Nobody likes a book snob

Nobody likes a book snob.

 

You can’t please them. The best you can hope for is their tepid approval. Even if you like the same books, you surely liked it too much or not enough or liked it for the wrong reasons. In my younger days, I tried on being a book snob but I found the wrappings ill-fitting and uncomfortable. I lacked the knowledge to adequately discuss form, the insight to offer original analysis and the discipline and desire to hone either capability. Fortunately, I was too insecure to step out too far. I knew even the most perfunctory probing would expose me as a fraud, a poser.

 

The idea of book snobbery came to mind recently while I was gushing to a coworker about an incredible book I’d just finished, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1. This is the first volume of the Norwegian author’s six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel. My praise could have only have sounded more book-snobby if I had concluded my praise with the caveat “of course I only read it in its original Norwegian.”

 

Horrified, I began to wonder if I had become a book snob. I don’t see myself as one. I don’t want to be one. Since my youthful dalliance with the idea of being one, I’ve come to dislike book snobbery, believing it to be anathematic to a true love of books.

 

See, book snobbery demands two important acts, neither of which held any interest for me. First, it requires a certain amount of credentialing. To be a book snob means there are a certain number of the “right” books I’d need to read and have a variety of insightful insights. Some I’d need to critically beatify, while others would need to be taken down a notch with withering wit or verbal napalm. I would need to use the word “jejune.”

 

Beyond having the literary cred, the role of book snob requires a couple of levels of denial. First, I’d have no time for the trivial—even for good genre fiction or music biographies or graphic novels…things I like. Second, and even more insidious, I’d have to secret away my enjoyment of such things. A proper book snob must not only know all the “right” books, but he must also feign ignorance or affect bemused indifferent superiority (or superior indifference) to whatever’s popular.

 

Fundamentally, being a book snob (or a snob of any sort, really) is all about exclusion, wanting to be seen as above and apart from others. A true love of books is one of inclusion…I want everyone to find some of the magic that books regularly bring to my life. As a bookseller, I feel it’s my purpose and my reward to do so.

 

Loving the difficult, the weird, the arcane, even the critically acclaimed doesn’t make you a book snob. Believing that what you love and the way you understand and appreciate it is objectively better than what others love does. It also makes you a jerk.

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YA: not made for adults.

One of my formative reading experiences was a book with a title I can’t recall and a story I have no recollection of.  I was 11, maybe 12 and I picked up a cracked and bent paperback mystery from the library in my small southern hometown. I was old enough that I was reading “grown up” books, but the cover was dramatically illustrated, reminiscent of the comic books I still secretly read.

It was a crime caper, or maybe a detective story. It was a twisty page-turner. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you what it was about. What I do remember, though, is the ending. The protagonist, the first-person narrator, was revealed to be relating the entire story from a hospital bed, comatose.  Perhaps he was actually locked up behind bars.  I really don’t recall.

What stays with me—what made this book so important to me—was the mind-blowing feeling of “discovering” the unreliable narrator…being gob smacked, thinking  “books can do this?”

I’m sure the plot was boilerplate and the characters two-dimensional, straight out of dime store novel central casting. The writing? Functional. The meaning and subtext? Nonexistent. By objective standards, I’m sure it wasn’t “good.” But it surprised and delighted young me. It made me want to read more.

crime novel

This book came to mind this week after reading several thought-provoking articles swirling around certain corners of the cultural conversation.  A.O. Scott’s New York Times column from early September, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” was the jumping off point (a worthy, but limited in its view, read in its own right). In it, Scott referenced a Slate article from June written by Ruth Graham.

In “Against YA”, Graham argues that “the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way adult fiction is pleasurable”. While I’d encourage you to read her article for yourself, essentially her arguments are twofold. First, YA asks its adult readers to “abandon the mature insights into” the characters’ perspectives that adults have gained over the years; YA presents teenage perspectives and problems uncritically. Second, YA doesn’t present the “emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction, i.e., the real world”.

