Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sparrowhawk: Observations of a Book Signer

During my numerous booksignings at Colonial Williamsburg, I have made countless observations and acquired sales skills which I did not know I had the patience and fortitude to develop (I am not naturally an extrovert). The observations center on the motivations people exhibit in coming to see "Revolutionary City" (that is Colonial Williamsburg's current theme) and in their interest in my Sparrowhawk novels.

One observation is that, when I am booksigning with other authors at the same time, which is frequently, I am not in competition with them. People who are colonial era "buffs" will gravitate to those authors who have written about colonial life or some military aspect of the time. The ideas that moved the Founders do not interest them as much as do the accouterments and customs of the period. People who find interesting a book about the adventures of a colonial era squirrel are not going to be interested in an epic of pre-Revolutionary America. And people who are interested in having mere facts spoon-fed to them show no interest in the circumstances of those facts, and cannot be persuaded to crack open a book to acquire them, whether it is a novel or a history.

One can only pity the patrons of the colonial squirrel. But I have grown an antipathy for those interested only in facts, an antipathy that can only extend to those who pander to such mentalities.

A couple appears often at the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore whom I shall refer to only as the "Chart People." They do a lot of business at the store, and occupy an entire corner of the Visitor's Center arcade. Their product is not a book, but a chart, a huge, gaudy schematic of the times between 1762 and 1783, which, as they explain it to anyone interested, "for the first time puts the whole Revolutionary War in one place." The chart resembles the periodic table of elements.

Their sales pitch goes something like this, and is almost self-explanatory:

"Just give me sixty seconds of your time. You can become an instant expert, and this takes all the confusion from the Revolutionary War. Everything is in chronological order. All you have to do is follow the colored dots, red for British, blue for American, to know when all the battles were fought and who was doing what when.....See the picture here? Here's George Washington, and you can follow his career just by following the dots....You can use the chart here or our CD and watch the slide show. By watching the slide show four or five times, you'll learn all about the Revolution....Just $19.95....By the way, we're planning a chart for the Civil War, too!"

It is not so much what they say about their chart that I find so revolting, as what they wordlessly imply in their tone and manner and in what they cater to when speaking to prospective customers:

"You or your kids don't have to think about it. We've done all the thinking for you. All you have to do is stick to the color-coding and get instant information. We've saved you the effort of reading and thinking, of acquiring and evaluating any fundamental knowledge. If you're interested in just facts, so your kids can pass a test or something, we don't bother them with causal relationships or motivations or context or any of that heavy stuff. They won't have to bother with books ever again."

Every time I hear this unspoken spiel, I cannot help but recall Ayn Rand's comments in The Journals about a particular species of looter, comments she made in notes in preparation for writing Atlas Shrugged. The Chart People pander to that species.

"...The arrogance of the 'common man': he expects 'to be convinced,' with no mental effort on his own part....He wants mental food to be pre-digested and automatic. Also -- he is firmly convinced that the main job of the thinkers (perhaps the only job) is to convince him, to educate him. If asked how one could go about educating him (or making him understand anything), his answer would be: 'I don't know. That's your job. You've got to educate me -- both give me the right ideas and invent a way to convince me that they are the right ideas....'" (The Journals, p. 546.)
The Chart People do not even offer pre-digested ideas, but merely pre-digested "facts" on a subject many people want knowledge of but without they or their children having to exert much or any effort to acquire it. The Chart People bill their product as an "educational tool," calling it "learning with ease." They are willing to serve the looters of spirit and intellect. And, I am not in competition with them, and people seeking only effortless, automatic knowledge would never be my customers, either.

I am convinced that parents who innocently fall for the "chart" do their children a disservice. Knowledge that children might gain by such a means will not become permanent knowledge of the Revolution or of any other subject. Once it has served its purpose (for a course, a test, a term paper), it will vanish from their minds as just so much extraneous, disposable data. The charts will be rolled up and stowed in a closet or garage, and the CD buried in a pile of video game CDs.

Offsetting the presence of the Chart People, for me, at least (and, in fact, erasing them from existence), are the visitors who find in my novels an incomparable value. The common theme among parents looking for something with which to educate and entertain their children is desperation for something that brings history to life or that counteracts politically correct textbooks. Long ago I lost count of the number of eight- or nine-year-olds who read the first page of Book One: Jack Frake, whose eyes lit up, and glanced up at their father or mother with a silent "Yes!" and a big smile.

And the first sentence of that title is a long one, breaking the rule that opening sentences should be short and punchy. I wrote it so that it would address the soul of anyone who read it, regardless of his age ("soul" here meaning the sum of one's character and philosophical and moral premises). It is a "grabber," to put it in editorial jargon, especially for those who still have a "soul" they can call their own. Often that "Yes" is enough to convince an adult, parent or a child that Sparrowhawk is worth reading and pursuing clear to the end of the series. At times I must assure a parent that there are no lurid or graphic sex scenes, no gory battle details or no profanity in the series.

Another gratifying occurrence is when someone buys Book One, reads it overnight in his hotel room, and returns to my table the next morning to get the next in the series or the even whole series. Visitors are often people who have driven from neighboring states to talk with me or have their copies signed when they know I will be at the bookstore. Teachers become intrigued by the series and arrange with the bookstore or the publisher to supply their classes with it.

The only two nationalities that have shown no interest in the series are the Japanese and the French: the Japanese because they are there solely to take pictures, and the French, because they lost (or rather, their ancestors did). More amusing are what I call the "missing links," visitors who espy the covers of the books from across the arcade, come over to the table, stare dumbly at the covers for longer than is necessary for anyone to read the print, then realize that they are looking at books, not pictures, and shuffle away.

There are also the "sadists" who express interest, fondle the books, engage me in long conversations about the period, then walk away with a smug "I'm not convinced" attitude that Rand described. Their parting words always give them away; they "fooled" me, enjoyed wasting my time and passion on them, and dashing my hopes for a sale. These, too, are Rand's "looters" of the spirit. They are the only visitors who give me the sense of having been robbed.

They are overwhelmingly outnumbered, however, by people seeking literary and esthetic values, and who find them at my table, and more often than not express their gratitude personally or in fan mail. The Visitors Center bookstore is both a terminus and an embarkation point for tens of thousands of people, from across the country, from across the world. If I manage to persuade one half of one percent of the people who pass through the Center to merely sample one of the titles, I will consider the series successful. The store certainly considers it a success.

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