Lingua Franca, October 1994, Field Notes

STEAL THIS BOOK

Books are supposed to end their lives on the remainder table.  It's a humiliating demise, to be rejected so publicly, but at least it holds out some hope of finding a reader.  Sometimes, though, a book meets a fate worse than remainder purgatory.  It is recycled out of the publishing industry entirely, eviscerated of its content, and made into a thief-fooling jewelry box: its cover, dust jacket, and first few dozen pages are intact; its remaining pages, glued into a solid block against the back over, are hollowed out to form a cavity in which you can store something valuable - secure in the knowledge that the book is likely to be so obscure, so completely devoid of sex appeal, that not even a dinner guest will disturb it.

There is a respectable tradition of using books as camouflage for treasure, dating back at least to the eighteenth century.  The Swedish naturalist Daniel Carl Solander, traveling with Captain Cook in the South Seas in the 1760s, constructed a book-shaped case to hold the manuscript records of the voyage, and his name became synonymous with the invention.  In more recent times, academic books have become solander favorites, prized for the very qualities that made them backlist rejects in the first place.  Perhaps the largest collection of academic books to be thus reincarnated was a shipment of 10,000 Stanford University Press volumes sold to Forever Safe of Visalia, California in 1989.  Terry Ommen, co-owner of the company, was looking for a West Coast publishing house from which he could buy a large quantity of thick books for ten cents apiece.

"Some books are so esoteric, even if you tried to give them away, who would take them?"

"These 10,000 truly were in the category of publishing mistakes," says Bob Lloyd, marketing manager at Stanford.  "There was no market for them beyond the audience they'd already reached.  No matter how much money I spent making sure people knew about them, I never would have sold another one."  Even the remainder houses wouldn't have been interested.  Said Lloyd, "Some books are so esoteric, even if you tried to give them away, who would take them?  You have to be so specialized to read the things."  Even so, he says, "we had to decide whether it was even worth assembling the books and putting them on skids for $1,000."

Of course, Stanford means to keep books in print forever, Lloyd says, but "if the rate of sale is only ten a year and we have a thousand in stock, that's a hundred-year supply."  Back in the days when it owned its own printing plant, Stanford issued a lot more books.  Press runs are more conservative these days; since photocopying and interlibrary loans have become more efficient, libraries have been buying fewer books.  Besides, short-run reprints can be made from microfilm for not much more than the price of the original book, so underprinting is no longer a problem.

Forever Safe's solanders are relatively down-market - they don't have false fronts of real pages to cover their cavities - and they are cheap, at $7 each, including delivery.  A company called Department 10G of New York City, another solander vendor, sells its products for $6.50 wholesale, but they are marked up to $49.95 in paranoia boutiques like the Counter Spy Shop of New York City and Washington, D.C.  (The Counter Spy Shop also sells electronic listening devices that fit into solanders, perhaps presaging an expanding future for book-shaped objects.)  Department 10G also tends to use mainstream trade books, such as The Tommyknockers by Stephen King; Unto the Sons by Gay Talese; and Father, Son Co., by Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM, with Peter Petre - all relatively new hardbacks, which makes them more likely to be pawed by nonspecialist visitors.

When we asked Forever Safe for a sample solander, they sent I Am A VCR, by media critic Marvin Kitman (Random House).  "I would have preferred to have made the best-seller list," Kitman said when we informed him of the fate of his book, "but since I've made this market, I'm honored.  I didn't realize why I was writing that book, and now I know."  Forever Safe's bona-fide academic titles include Madrid and the Spanish Economy, by David Ringrose (UC Berkeley, 1982); The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution, by J.L. Talmon (UC Berkeley, 1981); and Syntactic Argumentation, edited by Donna Jo Napoli and Emily Norwood Rando (Georgetown, 1979).

There's no documented case of a hapless professor noticing his book on the shelf at a party, pulling it down to reacquaint himself with its witty dedications and thoughtful marginalia, and spilling pearls and diamonds from the pages in Pandoran confusion.  Bob Lloyd, for one, says he's never had a complaint form a writer.  And perhaps an author's dismay would be mitigated by the prospect of dining out on the story for years to come.  How many writers, after all, have had such tangible proof that their book contained a few gems? --Diana ben-Aaron