I won’t dispute Graham’s major arguments. I essentially agree with them. The pleasures of reading YA as an adult are different than the pleasures of reading adult fiction. What Graham doesn’t acknowledge are the many types of pleasure a reader might be seeking in his or her reading.  Like Graham, I love literature that exposes me to “weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love.” Like her, I also enjoy moral and emotional ambiguity; great beauty and truth can be revealed when an artist paints from a palette of various shades of grey.

Graham chides us that as adults we should be better than wanting the “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia” offered by YA, that there are too many great adult books to waste time on reading YA. I get her point. I’m periodically thrown into a flat-tire funk when all the terrific books I’ll never get around to reading, that ever-growing beast, stirs from its usual spot, unnoticed over my shoulder, cranes its head around and makes eye contact.

Even understanding this, I sometimes need the pure cane escapist sugar YA offers. Sometimes the simple, true melody plucked out by Rainbow Rowell or David Arnold in his upcoming debut novel, Mosquitoland harmonize perfectly with what my heart is humming at the moment.

I’m never going to read all the books I want to read. I tend to follow my immediate wants when picking out what to read next. The end result tends to be a fairly balanced reading diet. More importantly, it’s a diet perfect for me. YA, is a piece of that. Admittedly, my experiences in YA are heavily curated by Booksellers’ former children’s manager and her successor, both of whose tastes have proven refined and both of whose recommendations I listen to.

I wouldn’t want to survive solely on even the best YA has to offer and I’d agree with Ruth Graham that adults who never challenge themselves in their reading choices are missing out. But I also acknowledge that not everyone has had the privilege to read all that I have, to experience the many types and genres and authors that have shaped my reading palate. If YA, or any genre, can make a reader of any age swoon, or leave him or her gob smacked thinking “books can do this?”, then I have nothing to offer but a smile and the encouragement to “read on…”

…as for what to read next? Just ask your friendly neighborhood Bookseller.

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My favorite book of 2014 (so far): Wolf in White Van

Summer’s over and we’re hurtling through September into the fall, into October, the start of the last quarter of 2014. While three months and a fortnight remain in the year, I’ll be surprised if anything released in that time blows me away like John Darnielle’s* new novel, Wolf in White Van, which hit shelves this past Tuesday, Sept. 16. (and, the following day, was long-listed for the National Book Award).

The story, in broad strokes, is about Sean Phillips the designer and sole creator, owner, and administrator of a text-based role-playing game, Trace Italian, conducted over snail mail. Phillips conceived of the intricate, almost infinite, post-apocalyptic game, its universe and game play elements during his long recovery from an…incident…that left his face severely disfigured. The story starts with present-day Sean dealing with a legal issue resulting from one of his Trace Italian players dying after moving his game play out of the mail and his imagination into the real world. The narrative then moves backwards in time to reveal how Sean got to this point.

I am loathe to write too much about Wolf in White Van’s story and plot elements. It’s something I don’t want to spoil in any fashion for potential readers. I’ll just say the book is a stunner…a gem…a cosmic gut-punch.

wolf

But “spoiling” Wolf in any traditional sense isn’t really possible. I would argue that while the “how-and-why” details of the story comprise the central narrative questions, the point of the book is the impossibility of answering them in any objective way. Like life itself, you will have to take in and account for the minutiae, the ephemera, the seemingly meaningless details to even start to grapple with the idea of “why”.

A search for meaning and a desire for things to make sense are human instincts: find the inflection points, separate the genuine from the simulacra, label the “telling” moments.  They also are components of a reader’s expectation when picking up a book.  But, in the end, the Meaning (capital “M”) of any moment, event or entire life is only a wholly subjective construct of an individual, limited and shaped by his/her experiences and choices (or, more often, mindlessly inherited from others)…a “dark smudge of an idea shared among believers,” as Darnielle’s narrator describes the idea of Satanic messages purportedly encoded backwards into some music.

