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Books, Books and More Books, or Tote That Bookbag

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If there's a circus for books, it has to be BookExpo America, the annual fair that raised its tents -- well, booths -- at the Jacob J. Javits Center this past weekend. The multi-ring extravaganza could be seen as something for all ages, except those who attend must prove a relationship to the publishing biz.

My official reason for going is a fairly legitimate claim to writing about books, which I do regularly. But, really, I was there as an unreformed book-lover. (My guess is that many other people navigating the myriad aisles would have made the same admission, no matter what it said on their badges.)

The larger query is this: Is the number of book readers shrinking in the broader, otherwise-engaged population, and, if so, how concerned should we be? According to a New York Times business section report published on the convention's second day and carrying the headline "Declining Book Sales Cast Gloom at an Expo," the outlook isn't so pretty. Though 2009 revenue is up one percent this year over last due to raised prices, unit sales have dropped from 3.13 billion to 3.08 billion. BEA attendance is off by 14 percent from the 35,000 who showed up for the confab two years ago in Manhattan.

But none of this bothered Algonquin of Chapel Hill head Elisabeth Scharlatt, who said her booth was non-stop busy. In the smaller Overlook Press space, imprint founder and longtime book mogul Peter Mayer also greeted people with little time left to contemplate the manuscripts he has to read for his next list.

But enough about that, dear reader. I was there to see whatever attractions caught my eye and, more to the point, what giveaways and takeaways I could amass. Since I'm not a book dealer looking to place orders but am a reader looking for what I want to read next -- and possibly even write about -- I felt entirely free to secure at my earliest opportunity one of the many totes made available by several of the houses and other book suppliers.

Not that I carried everything away. The Hershey kisses and apples and candy canes were there to be consumed on the spot. But what I did cart off included the following -- plucked and pillaged very much at random and leaving out the myriad catalogues displayed for the grabbing:

- Pride & Prejudice, but not just any Pride & Prejudice. This is the graphic version Marvel appears to be readying for market. Bannered on the cover are come-ons like "How to Cure Your Boy-Crazy Sisters!" and "Lizzy on Love, Loss, and Living." "WWJD?" I asked myself -- What Would Jane Do?

- A Cambridge University Press mug (made in China) celebrating "425 Years of Cambridge." I figure coffee served in this one should taste sufficiently well-brewed.

- A copy of Joan Wickersham's 2008 National Book Award finalist, The Suicide Index, about coming to terms with her father's death. I snared this at the National Book Foundation booth even though I missed the trivia question I was supposed to answer correctly. The question was which Toni Morrison book won the NBA prize -- The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved. I opted for The Bluest Eye, but it was Sula.

- Uncorrected galleys at the Coffee House Press booth of Mary Caponegro's stories with the title All Fall Down. I wanted to find out whether the contents would justify appropriating the title James Leo Herlihy used for his apparently forgotten early (and adapted for the movies) novel. Sure, you can't copyright a title, but still.

- Uncorrected proof from Other Press of Richard Polsky's I Sold Andy Warhol. (Too Soon), a follow up to his I Bought Andy Warhol, because I find the title truly heart-breaking and a real Warhol puzzler. The value of his seminal oeuvre seems to fluctuate monthly. Evidently, the book casts a wider art-world net, but that traffic-stopping title is a genuine downer.

- A small, beautifully-designed pamphlet at the David R. Godine booth called Lark Rise to Candleford, in which Richard Mabey of The Guardian "explains the enduring appeal" of a book Brits have in their blood. I haven't read it but have long been intrigued by it and want to hear what Mabey has to say.

Well, that covers only a sampling of what I commandeered, but a sense of obligation has come over me having to do with more serious aspects of the four-day event. What about other books the pubberies are madly tub-thumping?

The one that riveted me comes from The New York Review of Books. On the NYRB Classics fall list is The Cost of Living, which brings back to light Mavis Gallant's early and previously uncollected works. Gallant is one of the greats and mustn't be allowed to go unnoticed, now or ever. Read her.