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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

What books live on

When The Great Gatsby was published, on April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald, living high in France after his early success, cabled Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners, and demanded to know if the news was good. Mostly, it was not. The book received some reviews that were dismissive (“F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S LATEST A DUD,” a headline in the New York World ran) and others that were pleasant but patronizing. ... For a writer of Fitzgerald’s fame, sales were mediocre—about twenty thousand copies by the end of the year. Scribners did a second printing, of three thousand copies, but that was it, and when Fitzgerald died, in 1940, half-forgotten at the age of forty-four, the book was hard to find.
from David Denby’s May 13 review of the new “Gatsby” movie in The New Yorker

Thousands of books are published each year, and the truth is nobody knows which ones will live on — which will find a permanent place on bookshelves, in bookstores, in libraries and in our hearts and minds. Nobody knows.

In 1925, the year of Gatsby’s publication, these were the top five bestselling books, according to Publishers Weekly:

1. Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
2. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy
3. The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter
4. Glorious Apollo by E. Barrington
5. The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

Gatsby wasn’t anywhere in the year’s top ten, in which list appears only one novel that I’ve even heard of, Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. Fitzgerald died thinking he was a failure and a forgotten man, deeply envious of the fame of Ernest Hemingway, with whom he’d drunk and palled around when the two were ambitious young novelists in Paris in the Twenties and Fitzgerald was the one, back then, that anyone had heard of.

Writing fiction is an act of faith, and those who ride high today may well be the A. Hamilton Gibbses of tomorrow — or their books the Constant Nymphs of probably well-deserved obscurity. (Was there really a bestseller called The Constant Nymph? What was she constant about?) I think this is especially true in today’s upheaval-ridden book business, where the major publishers have all conglomeratedinto six, and now five, behemoth houses and yet the marketplace itself is in major ways slipping from their grasp.

Almost half of all the books being published in the U.S. each year right now are coming from small and independent publishers. And with the vapor-like diffusion of how books are now being discovered, promoted, shared, accessed and read, it has never been more true that no one — no critics, no professors, no taste-definers or opinion-makers — knows which will be the Gatsbys of tomorrow.

All of which leaves aside the obvious irony here, which is that Gatsby’s author died thinking his best book was a lost cause, yet today its paperback edition sells half a million copies each year. And, of course, the novel is the basis for the year’s glitziest, jazziest, most excess-celebrating movie (so far). Fitzgerald complained, according to The New Yorker’s Denby, that even among the positive reviews of his novel, “not one had the slightest idea what the book was about” — and he, whose last career phase was a souring, alcoholic failure as a Hollywood screenwriter, would surely have been outraged, or maybe just amused, at how completely the newest movie version misses the point as well.

And yet ... we still have the book. Those books which make it into permanent circulation ... they do so not because they made the top ten list, whether in the New York Times or on Amazon — or because someone in an august position in the book world anointed them. They find a lasting place because they make a lasting, continually renewing connection with individual readers. I think that process, the most important one of all in the writing and reading world, will always be the real way that this most important sifting of any year’s books occurs. I still reread Kipling’s Kim every few years, and Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and E.B. White’s Stuart Little and Louis Sachar's Holes, not because they’re on anyone’s list, but because they matter to me.

You may well have your own list like that. (I’ll think of more titles on mine, as soon as I stop trying.) Where did you find those particular books, and when did they first come into your life? Each one, for you, is probably a story in itself — your own personal story of a personal relationship with a book that has lasted. In the end, this is always personal; and only the reader really knows. Even the author usually doesn’t. Sometimes, or maybe even often, the author passes out of this world with no clue what will happen with the story he or she once launched into the world.

In the end, the greatness of a book, whatever it is, lives only in an individual reader’s relationship with it. So it could be any book that has greatness for you, in your life, or in mine. Any book at all. Even the one nobody’s ever heard of ... like The Great Gatsby. 

Or The Constant Nymph.

Hey, it's possible, right?

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