A child left alone in the World Book, or a father’s priceless gift

World-Book-Encyclopedia-196Books have always been there. As a young child, my father was always reading something. In my Monet-textured memories, it was always an impossibly long, serious-looking text by Herman Wouk or James Michener. My mother reads like she breathes, but I can’t conjure impressions of anything specific she read.

I had just begun elementary school when my parents got divorced. Living with my now-single father, my older brother and I embarked on the exciting new oh-so-‘80’s avocation of “the latchkey kid”. On what now seems (but couldn’t possibly have been) a daily basis, my brother, two-and-a-half years my elder, and I would take our quarter-mile walk down Louisiana highway 28, cars zooming and whooshing by, 50 miles-per-hour, rippling our shirts like flags. Our destination: the Shop-Mor. Our quarry: new comic books. We’d studiously scour the spinner display, bargain and negotiate with each other to pick out the maximum number of comics possible while leaving us with enough money for Hostess Fruit Pies and Dr. Peppers. Sometimes we’d share a soda if we couldn’t reach a consensus on the final comic selection and had to get them both.

Thor sucksAfter making the return trip, my brother and I would sit on the floor, eat our snacks as he read aloud the new superhero adventures we’d selected that day. In my memories, he was always patient and engaged, taking time to define words I didn’t understand and making the effort to explain complex actions and motivations.

While were latchkey kids, my brother and I were never alone. Spider-man, Batman, Wolverine, Nightcrawler and the rest of the X-Men kept us company. Sometimes Iron Man was welcomed. Thor never.

Homework was never difficult for me. Well, *doing* the homework was a chore, but the assignments were rarely taxing. At a certain grade level—3rd, maybe 4th—I began to run into a random word or reference that I didn’t know.

I did what I knew to do. I asked my dad. His answer: “look it up.” Unfailingly. Every time.

I stopped asking. In the hazy, sepia-toned pre-Internet days, when Aristotle, Abe Lincoln and Albert Einstein roamed the earth side by side, the cream-with-forest-green trim and gold-embossed lettering World Book Encyclopedias answered my questions. Unfailingly. Every time.

Books had the answers.

120minutes1

As I got older, card catalogs, reference books and, then, primary texts were required for my school work. That comprised my reading. For fun, there were girls and video games, parties and movies, friends and MTV. The answers to the kinds of questions I had as a teenager seemed, at the time, unlikely to be found in books.

College rudely introduced a strange new calculus into my life: I was half as smart as I thought I was and I’d have to work at least twice as hard at school as I had ever previously. The reading required for my coursework seemed impossible. After some freshman year trial-and-error, I worked out a formula for success, figuring out which reading I needed to do and which I could skip.

mushroom clud

My sophomore year, I met a kindred spirit who insisted I read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Wow. It literally made me see the world differently. It blew up some inherited beliefs about the world, redefined what I thought fiction could teach me and reignited a passion for reading. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, assigned reading for a class, had a similar impact.

Offred and Arturo Binewski (and Bigger Thomas and Ignatius J. Reilly and Owen Meany and others) guided a sheltered, parochial, small-town young man into a wider, complicated, amazing world of possibility.

barnyard

Reading before bedtime was sacrosanct. It was ritual. As important to my son and me as teeth-brushing and Monkey (the stuffed monkey) locating. Goodnight Moon shone and waned. Ferdinand the Bull had his day in the sun, then retired to underneath the cork tree where he is still smelling flowers to this day. The Cat in the Hat and The Sneetches shared their tricks, starred-off and starred-on, returned to the beaches and that was that. Lemony Snicket’s Baudelaire children introduced serialized storytelling to my son, after which he quickly discovered platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station where he was whisked away, solo, to Hogwarts.

The nightly reading ritual was no less important when my daughter came along. There were the classics from her brother’s library, but most loved of all was Sandra Boynton: Pajama Time, Birthday Monsters and, especially, Barnyard Dance. These were moments of reverie, pure joy.

