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March 03, 2006

Bookstores and Sex

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I was nosing around a Borders bookstore, surrounded by other busy shoppers, when one of those basic realizations hit me: Book-shopping these days is an awfully ... hygienic affair. Indie bookstores tend to be virtuous, beleaguered, NPR-ish places, while the chain stores are about as full of mystery as a corporate headquarters. Why, back in the day --

OKOKOK, yesyesyes, before I embark on my tiresome nostalgia-jag, I hereby agree that it's a marvelous thing that books are cheaper and more widely-available today than they have ever been in all of human history. I've made exactly this point in arguments with friends when these friends have gotten soppy on me. There's no escaping the improvements. In the old days, for example, the big city near my beloved hick hometown had precisely zero good bookstores. These days, thanks to B&N and Borders, it has a half a dozen excellent bookstores.

On balance, of course, this is a much-improved state of affairs. But, still, something important has been lost along the way. The mystery. The poetry, maybe. Something central to both life and art. I'm choosing to call it "sex." Books aren't sexy any longer.

Books certainly were sexy when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, and they still cut an enticing figure in the '70s, when I was in college and grad school. In arty fiction, there was Terry Southern, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, the many Beats, Celine. In the trashy-fiction realms: Mickey Spillane, Harold Robbins, Jackie Susann, Ian Fleming ...

These were books that gave off heat, baby: volumes that promised the secrets of life and sometimes even delivered a few of them. When I was a kid, a visit to the library often turned into hours of enraptured reading. The thrill of the hunt (and the capture!) only increased once I was old enough to travel on my own. Now I was able to explore bookstores in big cities and college towns. Dusty, sagging shelves! Graying old Village types! Foreign literature! Art photography! Exchange students in smelly sweaters! The scripts of Off-Off Broadway plays! By the 1970s, the old publishing houses were being bought up by corporations and chain bookstores were starting to dot the landscape. Even so, books still had an allure and a mystique. They could still make the temperature go up and the heart pound.

There was mucho dreck and vast oceans of mainstream tediousness to be waded-through or avoided, of course. And for many kids, reading and writing were activities taken part in only because the schools insisted. But for many other kids, books were a wonderland of semi-forbidden, often hard-to-obtain, exotic delights. I consumed trashy blockbusters, sex manuals, my dad's paperback thrillers, and French literature -- they all gave me a thrill. I read from hunger, and I felt grateful for the pleasures and the satisfactions that books delivered.

Visual delight wasn't a minor part of this pleasure. Here's a not-unusual paperback book jacket from my youth. This is from a wonderful collection of Edna O'Brien short stories. (I learned a lot about women by reading Edna O'Brien.) The beautiful photograph is by Barry Lategan; no designer is listed on the book.

Chaste yet voluptuous, quiet yet deep, contained yet enticing ... I don't know about you, but looking at this book jacket puts me in the mood to do some serious fiction-reading.

Speaking of women and books, here's an un-PC question I sometimes find myself puzzling over. Back when reading and books had sizzle, the book business was run by men. These days, the books-and-reading thang is a sexless and unexciting affair. It is also, by and large, run by women. Coincidence?

I also find myself wondering: Would I have become much of a reader if the reading-life (ie., shopping, tracking-down, browsing, reading, writing, eyeballing, comparing notes, etc.) at the time I was a kid hadn't had a thriving and often hard-to-get-at adult-and-sexy side to it? Would I have developed many strong feelings about books at all had I grown up in a world where books and bookstores were the virtuous, well-lit, and family-friendly things they so often are today? I doubt it.

It's hard to avoid the fact: Books just aren't a sexy and happening media field any longer. When was the last time you had your hands on a new book that you felt, in your heart of hearts, was hot stuff?

My conclusion: If reading is on the decline and the book-publishing business is suffering, it's the book-publishing industry's own damn fault. After all, if they can't make books and reading seem hot and sexy, why shouldn't customers move along to other media items that turn them on more? And a Larger Question: Is it inevitable that, as the products of a media field become more rationalized and available, they also become blander?

