tear-jerking to popular to thought-provoking — that it seems to me it almost doesn’t matter in the end. The word “good” becomes meaningless beside the idea that each reader should read what he or she thinks is good.
Of course, that idea is also problematic as surely part of reading should be aspirational, that one reads to be better, to learn something, to challenge oneself. And this is part of the rabbit hole of A Novel Bookstore‘s philosophy and I honestly end up on both sides of its fence — no one should feel shame about their reading choices, but we also shouldn’t grow complacent and read only what is comfortable and already “good” to us. Kate and I have talked about this before in relation to Young Adult literature: reading a variety of books lets you be critical and thoughtful about what you’re reading. Without that variety, where are you?
More than anything, A Novel Bookstore is a reader’s read. If you love books and if you love reading, you cannot do without reading this novel and then recommending it to all those you know who also love to read. Indeed, A Novel Bookstore is one of the few books I’ve read that absolutely must be discussed — it almost can’t be fully enjoyed in the vacuum of solitary reading. I immediately wished it had been a selection of my book club rather than something I’d just stumbled upon at the library; I wanted everyone to read it so I could talk it over with them. What did they think about “good” books? What was their measuring stick? Whose side were they on — the perfect bookstore’s or the publishers’ or ordinary readers, seemingly caught in the cross-hairs? And did there really have to be sides at all?
So, if you love reading (and thinking about reading), go get A Novel Bookstore and then hurry back. I’ll be waiting, still pondering its questions, and ready to chat about the importance of a “good” book anytime. And, for what it’s worth, to me, this is one of the good ones. (Or possibly “good” ones? Let me know what you think in the comments!)