Nobody Knows the Way to BEA


I was on my way to Book Expo America on Tuesday when the C train, still in Brooklyn, experienced a preposterously long delay–even for the C train. At first we were told simply that a “situation” was being “investigated” at “another station.”

The doors were wide open at the current station. It wasn’t anyone’s destination, but each time the crackling human voice repeated the veiled announcement–every five minutes or so–a few more passengers would make a face of disgust or wry amusement, then abandon train.

Eventually the announcer came on and said that there was “a sick passenger on board a train at a station ahead of us.” There were only three of us in the car at this point. Still, no movement, but at least we were learning something. Did they have to “investigate” to see that someone was ill? Was this some sort of horribly conceived metaphor for the book industry? Or did some real person intending to collide head-on with a train, mistakenly end up inside, on the floor?

I was so late that I would have to set up our display early the next morning, but my annoyance morphed into an odd sense of liberation when I realized that I had, on my person, every book we had recently published at Stone Bridge Press. Since we became independent again this year, we’re doing fewer books but we fully believe in each and every one. We have the time to give them the respect they deserve. It’s a good feeling.

On the way home, I was reading Donald Richie‘s little zinger of a book, A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (much to the dismay of sales reps around the country, he insisted on the word tractate). Richie writes that “Japanese arts and crafts (a division that the premodern Japanese did not themselves observe) imitated the means of nature rather than its results. One of these means was simplicity.” He quotes from the 13th-century work Hojoki:

A house and its master are like the dew

that gathers on the morning glory.

Which will be the first to pass?

At BEA on Wednesday and Thursday, there was a feeling that the impending natural disaster predicted at previous expos–the lightning storm of digital publishing, once expected to turn our businesses into unrecognizable things dancing on beds of sentimental ashes–had subsided, or perhaps had always been just a natural weather pattern, leaving the book industry to imitate the means of nature rather than its results. There were the usual loud-mouthed forecasters in the mazes of audio book and digital reader company booths, but they started to sound like train announcers, fuzzy and inconsequential. Unbelievable.

We shared a booth with a number of small publishers, including Feral House and Small Beer Press. Just a few booths away from the flat screen televisions practicing hypnosis at the L. Ron Hubbard booth, we talked about life and death and editing. It turns out that Small Beer is putting out Alasdair Gray‘s Old Men in Love in June. I had no idea! Julia Holmes was hanging out, wondering if she should now start to live a life of literary solitude, so I picked up a galley of Meeks, her debut novel. I have been floored by its momentum, grit and grace and texture. The style is reminiscent of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, as if it has translated itself into existence. Meeks comes out from Small Beer in July. It happens to be the first book that Jedediah Berry (The Manual of Detection) has acquired and edited for the press.

Nobody knows the way to BEA. One reason many of us stick with this business, if you can even call it a business (it’s more like a practice, really), is a perhaps pathological obsession with voice, with helping authors find their voices and with encouraging others to listen. But books aren’t an announcement, books are the train itself, the place where mind meets body, the moment when it doesn’t seem to matter that both will come to pass. If the train ahead of us is delayed, can we outrun it and reach the next one? Or is that a death wish?

I keep thinking of Woody Allen, near the end of Annie Hall, arguing with Diane Keaton about whose what is whose after the breakup. She says that obviously the books with her name in them are hers. “You wrote your name in all my books,” says Allen. “Because you knew this day was going to come.”

Rumpus contributing editor Ari Messer was a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian from 2006-2010. Here is his web life. More from this author →