Eager to hear about the sexy books that helped hook you on reading.



posted by Michael at March 3, 2006


One of the virtues of an era of sexual repression is that it makes sex intriguing. I recently spent a Saturday night in Las Vegas and the constant display of cleavage was largely anaesthesizing. Modern bookstores are actually teeming with sex, but it isn't very sexy, somehow. It's as though we've gone from Puritanism to a particularly blase and 'commercialized' licentiousness without having become any more comfortable with the underlying phenomenon. Between the two equally awkward situations, Puritanism at least has the virtue of suggesting there's something important being repressed.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 3, 2006 6:40 AM

"Book-shopping these days is an awfully ... hygienic affair"
Michael, an interesting point well-made. I took your comment above literally, though. I haven't been up to the Book District in a while, so I may talking here of days long gone. Bookstores like The Strand were appealling to me becasue of the lack of hygenics. Most of the books, even the newly bought reviewer's copies, were covered in dust, whether it was only a slight dusting or a solid 1/4 inch or so on some of the tomes down in the basement. Things were not musty...mostly. But the lack of house services, specifically anyone with a working knowledge of vacuum cleaners and dusters was heaven for me. True, there was a lot of sneezing and coughing, but the blessing of dust that was in the place gave a muted shine to all of the books.
I'm not sure if I'd say the books were more "sexy" in this environment, but they were definitely more mysterious. And isn't mystery the key ingredient to waht may also be termed "sexy"?

What we need in these NPR-ish overly lit bookstore chains is to knock out some of the lights and blow in some motes of life's detritus to burden the books with allure.

Posted by: DarkoV on March 3, 2006 8:20 AM

I think FvB's point---"something important being repressed"---is right on the money. It's inevitable human nature---"forbidden" is "exciting."

The first book I ever read that had any real sex in it was "Gone With the Wind." I was too young to really get it the first time I read it, but I knew something was up, so to speak. Then of course there were the irresistable peaks at "The Joy of Sex" at a home for which I babysat when I was like 12 or 13. In truth, the pictures there were less than thrilling, but I was amazed at the content! And equally amazed that these two bland, not-too-attractive, conservative thirtysomethings had this book in their house! They got divorced in a few years, so I guess it didn't help them. I know some guys who were downright riveted by James Bond books for the sexy parts. I just remember sneaking a peak at one passage (don't remember which book) where some girl emerges naked from the sea, and then when she realizes Bond is there, she covers herself, but not in the usual way. One hand covers her nose, which was broken. For some reason I've always remembered that description!

Posted by: annette on March 3, 2006 9:41 AM

When a bookstore keeps all the "sex" books in one section, clearly labeled, and the books come with no-nonsense instructions and illustrations, just like the books on building your own furniture at home from 2x4s, it's implying there's no fun or excitement at all in the other sections, which is unfortunately true. When you had to furtively riffle through pages and pages of self-consciously arty prose to get to the good stuff, it was more enjoyable.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on March 3, 2006 11:13 AM

I agree with the forbidden fruit point Friedrich makes. You can even extend it to jokes. When I was young, sex-jokes were hilarious. Nowadays I wouldn't be surprised if un-PC subjects get the loudest yuks -- but since I work with a bunch of gummint bureaucrats, I'm not in a position to easily find out.

As for books, since Michael's young days we've seen the advent of viedeotape, DVDs and other convenient media that might have pulled the sex market from books. When I was a kid I just liked browsing books for the knowledge to be gained alone; sexy stuff rarely entered into it.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 3, 2006 11:23 AM

Funny. The last time I was in the B&N in Great Falls, they had a whole shelf of black men's "erotica." I looked inside the covers and it's what we once would have called porn. I think the books are there because GF is a barracks town (Malmstrom Air Force Base) and pretty conservative and lacking in many female blacks. Anyway, it's hard to sustain relationships when one is shipped out all the time. But blacks have a far more relaxed attitude towards sex anyway and I wonder whether your squeaky-clean bookstores are simply serving white, upper-middle-class people, mostly women. Might be something more interesting in a different part of town.

