Desperately Seeking Sex
The question seems to beg for a punch line: What do Madonna and Winston Churchill have in common?
Or, for that matter, Madonna and Hunter S. Thompson? Or Madonna and Sinclair Lewis? Or Madonna and Alice Starmore, a heretofore unknown author of a knitting how-to?
Lest lurid imaginations begin to scamper, we will quickly supply the answer: Last month, a book by Madonna the author, a tome called Sex, was No. 1 on a bestseller list. Churchill‘s account of World War I, The World Crisis, was No. 2. Rounding out the top 10 were books by Thompson, Lewis, Starmore, Carl Sagan and a fellow named Glen Cleeton, whose General Printing is said to be an essential primer in its field.
No. This obviously is not your average New York Times bestseller list.
Instead, this top-10 list, published last month by the Internet book broker Bookfinder.com, charts the most sought-after out-of-print titles — in other words, books that have been abandoned by their publishers for one reason or another but have retained significant audiences just the same.
As such, says Bookfinder founder Anirvan Chatterjee, the list is a unique, Internet-age glimpse into underground reading tastes not influenced by the megamarketing campaigns of publishing houses and major booksellers.
“If you scan the big national bestseller lists, you usually end up with a few hits like Harry Potter or Left Behind, a bunch of thrillers and a morass of diet and self-help books,” says Chatterjee, a California bibliophile who formed Bookfinder.com as a college project seven years ago. “Looking at popular out-of-print books is much more interesting, because the list isn’t driven by corporate marketing campaigns, or by the purchasing decisions of big megastores. Real readers bring real diversity.”
Says Chatterjee: “Show me another bestseller list where a knitting book and a sex book are both out there.”
The Bookfinder.com list is based on millions of reader inquiries in the first 10 months of this year. Though Chatterjee did not release statistics, he said each book among the top 10 has been requested by hundreds, and, in some cases, thousands of readers over the first 10 months of this year. (Bookfinder.com uses a network of 50,000 booksellers, many of them of the small, family-owned variety, to help customers locate more obscure titles.)
For some of the top 10, explanations for out-of-print popularity seem fairly obvious. Madonna’s Sex, for one, appeals to the voyeur market. Thompson (Curse of Lono, No. 4) and Sagan (Murmurs of Earth, No. 6) both enjoy dedicated readerships. Cleeton’s General Printing, (No. 7) and Starmore’s Aran Knitting are considered definitive in their fields.
But why Disco Bloodbath by James St. James shows up at No. 8 is anyone’s guess. Why Theodore Roszak’s 1993 novel called Flicker (No. 3), has acquired such an underground following is also open to speculation. Early this year, Roszak, the author of 17 other books, learned from a San Francisco bookseller that Flicker, a fictionalized history of the movie business that had been out of print for years, was selling on the Internet for up to $100 per paperback.
Then, more recently, he learned about the top-10 list of Bookfinder.com.
“It’s a weird distinction,” Roszak said from his home in California. “It has no cash value to the author, I’ll tell you that. I’m flattered, and I’m also puzzled as to why it should remain out of print.”
Where Churchill’s The World Crisis is concerned, Richard Langworth, a New Hampshire bookseller who specializes in the former prime minister’s work, is puzzled, too.
“It’s interesting, isn’t it,” Langworth said. “The World Crisis is a very high-demand title, one of his best books. It’s very highly sought after by collectors, but I think the content has a lot of relevance these days. It’s almost like sitting on his shoulder and watching World War I unfold.”
As for Churchill’s appearance behind , Langworth says:
“Oh, I think he [Churchill] would be hugely impressed. He had a great sense of humor, although I’m not sure how he would react to Sex by Madonna if he actually read it. He was fairly strait-laced in those areas.”
That Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here landed at No. 10 came as no surprise to Sally Parry, an English professor at Illinois State University and a Lewis scholar. Parry says the book traces the trajectory of a closet fascist who is elected to the American presidency and the terrible repercussions.
“I was aware it was popular,” Parry says of It Can’t Happen Here. “One of the reasons is that with our very conservative political environment, there are a lot of correlations between the world of the book and our current world. The gradual loss of civil liberties in the book leads to internment camps. I’d like to teach it every time there is a national election.”
Parry says she was told that the book’s publisher plans to reprint it this spring. With its new, top-10 recognition, Roszak hopes Flicker enjoys the same resurrection.
“I’m perfectly eager to put the book back into print,” Roszak says. “Winston Churchill probably doesn’t have much to say about the matter. But Madonna and I do.”
Article by Tim Madigan