Some of the market stalls were located inside a walled garden, and some were scattered around the open country outside those walls. All were brightly painted, and all were piled high with brightly coloured paperbacks*. Even from a distance, from the covers of these paperbacks, the casual visitor could see immediately that this was a place to find tales of young heroes, tall and thin, dressed in long jackets or cloaks, sometimes hooded, always armed with a sword or a staff. There would be horses and dragons, and always a high chance of finding magic.
The roads travelled. But would the myth-making be done well? That was the question. The casual visitor stopped at the fork in the road where the market began. Behind him were the familiar trade routes, paved with gold and good intentions, and back even further into his past were the big, established, ordered book markets, bright with promises and media hype but greying with complacency and self-regard, all of them gated, surrounded indeed by gatekeepers, the hard-to-enter cloisters for the chosen few casting long shadows over the slush-piles and the heaps of stillborn myths. He’d had stalls in those markets, over the years, but he’d watched their magic fade until finally he’d left to save his own magic.
The casual visitor, who had never understood why parables should stick to the script, sat down on a gnarled old tree-stump with a scowling face and a whole bunch of runes carved into it, reached into his travel-stained robe, and pulled out his e-reader. Pausing only to reflect on the convenience of a travel-stained robe with hidden pockets, he read a bit more of his current book. He’d pre-ordered this one on the strength of some pages he’d seen online, started reading it, and then there’d been something on Facebook about last-minute editing, and the book had changed in his hand. He had been amused by that semblance of magic. The book had drawn him to this market in search of more like it; now, he needed to read it.
But it was time for another paragraph. The casual reader stood up. He fumbled around in his travel-stained robe for the right hidden pocket, then, exasperated that he couldn’t find it, laid his e-reader down on the gnarled old tree stump while he tried to find its hiding place. That gave him an idea. He enjoyed blog posts in which creative people unpacked their bags to reveal the kit they took with them on their creative assignments. Could he write something like that?
No elaborately dressed china doll? He reached into his hidden pockets, finding them easily this time, and brought out: an Easter egg (he put it down); a whistle, clogged with sand, with an inscription on the side (ditto); another whistle, this one packed with explosive (you understand that he’s putting these things down on the tree-stump, right?); a baseball (only, it clogs up the sentence if I keep having to make that clear); a shadow without a person attached to it (having said that, he put that shadow straight back where it came from, oh yes); a stick (we’ll call it a stick); a very old coin wrapped in a clean white cloth (a denarius, one of a number sought by both sides of an old conflict); an ancient book, probably a grimoire, damaged and apparently blank, bound in something that certainly looked like leather); a
new paragraph, because that one was getting too long; a Martini shaker (but not a stirrer); a set of hooks and a thumper; a Ring (got to be One); a corked bottle (very dark glass); another bottle, clear glass, apparently empty but very, very firmly stoppered; a phaser, set to stun; an iPhone 6; a Samsung J5; a Moleskine journal (blue, A5); several pens; a Lenovo Ideapad 320S; three sheets of folded and crumpled (lined) A4 paper (a draft article arguing that state broadcasters should foster young talent rather than paying top dollar for established names); an assortment of daggers, bracelets, amulets and other silverware; several wooden stakes; a green plastic Spork; a pot of green ink and a quill pen; a blue spotted handkerchief; a green banana in a yellow banana-shaped plastic holder.
No, no story in that lot. But good to get it all out. Feeling very much lighter, the casual visitor stepped away from the gnarled old tree stump and the heap of his needful objects. Maybe he should look for that article he’d once read about getting rid of possessions and going through life much lighter? He made a complicated series of movements with his hands and rose three inches off the ground. Levitating with the bearable lightness of having almost nothing left in his pockets, he took the right-hand road and entered the market.
Sign and sign again. Immediately, he was surrounded by stallholders. This, he had expected. But what surprised him was, none of them were trying to sell him their books. All of them wanted him to sign up for their email newsletters.
“Why?” he asked.
“So we can keep you up to date with book launches and special offers.”