But at the same time, my marriage was dissolving. We’d entered into a well-choreographed dance of resentment and evasion. Nothing was said, but much needed to be talked about. Much was said, but nothing was talked about. I avoided going home when I could get away with it. I worked too much, drank too much and slept too little. An ad hoc marching band took up residence in my head. My relief came at night, when the kids were in bed and I could escape into the world of Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson’s series provided escape. His world was grim and dark, but the enemies were clear and, most importantly, the weren’t me.

take-it

My kids have learned in the last (almost) two years I’ve worked at Booksellers that Dad is always looking to foist books on them. I think they’re appreciative. At times I think they might find it too…insistent. I just want them to associate reading with pleasure (as schools are good at turning it into a joyless chore). If I can give my kids a gift, I hope it’s a love of reading. Their loneliness will be mitigated, Their boredom banished. Their passports stamped and curiosity unslaked.

I know how important books have been through my life. As company. As a resource. As a guide, an educator, and entertainer. As a forger of bonds. As escape.

Books have always been there.

So thanks mom and big brother. Thanks Peter Parker and Wolverine. Thanks Offred and Arty. Thanks Munro Leaf, Dr. Seuss and Sandra Boynton. Thanks J.K Rowling and Stieg Larsson.

Most of all, thanks, Dad. Answers can be found in books. I’m still looking it up.

Happy Father’s Day.

thanks dad

Posted in Books Booksellers Authors Reading | Leave a comment

It’s here! The book that possessed our booksellers, or “the next Gone Girl”…for real this time.

here

“The next Gone Girl!!!”

This breathless promise found in countless book blurbs over the last few years has largely been an empty one. Any female-penned, dark-ish twisty mystery/thriller can find someone willing to compare it to Gillian Flynn’s runaway best-seller. This year, one finally lived up to the hype, at least in terms of sales. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train hit shelves with “the next Gone Girl” buzz and surpassed the eight weeks at the top of the N.Y. Times hardcover fiction bestsellers list that Flynn’s book notched.

Iceberg

But I’d argue that The Girl on the Train compares to Gone Girl only in the most superficial ways. Both books were fun and twisty and were told from multiple characters’ perspectives, which were unreliable to varying degrees.

What made Gone Girl stand out, however, was its unique point of view. Flynn tapped into a particular vein of narcissism in the culture—everyone deserves to be a star and our mediated culture requires an endless supply of new ones to serve up to a hungry populace. Instead of putting the reader outside the story, at a safe distance from which we could sit in judgment, Flynn (to misappropriate Sheryl Sandberg) leans in to Nick and Amy Dunne’s awfulness and makes us participate, even revel, in their nastiness. The hyper-reality Flynn creates makes relatability possible even when we actively reject identifying with either of the ghastly leads. We’re secretly thrilled by Amy’s awful genius even as we pity the hapless and contemptible man-boy Nick. This tension gives Gone Girl its special pop.

The Girl on the Train was fun. It was no Gone Girl.

Phrenology-journal

On Tuesday, my personal vote for “next Gone Girl” hit shelves. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, in no way evokes Gone Girl. At least not on a superficial level.

While my bookselling comrades may or may not agree with my comparisons to Gone Girl, they will agree on Ghost‘s merits. When we received the galleys in February, this one spread like a rumor, like poison ivy, like 17th century hysteria. The converted didn’t share recommendations, we begged and issued ultimatums.

head full of ghosts

A Head Full of Ghosts is a story about 14-year old Marjorie Barrett who is either emotionally troubled or possessed by a demonic spirit. At the end of their rope, both emotionally and financially, the Barretts agree to have TLC film a reality show about their daughter’s possession and exorcism.

An incisive, thoroughly of-the-moment psychological horror story, A Head Full of Ghosts is creepy, high-wire suspense, as well as trenchant social critique. Is Marjorie schizophrenic, possessed by an evil spirit, or simply a deviously manipulative and troubled adolescent? The pervasive miasma of dread that hangs over A Head Full of Ghosts is pierced by well-crafted (and well-timed) jolts, as well as the pointed observations and (often) unintended humor of Tremblay’s remarkably well-drawn and fully-fleshed narrator, Merry Barrett, the troubled Marjorie’s little sister.

While horror fans should love A Head Full of Ghosts, it is so much more than another genre entry.

Like Flynn, Paul Tremblay delivers a twisty, jolting funride born from a definite, coherent point of view. Ghosts has something resonant to say about our current culture. Perhaps the only thing scarier than the horrors Tremblay conjures are people immune to or unable to see the real horrors served up.

