Today is publication day for the latest Dan Brown novel, Inferno, using Dante’s epic work as its theme. Twitter is awash with publisher excitement, bookshops boasting plentiful supplies, signed copies and special offers, and reviews by individuals and media outlets. Much excitement – a sure-fire seller to boost the coffers of publisher and bookshops, so who can knock that. A writer making a good living from writing – a dream for many.
But how many copies do these booksellers stock of Dante’s Inferno, or the Divine Comedy as a whole? How much are they promoting this cornerstone of European thought and literature? It’s a great read, especially the Inferno with its circles of hell, its wonderful array of characters, its extraordinary imagery, its theme of punishment adapted to crimes, some crimes still very much in the news today; it’s also profound and beautiful.
I doubt many bookshops will have piles of Dante as high as the piles of Dan Brown’s novel. I don’t blame them too much – I fully understand the enthusiasm for something that will bring in some income in these cash-strapped times – though I hope some will take the opportunity to introduce new readers to Dante.
But the great thing about a second-hand bookshop is that it is not at the mercy of market forces in the same way. It fulfils a different need – the need of those who are looking for something specific, something out of print, something that hasn’t made the headlines, or hasn’t done so for years, who are hoping to find inspiration among the stacks and perhaps a lovely edition of an old favourite. Second-hand bookshops rely on diversity rather than multiple copies of the latest bestseller. That is the joy of the enterprise – variety, depth, richness, the unexpected waiting to be discovered.
Of course second-hand copies of Dan Brown’s novels will always be good sellers, I am sure; but one of the things I found most interesting on my stall at the Kenilworth Festival on Saturday was that the books that aroused by far the most interest were the editions of Greek and, especially, Latin literature that were on display. I was recently given a donation that included a good number of these, so it’s lovely to know there is a market for them – lovely in terms of having stock that people want, and lovely in terms of knowing that there is still such enthusiasm for such literature. The variety of people who picked these books up with a degree of alacrity was encouraging too – from a young woman studying Classics to a retired gentleman, with different ages in between, both genders well represented.
Second-hand bookshops are heartwarming places. That lovely involuntary expression of joy when a customer chances upon an unexpected find, or something they have been looking for for a while, is always a wonderful thing to hear.
It’s been an exhausting week, but the constant and increasing sense that people still want second-hand books is a huge motivational factor in keeping the determination going and the physical and emotional energy alive.
Good luck to Dan Brown, good luck to bookshops everywhere, we need bestsellers and we need bookshops. But all the best to Dante too, whose work inspired a thousand other stories and who will, I hope, be a regular contributor to the Tree House stock.