A.J. Fikry, the title character of Gabrielle Zevin’s slim novel, is a thirty-nine year-old, lonely bookseller at Island Books. He will only stock books which meet his high standards for literary content. As he explains to Amelia Loman, the new Knightly Press representative:
I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mashups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy… I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying–vampires. [The list goes on and on]
With A.J.’s taste, it’s hard to believe he finds anything worthy enough to grace the shelves of the store he started with his wife, the more socially-inclined half who died in a car accident. How is his independent bookstore going to survive in the increasingly competitive bookselling world? As Amelia tells him, tearfully on her way out, “[with] this backward way of thinking, there won’t be an Island Books before too long.”
But A.J. isn’t in the right mindset to care. He’s barely hanging onto life after his wife’s death. He’s an eccentric man with a tragic past who happens to have a very big heart underneath his cold exterior.
I loved the first 50% of this book for its quirky, endearing characters and the sweet story, but I wish The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry had stopped there (at the end of the chapter named after Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find). The rest of the novel felt rushed, as it sped through time and tied up loose ends by focusing on too many people and subplots, including one about the stolen copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane and a fraudulent memoir à la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.* The extra characters and storylines either needed more development to make them worthwhile, thus resulting in a novel longer than 273 pages, or they needed to be cut entirely, halving the book.**
The second half of the book took me forever to read, partly because my real-life was too distracting last week (with work deadlines and my twins’ camp show, which was lovely), and partly because it just felt superfluous to me (I wouldn’t have minded a few loose ends). Nevertheless, I’m glad I powered through it, and that I read this novel in the first place, which I probably never would’ve picked up had it not been for The Fellowship of the Worms read-along at Words for Worms (thanks, Katie!).***
A.J. Fikry’s “storied life” reminds us that there are many ways to form a family, including through blood, marriage, adoption, and even shared interests, like books. This novel made me think about the last time I set foot in a bookstore, which was a long time ago. In my area, the indie bookstores disappeared a decade or more ago, and the large chains are following suit. I am primarily an e-book reader now.
I love e-books for the freedom that comes with them—i.e., the ability to read a wide selection of books instantaneously and to carry around my entire library wherever I go—but, naturally, A.J. hates them. He believes they’re destroying his business, ruining literary culture, and enabling readers who have “bad taste” to “read crap.” He says:
Everyone thinks they have good taste, but most people do not have good taste. In fact, I’d argue that most people have terrible taste. When left to their own devices—literally their own devices—they read crap and they don’t know the difference.
Well, of course, a snobby (but still lovable) bookseller like A.J. would think readers need him to help them choose books because they can’t trust their own taste.
Personally, I don’t care what a person’s reading, as long as they’re reading something, but maybe A.J. has a point. Independent booksellers who understand the tastes of their community (often unlike the massive chain stores that just stock national bestsellers) can certainly help us separate the wheat from the chaff. Book blogs are important for recommending books–I rely on several of them–but they (we) can’t entirely replace professional booksellers, because most of us don’t have the time, resources, or incentive to tailor recommendations to individuals or to survey all of the new releases across a wide variety of genres. I do this as a hobby; it’s not my profession.
What I’d love to have in my neighborhood to complement the expertise at our local library is a co-op bookstore. I’d pay a membership fee to browse selected titles and receive recommendations from people dedicated to books that appeal to my community. I’d love to attend readings and author events in my neighborhood, and I’d love to have the ability to connect with real-life readers in addition to the “virtual” ones that I’m lucky enough to meet through this blog. It’s too late for me to go back to buying primarily paper books—though I do buy them occasionally—but I’d be happy to buy e-books through a local seller. It might be hard to compete with Amazon’s prices, but I’d pay more per e-book to support a business that is part of my community.****
*The charlatan responsible for the memoir defends herself by saying, “All the things in it are still emotionally true even if they aren’t literally so.” For my thoughts on consumer fraud in fiction (under U.S. law), see J.K. Rowling as “Robert Galbraith”: Is It Consumer Fraud? (I briefly mention A Million Little Pieces in this post, but its focus is on the fake military experience in the biography of Robert Galbraith).
**The advertising material online lists the book as being 273 pages long. I read the e-book, which doesn’t have page numbers.
***Have you read this novel? If so, please check out Katie’s Fellowship of the Worms to join the discussion on The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.