vol. 2, #34, April 4, 1997
THE CAT IN THE
I have a suggestion for aspiring writers who want to insure that their first book, if not a best-seller, at least sells out its first printing--put a cat in it.
A secret that has clearly already registered with publishers is this: people who read and buy books tend to be people who adore and pamper cats. This is almost certainly why, in the last several years, the number of books featuring cats has steadily increased.
Among the art books you will find Hans Silvester's gorgeous Cats in the Sun and Mediterranean Cats, collections of photographs in which the cats pose in stark silhouette like exercises in pure design. Children's books have always had cats--Wanda Gag's Millions of Cats, Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, Dav Pilkey's surreally beautiful When Cats Dream, and many, many more. Of late there has been a rash of murder mysteries centering around cats, from Marian Babson's Murder at the Cat Show and Nine Lives to Murder to Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who...(Came to Breakfast, Said Cheese, etc.) series. There is even science fiction centering around cats, like Alan Dean Foster's amusing Cat-a-Lyst.
And then there is the little nothing book, the inexpensive, cartoonish sort of book of humor about cats, such as Henry Beard's entertaining French for Cats, and Poetry for Cats (actually an outstanding collection of literary parodies--what Chaucer and other greats would have sounded like had their works been written by their cats). Nonfiction offerings studying the history and mysterious behavior of cats have also increased--Barbara Holland's Secrets of the Cat, and Desmond Morris' Cat-Watching, to name a few of the best.
The book trade has clearly caught on to the fact that librarians, who are a double threat (they not only buy books for themselves, but for their libraries as well), are particularly susceptible to cats. There are even libraries that have resident cats--a fact that a major library supplier, Baker and Taylor, caught onto. When they learned that there were two library cats named Baker and Taylor, these felines became the official B&T mascots, appearing in thousands of promotional Baker and Taylor posters, T-shirts, handbags, etc. (OK, librarians also like freebies of all kinds.)
The obvious question, of course, is, what is this affinity between cats and readers?
I think it has to do with the contemplative nature of readers. Reading is a solitary, and in some ways, deeply anti-social act. We are in a one-on-one conversation with another person's mind. If we are deeply engrossed, we may not even see or hear the people around us. We may be oblivious to the sound of timers ringing, the smell of burning rice, the voices of quarreling children.
The independent-minded choosiness of cats, the aloofness, the unnerving stare, the refusal to be owned--all the things that so many people find disturbing in cats--are things we readers recognize in ourselves. We understand creatures that are busy inside their own heads. We are the people Kate Jacobs sings about, who know that
Some dreams come around only when you're by yourself
A separate peace that can be found when you are a little lonely
And besides, cats don't constantly insist on your attention. You know how they say that two-year-olds aren't really capable of playing with each other--they merely play beside each other? That's the kind of undemanding companionship cats offer. There they are, soft, contented lumps on the lap. Aside from a sleeping baby, is there anything that feels as warm and comfortable in your lap as that soft, almost boneless mass of contented fur? It appeals to almost all your senses--as you stroke the warm fur, from time to time looking down in wonder at the elegant, casual grace of the feline form, listening, throughout, to the full-throated purr.
Ah, yes, the purr. It's a sound that does as much as Mozart does to promote internal harmony. And thought. It helps us concentrate upon the words in front of us. At the same time, you always have a sense that you yourself are personally responsible for the cat's state of bliss. You feel honored to have been chosen.
Because a cat is notoriously picky about its people. When a cat first makes your acquaintance, she circles around you warily, observing you from every angle. If you summon her with a "Here, kit,kit,kit," she will pause and think before she moves ever so slowly toward you. And if you move too quickly, if you can't resist the urge to grab, she will run away. She prefers to make the decision herself, moving forward an inch at a time, gathering in your smell, trusting you only if you offer stillness. And when she gets within touching distance, you still have to prove yourself by the delicacy, the hesitancy with which you touch her. Only when she really trusts you will she climb into your lap.
And you'll feel like a god has chosen you.
Think about this. YOU are the one who is doing all the work, here. YOU are doing the stroking and skritching, YOU are supplying the food and water, YOU are emptying the litter box. What you are getting in return is a queen of Sheba sort of response--"Yes, you may adore me, and while you're at it, work on the left ear a bit more, why don't you?" And you feel honored just to have been chosen to serve.
No wonder they were gods in Egypt. Maybe they got used to being gods then, and have expected everybody else since then to honor and serve them.
We bookish sorts are picky people, too. We don't have hosts of casual friends and acquaintances. We tend to be quiet, contemplative folk, with just a few carefully chosen intimates. We know what an honor it is to be chosen by someone just as carefully selective as we are.
That, I believe, is why cats and booklovers go so very well together. We see our affinity. We book people are merely graceless, furless, two-legged cats. Those books on cats we buy are as much tributes to ourselves as to the cats. So, you aspiring novelists and humorists, tell us wondrous tales of cats--if you write them, we will come.
*Note to catlovers: other columns devoted to felinity in all its perversity include Practical Cat Names, The Mouse Police, and The Cat's Christmas
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