Embrace or ignore the “horror” designation, just don’t let it keep you away. A Head Full of Ghosts is so, so smart and about the most fun read I’ve come across in a while…probably since I read Gone Girl.

What Was I Scared Of - cover

Posted in Books Booksellers Authors Reading | 1 Comment

Author photos, personal dirt and reader bias, or the things they carried to “The Things They Carried”

Who_Are_You_album_coverDavid Foster Wallace once wrote in the margins of a self-help book he owned that “Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr’s end, as it were.”

Reading this admission yesterday, recounted by DFW biographer D.T. Max in a 2012 article from The Atlantic, thrilled me. Besides its obvious cleverness, I find the idea that Foster was trying to impress Karr with Infinite Jest genuinely poignant.The_Show_Off_poster

The fact that I knew the broad strokes of their relationship from reading Karr’s magnificent addiction memoir Lit certainly contributed to my delight in this nugget. But the very idea that Wallace wrote a 1000+ page masterpiece fueled by the desire to show (or show off for) Karr that he was capable of significant work provides such an unexpectedly human glimpse into his creative life. Being familiar with the furiously intelligent and exhilarating talent of Mary Karr, I can understand why Wallace felt that nothing short of a grand-scale masterpiece would catch her eye.

Infinite Jest has long been a literary Mt. Everest for me. It has called to me, but I’ve never felt quite ready to tackle it. This new-to-me origin story makes me more intent than ever to read it.

One thing is for certain: whenever I get around to reading it, Wallace’s motivation vis-à-vis Karr will remain lodged in the forefront of my reading mind throughout. While every word in Infinite Jest remains exactly the same as it was before I learned of this information, the knowledge about DFW’s thinking when writing it will inevitably change what I read.

selloutAt approximately the page 5 mark in The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s new Molotov cocktail of a novel, I flipped to back of the dust jacket in search of an author photo.

I’ll let Dwight Garner’s review in the N.Y. Times explain:

“The first 100 pages of his new [Beatty’s] novel, The Sellout, are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt

‘Badass’ is not the most precise critical term. What I mean is that the first third of The Sellout reads like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility.”

The broken-bottle sharpness of the racial satire should have come as no surprise: the book’s cover is a pattern of “lawn jockey” figurines, those relics from more overt and less inviting times. But still.

The Sellout is biting, scathing, take-no-prisoners criticism hitting on most every form of racist act, from lynching, to blackface to redlining to respectability politics to microaggressions. It is sharp AND blunt and unrelenting. It’s hilarious and discomfiting. It’s excellent and should be required reading, but is definitely not for everyone.

So why did I feel the need to check the author photo?

on-dangerous-ground-movie-poster-1951-1020311572Philosophically, I fall into the post-structuralist camp of criticism: an author’s intent is often impossible to determine in absolutely objective terms and is, frankly, irrelevant to the reader’s experience, i.e., each reader constructs his or her own subjective meaning of a work.

We all bring our own personal knowledge and experiences and biases to a book. Our knowledge about the author, and our biases and predispositions towards that knowledge, are very much a part of that baggage. Thus, what we know and believe about the author invariably affects what and how we read his/her work. Why did Joanne Rowling adopt the ungenderd “J.K.” as her pen name (as just one example of literature’s extensive history of female writers adopting male noms de plume)? Why does Rush Limbaugh put his name and proudly dyspeptic newborn face on the cover of his children’s books? Why do the covers of romance novels not look like the covers of horror novels?

Every level in the book trade has preconceptions, shared wisdom and data-driven assumptions about the biases and expectations readers bring to books. That’s why the old chestnut of “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is wildly incorrect. Perhaps without even realizing it, we judge book covers all the time and, I’d argue, do so fairly accurately, at least as far as determining which books aren’t of interest to us.

In this way, our biases are time-saving and helpful.

But what about when we know little-to-nothing about the author? Is it “helpful” for me to know that Paul Beatty is African American? Is it helpful for me to know that lust, spite, envy and ego fueled the writing of Infinite Jest?

wizfound

In my college creative writing classes, we were forbidden from offering the Roman emperor thumbs up/thumbs down assessment of any work. “I did/did not like it” was not an acceptable critique. I was taught to think about any piece in terms of what I felt worked and what I felt didn’t work. This critical framework was extended to all my reading and expanded and refined the more I read.

