by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 6, 2001
DEEPAK CHOPRA'S AUTHOR EVENT
We're back at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, on our regular Tuesday shift - my partner Terry and I, bit by the bookselling bug during the holidays (see #203, #205, #206), can't bear to leave the bookstore -- and today a Big Deal is about to happen.
It's 11 a.m. and customers are already arriving to find a seat for the event, which occurs two hours hence at 1:00 p.m. The store seems buoyed by an air of expectancy - or is it a tornado in the making - as the staff moves about with efficiency and calm, setting up chairs and conversing with earlycomers.
The guest today is bestselling author Deepak Chopra, who'll talk about the paperback edition of his bestseller, "How to Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries" (Three Rivers; 319 pages; $14).
We know that Chopra is more than a popular author. Over the years he has become the kind of full-fledged celebrity that inspires a flocking mode in the public. Phones ring without letup throughout the store. Callers asking increasingly urgent questions as the event draws near.
Will you have open seating for the Chopra event? Yes, it's first-come, first-serve, so do come early. Chairs are already set out.
Can I claim a place up front and leave to go browsing? Yes. Just put a sign on the seat with your name on it.
Can I get a book signed for my daughter/father/boss/friend if I'm not there in person? Yes, fill out the form at the front counter, or give us the information over the phone.
Can I bring the book if I purchased it at another store
You can. Be sure to get a red tag when you come in, since you won't have a store receipt.
Can I take the whole first row for my six siblings and 80-year-old mother because it's her birthday and then leave the store and take them all next door for lunch until Deepak comes and would you call us at the restaurant in time for us to pay the bill and help my 85-year-old mother get back to the seats we've reserved so Deepak can sign a book we've already bought at Borders to my mother who did I mention is celebrating her 90th birthday today? Yes.
The Unfolding of the Chairs
Heavens, the part-time clerks (who still feel new here) think: This isn't like the diabetes doctor or the olive historian or the crime fiction author or the "Undefended Love" therapists, popular as all of them were. This one is going to be PACKED.
Just watching the Unfolding of the chairs is exciting because ordinarily for an author event, the staff is reluctant to set out too much seating for whatever audience will walk in the door.
Since most often nobody knows whether the author will command a large or small (or nonexistent) audience, the event coordinators usually set a single display table aside and put out maybe 15 or 20 folding chairs.
That way, if only a few people show up, the author won't be embarrassed looking out over a little forest of empty chairs. Then, if more people arrive, the ever-watchful staff brings out as many chairs as needed. This thoughtfulness is rarely noticed by the author but I'm always moved by the fact that most neighborhood booksellers routinely take this kind of care.
Of course, sometimes the opposite occurs, too - crowds of customers show up unexpectedly, and, like a carpet of black Leggo parts, the chairs are unfolded so fast they seem to roll out past the back section of the store (Consumer Reference), and beyond Weddings right up to the edge of Stationery and Notions, about midway through the store. Few go past this point.
Today, though, we'll have none of that pussyfooting around. More than a hundred chairs are carted in on dollies and placed in tight rows that mow down everything in their way -- not just display tables and gondolas but Birthday Greeting spinners and Regional History postcard racks.
As the chairs advance all the way to Pregnancy and Childbirth, an aisle is created (ordered by the fire marshal) that allows a few more follow-up rows of chairs placed strategically in Children's Books. Beyond this, Standing Room opens for about 20 people, maybe 25 at the most, and That Is It: Any more and we'll have to pump them outside.
Staff members comb the store to get Deepak Chopra's backlist titles out on the front counter. The big one for today, "How to Know God," is everywhere, of course, but it's astonishing to see how many books - at least two dozen - this Indian-born, Western-educated doctor has written as we pull his titles from sections on Psychology, Spirituality, Health, Eastern Religion, Fiction, Philosophy and Alternative Healing.
