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The Future of Bookselling Is Already Here

Bookseller Justin Walls contemplates that the literature we need to deal with the current crisis may already be out there.

So, as usual, bookstores are on the verge of going kaput, right? As a member of the 30 million Americans and counting currently unemployed due to the COVID-19 health crisis—a laid-off bookseller, in fact—I’m sympathetic to that pessimistic prognosis, but hear me out.

At some point on the ominously hued horizon, there will come a day when booksellers return to their posts, shop floors will again bustle with activity, and the fine art of the face-to-face recommendation will be reinstated. (Shockingly, for states like Ohio and Texas, among others, that day would appear to be imminent.) As this undertaking occurs on a large scale, a certain amount of caution and finesse will be required on many fronts, not the least of which being: How do we intend to discuss these beloved bound objects going forward? How we choose to assess (and reassess) the essential value of books during this time will be of vital significance. If business as usual is truly gone for good, then bookselling as usual must go with it. 

Will tangy summer romps wither on the post-isolation vine? Will middlebrow hardcover fiction gather dust in the new world? Conversely, who cares? The moral obligation to leverage our collective voice, should we regain it, in support of a culturally cognizant literature has never been more apparent. Meanwhile, in the doldrums of quarantine, just such works are arriving as scheduled, despite a distinct lack of mobilized booksellers or browse-able shelves to meet them. At risk of being lost in the shuffle (yes, I just referred to a nearly unprecedented global catastrophe as “the shuffle”), these recently published books should serve as the vanguard for our eventual revolution. 

Take Mónica Ramón Ríos’ Cars on Fire (Open Letter), translated by Robin Myers, for instance, a taunting batch of Molotov-ian missives sparked by Chile’s disastrous free market economics and rising inequality. In the gutting dispatch “Dead Men Don’t Rape,” Ríos intersperses protest punk with fictional stump speeches, adding a vicious stinger to the tail end that refuses to be ignored. Overall, Cars on Fire is an intricate wallop of a book that’s more than willing to confound, confront, and even entirely abandon its audience, if need be. Ríos dares readers to either keep up with her uncompromising pace or get left in the dust.

Then there’s Ho Sok Fong’s newly christened Lake Like a Mirror (Two Lines Press), translated by Natascha Bruce. A collection elegantly coiled around notions of marginalization and repression, Lake Like A Mirror consistently butts up against the threshold of reality, challenging Malaysia’s rigorous religious strictures even as it tumbles seamlessly into the surreal. These subtle aberrations might assume the form of a menacing houseplant with a taste for flesh, as in “The Wall,” or balloons escaping from the mouth of an amusement park patron, as in “Summer Tornado,” but Ho Sok Fong’s ultimate brilliance lies in her ability to capture the low, ever-droning hum of womanhood under restraint.

María Fernanda Ampuero’s Cockfight (Feminist Press), translated by Frances Riddle, takes a more direct approach—battering ram direct, to be specific. Wielded like a righteous cudgel against exploitative power, this Ecuadorian debut makes no bones about its intentions from the get-go. “Auction,” the collection’s opening salvo, is part human trafficking horror story, part scatological folk tale. A bracing tone-setter for a book that harnesses the discomforting, even the straight up ghastly, in order to hold the perpetrators of systemic violence accountable for their crimes. Ampuero fights dirty and, frankly, that’s just the sort of writer we need.

These past days and weeks, a somewhat tedious, though inevitable, query has been making the rounds. It goes something like this: “Who will write the coronavirus novel?” Of course, the virus is not just the virus, it’s nimble and pervasive. It exacerbates precarity, corruption, racism, xenophobia—everything, all of it. What we booksellers must realize is that a literature capable of addressing the myriad injustices endemic to our current moment is already here. Whether those books are carried into whatever world we inherit, or simply forgotten amid “the shuffle,” will be up to us.

You can buy these three titles and browse other recent releases here. Your purchase will support the unemployed booksellers who are still reading and still recommending books via The Bookstore at the End of the World.