Last week I went to our local chain bookstore on the pretext of finding my twelve-year-old son something to read other than Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which he’d tried to get me to buy in a university bookstore for $26.95. He has been reading apocalyptic novels, mostly by Stephen King, this year. He’s mature enough to handle reading some adult language and content, and I liked Stephen King books when I was in seventh grade too (though I preferred straight horror, like Salem’s Lot and The Shining, which was a perfectly good book until the movie industry superimposed Jack Nicholson’s face onto my mental filmstrip). I didn’t really object to my son reading Margaret Atwood; I just couldn’t see paying that much for a huge hardback that I thought he might not like that much.
While I was there, I thought I’d look at the anthologies to see if I could find something to replace my copy of 50 Great American Short Stories, a small but fat paperback which is cheaply printed and aesthetically unappealing. The bookstore has rearranged its display space to showcase its electronic reader and trendy e-reader accessories, and has increased its selection of semi-educational toys (which are presumably selling better than books), so it took me a few minutes to find the anthology shelves, now tucked away at the end of a row of science fiction, next to the large-print editions.
There on the top shelf were the expected anthologies: Pushcart Prize winners, Pen/O. Henry Award winners, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and New Yorker stories about New York edited by David Remnick. Others were intriguing: Great American Short Stories from Hawthorne to Hemingway, American Short Story Masterpieces, The Vintage Book of American Women Writers, and The World’s Shortest Stories, which seemed clever but not something I would enjoy reading. On the next shelf down I found two anthologies edited by Joyce Carole Oates: The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, and The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Both of those looked very good, but for some reason I’ve never enjoyed stories by Joyce Carole Oates and the fact that she edited the two volumes was enough to put me off. The anthologies of literary fiction took up maybe 30% of the anthology shelf space.
Another 20% of the shelf space was given to anthologies of ghost stories, generic horror stories, vampire stories, zombie stories, werewolf stories. Best New Horror. The Book of the Living Dead. (That one actually seemed sort of scholarly – an anthology of more or less literary ghost stories from the 19th and 2oth centuries.) I like ghost stories, but that wasn’t in the game plan.
Then I noticed the erotica.
Fully another 50% of the shelf space was devoted to various anthologies of erotica. Men’s! Women’s! LGBT! There may have even been sexual fetish anthologies. I was afraid to look too closely, for fear that someone would think I was either interested in reading that stuff (not in public, anyway!)…or doing something weird right there in the bookstore. Which does happen. I was in a B. Dalton on 8th Street in Greenwich Village a number of years ago when a guy in a trench coat walked up beside me, glanced at the art books, whipped open his coat, whipped it out, and started masturbating. Buddy, if I’d wanted to see that, I’d have asked. I ran all the way home to the Lower East Side, terrified that the flasher was following me.
Remembering that incident sucked all the joy right out of my browsing. I gathered up my son, bought him a Richard Bachman novel and a couple of Far Side books from the bargain table, and scurried home.
The next day, I had a chance to drop off a bag of non-keeper paperbacks at our local used bookstore. I seem to keep about $30 in “store credit” there, and somehow the piles of books around the house never get any smaller. Their section of literary criticism and anthologies filled only two shelves, but it included collections of Toni Morrison, D. H. Lawrence, O. Henry, an anthology from the Cambridge series, New Black Voices (Abraham Chapman), an anthology of stories by Latina writers, one of stories related to jazz, and one of stories with themes involving hair. There were books of critical essays on Proust and Milton. I found one anthology of love stories, one of dragon stories, a dog-eared copy of Granta, and one anthology of erotica.
I guess that the used bookstore can be a little more selective about what they keep for resale. Or maybe the people buying anthologies of erotica are hanging onto their…books?