Bargain, banned and burned books, or watching the smoke, ignoring the Fire


So. This is interesting news for the book world: Amazon opened a bricks-and-mortar store this week.

Yep. The online monolith that sells everything from books to bikes, bath mats to baby wipes, and bytes and bytes of music, movies, e-books, and original TV programming, all online, has decided to open a good, ol’ fashioned bookstore.

As a bookseller at an independent bookstore, I’m not happy. Not because big, bad Amazon, the behemoth with the bookstore body count, is entering our turf.

I’m not happy because the coverage of this story is missing the point. Amazon’s foray isn’t ironic, nor is it a retail curio.

It’s the logical extension of every single thing Amazon does: to strategically insinuate itself into all aspects of consumers’ lives to take a larger share of those consumers’ dollars.


True confession time: this is the post I never wanted to write. I never intended to.

It’s nearly impossible for an independent bookseller to talk about Amazon without sounding like the buggy salesman shaking his fist at Henry Ford.

I’m no Luddite. I’m pro progress. Personally, I’m agnostic on the subject of e-readers, in general. I don’t use one, simply because paper books are more conducive to my lifestyle. I don’t like the planning and care that goes along with maintaining an e-reader. If an e-reader fits your preferences or lifestyle better, then go on and e-read.

At a macro level, I’m pro e-readers. There are parts of the world where it’s impossible, for political, economic or logistical reasons, to get bound books into the hands of people. Technology is wondrous and smartphones, tablets and e-readers open up the possibility to give countless people access to the universe of the written word. This is a good thing.

I’m no book fetishist. Paper and glue and cardboard and twine are physical components of books, but they aren’t the book.   The words and ideas are what make the book. That’s what I care about. They are delivered to me on paper. You get yours delivered how you want them.

I don’t work in a bookstore because I love retail. I am a bookseller because I love books.


What bugs me about this story is how this new venture is being covered: it’s not about the bricks-and-mortar; it’s about the books inside the store.

What Amazon is touting as its competitive difference as a bricks-and-mortar retailer is its very Amazoness:

“We’ve applied 20 years of online book-selling experience to build a store that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping,” Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, said in a statement Monday. “The books in our store are selected based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments.”

While subsequent reports clarify that the store will “consult flesh and blood book experts to curate the selection”, this merely seems to serve the purpose of assuring customers the store won’t be staffed with robotic automatons. It’s unclear, however, if the humans working in the store are the “experts” who “curate” the selection or if they’re flesh-and-blood Amazon automatons directed by some algorithm-based management system.

I don’t dislike Amazon because they’re a competitor. I dislike (and personally boycott) Amazon because they don’t give a flip about books. This isn’t the hermetic rant of an anti-capitalist. It’s fact.

cat raqccoon

Amazon Majordomo Jeff Bezos has made no secret of this. He picked books as the first product offering for Amazon because they were easy to ship, impossible to break and, most importantly, he wanted to gather data on the educated and affluent consumers who were the typical book buyers.

Amazon’s commodification of books was starkly illustrated in it battles with the publishing industry. After years of demanding greater and greater price concessions from publishers, Hachette pushed back. Amazon responded by removing books from Hachette authors from its site. If an Amazon user searched for a title published by Hachette, Amazon would take them to the page for some other, “similar” book. While genre and subject matter filters were likely included in the algorithm to suggest “similar” books, I’m not certain that size, weight, cover color and page count weren’t also included.

For Amazon, one book is as good as another. They are a commodity. That’s why I can’t (and won’t) give Amazon a dime of my money (and their well-documented mistreatment of employees only fortifies my resolve). This is principle, not self-preservation.

faiting couch

When we think of banning books, we think of priggish school marms clutching their pearls and wailing about “the children” or humorless, grim-faced Soviet-style bureaucrats.

In our current times (East Tennessee mothers concerned about teenage boys reading acclaimed history books where a science writer writes clinically about lady parts notwithstanding), the elimination of voices takes a much more subtle form.

Make no mistake, in seeing books as just a commodity like anything else they sell, Amazon’s reach and market penetration enable them to de facto ban books for people who can’t access a local bookstore. As they did with Hachette, they can decide at any moment just to not offer whatever books they don’t want to…or those they don’t make an acceptable (to them) margin off of.

Because, at the end of the day, all Amazon cares about is your money. If they made more money off burning books and delivering the ashes to your door, they would. If they made money off of it, they would deliver buckets of Ebola to you.