Thus, knowledge about an author is neither helpful nor unhelpful to me as a reader. What I do with that knowledge is what ultimately matters. I must be aware of the biases I bring to everything I read. Failing to do so creates blinders to the cultures, experiences, points of view and emotions the author is presenting.

In order for me to fully appreciate a work on its own terms, it is far more important for me to have knowledge about the reader—myself—than about the author. While this self-reflection may seem pointless and solipsistic to some, as a lover of books and someone who wants to get absolutely everything out of them I can, I find it necessary…a means to an end, as it were.

Posted in Books Booksellers Authors Reading | Leave a comment

Low-brow high dudgeon, or looking to David Lynch for perspective

At times I feel like the the scrivener equivalent of the swallows of Capistrano. But within my mental landscape, there are very few fallows patches that I’m unwilling to revisit for additional treading. So come along/bear with me.

dead_horse_point_state_park05-copy

This week, the actor Simon Pegg gave an interview where he questioned what the current prevalence and popularity of genre cinema is doing to our collective emotional maturity.

“… Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.

It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.

Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

A character actor pontificating rarely inspires me to weigh in, but I found the amount and nature of the coverage of his comments interesting. Most interestingly, to me at least, is that much of the reporting reached back to February to dredge up Jonathan Franzen’s much-fulminated upon interview with the literary magazine Booth. The quote that, at the time, spurred a hundred Hot Takes in the literary blogosphere, and was exhumed from the ever-shallower grave of internet kerfuffles for the Pegg imbroglio was:

“Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes.”

The Defenders of Genre Fiction emptied their quivers to take down Franzen for his intellectual dressage. Their lines of attack, just as those going after Pegg this week, were multiple: genre fiction is worthy for the simplicity with which it deals with morality; genre fiction is, in fact, morally complex; genre fiction is more morally complex than literally fiction; Jonathan Franzen is a high-brow snob who is jealous that he doesn’t make blockbuster money; etc.

eye rolIt’s all so familiar and all so predictable.

So, as I warned from the start, I must return to my well-trod patch on the subject: I’ve got no truck with book snobs. Yet, I absolutely agree with what Franzen was saying in the above quote. To be clear, I’m not saying that “YA”, by definition, equates with “moral simplicity”. But, most YA and most popular fiction is certainly not morally complex. The most popular commercial fiction, by-and-large, is built from a palette of primary colors. Good guys are good and bad guys are bad. Motives are clear and desired outcomes are well-defined.

pitchforkWhat the saber-rattling about the Franzen and Pegg’s quotes is all about is the inferred (or, perhaps, implied) judgment that there is only value in the complex or high-brow. This may be absolutely how they view the matter, though Franzen makes a point of expressing an understanding for why readers may not want moral complexity.

I make a habit of avoiding trying to peer into the hearts of my fellow man to divine their true motives. I try to take what they say at face value and will certainly extend that benefit of the doubt to Franzen and Pegg.

What I do take exception to, however, is the world of hair-trigger outrage and the cultural zero-sum game we seem to be living in.

Why do you read? Seriously think about that.

Guess what? Your answer is 100% correct.

There is no wrong answer to that question. There is also no one, correct answer. I read for my reasons. You read for your reasons and all our reasons are fine.

Swiss-Army-knife-3

I believe that I would miss out on something potentially life-changing if I didn’t challenge myself in my reading. That my quality of life is enhanced by the more points of view and complexity and experiences I get in my reading. But I also believe that this is not the case for everyone. Some want edification. Some want fun. Some want comfort. Some want escape.

I stumbled upon a quote from Franz Kafka that really captured why I read what I read:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

I find the quote beautiful and prescriptive for me. I don’t believe, as Kafka does, that “we” should only read these types books. I’ll read what I want. You read what you want. As a bookseller, it’s my job—my pleasure—to get you the book you want, even (or especially) when you don’t know what that book is. There’s plenty of book goodness to go around.

When is comes to books–really most things in life–I take a page from David Lynch (no, not that one)

in heaven

Books are heaven.

Posted in Books Booksellers Authors Reading | Leave a comment

A bookseller beside himself, or “Hey booksellers, eat your heart out”

I’m completely in the bag for Lyndsay Faye.

