Friday 5 March 2010

The psychology of silk underclothes has not yet been fully considered

Over at The Guardian online, Daniel Tapper laments the impending loss of what he calls "lucky-dip reading", that is, the discovery of a brilliant book outside one's comfort zone, stumbled across via the declining art of the leisurely book browse. Tapper argues that as more and more book shopping is done online, people will become less and less likely to pick up something they wouldn't normally read, buy it without knowing anything about it, enjoy it, and thus have their reading horizons broadened. He predicts increasingly strict and very narrow readings structures defining people's experience of books, and I agree with him that this would be a great loss, on many levels.

He may be more right than even an alarmist like I would like to admit. For every 19-year old who comes in to my shop looking to buy everything Pearl S. Buck ever wrote because she just read one and loved it (this happened Wednesday), there are 10 people looking for the kinds of usual suspects Tapper laments on behalf of frustrated booksellers in the UK - Stiegg Larsson, for one, and more in my experience, Khaled Hosseini, Alice Sebold, Audrey Niffenegger, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Further, 30-40% of my shop's sales occurs online and this percentage will likely only increase. More and more people have decided what they want to read before they arrive, which makes random and wonderful discovery unlikely. Not that it doesn't happen. It certainly happens here and while I am currently on a semi-obsessive 19th-century fat novel kick, the "lucky dip" approach is still generally my personal emm ohh. And being able to engage in the lucky dip without spending money has made me even more willing to read a book entirely without any cushioning information.

Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is an example of this very thing. This novel has been kicking around in my shop for a few months. I hadn't heard of it before it came in, and I did not read the back cover copy or even the author bio until I was done. I simply picked it up a couple of days ago and began...and it was lovely. Purely and simply, lovely.

Miss Pettigrew is a 40-year old, down at heal, unemployed governess in late-1930s London; the novel regales us with her adventures after she's accidentally sent to a rising entertainment star's apartment to ask for work. Delysia LaFosse (yes, she's as delicious as her name suggests) invites Miss Pettigrew in only to have the latter save her from a series of social disasters with style, aplomb, and a great deal of grace and hilarity - characteristics Miss Pettigrew would never have attributed to her drab and fading self before.

Don't worry about my having revealed the bones of the plot to you - this novel is, like P.G. Wodehouse's novels, entirely about how the events are described, not so much about what occurs. If the title of this blog post, lifted from one of Miss Pettigrew's ruminations on how dressing effects how she deals with others (p. 93) doesn't tempt you to read this novel, let this snippet convince you:
"Would it harm her to marry me?" demanded Michael.
"It would be the very best thing for her," said Miss Pettigrew with decision.
Michael beamed cheerfully.
"Discerning female," he exulted. "You and I are friends. Didn't I say you had sense?"
"You mentioned it," said Miss Pettigrew.
"Have you any influence over that ridiculous mistake she calls a mind?"
"I don't think so," said Miss Pettigrew unhappily.
"I thought not. She hasn't got sense to know when an influence is good."
"Oh, but she's so nice," begged Miss Pettigrew.
"She's a damned, irritating wench."
"But very lovely," pleaded Miss Pettigrew.
"Yes, confound her, but not the sense of a mouse."
"But does she need it?" asked Miss Pettigrew earnestly.
"A bit of grey matter would do her no harm."
"But I thought men didn't like brains in women."
"I do. That's why I'm different, so God knows why I picked on her."
"She has sense," said Miss Pettigrew spiritedly.
"Then why doesn't she use it?"
"I don't know," sighed Miss Pettigrew.
"Because she hasn't got any."
"I'm in the room, you know," said Miss LaFosse in her lovely, chuckling voice.
"Be quiet," said Michael. "This talk is serious. We don't want folly intervening." (pp. 152-53)
And this fantastic, snappy back and forth just continues! Watson was truly gifted not only at producing the hilarious one liners, but also at stringing together pages and pages of them in a row. I found this book to be as amusing as any good Wodehouse novel, but with characters - especially the unique and unforgettable Miss Pettigrew - more three-dimensional than his. Truly, a lovely surprise and one that speaks in favour of the satisfaction that may be gained through playing a little library or bookstore roulette.


Lesly said...

I love that book - and it was made into an equally sweet movie with Amy Adams and Frances McDormand. I have been looking for other works by Winifred Wilson - do you have any in your shop?

Laura Jane said...

I agree with you 100% regarding lucky finds while browsing bookstores. I've stumbled on a couple of gems that have actually ended up forming who I am as a reader. As a new Kindle owner...I'm already feeling bookstore withdrawal. I'm so glad you stumbled on Ms. Pettigrew!

Heidenkind said...

I've actually been reading more out of my comfort zone thanks to the webbernets, so I'm not sure Tapper's thesis holds water. I just finished a really great book that I never would have looked twice at in a bookstore that was recommended to me online, in fact.

Kevin said...

I'm 100% with Heidenkind. That's a big percentage. So don't mess with it! I would never have read Immaculate Conception were it not for you, dear C. Nor Mitchell, for that matter. Same holds for other lit-crit blogs and commentaries: Saramago, Eliot, and others. There's a lot of crap out there, but when you find a decent source of information that reliably plugs quality stuff, you can't go far wrong. But that's just me. From K to C = cheers + have a good weekend... In a quantitative mood, you see! Kevin

Bookphilia said...

Lesly: Unfortunately, this is the only Wilson novel I have in the store. :(

Laura Jane: That's awesome. The first part. What's the attraction of the Kindle?

heidenkind and Kevin: You make a good point, which occurred to me. But in my brain it was snuffed out by how often certain books end up being read by every blogger out I didn't make it. I think, like Kevin suggests, everything depends on which blogs you read. And I'm lucky enough, personally, to read a number of excellent, in part because unique, blogs. :)

Eva said...

I'm half with you and half with Heidenkind & Kevin. :) I do love random browsing, although I tend to do it at my library! (Since I'm unemployed...when I have a job, I'll be back to supporting indie book sellers.) But blogs have encouraged to pick up books that are in sections I'd never have visited before in a library/bookstore. You're right, though: it does depend on the blogs you subscribe too. I dislike it when one book begins to blanket the blogosphere.