In a time when Amazon is focused on ramping up their original TV programming for customers to stream on the same device they use to buy Amazon products, including e-books, a brick-and-mortar store seems an unusual play for them. You’d think they’d prefer for e-books to completely subsume the paper book market.

Their e-reader is, after all, called the “Kindle Fire”.

But, today, Amazon seems to be betting on what we independent bookstores already know: that nothing can replace a neighborhood bookstore staffed with passionate, knowledgeable, gloriously idiosyncratic booksellers.

Amazon’s betting that they have just the formula to replicate that.

I’m betting it’s “similar.”

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[INSERT SIR MIX-A-LOT-BASED BOOKISH PUN HERE], or New York, New York, it’s a helluva town


Yesterday was a big day for books. More to the point, it was a big day for big books; on the same day Marlon James’ 700+ page A Brief History of Seven Killings was awarded the 2015 Man Booker prize, the most hyped debut novel of the year, Garth Risk Hallberg’s 944 page tome of New York in the 1970’s, City on Fire, hit shelves. Yesterday was a big big book day for me, as well: I finished the completely immersive, completely devastating A Little Life, the 736 page Man Booker finalist by Hanya Yanagihara.

There was some personal symmetry with me completing A Little Life on the same day City on Fire was released. They are two of my favorite novels of 2015 and, while hefty page counts and a New York setting are obvious points of comparison, they are both, at their hearts, books about memory. These points of comparison are, in truth, fascinating and instructive points of contrast that illustrate different ways authors can conjure the magic that only books can deliver.


A Central Park shooting of a teenager girl on New Year’s Eve 1976 is the inciting action that brings the 8-10 “main” characters of City on Fire together. Their lives are connected and intersect in Dickensian fashion and their various stories converge in the July 1977 city-wide blackout. City on Fire is about art, high finance, punk rock, outer borough suburban life, city union contracts, fireworks, anarchists, high society, Tom Wolfe-style “new journalism”, police procedure amidst budget cuts, etc. The scope is luxe, rich, focused. Hallberg switches points of view and moves back-and-forth through time effortlessly.

Hallberg paints with a hand as sure as any I recall. The audacity to take on this scope and ability to, by god, absolutely pull it off is remarkable. About 700 or so pages into the 924-page novel, it struck me what an incredible job of pacing he’d done. Nowhere dragged. No one storyline pulled the narrative down.

I’m not sure City of Fire is a Great American Novel (TM), but it is pretty great and it is so American. Hell, it’s America*: it’s the cry of the lone individual always a part of, grasping for, rebelling against, relying on and resenting in equal measure the systems and institutions that make us who we are.

* Predominantly a White America story, despite a prominent African American character and a major supporting Asian American character, City on Fire not a complete American story. This is hardly a knock: even a book this massive can’t capture the entire American story

littkle life

I’m hesitant to write too much about what A Little Life is “about”. First, I just finished it and, frankly, I haven’t fully recovered. Second, I don’t want to unduly (mis)direct anyone’s reading of it. It is simplest and, hopefully, most accurate to say that A Little Life is about…life. It’s about friendship and love. It’s about the power of memory.

A Little Life follows the lives–the personal and professional triumphs and failures, the joys and sorrows, the everything-in-between–of four college friends: Willem Ragnarsson, dreamboat,  waiter/aspiring actor, orphan and only surviving member of a family Montana ranch hands; Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, life of the party, utterly assured painter raised by a doting Haitian-American mother and aunt; Malcolm Irvine, architect, dreamer, self-doubting scion of the 2nd African American CFO of a major Wall Street financial house and white mother, an author; and Jude St. Francis, quiet, withdrawn math savant and legal whiz.

Yanagihara introduces us to these friends as college students at an unnamed prestigious New England university (read: Harvard) and follows them over 30 years. The story is told from each character’s point of view, though, as the novel progresses, one character’s story, by design, takes on more prominence and becomes the focus.

As I noted before, I hate to give too much more detail about A Little Life. It should be experienced. But it should also come with a warning label. This is so not a book for everyone.

A Little Life is an emotional dirty bomb. It is dark, so dark. It took me to emotional neighborhoods I’ve never seen from the highway, much less driven through…lingered in…taken up squatting in. On two separate occasions it caused me to spontaneously erupt in tears. Tears of grief. No book has taken such an emotional toll. Yanagihara could be tried for emotional war crimes.

This book is powerful. It rearranged my insides.

This book haunts me. I miss being able to rejoin these lives.

