Desperately Seeking DOTW

January 21
, 2002

The stories started during Death of the West’s debut week. Stores hadn’t heard of it, couldn’t find it, or had already sold out (both copies). Seemed local booksellers were doing everything but keeping a steady stock well within reach.

Resisting the lure of conspiracy theory, we blamed late shipment or early sales. After all, one day into the publicity tour it broke onto the New York Times bestseller list and had skyrocked from #492 to #3 in Amazon.com’s ranking on opening day. Media requests were piling up and hundreds were lining up at book-signings. (The Washington Times said of one event, “Mr. Buchanan’s popularity caught the store by surprise. It ran out of copies of the book as soon as his talk ended, forcing one of the unhappy, vocal clerks to scramble to the phone and call other branches for the book.”)

By the second week out, the book had gone to second printing and was up to #4 on the New York Times list and #8 on the Wall Street Journal’s. But the reports continued. Seemed PJB’s latest had become the rarest of rare books. So we did some sleuthing.

Suppressing a purist’s passion for bookshops that don’t have four shelves devoted to feng-shui, we headed for the superstores -- the sort of megacenters where you can get a double venti lowfat mochaccino Americano, no foam…and perhaps even a book.

At the first, a clerk informed us that Death of the West wasn’t in the computer (the megastore’s highest authority), therefore there was no such book. At our insistence, he consulted a colleague who found that they had five - boxed in the back. Perhaps we’d like a copy of Republic Not an Empire instead?

Hoping we’d found an aberrant case, we continued the quest with treasurer hunter’s zeal. But stop two had sold out. No timeline on getting more, no offer to order.

Holding our for that third time charm, we found another super-supplier and were heartened by the huge bestseller display just inside the door. There they were, all New York Times chart-toppers: McCullough, Morris, The Corrections, even the biography of a horse called Sea Biscuit. The high scorers from both fiction and nonfiction lists. All but one. That elusive #4.

At the information desk, a wire-rimmed tweedy type said that the book was out of stock but that it would “likely be shelved in another section of the store because of its controversial nature.” Keep out of reach of readers. As for whether or not they would order more, he sniffed, “The author is rather contentious.”

So much for that romantic notion of bookstores as a modern equivalent of the Forum, a place great minds meet to grow greater. Trade in ideas now looks limited to commerce in views deemed politically correct by all-knowing sales clerks. The thought police have done their work well.

Once upon a time, controversy would have been the honored guest at a gathering of the thoughtful -- welcomed, warmed, and heartily baited to make its own case. Not so in an age grown closed by its broad-mindedness.

Ray Bradbury wrote, “There is more than one way to burn a book” and sees many “eye[ing] the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.”

Don’t let that happen here. Do what we did and drop by your local stores. Should your experience prove ours atypical, call or write and we’ll withdraw our complaint against the “vast left wing conspiracy.” But if you, like us, find the book scarce as dragons’ teeth, kindly request that stores stock and display it alongside other bestsellers. After all, what good is a book with no spice of controversy, and what good is a bookstore if not to sell books (and lattes)?

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