I’m putting the moral of this story right up front so no one misses it. Buy the book before it’s gone.
This is a lesson I learned long ago, but our Library of Forgotten Books project drilled the knowledge into me yet again. For the project, I (like everyone else in the store) had to choose a favorite book that had fallen out of the public eye and spotlight it so that a new audience could find the same joy in it that I did. Easy peasy. I’m often paralyzed by choice, but in this case I knew immediately who to turn to: Penelope Fitzgerald.
Born in England in 1916, she didn’t begin publishing fiction until she was in her sixties, but still produced nine classic novels along with several works of non-fiction and a pair of story collections. Before her death in 2000 she’d achieved considerable acclaim and even won a Booker Prize, but she modestly eschewed self-promotion and never reached as many readers as she deserved. And she deserves as many as she can get. Her work is always substantial, yet effortless to read, each novel a marvel of comic deftness. I don’t know of any author who can sketch scenes and characters better than she does, and certainly none of her competitors can match her for economy. Every time I’ve finish one of her books, I’m stunned to realize how much she accomplishes in so small a space. Her longest novel has fewer than 250 pages, but it’s as immersive as one twice its size.
Which of her books to add to the Library, though? I had particularly fond memories of Human Voices, her 1980 novel depicting emotional entanglements on the home front during World War Two. London is beset by bombers, and BBC Radio establishes a shelter for its employees so that they can safely continue the work of “saving Britain from despondency and panic” without ever leaving the office. Did I mention that it’s a co-ed shelter? Romance blooms for some, annoyances build between others, and small moments of human interaction stand out against the larger historical backdrop. It’s a can’t-miss winner to please just about anyone.
When I went to order copies for the store, however, I was brought up short. The book isn’t out of print, but the publisher isn’t doing it any favors. Just a single copy was on hand for shipment. ONE. Across the entire nation. So I tried At Freddie’s, Fitzgerald’s behind-the-scenes peek at the actors in a decaying theater. Same deal. The Golden Child, her comedic thriller about the theft of Egyptian artifacts from the British Museum? No dice. OK, those are early novels. What about her later works, her masterfully researched and fully imagined fiction set in other lands? Innocence is set in Tuscany, and Fitzgerald imbues that landscape with all the charm of a travel ad without ever losing grip on the real difficulties the aristocrats and the lowborn alike experience in their shared villa. Then there’s The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow on the verge of the Russian Revolution, and The Gate of Angels, set in the philosophical milieu of turn-of-the-20th-century academics who struggle with belief and doubt. Nope, nope, and nope.
After checking the stock on all her novels, only two were on hand in quantity—her last one, The Blue Flower, and the one I chose to promote to you, The Bookshop. It tells the tale of Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance who risks everything to open a bookshop—the only bookshop—in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and runs afoul of the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Trouble ensues when she dares to sell the then-scandalous Lolita. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one. Like all Fitzgerald’s fiction, The Bookshop is a sharply intelligent entertainment, and given my profession, it’s probably the novel I should have picked in the first place.
Don’t misunderstand— the other Fitzgerald books I’ve talked about are still available, and I’ll happily put one (or all) of them in your hands as soon as I can. It’s just that the publisher’s attention has moved on to shinier, more current titles. Those are the ones being talked about, and those are the ones taking precedence on printing presses, so those are the ones people are seeing and buying. Sales of older books suffer in comparison, and they fall lower and lower in priority, creating a whirlpool of sorts that can suck even the greatest book into the void.
Which points out why we launched the Library of Forgotten Books to begin with. By stopping every now and then to reconsider the past, we can stop the vicious cycle that sends stories into oblivion and fight back against the tyranny of the Next Big Thing. No matter when it was written, a book is always as new as its most recent reader.