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Words Without Borders: "You may find yourself making your own list, and adding some new additions to it as you go along."

Date: Sep 1 2010

A new bookstore opens in Paris and stirs up a culture war. Ivan, a career bookseller and Francesca, a socialite and passionate reader, decide to open an "ideal bookstore"—one in which only good books are sold. They call it simply "The Good Novel." And before long, the place experiences phenomenal sales as well as violent threats, all the while receiving massive press coverage—by turns, adulatory and vituperative.


In an age of plummeting book sales, daily hardship (and ruin) for independent bookstores, and a publishing industry whose future seems grim, the plot of A Novel Bookstore could only be the fantasy of an undeterred bibliophile. In this alternate universe, books are at the forefront of cultural consciousness and debate. Even in France, a country more protective of its high culture than our own, the situation is only slightly more plausible. For all its utopian indulgences, the novel does turn on a familiar, and emblematic, tension. The escalating war over the bookstore has, at its heart, a clash between "literature" and the business of publishing. Of course, literature is a loaded category. Nabokov (whose entire oeuvre is sold at the store) once wrote that "reality" was one of the few words that means nothing without quotation marks. I'd hazard that "literature" is another. For what is literature except books that have been deemed, by someone, good and important?


Ivan and Francesca must figure out how to stock their store, and this involves pre-appraising its wares. When the choice of what will be on the list of good novels must be made, and Ivan and Francesca do not want to be solely responsible, they appoint a secret committee of eight respected French writers who submit their lists of titles that will form the basic inventory of the store. But they seem to have a premonition of the furor that will follow, for they are very careful to conceal the identities of their committee, assigning each a code name, insisting on phone contact only, and refusing to convene a meeting with the whole group. Of course, the names get out, and violent, menacing acts are committed against three committee members.


And therein lies something of a mystery: Who would want to hurt a bunch of writers just for naming their favorite books? Silly as it may seem, Cossé sketches out the interested parties convincingly: publishers, jilted writers, prize committees—everyone who wants to make some money or gain some influence through books. 


Cossé and her characters seem to yearn for a way to cut through the noise and excess in printed matter and get to the heart of literature. These characters’ declared target is cultural demagogy, which they claim to fight with choices that reflect passion and taste instead of fealty to the established order. But while the majority of publishers do continue to churn out expendable, flash-in-the-pan books, and though good books are probably often rejected or neglected for financial reasons, railing against the commercialism of publishing when it is generally foundering as a business seems almost quaint.


But the importance and vitality of literature in Cossé's world is inspiring, and the passion and urgency with which the characters discuss their favorite books is contagious—you may find yourself making your own list, and adding some new additions to it as you go along. In fact, though A Novel Bookstore is charming and compelling and very readable, it has neither the depth nor the beauty of the great books that it dedicates itself to. It makes one wonder if the time might not be better spent reading the greats themselves, rather than this tribute.

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