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Friday, July 20, 2007

Tonight's the night

So it's Friday, July 20, and tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people in costumes will be camping out in bookstores waiting for the midnight release of the final chapter of the Harry Potter saga.

Put me squarely in the camp of those who Think That This is a Good Thing.

See, even though i've never read a word of J.K.Rowling's, i like my local bookseller. I like your local bookseller. Hell, i even like the dueling big box bookstores straddling the Orange/Durham county line, approved by zoning boards hoping to increase sales tax revenues by luring shoppers from out of town.

And an event like this one generates enough revenue for these guys to stay in business a little bit longer; to keep the shelves stocked with something interesting that i don't know that i want to buy until i pick it up and hold it in my hands; to host that reading i didn't know i was interested in until i happened to be walking by.

2007 also saw the publication of the concluding volume of another literary series by a master of contemporary fantasy. Endless Things, the fourth book of John Crowley's Ægypt series came out in May of this year, without the fanfare of the Deathly Hallows, but no less anticipated by its fans.

Crowley, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is the author of the much loved (and World Fantasy Award winning) novel, Little, Big, as well as my choice for best science fiction novel of the 20th century, Engine Summer.

Ægypt tells the story of Pierce Moffett, a somewhat underachieving professor of history at a private New York college. Denied tenure and seeking a place to practice his art, Pierce finds himself almost by chance in the upstate New York town of Blackbury Jambs, in the Faraway Hills, somewhat west and north of the big city. He has an idea for a book (which may in fact turn out to be the very books we are reading) which he is able to turn into an advance, enough money to live humbly in the small town without worries. And it turns out that Fellowes Kraft, a writer of historical fictions of some minor fame who influenced the younger Pierce greatly, lived and died in the Jambs. Through more Fateful Circumstance, Pierce becomes somewhat of the executor of Kraft's literary estate, and discovers his last, unfinished and unpublished novel, which makes up much of the rest of the books we are reading. Kraft's novel is about the same themes that Pierce's book is intended reveal, that the world was once different than it is now, and that it worked in different ways. Told as somewhat of a biography of both John Deeand Giordano Bruno, this novel within a novel makes the claim that there are discrete periods in time whent he workings of the world change, and that once effected, those changes somehow become retroactive. Once the universe revolved around the earth, and then, once it was understood that the earth was not the center of all things, it had never been that way. (Difficult concept to explain, i know, and i'm sure i'm doing a sucky job of it. Go read the books).

But maybe, because smart people can know themselves to be on the cusp of that change, it's possible to make a thing that will survive, and bring part of the old world into the new. And that, on subsequent turnings of the world (1588 was one such according to the novel; 1977, in which the "contemporary" parts of the novel occur perhaps another) it's possible to look both back and ahead and see the different ways the world has been, and might be in the future.

So, i'm only halfway through the series, rereading to remind myself of the characters and the turns of plot before picking up the last volume. There's an interesting history involved in just the publication of the books. First, it's been twenty years since the first volume came out, and Crowley has indicated he started work on the series back in 1980. Ægypt was supposed to be the umbrella title for the series; somehow the first volume, intended to be called The Solitudes was instead published under that collective title. The subsequent volume, Love and Sleep, does not indicate anywhere on its cover, at least in the edition i own, that it's part of the same series. The seven year gap between each of the books necessitates a lot of extraneous backfilling, which Crowley indicates is going to be purged from subsequent editions, now that the series is complete. Perhaps that explains the change in publishers to Small Beer Press.

Sounds good to me.

Oh, and if you're going to a Harry Potter party tonight - have a blast. And avoid spoilers.

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  • Unfortunately, booksellers may not be making the money you think from this book. I used to manage a mom-n-pop record store. While the major releases generated news and foot traffic, discounts kill margin and many of the customers that you get for sales like this aren't loyal.

    Financial Times has an article on this ( - requires subscription), including this quote;
    "Heavy discounts on the hardback edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will mean “on that book itself we’ll not make money” in the short term, said Steve Riggio, chief executive officer of Barnes & Noble."

    By Blogger Jack, at 7:20 AM  

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