Book Sorting and the Fine Art of Forensic Psychology

by Jas Faulkner

siggy“How long ago was Bush president? No need to answer. It’s a rhetorical question. Take a look at this.”

Sam, who was on book sorting detail, bent down out of frame of her webcam and straightened back up.  In each hand she was holding a trade paperback.  In her left was Molly Ivins’ “Bushwhacked” and in her right was a copy of “Banana Republicans”.

“And wait!” she said, “That’s not all!”

She set the books none too gently on the counter and dove back into the box, reappearing onscreen a moment with a stack of books, which she held up and then added to the stack as she read their titles.

“We have:  When Presidents Lie , Lies: and the Lying Liars Who Tell them, The Faith of George W. BushShrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, and Sex With Presidents. Still not enough?  There is a metric buttload more where those came from.”

She sighed deeply and shook her head.

“You know what gets me about this huge, obscenely huge box of books?”

“No one will buy any of them?”  I was trying to be helpful, but I was stumped.

“Look at this.” She held up a trade paperback.  “Sharp corners, bright pages on most of them, and pristine spines.  Nobody read these.  Ever. Why fill your house with books that you know you’re never going to read?”

The answer was a study in informed speculation.  Like many used book sellers, Sam and Tab sometimes engaged in a bit of amateur forensic psychology.  Some of the lots are easy to suss out.  Boxes full of well-thumbed paperbacks from a single genre point to shifting tastes.  The cutoff date for releases can coincide with possible milestones: graduation, divorce, religious conversion, growing up.  Living in a smallish town means figuring out the confluence of events can be pretty easy.

There are also the author summers.  Boxes of Vonnegut and Hornby and Pratchett and Karon start showing up during late winter and spring culls.  They were read during long periods of hot weather.  Sweltering days in July and August ended with an air conditioned retreat to the soft glow of a table lamp and six or seven chapters out of the life work of a writer whose voice would feel like that of an old friend’s by Labor Day.  Years from now, they might get the urge to read “Breakfast of Champions” again, but for now it felt okay to let those books go.

There are also the lots of books purchased for the same reason some people buy certain CDs in college.  They made someone’s “not to be missed” list and there you go.  They sit on the shelves for a few years.  Their owners feel a degree of satisfaction knowing they have substantive reading at their fingertips, if only they felt moved to actually take the books down and read them.  They are joined in the pristine books sect  by nascent artists, blacksmiths, ceramacists, quilters, food fermentation enthusiasts, and a multitude of others whose attention was caught by something compelling, but find later on that actual involvement was supplanted by an impulse to buy all the toys but never play with them.

“Frustrated artists can be a boon for us.  People come in looking for books of needlepoint patterns and we have a shelf full that were barely touched.  Easy sale.  Although they sometimes come back a year or two later, still untouched.  As a bibliophile and a crafter, I find it sad.  Books are meant to be used and loved! As a bookseller, sometimes it feels more like I’m renting them.  It’s not a bad thing, I guess.”

“Doesn’t it make for an interesting wrinkle in the fine art of people watching?”  I asked.

“There is that.  Those boxes of books indirectly say more about the people who visit us than they do themselves.”