An exploration of finding meaning in others’ actions is worthy, profound, fertile ground for a writer. The genius of what Darnielle achieves, however, is to have the central construct of the plot, the book’s narrative style, the narrator’s personal details and even the physical act of reading a book harmonize, reflect and amplify each other**. If this sounds complicated, meta and/or naval-gazing, it’s only due to my failure to effectively communicate Darnielle’s feat. Wolf in White Van is deceptively simple, elegantly designed and plainly and powerfully written.

Upon finishing the final, devastating page, I spent the next half hour re-reading key portions of the book.  I’ve returned to it several times since.  The further away I get from completing it, the more this book unpacks itself in my mind, revealing new layers and concepts, undiscovered feats and treasures.  Wolf in White Van is stunning.

* I should mention that Darnielle is the creative force and lead singer of the Mountain Goats, a band I’ve only vaguely heard of and have never actually heard

** There is undoubtedly an apt music metaphor to be used here. I’m not the guy to come up with it 

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A great book isn’t always a great book

Despite our booksellers sharing varying degrees of a defining trait—the love of and belief in the importance of books—it is rare that any one book engenders consensus and fervor among any critical mass of the staff.  We all love books, but we don’t all love the same books.

 

This state has been upended a bit recently, as many of us at The Booksellers at Laurelwood have gone wild over Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (of which the third and final installment, Acceptance, was released last week). These books are maybe a little sci-fi, kiiiiinda horror and very much a mystery, but not at all a mystery mystery. They are all these genres, yet truly none of them. They are compelling, weird, unsettling and beautiful in their way. They are a strange grunting and clicking and rustling you hear in a dark, wooded area, the “what the…?” you get that raises your hairs, puckers your flesh and makes you think—“is it possible?”—you still hear its movements hours later within the comfort of your home.

 

They’re fantastic. A half dozen Booksellers agree. There is real excitement here about Vandermeer’s trilogy.

 

But, as great as they are, even the biggest fans among us know they are not for everyone. Truthfully, they aren’t for most. They challenge. They unnerve. They don’t always explain. They instill existential dread. They are sui generis.  

 

Those for whom the book is right, however, will be blown away. To wit: a Bookseller recommended it to a regular customer who he thought would appreciate it. The customer left with the first book, returned later that night for the second installment and, having devoured them both in one day, returned the following day to get the last book in the trilogy.

 

This is what independent bookstores offer that big box chains and the online behemoth that sells books as commodities don’t: we don’t care about just putting a book in your hands. We care about putting the right book in your hands.  We listen to your wants and understand the particular tastes of our customers and do our best to hand-curate an inventory that meets your needs and maintains the ability to surprise and delight you with something you didn’t expect.

 

Over the last decade, the U.S. has seen an explosion of independent brewers and bakers and artisanal craftsmakers creating and selling niche products to meet niche tastes. The healthy growth among independent bookstores over the last three years can’t fully be tied to the same craft movement. Catering to the needs of our particular local customer base is what we’ve always tried to do.

 

Maybe customer appreciation is growing for what is special and unique about independent bookstores: that we understand that you, in your reading tastes, are special and unique. In that way, we’ve always been stocking and selecting for and selling to a niche market: the niche market of you.

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How One Book Can Change Your Life

We want to share with you all, our book-loving family, a letter from one of the most passionate booksellers this store has ever known, Steve Corrigan. We hope it means as much to you as it does to us.

Steve

When my brother handed me a copy of The Stranger, he told me it was a book I should read.  He was not in the habit of selecting books for me, so I realized the importance he placed on this one.

I was nineteen at the time, a sophomore in college.  The last thing I needed was another book to read.  I had enough textbook assignments to keep me busy for weeks.  Besides that, reading ranked low on my list of priorities.  I had never read anything which was not required of me in the classroom.

My brother was no different than me. So what was he up to?  What could The Stranger have to tell me?

So, after the obligatory insults–“What’s this you’re giving me?  A book?  Are you feeling alright?  Do you have a fever?  Getting delirious in your old age?  — I opened the cover to see what was inside.