Meanwhile, that sense of the tornado building or the tide coming in begins to jack the tension up a bit. People are now moving speedily to claim every chair. They crowd into Standing Room (the absolute maximum of 25 now tops about 70) and flow into illegal aisles the fire marshal would "have our hides for," as somebody says, were he ever to fight his way through the crowds to see it.
"Be tough," whispers operations manager Robert Dry as he races past. Everyone is at the ready. The charming hubbub of a minute ago has turned into noisy melee. Newcomers are pushing from behind. Chopak followers take advantage of the wait, sitting in the seats they've occupied for two hours, many of them meditating like mad.
"Lying Through Their Teeth"
Robert places Terry at the side door and my colleague Rita and I next to the front counter between clusters of illegal standees.
Our job is to ask people coming in, "Do you have a seat up front?" and when they stop, puzzled and perturbed at the interruption, we are to state plainly, shouting into their ears:
"ALL THE SEATS ARE FILLED IN FRONT SO PLEASE MOVE OVER HERE IN THE STANDING ROOM AREA." I gesture futilely toward a wall of human flesh that would not part if Moses wandered down from the Mount to see Deepak himself.
And now we learn there are two kinds of people who come to see celebrity authors.
First, there are the true readers who are quick to understand the need for crowd control, and don't mind being sent to Standing Room where there is no room or (thank heaven for a sunny day!) past Terry to outside tables where (we promise!) Deepak's voice will be piped out through a public address system for all to hear.
Second, there are the fans who don't read (by all outward signs) and who quickly become, wherever they stand, impatient, ornery, rude and slippery.
To the question Rita and I pose -- "Do you have a seat reserved up front?" - the fans (not the readers) answer:
"I do! My wife is holding a chair for me." "Oh, yes, I've been sitting there since you opened." "Hey, remember me? I've been through here before." "Yes, my 102-year-old mother is up front, waving."
Customers standing by the front desk (still illegal! the fire marshal will kill us) hear all this and begin to comment.
"THESE PEOPLE ARE LYING THROUGH THEIR TEETH." (Loud enough to be heard by the interlopers and so true.)
"Why do we have to stand here when you let these latecomers in?" (This question, accompanied by an offer of See's peanut cluster chocolates that seem to have the word BRIBE all over them, is so disingenuous that Rita and I burst out laughing.)
"Look. Send the new ones back. You don't have enough security control to let half these people through."
That's true, too. Customers are flowing past us like fish in a stream, not realizing that Sarah, smiling and tough as nails, is further up the line and will block their way.
And then finally, here is Dr. Deepak Chopra taking the mike, and a large exhale (Terry McMillan is coming tomorrow) seems to escape from the crowd.
We are quiet. We are at peace. It's as though the teacher has us lying
on our mats with graham crackers and milk, awaiting nap time. And even
though people still try to barge through Terry's side door ("just to
take a peek," "I only want to look at him," "let me just stick my head
in"), they don't realize customers are three deep for the next 10 feet
and are glowering back to make it clear they are
As Chopra begins talking, I realize how humbling this crazy scene can be for a book critic. I used to think that a book review or an occasional interview was all the conversance one needed to understand an author - even an author like Chopra who was building a huge audience from the very beginning.
Granted, it's important for book reviewers to stay clear of commercialism or of any emotional tie to the authors they review or interview.
But there's also something unnecessarily cloistered about meeting a writer out of sight of his audience, about not seeing the faces of his followers as they sit or stand so quietly, as they do here today, soaking in the hope that he represents.
After all, Chopra has emerged as one of the very few authors who can bring Eastern healing and Western medicine together, and he does it with humor and authority. Do you know what we call something we don't understand? he asks the crowd. A miracle.
Once we figure it out, do you know what we call it then? Science. Everyone chuckles. How right he is.
This effortless merging of what used to be considered the esoteric and arcane is Chopra's specialty, and it's just for starters. All his books, including the latest, "How to Know God," move us beyond the notion that differences exist between matter and energy, mind and body, science and spirit, East and West.
In Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient tradition Chopra learned from his ancestors and brought to the Western world, one learns to meditate so deeply that God can be understood at the cellular level. Then come the magnificent connections that are the true miracle of everyday life.
