He was not born to shame:
Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit.--Juliet, Romeo And Juliet
We've been talking about definitions in an English Composition course I teach; about how easily the definition of a word can slip into the challenge of defining an elusive concept, and then release itself from your control altogether.
A word, for example, like "shame."
In his book Shame in Shakespeare, Ewan Fernie notes that the Bard used the word "shame" 344 times in his works and the word "guilt" only 33 times. "Having offered a first definition of shame, it is now necessary to distinguish it from the associated phenomena of embarrassment and guilt," Fernie writes. "Embarrassment is a weak and transient form of shame: shame is absolute failure, embarrassment failure in a given situation."
This definition conundrum occurred to me after Dan Schreffler, the buyer at Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., observed that "the notion of a 'Shame List' has been eating at me ever since you first discussed it several weeks ago. If the Book House were the gift shop of some well-heeled cultural institution instead an independent business trying to survive this recession, I would have a different attitude. As it is, my Shame List consists of any title that customers actually want to purchase and that we do not have and cannot get in time to satisfy them. No title is sacred. If booksellers want to surround themselves with precious gems of literature (and who among us does not?), then they should collect them in their own homes. In the bookstore we are sellers of books, not curators.... I understand that every store stocks titles that do 'perform' optimally. Maybe it is just the word 'shame' which got my goat."
He could be right. Is Shame List harsher than necessary? There are probably a dozen other terms (Guilt List? Embarrassment List?) that would do, but I heard Shame List used this fall and it seemed to raise the stakes appropriately. Maybe I've unleashed an unnecessary demon.
Or maybe not.
"I'm loving this 'Shame List' business!" noted Jennifer Moe, general book buyer for Wheaton College Bookstore, Wheaton, Ill. "Working at a college bookstore, there are certain professors' books that we definitely must have in stock in our Faculty Authors section. It can be pretty brutal to have a prof come in and ask if we have his or her title and we have to say, 'Um, not at the moment... must be sold out!' At least then that gives them a little boost while I scurry back and order another copy right away!"
And Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books, Shaker Heights, Ohio, admitted: "We're running around frantically updating our Shame List now, checking inventory and ordering the vacancies. Kinda fun. It's a mish-mosh of old classics and staff favorites, and the list is largest for children's picture books. We used to call it the Essential Inventory List, but Shame List is quickly taking over. It's easier to say, for one."
She shared some "oddballs on the Loganberry Shame List, because we recommend these books all the time (just because we like 'em)."
- The Lilac Bus by Maeve Binchy
- Labyrinths Jorge Luis Borges
- Kindred by Octavia Butler
- Rose by Martin Cruz Smith
- To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
- The Federalist Papers
- Various and sundry titles by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- Miss Twiggley's Tree by Dorothea Fox
- Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
- Ben and Me by Robert Lawson
- The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (and she's local)
"Actually, I have an Excel list with several hundred titles," Logan added, "but these are in bold, and perhaps not on everyone else's list."
Betty Smith's classic novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, made Cheryl McKeon's Shame List at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash. She confessed, "I clearly recall suggesting to the customer seeking this classic, 'Perhaps it's a current school assignment and we just sold out.'"
So, if not Shame List, then what? The possibilities are many: regret, chagrin, remorse, compunction.
But there will always be those books--and those questions--and in the end, a bookseller's job is to find every way possible to say "Yes." So, in my book at least, Shame List it is.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1059.