A rose by any other name…or Philip K Dick with an unwanted Romeo complex

Gill Sans poster (2)Opening day is getting closer, and the shop space continues to take shape.  It now looks less like a second-hand furniture shop and more like a bookshop with some comfy sofas and chairs to entice you to linger among the books.  We have our opening night celebration all lined up, and two more music gigs booked, one in August, one at the start of November – currently working on booking something in between, it would be great to have music once a month.  Once the bookshelves are properly installed, I will get some projection equipment sorted and we can start watching films sooner rather than later.  And I have a couple of authors keen to come and and talk about their books.

So progress continues – it does feel as though it all moves forward in some way every day.  Now I am starting to make more specific plans about the shop itself, and one of those is how to lay out the stock.  The day is getting close when we can sort and arrange the books, which is exciting!  Non-fiction is easy – I plan to keep categories fairly broad (History, Biography, Travel, Religion, Cookery, etc), though I think I’ll also need a plain old Miscellaneous section too.

But when it comes to organising the fiction, which currently constitutes the majority of the stock, I am considering the issue of genres.  I instinctively want to undermine the whole concept of genres – too many writers have been neglected because their work has been given a label and put in the sort of cover that goes with it.  Philip K Dick springs immediately to mind: one of the great novelists of the 20th century, his books have been largely read only by those with an interest in science fiction.  Yet they are simply great novels, beautifully written, with a profound understanding of what it is to be human, an imagination that is both vast and somehow controlled, a writer with something to say but who is not taken seriously by those who think SF is for geeks who spend their spare time stalking William Shatner and inventing spaceships in their bedrooms.  It’s not all ray-guns and alien planets.

Anyway, before I get carried away…  I want to shelve all the novels in one run, A-Z by author, untainted by genre.  Crime, horror, fantasy, science fiction, classics and general fiction all in one sequence.  I admit that I shared that prejudice towards science fiction for a long time, until a friend whose passion for Philip K Dick persuaded me to try him – and my prejudice was swept aside on my first reading of The Man in the High Castle – which has at least now been given Penguin modern classic status rather than put in a cover with garish images on the cover that have little to do with the content of the book.  I now rate his books among some of the best I have read – and apart from Tess of the d’Urbervilles, no book has made me cry harder or longer than A Scanner Darkly.  Those two books have a lot more in common than making me cry, and certainly a lot more than many people might think.

I have had lots of prejudices overturned in recent months – another friend has been lending me DVDs, choosing them himself, and often giving me things I would never otherwise have watched.  I have discovered all sorts of gems that I was sure I wouldn’t enjoy – there are a number of them, but Heat is my Philip K Dick moment in terms of film.  What an outstandingly beautiful film – something I never dreamed I would hear myself saying (despite my love for Al Pacino).

I have loved having my expectations turned on their heads, my prejudices challenged, my tastes broadened – hell, I even enjoyed Mad Max!  Humble pie sometimes tastes pretty good.  I want to encourage, even to expect, my reading customers to consider things outside their usual tastes and literary comfort zones, and shelving the fiction in one run is partly a way of doing that.

I am still to an extent (and unashamedly) a book snob – I think there is good literature and bad literature, worthwhile literature and disposable literature.  Both have their place, but I’m not going to pretend I think they are equally important.  I am not a snob, though, when it comes to genres – there is good and bad within each genre.  As well as that, if people only ever go to the SF section, the Crime section, the chick lit section, then how do they know what else might give them equal pleasure or other rewards?

It will no doubt irritate some people not to have novels divided into genres, but maybe a few of those who are expecting genre divisions will embrace the challenge and even find things they would not otherwise have read.  I will work hard at getting to know my stock so that I can direct those who do want genre fiction to some relevant titles.  We’ll see how it goes!

I don’t mean to be didactic, not at all; I just want to present books as books and shelves of books as a treasure trove of the unexpected.  Literature should stir us, shake up our beliefs, challenge us, confront us, help us explore the world, as well as sometimes comforting us, confirming us, entertaining us; a bookshop should do the same, and the Tree House will strive to fulfil this role.

3 thoughts on “A rose by any other name…or Philip K Dick with an unwanted Romeo complex

  1. I think it’s a great idea not to separate by genre, it’s one of my pet hates in the library! I’m often looking for a title or an author (from a review or a recommendation) and am left staring at the shelves trying to guess how they might have categorised it! The shop is looking really good, can’t wait to see it open.


  2. I wholeheartedly support your decision on shelving alphabetically and wish is was adopted more widely. Any good bookshop should be able to guide customers to genre authors without creating a specific section. Good for you!


  3. Thanks both! I have thought about it quite a bit, and different people have had different ideas – we’ll see how it goes, anyway. As you say, Sarah, when there are genre categories, you don’t always know where something might be shelved.


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