She grabbed me in 2012 with her Edgar Award-nominated The Gods of Gotham. I went back and read her first book, the witty and propulsive Sherlock Holmes mystery, Dust and Shadow, and found it a worthy homage to and, frankly, more enjoyable than anything by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Gods of Gotham sequel, 2013’s Seven for a Secret was every bit as good as its predecessor.

When I was given my own bookcase endcap in the store where I can show off my favorite reads, The Gods of Gotham was the first one I picked. Its follow-up also earned its shelf space there.

The third installment of her trilogy, The Fatal Flame, came out yesterday and, having read it months ago, I can tell you it’s Faye’s best yet.

Lyndsay Faye, author of some of my absolute favorite books is coming to Booksellers this Sunday, May 17. If you’re looking for me between now and then, find the guy who looks like me and then look a pace-and-a-half to the left.

There I’ll be.

Beside myself.

Her novels put me under a spell of transportation, immersing me into her deeply-researched but fictional world of 1840’s New York City populated with complex, fully-formed, fully-human characters.

When I tell you Lyndsay Faye is terrific, you should believe me. But if you knew the whole story you’d have reason to question my objectivity.

D8te4

Here’s the whole story.

Last December, I picked up a shift on a Friday, my usual day off. I’d noticed a woman and a man with arms full of books mulling about the mystery section of the store. As I was heading past, the woman , arms-laden with more than a dozen books, began walking towards me, flashing me that “I’m about to ask you a weird question” look as we made eye contact. As we slowed to a stop, she tentatively asked, “Are you Matt?”

My brain meat facial-recognition firmware furiously clicked through possible matches and landed on a highly improbable option that stupidly spilled out of my mouth before I could stop it.

Are you…Lyndsay Faye?”

Pop! Her face brightened as she confirmed my impossible thought: Lyndsay Faye was in my bookstore.

I’ll confess that at this point, my higher brain functions shut down and I lost access to most of my memory. The details are hazy, but I think it’s something like this: she was in town to give a talk at a local school. The professor who invited her had been in the store looking for a copy of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. He happened to find it in my picks endcap, set right along The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret. After Faye’s talk, the professor suggested they come by the local independent bookstore because one of its employees was a big fan of hers.

So they did.

Lyndsay Faye came into Booksellers.

To. See. Me.

After enduring my dumb grinning and incoherent babbling, Faye couldn’t haven’t been more generous. She spent 20 minutes just chatting with me about her work, about books, about other things I don’t remember. She was charming, gracious and most of all, genuinely appreciative of my support and love of her work.

Really, it was the kind of interaction a bookseller dreams of, meeting their favorite author and finding him or her as interesting and funny and personable and appreciative as you’d hope. I couldn’t have possible asked for more.

But there’s more.tumblr_n4o3erkg3K1qewacoo2_500

During our conversation, I’d told Lyndsay how I’d already told her how I’ve been pestering my publisher representative for an advanced readers copy of her new book. She told me that the first ARCs were coming in the next couple of weeks and that she’d make sure I get a copy. She also mentioned how much she liked our store. I don’t remember if I suggested it or she did, but the idea of her coming to the store for a signing after The Fatal Flame‘s publication was discussed. She said she’d love to but she normally only tours the big mystery bookstores around the country (New York, Portland, Seattle, etc.) so she’d have to talk to her publicist.

Several weeks later, I arrived at work to find a bulky envelop in my mailbox. It was an ARC of The Fatal Flame. It was sent personally by Lynsday Faye, complete with a nice personalized inscription. A day later, Faye’s publicist contacted the store’s events coordinator saying that Lyndsay really wanted to come to the store for a signing. Were we interested?

Were we interested?

This was above-and-beyond. She stopped by the store and absolutely made my bookseller day (year? career?). She follow-up with an autographed advanced copy of her book. She took a detour from her book tour to come to my workplace for a signing.

Where Lyndsay Faye the author captured me in a spell of transportation, Lyndsay Faye the person brought me to heel with a charm potion.

I’m in the bag for Lyndsay Faye.

SnakeCharmer_JohnDownerGettyImages

So here we are and now you know the whole story.

