The Secret Life of Books

/ by Srđan Srdić

I can clearly remember the day when I first saw one of my books on a street seller's stand. In fact, this happened very early in my career, when my first novel was published, on 1300 Kaplara Street, alongside the Faculty of Philology. Obviously, I wasn't prepared for this encounter, such a possibility had never occurred to me before, and surely I must openly have shown my surprise at the fact that I came across my book at what I took to be an improbable place at the time.  


The way I looked at things back then, books were supposed to be in bookshops, libraries, book fairs, readers' homes, such locations. Somehow I neglected the fact that books, after being printed, continued their life, and that their authors could do nothing at all about it, nor could they prevent such life flows, if they happened to find them inappropriate. I can also recall coming up to the book stand, pretending to be a curious buyer and literature lover for a few seconds, and wanting to ask the seller why he had the book, whether he knew who the author was, and whether the passers-by were interested in it. And, eventually, how much it cost. Then I left, without doing any of the above.


Unfamiliarity with the laws behind the secret life of books must nag at any young writer. Actually, nobody along the book production chain – editors, proof-readers, critics, designers, publishers – nobody takes the time to explain to those who are only just beginning to discover their vocation as a writer what could happen to their works. As I have mentioned, the first stop of any printed book must be a bookshop. This is what one would expect. The more agile the publishers are, the more bookshops they will co-operate with, all with the intention of making their books available to a larger number of readers and buyers, the largest possible. Thus, in their spare time, out of curiosity or paranoia, writers can make a tour of all the bookshops which they know to sell their bound sentences. There they get the chance to count them, to consider whether they are in a visible and attractive place, whether there is anybody in the bookshop looking exactly for those books. Every day they are also in a position not to find their books where they left them the previous day, so they are either happy to learn that all the copies have been sold at the bookshop, or sad to realise that they have been returned to the publisher due to a mild interest in them.


It's similar with libraries, with the exception that books are alphabetically ordered there, meaning that those whose book has been sold in millions of copies are absolutely equal to those whose books nobody wants to read. This situation is analogous to the sight of Achilles in Hades as he explains to Odysseus the insignificance of earthly merits in the otherworldly order. With a little dose of a librarians' indiscretion, writers can learn not only how many readers have borrowed their books, but they can also get to know the readers' identity. Whether they are young, old, educated, whether they return the books as soon they read them, whether they comment on their quality, whether they scribble inside them, whether they rip some pages out, underline what they like. Quite amusing stuff, I guess, unless you agree with my thesis that writers should never meet their readers, and that readers should always give their favourite writers a wide berth. This is why book fairs are a great evil. And I won't say anything else about them.


I believe that a young writers’ subconscious hope is contained in an image of their book tucked away on a fine, custom-made book shelf in a genuine book lover's home, someone for whom what the author created could mean a lot, could even change or embellish their life. By this I don't mean such cases when writers come across their books at friends', relatives', lovers' places, but the idea that their books are at the best possible place, at the place of those they had in mind while writing the book. If they had anybody in mind at all.


And then you go along a street, across a market, you consult Internet sites selling used and new things, including books, and you realise they are also there. Nobody gets to know how they happened to be there, nobody can retrace the paths in their secret life, but they have somehow wandered away from the entrenched presumption about their own fate and ventured to change its course. Or this was done by those who didn't like them, those who didn't understand them, they might have been given as a gift to wrong people, or the right people got rid of them together with all the presents they got from wrong people. Or this was done by those who hate them, or they have come to hate the author because of an opinion the author stated in an interview they accidentally came across. Or their owner, say, a poor student, went broke and decided to earn some money by selling your brainchild. Or their owner has died and the relatives wanted the deceased’s flat only. Not the books, by any means.


This is why one should always pause, stop by any book of theirs, wherever it may be, and whatever path it has followed to reach its present place. One should rest a hand on it, briefly, pass their fingers over its covers, smile. And wish it a nice life, no matter how long, in what way and for whom it may last.

Srđan Srdić

is a novelist, short-story writer, editor, essayist and creative reading/writing teacher. He has published two novels, two short story collections and a book of essays. From 2008 to 2011 he served as the editor of the international short story festival Kikinda Short. He returned to this position in September 2015.