Sunday, July 22, 2012

Books do not have expiration dates

At least, they shouldn't.

The past few years, I've noticed a disturbing phenomenon in Israeli bookstores: books older than a year or two, regardless their status in Israel's literary history or as a former bestseller, simply do not appear on the shelves. A book published six years ago is impossible to find; more than eight years, booksellers will laugh in your face. This trend is mostly limited to Israel's awfully limited two major bookstore chains, but has also made its way to Hebrew Book Week and I've seen the early signs in certain bookstores in the U.S. as well.

This is troubling for so many reasons. First of all, it perpetrates the myth that people need to read certain books at the same time that everyone else is reading them. If you, as a bookbuyer, know that a book won't be available in a few simple months, you will obviously prefer to buy it immediately than possibly "miss out". But it also has extremely practical ramifications, chief among which is the matter of a young reader.

Look at The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven. Winner of the 2002 prestigious Sapir prize in Israel, I first learned of the book in 2009. It makes perfect sense that I would only become aware of this book once I was of an age to read it, yet when I began to seek the novel out, I discovered that not a single bookstore had it. Even the not-so-local library had only one copy allegedly in circulation and it had been taken off the shelves for some mysterious reason (it should be noted that Israeli libraries are not renowned for their excellence). Eventually, I found a single, rather squished copy in one of the main bookstores and snatched it. This, after literally years of searching.

This has happened again and again and again in Israel, and I'm starting to see it happening in the U.S. as well. I'm not only talking about the annoying misconception that if you're not reading the big hit right now, you're doing something wrong. I've also found that certain non-classics are all-but missing from store shelves. Sure, every bookstore has its Austen, Tolstoy, and Faulkner. But bookstores are starting to pull books off the shelves very quickly. While the U.S. is significantly more accommodating when it comes to ordering books to the store, or ordering books online, this is a frustrating move in the wrong direction.

Here's a fact: good books don't have expiration dates. I read The Buddha in the Attic around the same time that everyone else did, yet I reached my own personal conclusions regarding the book with little regard for the fact that many others had just finished it around the same time. On the other end of the scale, I read The Sparrow many years after its publication: should I feel lesser for it? No. Not in the least. If it's a good book, it'll remain a good book even ten, fifteen, thirty, two-hundred years down the line. Why can't I find it at the bookstore?

Yes, there's something nice about being involved in the buzz surrounding a new book. Being part of a community and part of a movement is fun. It gives rise to wonderful conversations and is a unique aspect of book reviewing. But we need to get rid of this idea that books don't matter two or three years after they're published. We need to feel comfortable enough with the books being published to give ourselves time to read them. And as reviewers, we should never, ever feel like we cannot add to the literary discourse simply because the book was published a whole three years ago. We should embrace the ability to read a book through eyes unclouded by either hype or hype-backlash. We should encourage new readers to find these good books, even if they're a few years old. Our society's desire for only the newest and best just doesn't apply when it comes to literature: we will lose so much more by accommodating this silly idea.


  1. It's probably better to read the book away from the hype surrounding it; that way your views are less influenced by what other people think.

    Also, I'm cheap and don't want to pay what new books cost ;)

  2. This is something I've worried about about especially in regard to e-books. I'm worried that the books that don't get made into e-books, or the books that were published before the advent of e-books, will just get even more lost. And it's such a shame! I absolutely love discovering a book from a few years ago that I never read at the time. (The Sparrow is one such book for me too.)

  3. I definitely agree with you.

  4. What really worries me is that my local library thinks that books have expiration dates as opposed to the borrowing of them. They have removed most back novels of popular writers dating earlier than 2000 from their holdings, which means that if you 'discover' a writer new to you going back and re-reading their initial work is very difficult indeed.

  5. It definitely is the case in my local library! I hate it also. The only hope I have of finding older "not classic" books is by going to book sales! I agree: VERY silly idea!

  6. Booksellers and publishers definitely want to pitch the next big thing but there should always be some balance with the backlist, too!

  7. OMG, this has been driving me crazy! I don't often go looking for Hebrew books but on the two occasions that I have I was only able to find two books on one subject (cookbooks for kids) and one book on the other subject (edible plants in Israel) Every bookstore I went to had the exact same 3 books and I couldn't understand how it could be that no other books had been written on the subject, so your post does explain a lot. At least with English books you can almost always find a copy offered by an online bookseller but I'm not sure if the same goes with Hebrew books.

    A comment you made reminded me by something I read on Booklust about a publisher that was, as a marketing gimmick, printing books with ink that disappears after being exposed to light, forcing the reader to read the book immediately. This sounds like a horrifying idea!

  8. Books don't have an expiration date, but some books are so latched to their time and place that as time goes on, the reader's ability to connect with the characters diminishes. Of course that simply means that the novel ceases to be a slice of zeitgeist and enters its second career as an historical curiosity.

    1. True, but I would make the argument that those aren't very good books!


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