So I could go on and on telling you how Lyndsay Faye is a master of elegantly weaving rich historical detail and context into the story. Show she paints such an evocative picture of 1840’s New York City that we’re able to understand and feel the human-scale consequences of the culture and institutions that comprise the era. That we, for example, get to understand what it means to be a woman at that time, where life options are essentially binary: marry or struggle not to starve to death. How instead of having characters that play out and/or stand in as archetypes and symbols of a conflict of the period, Faye creates fully-fleshed characters that act within and outside the culture’s framework. These characters are humans, not symbols. This allows for complexity and results, in Faye’s hands, in true emotional payoffs.

I could go on. But after sharing with you my experience, it would be reasonable for you to question my objectivity.

If you’re a fan of literary mysteries, historical fiction or just well-written hero stories that immerse you in another world, you should come to Booksellers this Sunday at 3:00.

I’ll be here…beside myself. I hope to see you next to me (next to me).

fatal flame

Since you may think me hopelessly not objective on the merits of Lyndsay Faye’s work, I’ve enlisted two of my colleagues who love her books to weigh in”

Kat Leache:  Within the first chapter or two of The Gods of Gotham, Faye will introduce you to at least three complex and unforgettable characters who you will only charm and fascinate you more as the trilogy progresses. Its well-crafted historical mystery plot will make you want to turn the pages quickly, but the unique and endearing perspective of first-person narrator Timothy Wilde will keep your pace steady, as you won’t want to miss a single turn of phrase. A fascinating portrayal of 1840s Manhattan to boot, I would recommend Gods of Gotham to almost anyone.

Karen Tallant: Lyndsay Faye’s Gods Of Gotham has it’s feet firmly planted in history, while it’s head and heart are filled with beautifully drawn characters.  It’s as complex, brutal and richly drawn as the period of New York History it depicts. This book is bold and unflinching; vividly portraying good and evil breathtaking measure.

Posted in Books Booksellers Authors Reading | Leave a comment

You don’t love your job as much as I love mine, or Ode on Independents

cog

Corporate Human Resources (HR) departments across the U.S. are (by in large) staffed with well-meaning professionals trying to make sure their workplaces are fair and rewarding. They are also producers of an ever-changing and never-ending stream of lies.

I know this first-hand. For more than a decade, I was the one crafting these distortions, evasions and deflections for a number of companies.

Last Saturday, was National Independent Bookstore Day across the country. At Booksellers, we had events and exclusive giveaways for our customers throughout the day. One such event, was a new “book thing”–Grawl!x, a book talk, a discussion, a presentation, a convocation–I’d conceived to provide book lovers a sneak peek and the low-down on a hand-picked selection of upcoming and recent off-beat literary fiction.  Despite Mother Nature being overly-compliant, offering up the kind of Memphis May day that Keats would have written odes on, many of our customers came out during the day to show their support, with two handfuls coming specifically for the “book thing”.

The feedback I’ve gotten from those who came to Grawl!x has been terrific. The group was not a large one, but they were engaged, open for discussion and interested in extending the group to start a monthly book club. We decided on the premise of the “In Case You Missed It” Book Club*, where we’ll read and meet to discuss books we’ve long been told we should read, but haven’t yet. I’ve never been in a book club. I’ve never found one that read the types of things I was interested in. I’m looking forward to this.

*Find ICYMI Book Club details at the bottom

Grawl!x was everything I hoped it would be: a coming together of passionate readers looking for and wanting to talk about the kinds of books I love.

Popeye1

It’s perhaps harsh to name “untruths” as HR departments’ chief export. Having worked closely with a variety of HR departments and advised them on the best way (i.e., most effective for producing desired outcomes) to communicate various policies, initiatives, changes, etc., I’d contend that my assertion, while bracing, is true. I never worked or consulted for a company that cared more about its employees (or customers, or workplace, or reputation, or products, etc.) than its profit. All every message related to employees-”we care about our employees”, “we value teamwork”, “we encourage ingenuity and entrepreneurship”, etc.–was freighted with the silent addendum “to the extent it aids in the maximization of profit.”

This is neither an indictment nor a complaint. It’s like the frog and the scorpion. You can’t sensibly blame the scorpion for being a scorpion.

whistle

While National Independent Bookstore Day was designed to celebrate and draw attention to the value an independent bookstore brings to a community, for me, it drove home the joy and fulfillment that working for an independent bookstore provides.

I love being a bookseller. I find it more rewarding in every possible way (except financially…our wages are equal parts legal U.S. tender and magic beans) than any other job I’ve had. My time working for an independent bookstore has brought into sharp relief the great pains and expense large companies go to to mollify their employees with comforting and inspiring verbal palliatives.