In this same spirit, it occurs to me now, while critics must always review each book only on its merits, there is something about the magical connection between author and reader that deserves recognition, too.
One can hear the spark ignite in the immense quiet that gives Chopra a different kind of voice - mesmerizing and delightful, surely, but erudite and learned, based on, coming from, grounded in and defined by the printed word he started with.
So by the end, a transformation of another kind has taken place. As Chopra closes his remarks, we are lambs, we are butterflies, we are lights gliding in single file toward the cash register and autograph table with nary a hint of the chaos that formerly came so close to a mass brawl.
As people walk out the door with books clasped to their heart, the critic stands to the side. To think this kind of day occurs because of a book is a rare discovery. That and the fact that one customer after another cannot help but exclaim, "that Deepak Chopra is so CUTE!" - makes the selling of books in an independent bookstore all that more worthwhile.
'JEFF BEZOS: KING OF AMAZON.COM'
I can't wait to see what children's book author Josepha Sherman is going to say about Jeff Bezos in her upcoming book, "Jeff Bezos: King of Amazon.Com."
The subtitle gives us a clue, as do the author's previous books, "Bill Gates: Computer King" and "Xena: All I Need to Know I Learned from the Warrior Princess."
Another clue comes from CNET News.com, which reports that the book will describe Bezos "as a hero to America's youth." One hopes the portrayal won't be too simplistic or cartoony.
Heaven knows a steady diet of false gods to worship could lead adults to proclaim a fallible human being as Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" or the star speaker at a place like BookExpo of America or something like that.
The fun for the 9-to-12-year-old target audience could lie in the many complications that make this kind of subject so intriguing.
Jeff Bezos IS heroic in many ways. His story is instructive for anyone with the slightest entrepreneurial bent, and it did take courage and vision to step off into the abyss that the Internet presented in 1995 and march and bluff his way to the top.
Perhaps it's right there that a book might better present the tangle of aspirations vs. practicalities that often lead the best of us into our own abyss.
Perhaps a book called "Jeff Bezos: A Modern Icarus," or "Jeff Bezos: Beyond L. Ron Hubbard" might delve into the dark side that has proven so fascinating to 9-to-12-year-olds in their absorption of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket books.
Surely a biography of Jeff Bezos might devote a whole chapter to recent rumors that Amazon.com is planning to form an alliance with Wal-Mart.
The very idea has spiked Amazon shares by a couple of bucks because Amazon.com, if the deal were to go through, could collect a fee for filling Wal-Mart's e-commerce orders as well as find a presence (hey, kiosks!) in Wal-Mart stores.
At the same time, Wal-Mart's floundering online retailer, walmart.com, having laid off 24 employees and eliminated many low-priced products, could find a presence (hey, an interactive website) online. Or so the mythology goes.
Of course, some disagree. An Amazon/Wal-Mart alliance, says Forbes.com, would be "A Marriage Made in Who Cares." A similar deal between Amazon and Toys "R" Us only resulted in a "slowdown due to additional strain" of more products than Amazon's famed distribution centers could handle.
This in turn "caused a backup in the warehouse, which caused a disruption in shipments." Now with the gigantic Wal-Mart trying the same thing, as well as selling many of the same products that Amazon sells, the problems, says Forbes, are rampant: "How can Amazon successfully partner up with a competitor?"
Another chapter might be called "Even Departing Rats Need a Leader," in which we watch Amazon.com top execs selling shares like mad.
According to CNET News.com, Amazon's chief information officer Rick Dalzell recently netted more than $323,000 from 25,000 stock options; board member Tom Alberg made about $1.5 million in his latest sale of 130,000 shares - that's not counting the 170,000 he sold in May and the 450,000 in November of '99. Bezos' own most recent sale of 800,000 shares that earned him about $11.7 million.
