Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Whatever Sells

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how a book landed in a certain section of the library
(or bookstore); it may even be tough to identify the real author. Libraries and stores, of course, are busy public places, constantly in flux. Where’s the book I want, we ask? The answer so often is that it was moved. Why? So many books, so many categories; or so many books, so little space. And many books, these days, are written by authors (or author teams) using pen names. Figuring it all out can be exhausting.

Take The Housekeeper and the Professor, a first novel by the young Japanese writer
Yoko Ogawa. The book was written by written by a first-time novelist using her own name. It should be simple to find in any bookstore or library, right? Well, the book is a lovely, spare novel that could be read by adults or teens. It also includes more than a small dose of mathematics, right there on the page. So—is it a young adult novel or an adult novel or math book? As those commercials for kitchen choppers and cleaning cloths might say, it’s all three! Really. It is. So the decision is the publisher’s initially. How to market it? Math book? Nope; it’s a novel. For teens or adults? Both, of course, like Harry Potter or Twilight. Well, then, who wants to read a novel with math in it?

Not me, or so I thought until Ogawa captured me with her spare, elegant prose and the reminder that math is really about the symmetry of everything, from a leaf to an archway. Near the end of the novel the professor asks a young boy he has grown to love to picture 1 +1 = 0 this way: one bird lands, and then another. Both fly away, and we are left with sky and a tree and a complicated, imaginary number. Now where to you put a book like that? I don’t know about you, but I’m keeping my copy in a backpack these days.

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