Most companies tell their employees that they value teamwork and creativity. That they encourage the entrepreneurial spirit. That customers come first. In my experience, these are not strictly untrue. They are ideals (usually unrealized ideals, as employees at these companies would often voice).

Working for an independent bookstore, however, I’m experiencing these ideals in practice. The composition and content for the Grawl!x “book thing” and the ICYMI book club were 100% me. I wanted to try it because, from my conversations with many Booksellers customers, I thought that it would be something a certain subset would enjoy and appreciate. The store not only allowed it, they gave me the full support of the marketing team and the time to do it. Anything I needed to make this happen, they (and the terrific publisher representatives, like Kate McCune from HarperCollins, Melissa Weisberg at Macmillan and Johanna Hynes at Perseus Books Group who keep me well-stocked in terrific books) provided. Some of my fellow booksellers came in on their day off to be part of it. Bookseller patrons who attended seemed to enjoy it. I’m fairly sure I enjoyed it more.

After more than a decade of helping numerous organizations tell their employees how much they’re valued and appreciated for their initiative, creativity and teamwork, it’s an entirely different experience to work somewhere where those ideals are day-to-day reality.

monopoly-man

Sure, the stakes are lower than the world of international business (though we are talking about books; what’s more important than books?). In some ways, perhaps, I’m being unfair to the corporate world and their HR professionals. They’re only doing what they feel needs to be done to serve their business interests. I’m not here to castigate or be a fly on the corporate elephant’s hind hide.

This is a celebration on the joys of independence that come with working for an independent bookstore. It’s a joy I carry most days, a joy I hope to pass along to you.

And that, my book-loving friends, is the truth.

scouts-honor_2

About the “In Case You Missed It” Book Club

I read like a shark: constant movement forward. Even those of you who are less rapacious readers than I am, certainly have your own never-shrinking “to-read” pile. With all the good books constantly coming out each month, it’s impossible to keep up with every book you want to read, much less go back and get to the ones you really wanted to read last month, or last year or ten years ago.

The “In Case You Missed It” Book Club was conceived as a forced pause in the constant forward reading momentum. We’re looking to read those classics (cult or otherwise) people have been telling you that you just must read but can never seem to find the time. The first selection chosen by the group was THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, the long-banned/censored Mikhail Bulgakov classic of Stalin-era Russia.

If you’re interested, come by the store and pick up a copy (be sure to let the bookseller conducting your transaction know it’s for the ICYMI Book Club, so you’ll receive 20% off). Future book club selections will be solicited from the group. We’re still working on the details (days/times/locations/etc.) for the first meeting where we’ll discuss THE MASTER AND MARGARITA and pick the next selection. Stay tuned here, the store’s Facebook page and website for information. We hope you’ll join us.

Posted in Books Booksellers Authors Reading | Leave a comment

A handy bookseller translation guide

Last night, 8:50 p.m.: While returning the phone handset to its casing, the 10-minutes-to-close intercom announcement complete, a woman bounds into the store. She immediately locks eyes and strides with purpose towards the register, her slightly open-mouthed smile leading the way, the drum major for her wide-eyed, expectant face. It’s the face of someone about to reunite with a long-lost friend.

Clearly Eager Woman: Do you have the new Greg Iles book?

Me: You bet!

I walk around the register and pick up a copy from the nearby pedestal point-of-purchase display. She takes the book in a two-handed grip, stares at it for a moment like a new graduate eyeing her diploma, simultaneously covetous and content. She then casually brings the book to her chest in a near-embrace.

Clearly Eager Woman: I’ve been waiting for today [The Bone Tree’s publication] since I finished Natchez Burning? Did you read it!?

Me: No. I didn’t read that one, but people really loved it.

Clearly Eager Woman: Ohhhhhh. It was so good. I love Greg Iles. Have you ever read him?

Me: I’ve only read one of his b–

Clearly Eager Woman: Which one?!

Me: Turning Angel. It—

Clearly Eager Woman: Oh! That was a good one! You should really read Natchez Burning.

Me: I don’t really read much in the mystery/thriller genre…

Clearly Eager Woman: Oh, but his books are so good. If you like to read, you should really read him.