The other thing I notice about bookstores that has changed is that they are run by young people. I get the impression that today's young people are not that interested in sex. They've been doing it since they were twelve and are now ready to learn about, say, ballroom dancing. It used to be that a really good independent bookstore was often run by a crabby old bearded guy with a cat and a bottomless coffeepot. The talk was as good as the books. Now used book stores are online in a basement somewhere.

The sexiest books I read as an early teen were the historical novels by Anya Seton, daughter of my beloved Ernest Thompson Seton. The librarian, peering over her spectacles, inquired, "Does your mother know you're reading these books?" (HER first sexy book was "Tales of Genjii." She told the librarian to mind her own business.) The men were forever carrying the women off to the "bed chamber" and then the chapter would end. In the morning the women would have painful red spots on their breasts, unexplained. I figured those old castles were infested with fleas and bedbugs.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 3, 2006 12:44 PM

FvB -- Amen to that, bro. However desirable openness and transparency are in some respects, they don't necessarily contribute a lot to a yummy popular culture. The popular culture of the Nixon years was much sexier than the popular culture of the Carter years. You've got me wondering how much puritanism is necessary. Is it? Or is it more a sense of restraint more generally? After all, wanting to go forward while being held back (or even choosing to hold back) can certainly be a sexy position to be in.

DarkoV -- I've inhaled a lot of that Strand-dust myself! Mysteriousness and allure are good words too -- maybe better than "sexy." I've got too one-track a mind.

Annette -- Where would American female sexuality be without "Gone With the Wind"? And I loved that passage in that one Bond novel. It speaks to me still. Actually, it probably played a big role in shaping me, for what that's worth.

Robert -- That whole database-like way of sorting and presenting books is a two-edged sword, isn't it? On the one hand, it's effective and efficient. On the other, it kinda leaches the blood out of what's being categorized. I wonder why that should be. Any hunches about this?

Donald -- I suspect you're right, that the jokes that really have explosive qualities these days aren't sex jokes so much as anti-PC jokes. Sex is so out in the open that PC propriety has become the new taboo.Maybe we need taboos, and maybe, no matter how "open" a culture we have, we'll always invent taboos, if only for the fun of it.

Mary -- I had some crazy notions about sex too, based on my trashy reading. I thought "Genji" was awfully sexy, though I didn't read it until I was around 30. Anya Seton, huh? Never heard of her, but will now check her out. And that's a smart hunch about kids today. I think sex to them is all about getting high and discharging energy -- a view of sex that loses its charm pretty fast. Or loses it obsessive charm, anyway. So they're burned out by 25. But how are they going to open up to (and learn about) more complex and poetic ways of conceptualizing and taking part in eroticism?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 3, 2006 1:16 PM

TOTALLY OFF SUBJECT: (But related to an earlier post). Did anybody notice Larry Summers at Harvard got canned? Poor guy. He made the mistake of thinking out a university. What was he thinking?

Posted by: annette on March 3, 2006 2:40 PM

If there is any sex left in book shopping, it's being provided by the few, good used bookshops. I used to practically have an orgasm shopping at Bart's Books, a fantastic, rough-and-tumble open-air used bookstore in Ojai. In fact, I'd make special trips to Ojai for the express purpose of visiting Bart's.

I haven't been back since ownership/management changed over completely, and I'm afraid to. Surely, the magic will be gone, just as it was when my beloved H.M.S. Bounty (old-school, clubby, nautical-themed, apartment hotel bar across from the demolished Ambassador) changed hands.

All that said (blah blah blah), I think it's wrong to blame the wimmens for this sexless bookish time. Mystery is vanishing across the board in the name of...progress? My own love of Houston's aside, does anyone really think the franchise-ification of restaurants has done a whole lot for sexy dining? Come to think about it, air travel, hardware stores and department stores have lost their sex appeal, too. How much did I used to love shopping at the flagship Marshall Field's in Chicago's Loop? How much is it like any fucking Macy's now?

I'm not for returning to The Good Old Days, since I believe most of what came before wasn't so all-fire good for most non-white, non-male citizens of our fair nation. Ladies were shopping at those beautiful department stores in girdles and hose with their Mrs.-Somebody-Else charge accounts, and only certain ladies at that.

