If my theme for summer is “procrastinate until the point of panic,” then no single event typifies the theme better than my inability to order books for the fall. I’ve hemmed and hawed about books for both the “fate of the novel” class as well as the asian-american studies course. Tuesday, however, I awoke with the name of a book (Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, if you must know) clear and present in my mind, and figured it was a sign from the book fairies. Order! Order now!! [The book fairies must be the fantastical creatures that do the bidding of our long suffering and truly wonderful bookstore manager, B. It is a credit to him that these mystical beings are fairies and not devils.]
So I gamely sat down to make some hard decisions about what to order, in accordance with the secret logic of guiding each of these courses. [The secret? There is more than one logic, and it’s not always evident until I get into the course and students themselves begin to make connections that I never anticipated. Wanna know why I love seminars? That’s it in a nutshell.] As I started to narrow the lists down, I logged onto Amazon in order to copy and paste ISBN numbers. Horror of horrors: three of the books I was interested in were out of print!
This is a travesty in almost every case. First off, it seems that any number of crucial texts in Asian American studies are out of print. Throughout graduate school and most of my early teaching, Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea was unavailable, which is a real pity. As many critics have noted, Chu’s novel does some amazing work with mapping the bachelor society of New York’s Chinatown in the first half of the century. The language is fantastic. A quick google search seems to indicate that Lyle Stuart did a publication run in 2002, but that the book is, yet again, out of print.
I knew enough not to depend on Chu’s book, but I was surprised to find Cynthia Kadohata’s The Floating World unavailable as well. Kadohata’s novel came out in 1989, and was a NY Times notable book. It tells the story of a Japanese American family post-WWII, unable to settle anywhere due to lingering resentment and fear of the Japanese. Kadohata has moved on to a successful career writing for young adults, and her skills there show through in this novel. It’s very readable, and introduces some complex topics to students who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool lit fans. In short, it’s great for an introductory Asian American class. If you can find 25 copies of it used, that is.
If I was surprised about the fate of Kadohata’s book, I was shocked to find that David Wong Louie’s The Barbarians Are Coming is also out of print. That novel came out in 2000. 2000!! I wrote a big fat chapter of my dissertation on that novel! Louie has a great sense of humor, a narrative style that both sympathizes and critiques his characters, and close eye on the morays of popular culture. At the height of the Iron Chef craze, Louie gave us a Chinese American protagonist who wanted nothing more than to use his Cordon Bleu training, but was constantly asked to “cook Chinese.” It’s a story about food, about masculinity, about generations and interracial relationships, about the effects of television on cultural identity and performativity…and now it’s unavailable. There is no justice.
And on a completely different note (different course, after all), I’ve decided to brave the judgment of my senior seminar folk by teaching Gore Vidal’s scandalous Myra Breckinridge in the fall. Because who can resist this opening paragraph:
I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because’. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them as it does all men, unmanning them in the way King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.
[For the record, I know the film was a hot mess—in true Christian Siriano form. But the novel, oh, it is glorious!]
You can see where this is going, right? OUT OF DAMNABLE PRINT!! Like Myra, however, I will not be held back. We WILL read this novel! We WILL find copies!
The larger question, of course, is what economic and/or cultural restraints are causing these books to fall out of print runs, and in the case of the first two above, so quickly and regardless of their critical reception?
There has been academic attention to the crisis in scholarly publishing for sure, but I begin to wonder if we should be just as concerned about the longevity and health of the popular publishing market.