A passionate rant about books being lost to changing document-preservation practices, lightly disguised as a novella.
Willis (Crosstalk, 2016, etc.) may be best known for her vast time-travel fantasies, which she typically spins out over five or six hundred pages; this 88-page story is being published as a stand-alone. The narrator, Jim, a blogger with a tenuous grasp of Manhattan geography, has come to town to meet with publishers about his blog, Gone for Good, which celebrates the disappearance of outdated technologies such as payphones and VHS tapes. It would be fine with him if bookstores were to die out, he tells a radio interviewer, “because it would mean that society didn’t need them anymore, just like it stopped needing buggy whips and elevator operators, so it shed them, just like a snake sheds its skin.” Losing his way in a cloudburst, he takes refuge in what he takes for an old-fashioned used bookshop. For some reason, a frenetically busy employee offers to give him a tour; the establishment turns out to be vast, full of obscure titles like Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross and Jim’s childhood favorite, Ambush in Apache Canyon. Readers will immediately grasp what takes Jim dozens of pages to understand (perhaps because, unlike us, he doesn’t know he’s a character in a fantasy): that this is no shop but a magical repository for books whose every copy has been destroyed.
Willis has a delightful comic voice, but it’s hard to imagine who the audience is supposed to be for this book. Concerned bibliophiles will find far more coherent nonfiction discussions of literary loss—Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold springs to mind—while fans of Willis' fiction should probably stick to her novels, which feature fully drawn characters instead of straw men.