I did not put the book down until I had completed it.  Its pace gripped me.  Its power stunned me.  I sat cross-legged on the edge of the bed, as if shell-shocked, immobile, after closing the cover for several seconds.  I had never read anything like it.

It was a relief I felt.  Yes, relief.  I was not alone.  Someone else was driven by similar thoughts which drove me.  I felt more sane that night than ever before.  One could think such things and not be mad.

There in that strange tale of a man who commits a reasonless murder under an indifferent sun and is convicted, not for his crime, but because he did not cry at his mother’s funeral and because he had no belief in God.  I heard a familiar voice, a voice of the stranger within myself, that spoke of my mind’s same preoccupations.  It was not the stranger’s thoughts I identified with, but the writer’s.

Camus became my spiritual father.  I sought him out in other books, reading first his novels and his short stories, then his plays and what essays I could understand.  I studied his photographs on the back covers, pouring over his notebook, sober-faced, cigarette in hand, eyes set on some Faustian haunt.  It was this photograph which first taught me that from his writing was unquestionably serious business.  Was it not the writer’s duty to keep civilization from destroying itself.

From Camus I went to Sartre, Hesse, Kafka.  I was neglecting my studies for a different education, what to me was a more pertinent education.  I can not say I understood much of what I read.  In retrospect I would say I misunderstood more than I did not, but the trend was set.  It was from that day to the present that a self education was my intention.  One book led to another until I had little time for anything else.  I might take wing with one author after another, the loftiest praise I could manage for whomsoever I might be reading at the time, but I always came back to Camus, if only to re-read a passage here and there.

It was years later that my sister found the book.  She had been helping to remodel a waterbed store in which she worked, and the book was lying amidst all the debris on a back shelf.  The Modern Library edition of The Stranger, due at the Memphis Highland Street Library in October, 1966.  It was then the spring of 1980.  Fourteen years lost.  Fourteen years abandoned to a dusty shelf.

My sister knew my fondness for the book and was quick to let me know of her find. She, too, read the book and passed it onto several friends.  When it was returned to her, rather hastily I might add, her friends were unimpressed, she decided to keep it rather than return it to the library.  She not only liked the text, but the size of the book as well as the feel of it in her hands.  It would make a handsome addition to her paperback collection.

From there it traveled where she traveled, from Memphis to Springfield, from Springfield to New Orleans.  All the while it occupied the same space on her shelf, unread.  No better off now than its fourteen year hiatus, except that it’s dust was periodically removed.

One night as I was writing her a letter I mentioned the book and asked her to bring it back to Memphis with her the next time she came.  I said something to the effect that her doing so would please Camus.  I sealed the letter and mailed it.

The next morning I scoffed at myself for what I had done.  “You don’t know Camus”, I told myself.  “How do you know what would or would not please him?”  But my words were in transit to New Orleans.

My sister’s letters back to me over the months said nothing of the matter, so it was forgotten.  Or, at least, it seemed to have been.

This past Christmas while visiting New Orleans my sister handed me a wrapped package.  Inside was the lost copy of The Stranger.  I was to take it back to Memphis with me.  My sister thought it would be amusing for me to hand the book to the librarian so as to witness the reaction.  And was not a prize given each year for that book returned which was longest overdue?

But I wanted neither praise nor prizes. And what reaction the librarian would have I could more vividly imagine than witness.  I simply wanted this book, which had meant so much to me, to be given the chance to reach another mind.  There is something depressing to me about seeing a book resting on a dusty shelf.  It should always be in transit toward another mind.

So, I dropped the book after library hours into the curbside bin for the librarian to find the next morning.  It pleased me to know that, ridiculous as it sounds, uafter eighteen years The Stranger had finally made it back home.

It was something I felt I owed to Camus.  More, it was something I felt I owed to the next reader who would pick up the book, open the cover, and look inside.  Perhaps, he or she, would begin that fantastic journey of the mind I am still traveling, would know as well, the relief I felt at hearing that familiar voice.

Au revoir, L’Etranger
Until we meet again.