We do know that you just don't dumb-down stories like this to 9-to-12-year-olds. They won't buy it, and they probably know already that the truth about Jeff Bezos - his modesty and his hubris - makes a better story than any comic book yet published.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I don't know how deep your grapevines run and so am writing to advise you of the death this past Monday (Feb. 26) of C. W. (Bill) Truesdale, the founder and publisher of New Rivers Press here in Minneapolis. He had been in very poor health for well over a year and had of necessity curtailed his activities very sharply.
In the book community here in Minnesota, this was a second blow since his company had ceased operations in January. Bill was described as a "risk-taking champion of new and regional voices." Further, in the news article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "he helped to launch literary stars such as poet Charles Simic, former Minnesotans David Haynes and Charles Baxter, and scores of other writers." I think you might be able to get more of the article about him from the Star Trib's online publication or from Eric Hanson (email@example.com) who wrote the article.
In my former position as Executive Secretary of the Minnesota Independent Publishers Association and as a member of the Minnesota Book Publishers Roundtable, I was of course aware of New Rivers Press (however, the literary presses were not apt to be members of our group). But it was through his
suggestion that I become a member of the Minnesota Literature board that I had more occasion to get to know this fine man.
The year has started sadly for the Minnesota book world. First, Spinsters Ink was sold to a Colorado company; New Rivers suspended publication, and now Bill has died. And to think, that was only January and February.
P.S. I went onto the Web and visited the Pioneer Press site and read Mary Ann Grossman's piece on him. Mary Ann was also on the Minnesota Literature board and her piece is lovingly written, though it deals with just the facts, ma'am. I hadn't been aware of what all he had done in the larger world of publishing, literary presses department; Mary Ann's piece certainly is illuminating.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In a recent column (#219) about Anna Deavere Smith and her book, "Talk to Me," you wrote:
"Shame is very important in Washington, Smith concludes. "Counting on a sense of shame is a kind of policing" that many in power - journalists as well as politicians - seem to want to exercise."
This is a fascinating notion in that shame in D.C. is only connected to sex and sex alone. In all other respects, you are never elected to a national office if you are not shameless. It is impossible to define the term politician without including the concepts of willful mendacity and shamelessness other than those involving sexual matters. I can't conceive of any individual, who is capable of feeling shame, getting up in front of a crowd and spouting promises that will never be kept.
In all of my dealings with various governments, I have never met any individual who will tell the truth when a lie would easily serve to avoid work or responsibility.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I stopped in the Super Crown in Vacaville, Calif., the other day (sorry; I was driving to Sacramento and wanted something specific NOW). There was a laser-printed sign on the door and all registers saying, in essence, that Crown gift certificates were not being honored because of Crown's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Seems like a nasty move - and awful customer service so soon after the holidays.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Last week I watched in horror as a friend set out to order books from Amazon.com. Wait, I gasped, there are better options. We logged on to Holtuncensored.com to find the url's for the site I've been reading about in your newsletter. Trouble is, I couldn't find them. At random, I scanned old columns and found one or two. But I really want to hand my friends a list I and they can count on, So, could you please include a list of sites in an upcoming newsletter and add that list to your nifty website?
Holt Responds: I have many ideas for such a list and I'm sure readers do, too - in fact, lists like this are all over the Internet. Any suggestions from readers will be much appreciated.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I know you know this and have probably covered it already, but I'm so burned up (again) that I had to write. Amazon.com's system of allowing unsigned reviews is so, what shall I call it, unprofessional. It's so much more like graffiti than like any kind of legitimate reviewing system.
My book WRITING IN FLOW, which was a bestseller here in Southern California and is coming out in paper in the fall, has garnered dozens of extremely positive reviews throughout the Internet and in newsletters everywhere, as well as on the book's page on Amazon.com. But every so often a really nasty review shows up, and now there are two in a row at the top of the page (below the glowing ones called "reviews of the day").
Negative is fine. It's the risk every writer takes upon publication: not every book is to everyone's taste, thank goodness. But extreme negativity with little to back it up -- that's why writers take to their beds.
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D. (www.BunnyApe.com)
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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