While conducting her purchase, the woman continued extolling the virtues of Iles’ works—the mystery, the sense of history in the setting, etc. Transaction complete, she flashed a “see-ya-later” grin and made for the exit with geometric efficiency, off to share a wondrous evening reuniting with her friends.

* * *

To the uninitiated, this conversation is straightforward, requiring no further thought, certainly no deep analysis. Practitioners of the bookselling arts, however, recognize that things are being said between the lines.

This unremarkable, utterly everyday conversation spurred my thoughts that you, dear readers, might benefit from a handy bookseller translation guide. I bring you this at risk of my suspension—or possible excommunication—from the Secret Order of the Bookseller (what? it’s a thing). But in service to you, I will take that risk.

* * *

Before we get into this, I’m compelled to provide an operational framework for understanding the arcane knowledge that follows. First, a bookseller is only trying to make sure you get the right book for you. We’re in no way incentivized to get you something you don’t want. If you know what you want—whatever that is—we’re thrilled and most happy to get it for you.

Second, while there are perhaps things left unsaid, what is said is in no way untrue. We read. Most of us read a lot. We don’t like everything and we all have different tastes. Something that enraptures you may hold no interest for me. And that certainly holds true the going the other way. None of us want to treat your beloved book or author like the neighborhood opossum, unwelcome in even our trash can. So we deflect or choose to not expound. We’re no book snobs. We want you to love the books you read. Whatever they are.

With that framework established, what follows is an incomplete key to deciphering typical bookseller responses to a couple of common questions.

Question: “Have you read this book?”

Answer: “Yes” or “I did”

Translation: [with no additional context or qualifiers] “I didn’t like it”. (Note: If the book is one we liked, we’ll volunteer more information. If it’s one we really liked, we’ll likely begin effusing or issuing declarations like “you want that book” or offering unequivocal praise like “oh, you picked a good one!” Booksellers love to talk about books they loved. If they liked a book you’re considering, you’ll know it.)

Answer: “I did. It was good, but not for everyone.”

Translation: “I liked it, but I’m warning you: it’s weird/disturbing/violent/difficult/impolitic/etc.”

Answer: “Yeaaaaaaa-uh. It was…interesting…not for everyone…”

Translation: “It was definitely not for me or for anyone I call a friend.”

Answer: “No, I haven’t”

Translation: “No. And I have absolutely no plans to.”

Answer: “It’s been in my ‘to-read’ pile and I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

Translation: “I want to read it and I think I would recommend it, but I haven’t actually read it. Read it and tell me if it needs to move to the top of the pile or if it should be banished from this exalted spot.”

Question: “Do you know anything about this book?”

Answer: “No. I really don’t…”

Translation: “Never seen it before.” or “I’ve seen it, but never seen anyone buy it.”

Answer: “It’s been popular, but I haven’t really heard anything about it.”

Translation: “It’s a book many have bought, but no one has liked enough to ever mention it again.”

Answer: “People seem to love it…”

Translation: “Lots of people are buying it. They seem excited about it.” or “Those who’ve read it seem to really love it.”

Answer: “It’s been popular. You’ll likely enjoy it if you like that kind of thing.”

Translation: “I don’t read ‘that kind of thing’. Those who do are buying it.”

Answer: “I’ve read it.”

Translation: [if unaccompanied by additional qualifiers or explanation] “I’ve read it. Don’t.”

Answer: “Yes. I actually read that.”

Translation: “I didn’t hate it.”

Answer: “Yes. It’s a good one.”

Translation: “Yes. It’s a good one.”

Answer: “Yes. It was really terrific, if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s not for everyone.”

Translation: “It was terrific, but I’m warning you, you may not be into ‘that kind of thing’ and ‘that kind of thing’ may be disturbing or confusing or nonsensical to you. I’m warning you.”

* * *

I hope you find this brief translation primer helpful in getting the most out of your bookseller. One very important note: we need you to be as direct and forthcoming as you want when giving us your feedback on a book. Our recommendations to you are only as good as the information we have on what you liked and didn’t like. Please, if you hated something, tell us you hated it. This helps us better triangulate our recommendations for you.

And, please, please let us know when you loved something, especially if its something we recommended. That’s the best part of the job.

Posted in Books Booksellers Authors Reading | Leave a comment