I've always thought that the greatest application of time travel would be to offer 'mini-vacations' to previous times: high tea at the Plaza in 1955; a 1969 tour of Los Angeles Dragnet locations.

An early-to-mid century afternoon at one of the late, lamented independent bookstores would fit cozily in there...

Posted by: communicatrix on March 3, 2006 3:03 PM

Ladies were shopping using their husbands' money, while their husbands were working and this means they were somehow oppressed? Huh?

Posted by: Robert Speirs on March 3, 2006 3:21 PM

Except for the feminist/pc boilerplate, I agree with communatrix: it's not bookstores in particular that have lost their allure, it's damn near everything manmade (excuse me, communatrix, I mean personmade). It's all too planned, too rational, too standardized.

"Cool" restaurants, hotels, bars, remind me of laboratories. Airports resemble factories. SUVs are pumped-up children's toys; doesn't anyone get a thrill from that all-but-obsolete term "sedan," and what it stands for, anymore?

Book design seems to me to be enjoying a Golden Age. Looking at the covers on the table at Borders is like a visit to an art museum -- in fact, I think more genuine craft and talent goes into designing books these days than into contemporary "art." So any decline in the glamour of books isn't down to their publishers.

But I take your point, Michael; B&N and Borders are too sterile. It would be possible to provide plenty of light for browsing without bathing the place in illumination like a grocery. The cafes don't have to be industrial chic or motel faux wood.

The newer Bookman's in Tucson, on Speedway Boulevard, shows what can be done. True, it's a used bookstore, but I see no reason why its style couldn't work just as well for selling new books. The owners or designers have obviously worked hard to give it a personality; although huge, it doesn't have a "Bed Bath & Beyond," purely merchandising vibe. The decor has local touches, there are big stuffed chairs and couches to sit in, things like that.

Corporations are supposed to flourish by understanding their customers. Those that run bookstores might consider that their customers' tastes might lean to the more traditional or the avant-garde anything but conventional, middle-of-the-road surroundings.

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 3, 2006 4:09 PM

Does a book have to be about sex to be sexy? What about an interest in the subject? Or an enticement by the publisher via the book's design? How often are you driven away by under-design, over-design, or simply the wrong design? What of those works where what the cover promises has nothing to do with what the book delivers? What of designs that have no focus, or have a focus that is too tight, or on the wrong thing?

That's the goal of any good publisher; to get the customer's attention, keep the customer's attention, and present as clearly as one possibly can what the book is about. What works for a natural history of the rattlesnake will most certainly not work for a book on the rattlesnake in American lore.

Another thing to consider is whether the cover says too much, or if it doesn't say enough. In my field of interest, RPGs, book covers are (for lack of a better term) busy. It seems to have gone beyond necessity and tradition to the realm of obsession. While the covers do have something to say about the book's subject, more often than not it has an awful lot to say about the subject, and the possibility the subject will be lost in the clutter becomes more and more likely as time goes by. With a few notable exceptions RPG covers tend to include everything, including a few different takes on the kitchen sink. The possibility that less may say more - or, at the very least, say it more clearly - is not a design philosophy many in the business are willing to consider.

Can you think of other branches of publishing where cover designers and graphics artists are trying to increase passenger capacity far beyond what a book cover can reasonably be expected to hold? And what effect would you say this design philosophy has on a book's sexiness?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 3, 2006 4:31 PM

It's the very availability of quality bookstores that has eliminated the sexiness of them. They're freakin' everywhere so effort is no longer required to track one down. "Back in the day," you could be assured that the people browsing the aisles of Cody's or Moe's or City Lights or Powell's, etc. made an effort to go there, were interested in the hard to find books, and concurrently, the books were hard to find. Nowadays, and as you say, it is a good thing, but still, it does diminish that little warm feeling one would get about being in the know, everyone can drive no more than 5 miles or so to a B & N and pick up the Isherwood book that the movie Cabaret was based on, which they Netflixed because the documentary on punk rock that was on Bravo mentioned how much the British punks were influenced by it, etc. etc.

So yeah, that old lament, "the commodifcation of culture," when the unwashed are spoonfed the good stuff and all they have to do is lean their heads back and open wide. A bit elitist perhaps, but true.

