A Sortment | Newberry

A Sortment

One of the things I will miss this July, when I am not going to be bewildered by eight thousand or so customers coming to browse among the books we’ve spent the year getting ready for them is the small group of experts who come not for our wares but to argue our wheres.

“Why are these books on atheism in Religion instead of Philosophy?” my unpaid advisors cry out. “Why is this life of Jackie Robinson in Sports instead of in African-American Studies? Why is this novel by P.G. Wodehouse in Humor instead of in Literature?”

I do what I can. “Well, you see, P.G. Wodehouse wrote his novels to make people laugh, and we think humorous novels will sell better in Humor.”

They sniff. They always sniff at inferior brains (I wonder what those smell like.) “That was so long ago, none of these kids today will laugh at him now.”

That’s another thing: they’re never worried about someone of their superior mentality finding the books. It’s always “these kids today” who won’t understand. (In which case, they won’t be looking for P.G. Wodehouse anyhow.)

Since books on atheism are generally challenges to religious philosophy, we put ‘em in religion. We also sort Jackie Robinson as if he were a baseball player who made a brave move for civil rights, and not a civil rights leader who also happened to play baseball. We try to avoid value judgements and just sort things where we think a majority of customers will look for them. (This is also our answer to “I got this book in Humor and it isn’t funny!” That’s between you and the author, barbecue beetburger.)

It has been pointed out to me that we do kind of make a value judgement in one category that we don’t (but could) make in another. We separate Psychology and How To (Head) base on the simple principle “What it written for a psychologist to read, or a member of the general public?” Basically, the book “Depression: A Study of Its Occurrence in Middle School Students” goes on one table and the book “Depression: Why It’s Good For You!” on another.

We do this because both categories are large enough to justify it. That corner of the Book fair would be a shambles if we simply shelved every book by “a world-renowned psychologist” over there. “World-renowned psychologist” is a phrase that apparently guarantees major sales, and we find it used less on actual psychology books than on books on how to deal with your marriage problems, pn diet books, biographies, and even novels.

One of my unpaid, and uninvited, advisors asked me once, “So why don’t you apply that rule in Health and Medicine?”

It is true: you can see the same division. Some books (Recent Advances in Dentistry) are clearly written for doctors to read, while others (Garlic Cures Toenail Fungus!) are aimed more at the general public. It would be a relatively easy thing to do, too: the categories are already named. We could put the Kumquat Diet in Health but set Color Atlas of Shotgun Wounds in Medicine. There would be a few difficulties. The Human Anatomy Coloring Book would appeal to both audiences, so where would we put it? (My own attitude, since we get a lot of this title—almost never colored—would be to put a couple in each, but the public likes Rules, and would never accept that as an answer.)

I think they sit together nicely for the same reason religion and atheism line up on the same table. People are a little intimidated by the gap between Psychology and How To (Head): to understand a real psychology book you need years of study and an Austrian accent. But the whole “be your own doctor” trend goes back four or five centuries and shows no signs of slowing up. With the possible exception of internal surgery, many people feel there’s nothing a doctor can do for you that you can’t do for yourself, given the right information. (And we get books—which I don’t open—by people who conducted their own appendectomies.) Maybe the answer lies in this pamphlet on Vinegar and Vaping or maybe it lies in that weighty tome on Diseases of the kidney, Seventh Edition. Why separate them?

(Unless, of course, we figure we can sell more books that way. Stay tuned for the Book Binge of 2021.)