“But I’m already here and I want to buy – oh, okay.” The casual visitor signed, and signed, and signed, and as he did so, the country around the market silted up with email newsletters, some of which he would take home and read. “I just want to find something to read after my current book,” the casual visitor told an excited young woman who was offering him a ride on her unicorn. “I’m going to review it, and then I want another book. Another well-told story.”
“You’ve come to the right place!” she told him, and he waited, but she said nothing more.
Live interactions. Soon, he was through the cordon of email-newsletter-writers and into the heart of the market. The stalls here were piled high with books. The casual visitor hesitated. Where to begin? He was surrounded by books. On every cover, the eyes of the hero glowed white (sometimes red, occasionally silver) even against the visual cacophony of the market, and on every cover, the lettering of the title curled around, italicised and magical, reaching out like vines or creepers or in some cases briar roses, to catch the casual visitor’s attention. Or maybe his ankles.
There were screens, and there was YouTube, and there were podcasts and live interactions and any amount of social media and marketing, but we’ll gloss over all that because I can’t think of a way to work it into the story**. The casual reader was drawn at first to the brighter stalls, to the carnival atmosphere and the celebrations, to the music and the dancing, and yes, he did watch a lot of the social-media activity, but none of it involved reading and soon he tired. “I just want something good to read,” he said.
“How about this?” said a voice. The casual reader had settled on another tree stump – yeah, yeah, gnarled, face, runes, all that – next to a stall towards the back of the market. This was a stall that he hadn’t noticed before, not even as he sat down next to it. There were books, and perhaps over there under a pile of paper was a sign-up form for an email newsletter. But on this stall, there was no pristine vintage Remington typewriter, no coffee cup and saucer artfully arranged, no state-of-the-art software for collating a novel once conceived. There was no glossy surface to this stall.
There was paper. Pens and pencils. A laptop so battered that it looked ready to be written into a proverb. And this stallholder had just handed him something and gone back to writing. The casual visitor watched for a while. The stallholder went on writing. The casual visitor looked down. He had been given an opening chapter. He began to read. In no time at all he looked up again. “Is there-?” he began. The stallholder, clearly not wanting to be interrupted, handed him the next chapter.
Ah, here's the tinderbox. This time, when he had finished, the casual visitor stood up. Quietly, he went to the front of the stall. Cross-checking between the books on offer and the chapters he had just read, he piled up, first, a copy of the book he had just begun, and then the rest of the series as far as it went. Reaching into his most hidden pocket, he pulled out a wallet containing every means of payment so far invented. He was about to interrupt the stallholder, who was still writing, when he felt a touch on his arm.
Behind him stood all the other stallholders. “Shhh!” said one. “The final volume isn’t finished yet. Please don’t interrupt the writer. We all want to know what happens in the end.”
The casual visitor emptied all his gold coins onto the stall, took his books, and rose into the air. Silently.
*Yes, I know – they’d be selling ebooks as well. Don’t be difficult.
**Look, if you absolutely insist, we could say that the whole market is virtual and all the books are ebooks – but a travelling band of faeries cast a glamour that made it seem … I hesitate to say real. Gimme a break, okay? I started with “There was once a market.” And this happened***.
***I wanted to write a piece about young authors (and others) who get so stuck on social-media marketing that it becomes the end rather than a means – and they evolve into, I don’t know, broadcasters or vloggers or whatever. Maybe starting with the past tense was a mistake. There is a market…
We get happier as we get older. “If you are 50-59 now, odds are you have happy times ahead,” wrote MSW. And then the books: two recent titles on the theme that everything isn’t getting worse, but actually a lot better, and then The Blunders of Our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, which was first published in 2013 (Oneworld). “Huge blunders are perfectly normal for governments. Our current one is not uniquely idiotic – which is something to hang onto if you find your mind wandering too much from beach to Brexit.”
Hang on tight. And even if there isn’t space in your suitcase for at least one hardback (one of the books reviewed is too recent to have got past that stage), the article itself is worth reading. Title: Why be fatalistic? Life’s getting so much better. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the real world, too.
*Sorry for all this preamble.