04 November 2010

Sailing on the Sea of Books

When I was a bookseller, buying new books for an independent bookstore, I could imagine the world of publishing – all of it, from the largest corporate media sites to the smallest presses – as an impossibly vast ocean I had to somehow navigate. It was my job not only to discover the most interesting ships sailing those waters, but on behalf of potential readers it was my work to filter out the trash and plastic bits to end up with a bucket or two of new books – books worth the hard-earned money of potential readers.

There are way too many new books published for any one person ever to read, or to hear about in the first place. The reader must cultivate exquisite taste or waste precious dollars on the wrong books.

No part of this filtering process is easy. It’s not easy for writers, who must ponder their readers as well as their own navels. It is not easy for publishers, who stake fortunes on the net sales of a short list of new titles. It is not easy for book reviewers, who must decide what to review. It is not easy for booksellers who cannot waste a single square foot on books no one will purchase. And it certainly is not easy for you, readers of all ages, who are the ultimate judges of what gets read and what discarded.

Then there is the question of what happens to books once they’ve had their run on best-seller lists, their initial spurt of publicity and promotion. Do they continue to sell out of the small print at the back of publisher catalogs, or do they fall to bottom feeders on the floor of this ocean of books, where for 99 cents you might take a chance on a book published ten years ago and long forgotten?

I’m thinking about all this because publisher Globe Pequot is reenergizing one of those somewhat forgotten books and republishing it this month as a movie tie-in.

The film is titled “The Way Back.” It comes out in January with director Peter Weir, based on a book of similar name, the 1956 memoir titled “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz.

“The Long Walk” was first published in England in 1956. It’s a thrilling story of escape which may or may not actually be true. With the help of a ghost writer Rawicz recounted a grueling 6500 kilometer trek from the wartime gulags of Soviet Siberia across Asia to rescue in India in 1941.

“The Long Walk” in its day sold a half-million copies worldwide, in more than twenty languages. When I came across it some years ago I reviewed it here, and still recall the powerful ending. Six starving escapees, after an unbelievably difficult eleven months hiding and walking, stumble into accidental rescue by a wartime Gurkha patrol high on the Indian side of the  Himalayas.

The odds against any book ever reaching your lap or your Kindle or your Ipad, Nook, computer screen, CD player, bookstore or library are enormous.

The ones that get through most often tie-in with movies, with big cultural turning points such as elections or wars. The ones that get through are more likely to be written by established authors, or new celebrities. These potentially successful books may concern hot button issues, or controversial theories. They may purport to change your life if you simply do this. Or do that.

Maybe it has always been this way. When books were written for monks and aristocrats few regular people had any chance to see such rare objects, let alone consult one. Now that books exist in every possible form at every price point, do the best rise to the surface? How does a book find you? How do you discover the one odd book you will love? How do you do that two times in a row?

There will never be one simple answer to these questions, fast as times are changing. All useful questions to ponder, I think.


“The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz. Lyons Press/Globe Pequot paperback $14.95. ISBN 1599219751. Also available in hard cover, electronic and audio versions. This edition will soon have a movie tie-in cover.

In 2004 a group of adventurers retraced “The Long Walk,” documenting changes to environment and society in the past 60 years, and bringing along medical supplies for remote communities. Some of their story is on their web site.

Wikipedia collects a lot of information about “The Long Walk” and its author(s)...

YouTube trailer for the film “The Way Back”

RopeofSilicon has more information and the international trailer.

My book review from April, 1998.

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