Sunday, December 03, 2006

Notes from the Christmas Front

The Misunderstood Jew?
Christmas is just three weeks away and Jesus is nowhere to be found on the retail floor. Sure, it's all very friendly and polite at this point. The clerks are still energetic and the customers are in high spirits because they are finding almost everything they want. Still, even though a Christian spirt of brotherhood prevails, I wonder what any of this shopping mania has to do with a religious holiday.

In the past, I would have rolled my eyes at the thought of a retail Jesus, but I just spent four days among theologians, seminary students, and professors at the Academy of American Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Trust me, there is a lot of money to be made in selling Jesus. I don't mean the kitsch Christ or the politically co-opted savior. I'm talking about the serious pursuit of trying to decipher Jesus' teachings and his times.

I worked in the HarperSanFrancisco booth for the event, and there was a fully stocked section of Jesus books. One was Ben Witherington's What Have They Done to Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History -- Why We can Trust the Bible. Of course, Witherington's HarperSanFrancisco stable mate, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (by Bart Ehrman), might prove a useful retort, making the point that putting our faith in the veracity of the bible might not be a great idea.

We also sold Marcus Borg's new biography of Christ, if you can call any book about Jesus a true biography, titled Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. But the surprise hit of the meeting for us was The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. It would be an exaggeration to say there was a Harry Potter-like excitment around these books, but The Misunderstood Jew did acheive a level a devotion usually reserved for Lemony Snickett or Kurt Vonnegutt.

When I returned to the store, I can honestly say that with the possible exception of Misquoting Jesus, which came out last year and was helped immensely by Ehrman's humorous but informative appearance on the Daily Show, these books didn't even register a blip on the consciousness of our customers. Yes, it is true that Buddhism seems to be Boulder's dominant religion, at least as far a book buying is concerned, but I know there also is a large Christian community here. My wife has shepherded me into a few different churches, and they are always packed during the holidays. By the way, my advice for people getting dragged to church a couple of times a year is to get the person dragging you to opt for Palm Sunday over Easter Sunday. It's much less crowded and the sermon is less predictable.

The one thing in short supply at the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting seemed to be books on Satan. I had one customer in Washington ask me if there were any HarperSanFrancisco books on Satan's evil. I jokingly replied, "No, but we've got a few on the good Satan." Not getting the joke, he perked up and asked me where they were. Now, a book on the positive qualities of the Devil might be something we can sell at both next year's AAR/SBL show as well as in the store as a fun little Christmas gift.

What are the Big Books?

The other day I was lamenting the fact that it was now December and it was impossible to tell what books were really going to take off during the holiday season. One of my assistants, who has worked on and off with me for 10 years, told me I say the same thing at the same time every year. Maybe so. But in a year that seemed so loaded with big fall titles, it seems distressing that none of them have captured the public's imagination.

I thought we'd be selling Charles Frazier's 13 Moons like crazy by now. Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope is strong, but it's no Marley and Me. In fact, Marley and Me, which has been re-issued in a slow-moving, fancy illustrated edition, is certainly no Marley and Me. Jimmy Carter's new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, is selling steadily, but it's hard to believe it will come close to equalling his much more universal bestseller from last year, Our Endangered Values.

I'm personally keeping my fingers crossed for Annie Liebovitz's A Photographers Life 1990-2005 because it's an absolutely magnificent book by an orginal artist that deserves widespread distribution and is truly a bargain for $75. I would also like to see Bill Bryson's memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, take off because the more of Bryson's humor that there is out in the world, the better off we will all be.

What's Out

There are a few books that we, and everybody else from what I can tell, are having a difficult time keeping in stock. A few of them, oddly enough, are titles that if not anti-religious are at least irreligious. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins finally came back in after a hiatus of a couple of weeks. Dawkins, a heralded Oxford scientist, takes aim at most religions in a fairly scornful manner that makes Sam Harris' two books Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith seem fairly tolerant of religious views. Surprisingly, all three are selling so well that we are having trouble stocking them. Interesting presents to put under the tree.

This year's Man Booker prizewinner, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, has been out of stock with the publisher, Grove Press, since it won the award. We snagged enough copies for it to make our bestseller list last month, but now we are just waiting for the reprint. While I can forgive Grove Press for coming up short on Desai's surprise hit, I find it hard to feel warm toward McSweeney's for running out of Dave Eggers' What is the What. McSweeney's puts out wonderful books, but they don't seem to have a clue about the business of publishing. How can you run out of Eggers' book in less than four weeks? Isn't this their cash cow? On the children's side, the delightful picture book The Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes is gone until after Christmas. Oh well, there's always Doctor Seuss.

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