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Down with “guilty pleasures”! Hooray for guilty pleasures!

I’m on a crusade. “Crusade” might be over-selling it. Let’s just say it falls somewhere on the spectrum between “pet peeve” and “life’s calling”.

I don’t like guilty pleasures. Actually, I don’t like the idea of “guilty pleasures.” Precisely, I don’t like labeling things as “a guilty pleasure.”

At the store, I frequently have customers preemptively dismiss their soon-to-be purchase with a half-shrug, an apologetic grin and the explanation that their book selection is a “guilty pleasure.”  OK?

This interaction speaks to possible two dynamics. One:  the person genuinely feels guilty about reading whatever his or her “guilty pleasure” is. If you enjoy it—if it brings you pleasure—(required caveat: and it’s not breaking laws or hurting others) why feel guilty?

Do you feel like you should be reading the classics or something else? I’d certainly recommend trying new things in literature and non-fiction. Variety and possibility are the calling cards of books—there’s no limit to what you can learn about and how many fictional worlds on which you can vacation your brain.  There’s no race and no one is keeping score. Read what you’re in the mood for. You can get to the other stuff later.

The second possible dynamic in the need to proclaim something as a “guilty pleasure” is that you feel that someone–a friend, a fellow customer or bookseller–is judging you for your selection. I know with certainty that we Booksellers don’t want you to feel guilty about anything you’ve selected. We’re not a staff of literary snobs. Not by far. There are scores of really good books—sci-fi, romance, horror, western—that are of zero interest to me. They’re not my thing. That’s fine. We’ve all got our things.

I’m loathe to speak for others, but as Booksellers we’re not here to shame you into taking your medicine or judging you for eating that third cupcake. We love cupcakes. We really just want to help you get what you want and help you find what you’ll love when you don’t know what you want.

So come into Booksellers and pick out your pleasure. Leave the guilt at home.

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The best day of the week

Yesterday was my favorite day of the week. It was a Monday, though its Mondayness had no bearing on its lofty appellation. It was no holiday. It held no special personal significance. It is a day of the week that is beholden to no accepted calendar. In fact, its frequency varies—it comes around every 3, 5, 8, 14 days…I’m never really sure.

Yesterday I finished a book. It was a fine little allegorical literary mystery set against the backdrop of Hollywood’s Golden Age and WWII, Out There in the Dark, by Wesley Strick. Finishing the book wasn’t what made the day enjoyable. I liked the book.

No. Yesterday, the best day of my week, was the day I spent thinking about what I was going to read next.

It’s my brain’s Christmas Eve. It’s working my finger under the wrapping paper fold of my birthday present. It’s the house lights dimming and the projector throwing that first flicker of light onto the screen of my imagination.  What would I choose to spend the next 3, 5, 8, 14 days immersed in?

Would it be The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders’ deep-dive history into the Victorian Era’s fascination with death and the birth of forensic investigative techniques? Would it be Acceptance, the third and final volume of Jeff Vandermeer’s eerie, unsettling, strangely affecting and wholly unique Southern Reach Trilogy? Maybe J.G. Ballard’s Running Wild, a cult classic I’ve been meaning to read for years and finally ordered for myself? Or perhaps I would stumble upon some completely unknown (to me) and unexpected used book during my shift at Booksellers? That’s how I came into possession of Out There in the Dark. Working here is hazardous and wonderful in that way. Or maybe a colleague would push something into my hands, something I just had to read.

As a lover of books, I have an always-growing to-read pile. All the books there are ones I really, truly want to read. I have more want than I have time. And while I enjoy, to one degree or another, almost every book I read, sometimes…sometimes. Wow!

Sometimes a book shakes me, moves me, spins me around and re-orients me to the world. While I’m often hopeful the next book will be one of those books, they rarely are. It’s what makes them so special. They mostly educate, edify and/or entertain. Not bad consolation.

But never quite knowing what the next book holds. Call it possibility. Call it expectancy. Call it hope. Call it antici-page-tion.

 

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