Both times I read Bob the Book, I finished it with something of the same warm, fuzzy feelings I have after rereading Winnie-the-Pooh or The Wind in the Willows, while at the same time feeling reflective and a bit wiser, in something of the way I feel after reading, say, Peter Cameron or Peter Gadol. Such is David Pratt’s rare and extraordinary accomplishment.
The novel’s basic conceit is that each edition of a book has its own personality and name. Thus, in the novel, a buyer thinks he is getting Harrison R. Stone, Ph.D.’s very academic tome, Private Pleasures: Myth and Representation in Male Photo Sets and Pornography from the Pre-Stonewall Era to 1979, published by a university press. We readers, however, know he is buying Bob. We also briefly meet Other Bob, another copy of the same edition, who was sold four months before our story opens and then returns as a downcast secondhand book.
Our story opens in Gay Diversions Bookstore on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. It survives largely by selling pornographic videos and sets of photographs from a cache in its cellar. Hence, Dr. Stone, who lives nearby, is a frequent visitor. It turns out he is working on his follow-up, A Mirror Crack’d: Affirmation and Denial in Gay Male Pornography from 1980 to the Present, the first edition of which is named Luke.
When a stack of Lukes arrives, they lord it over poor Bob, “the old one.” But all of them suffer equally when the floor of the bookshop literally drops out from under them. (It is impossible not to read the scene as a metaphor of what is happening to independent booksellers.)
Meanwhile, Bob falls in love with Moishe (Beneath the Tallis by Binyumin Stein, M.D.), loses him when Professsor Tovah Manitoba buys Moishe, and is himself sold to Peter, a book lover suffering from HIV. Thus he is launched on a journey that will take him into other sales venues and other owners’ homes, even as far away as Boston, during which he will meet other books whose lives intertwine with his — and whose adventures the story also follows, even when the books leave Bob.
In particular, we follow the various peregrinations of Neil (gay love poems), Marc (a study of queer connections), Jerry (Christianity and Homosexuality), who was barely rescued from a “Christian” book burning in Alabama (one that almost got Neil as well), another Luke, and Angela (Mansfield Park). As for the humans, in addition to Dr. Stone, we follow the fates of a number of owners. Besides the poignant case of Peter, we learn especially about the self-loathing Owen, who regrets leaving a life in the theater, and two fumbling roommates, Alfred and Ron.
Each book’s character and personality is, not surprisingly, heavily influenced by his or her content. And it turns out that not just their contents can speak to their readers, but the books themselves can subliminally communicate with people and thus influence their actions. Though reliant upon humans for mobility, the books can even intervene in their affairs. A Shakespeare volume quite literally saves its owner’s life.
Just as their contents teach some readers new truths, their changing environments and contacts teach the books how to live better. All, save possibly Moishe, are searching for love. The books ultimately have richer, wiser lives and understand the vagaries of love better than their owners do. The books are not always tolerant (Fred, for example, lets his homophobic contents form his character), but in general they show a greater resiliency and an ability to face facts.
True bibliophiles will luxuriate in Bob the Book. Though the author uses a whimsical conceit on which to base his novel, he never talks down to his readers. And he expects them to be fairly literate. When Bob asks one book his name, the book responds: “Do I have a name? I think I do. […] Or I did have a name, at one time, at a time I cannot remember, I did have a name.” On the book’s spine Bob reads: “Becket: Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.” The joke, of course, is lost on anyone who does not know Becket’s fiction.
One of the novel’s wry observations about the current state of the literary world is worth quoting in full:
And then some book, almost always straight, would start in about having been made into a movie and who was in it and who directed and how much money it made. The gay books seethed and tried not to listen, and they looked for a copy of Maurice or The Boys in the Band to rally themselves around. Tensions ran especially high among E. M. Forster’s books. Copies of Maurice were taunted horribly by the others: “If you’re so great, how come he wouldn’t publish you till he was dead?” A Room with a View was especially cruel, as his movie had come out just before Maurice’s movie and had made much more money. But then A Passage to India would chime in: “Well, we know who bought all those tickets to see your movie,” he sneered at A Room with a View. “Gay guys who wanted to see the nude bathing scene. Plus you’ve got that fruity Cecil and all those tea parties and lawn tennis. Even George, climbing trees and writing poetry! It looks like I’m the only one whose characters are real men!” Meanwhile, Where Angels Fear to Tread felt she could not speak because her movie had not been very successful. She was perhaps Forster’s least-known novel, and you never knew if another book might know or pretend to know your ranking or your number of stars on Amazon.
Bob the Book makes a perfect gift — not only to yourself but to friends who love books. And what is the name of Bob the Book? I had to email the author to ask. His answer? “All copies of the current edition are actually named Eric. […] They don’t like being called Bob, although at the Atlanta Queer Lit Festival I was almost introduced as Bob myself, and I was amused.”
—— BOB THE BOOK
by David Pratt Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9780984470716, 184 p., $16.00
eBook, ISBN Not Found, $9.99