Posted by: the patriarchy on March 3, 2006 5:36 PM

There was a cover off Time magazine that I saved for a long time and probably could still find if I had a week to search for it. I can't remember the name of the artist, who was quite realistic. The cover showed two people after an afternoon interlude in bed together. The man is still in the bed, on his side, maybe asleep and maybe watching the nude woman at the dressing table brushing her hair. The windows are open -- it's summer -- but the shades are drawn most of the way down so the light is dusky and glimmering. The room is not particularly elegant, though the bed is a four-poster. The scene captured a moment so luxurious, so relaxed, so familiar -- even though there's no way to tell whether they are married. That deep luxury and trust is what I think is missing from sex in books and movies, etc. now. Could a play like "The Four Poster" be staged now?

For a certain class of people sex has been technologized in order to produce babies in a world where people are so burdened and contaminated that they can only produce a viable fetus with a laboratory standing by to analyze the semen and decide how many blastospheres should be implanted -- how can they ever feel normal?

Another class of people has gotten sex so entangled in drugs from viagra to meth and so mixed with violence, hatred, domination, and even torture that the partner they crave is a helpless child. This is NOT normal but it's in the newspaper daily.

How do we get back to summer afternoons in an orderly house between trusting long-time adult partners? Someone had better write a book.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 4, 2006 12:06 AM

Annette -- I think it's a great occasion to ridicule Harvard myself. The less prestige a degree from that place carries, the better off we all are.

Communicatrix -- Used bookstore-shopping can be a mighty juicy experience! And I like your idea for time-traveling.Where gals and book publishing's concerned, I'm somewhere between you and total irreverence. A grown up view of developments might be something like "it's all part of one big picture, the developments in society and publishing, and women being able to move into certain positions, and how reading and publishing has changed, and we all play roles in all that, etc etc." And all that's true. At the same time, NYC book publishing is now about 70% female (and most of the guys are gay) on the editorial side. One result has probably been that the books look and feel a lot better than they once did. But another result might also be that they're ... safer than they once were. More lifestyley. God bless kickass women with a sense of adventure and creativity, but I tend to find more of that among women performers and writers than I do among women in corporate offices, where they tend to be fussers, fretters, and nesters, and where they love having so many meetings that a good idea will soon die from boredom.

RS - Dude, you're a braver man than I!

Rick -- I like your imagery! "Cool" as laboratory-like -- that's really true. And I'm with you where the design of books goes these days -- often it's quite marvelous. I'd quibble only in wanting to assign a little more blame to the book publishers. The books often look great, but the content and the concepts are too often unexciting (even when the books are in fact pretty good). I could be wrong of course, but I suspect that if publishers let fly with a little more rock and roll and showbiz and exploitation and opportunism that they'd start stirring the blood again. Corporate fretfulness (and, IMHO anyway, female timidity and tastefulness) have denatured the books themselves, as well as the world of reading-and-writing, a little too much.

Alan -- You're a philosopher of book-jacket art as well as of RPG's! Many thanks once again for the observations and info.

Patriarchy -- Sigh and alas. I don't know what else to say.

Mary -- That's a beautiful description of that image, as well as a great evocation of some qualities that books (and art more generally) could use a lot more of these days.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 4, 2006 4:05 AM

Mary, if you ever find that TIME cover, please share it. I, for one, would LOVE to see it!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on March 4, 2006 11:44 AM,16641,1101640124,00.html

It's a miracle! I found it online. URL above. I don't know how to post the cover here. You can buy a print of it at the website.

I just searched "Time Covers" and "Sex" together in Google and the set of covers that came up was worth pondering in itself. Only a recent cover is really attractive-- it uses a photo. The others are art but not realistic and refer to stories about technology and disease.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 4, 2006 12:18 PM

I went to college in the early '90s in Carbondale, Illinois. St. Louis was our bookstore outlet. We English grad students would make our special trips for good books (I think there were a few lit types that only came for the sushi). Good times. Good book store adventures.

Posted by: Scott Smith on March 14, 2006 12:46 PM

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