The Books of Christmas Past

Kenny Brechner -- December 6th, 2018

This year was different. A haunting will do that, I suppose. Compiling our annual list of the top books for the season, The Holiday 20, is always a reflective experience, a kind of retail meditation. The list is the core of our fourth quarter marketing, in store, on our website and in the Gift Guides of two local newspapers. The particular qualities of tone, sentiment, the nature of the reading experience, and the adherence to the interests of an established gift recipient pool which commend a book as a great seasonal present, mark the Holiday season at the bookstore as a kind of parallel dimension, an extra room that appears once a year and then fades back into ephemera.

After the list was completed I became aware of shadow presences that had been lurking in the periphery, ghosts, the books of Holiday 20s past. Given its mystical aspects it is actually surprising that I have never experienced a Holiday 20 haunting before now. Though to be sure time plays the crucial role of stowing away years of such lists, their forgotten glories and failures, before a haunting can manifest.

When confronted by ghosts it is always wise to pay close intention to what they are adjuring us to do. In this case I determined that my task was to examine the Holiday 20 lists from the last 15 years and see whether any books on them had particular relevance  to this year’s handselling season. Truth to say it was an interesting and useful review.

The lists were filled with many books that are now evergreen store favorites like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Fablehaven, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Dark Matter and so forth. There were some novelty books that were creatures of the moment such as The Soothing Soak: A Bathtub Reader, along with other titles that have slid into retail insignificance.  These three categories of books brought back memories but did not call out for any action on my part.

It was then that several ghosts pressed urgently on my mind, rising up from the lists. A book from 2005 spoke. “I am timeless,” said The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, “read what you said of me.”

As this Holiday Book Guide is divided into categories it seems proper to begin with a book that defies categorization. The knowledge that we need food and drink in order to live is widespread. The need to possess a copy of The 13 ½ lives of Captain Bluebear, by Walter Moers, is, if anything, even more acute. It would be fair to ask why, if The 13 ½ lives of Captain Bluebear is necessary for life, and rather few people are aware of its existence, everyone else is not dead. Bluebears have 27 lives, of which Captain Bluebear tells us that “I shall recount thirteen and a half of them in this book but keep quiet about the rest.” The answer to our question, then, is that anyone who has not read this book is missing a considerable number of lives, not just one. Moer’s book is the funniest, most delightful, inventive, satirical account imaginable. A strikingly expressive illustrator, Moers makes sure that we are informed about such things as the Minipirates, the Gelatine Prince from the 2364th Dimension, the Professor with Seven Brains, Gourmet Island, Time Snails and a host of other important things as well. The 13 ½ lives of Captain Bluebear is not only a necessity, but also a lasting delight for all ages.

“Are you not galled to the quick for not paying me more mind?” continued the book. “Should you not honor your own sentiments?” “I am galled indeed,” I admitted, and vowed to take corrective action. Other books rose up too, clamoring for the renewed attention they deserved. Room for a Little One, by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft; When I heard the learn’d astronomer, by Walt Whitman, illustrated by Loren Long; The Arrival by Shaun Tan; A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban. The Books from Christmas Past appeared again.

Sensing my resolve to meet their just demands they began to recede until but one remained. It was from last year’s list, though now it appeared before me in paperback form, Otherwise Known as Possum. “You loathe my new garb,” it said. “True, but that’s a bit harsh,” I said. “Did you not note that I just successfully pitched you for a one book one school read? The school decided to use the hardcover edition because they liked it so much more, even though they were tight for money.” “I noted that indeed,” said the book. “Hmmn,” I said, “it is true that no one who hasn’t read you yet would know that the girl on your cover isn’t really Possum. And, yes I know, your chief lesson is that trying to keep things from changing changes them too. I shall focus on the wonderful story you contain and do the right thing this season.” The book nodded and faded away.

I’d love to know if you’ve received any hauntings this year??!

(PS: If you’d like to see the 2018 Holiday 20 it is here.)

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