It’s amazing. It’s is not for everyone.

yin yang

With their heft and weight and (somewhat) shared locales City on Fire and A Little Life stand in near-perfect symmetrical counterpoise to each other. Both will end up in my top 10 books of 2015, but they couldn’t be more different in how they achieve their effect.

In City on Fire, Hallberg utilizes memory (and nostalgia) for a specific time and place, recreating New York City in the 1970’s with precision and detail. You can see and hear and smell the City and its people. He so effectively paints an enormous picture with exacting detail, then uses this specific moment in time as an inflection point to tell us a larger story about who we, America, are today.

Yanagihara’s use of memory is masterfully impressionistic. As much as anything, A Little Life is about how memory constructs and gives us shape, how it enriches and inhibits. Her story structure itself mimics the vagaries and subjectiveness of an individual’s memory. Our memories are not temporally proportional within our personal narratives: one moment can shape our self-conception forever from which no number of opposing moments can undo. “Big” events can fall away, becoming a faded, fuzzy watermark on memory, while the seemingly insignificant day-to-day moments can be what we treasure most. We can be desperate to hold on to memories when we lose a loved one and even more desperate to banish memories that haunt us. We can’t control them. They come and go as they please and, at their worst, they control us.

While their methods and aims are different, both Hallberg’s and Yanagihara’s books succeed because of the specificity of the memories they vibrantly bring to life. Hallberg’s is wide and pointillist. Yanagihara’s is deep and all-consuming. Both have created wildly immersive experiences that are, in very different ways, unforgettable, and bring to mind one of my favorite quotes I’ve picked up along life’s way:

“You and I come forth as possibilities of essential nature, alone and independent as stars…The self is completely autonomous, yet exists only in resonance with all other selves.”  (Robert Baker Aitken, Zen master and peace activist)

Or…”You are infinite. I see you. You are not alone.”

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An incredible 75 year-old discovery, or the joys of reading under pressure


Reading shouldn’t be something one feel pressured into, right?

It should be a pleasurable and, aside from special circumstances (school, work, etc.), a fully voluntary and free-flowing use of one’s time.

I’ve somehow worked myself into a bit of a corner, reading-wise and am feeling the pressure. As a bookseller, I want to be in-the-know about the noteworthy, challenging, thorny, off-the-beaten-path new books, those that I tend to find most rewarding. I have friends and customers who look to me for my recommendations along those lines. I also like to be able to talk with customers about some of the popular bestsellers. I like to always have at least two or three of those in my recommendations bank. I also like to maintain strong, responsive relationships with my publisher representatives. They send me books because they think I’ll like them and be able to help hand-sell them in the store. In exchange, I get a stream of (frequently) amazing books. It’s a win-win. But I want to always read and provide feedback on what they sent. It’s my part of the deal.

My to-read pile only gets bigger and I’m regularly feeling the pressure to make a dent in it.*

Add to this our monthly ICYMI book club. In the four months we’ve met thus far, the experience has exceeded even my most optimistic hopes when I conceived of it. The books have been fantastic and the discussions are even better: lively, really smart and insightful. We’ve got a terrific group of readers. You should join us if you’ve any interest. If you like to think about books and talk about books (and, frequently, laugh about books), you’d enjoy it.

However, the monthly selection is another reading obligation added to my almost overwhelming existing one. I know, I know. This is entirely self-imposed, but books I feel I need to read comprise almost all my reading these days.

hunterI picked up this month’s ICYMI book club selection, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, with little optimism. In my commitment to full participation in the group, I was going to read the darn thing even though there were many, many other books I also should be reading that I wanted to read more. Oh well, at least I could cross it off my near-fathomless pile of “classics” I’ve never read.

Sure, I knew Carson McCuller’s 1940 debut novel was considered a classic, but I have little interest in reading those paeans to the dusty, humid, simple nobility of the oddballs of the rural south that populate the literary landscape. With the knowledge that McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23 years old (and that it was an Oprah book club pick at one time), I was fully expecting a sad-sack tale of winsome, youthful longing, a 400-page slide guitar solo.

I was so, so wrong. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter rages. It’s the rage of the powerless, the voiceless. It’s the rage of the rioter: singular, but omnidirectional, at everything, but directed at no one. It’s punk rock.

Hunter is told from the shifting points of view of five main characters and their stories demonstrate how religion, democracy, society, capitalism, marriage and family are all forms of soft fascism, designed to constrain you with a false consciousness and tether you to an impossible binary: acquiesce to “your place” or be put in it. The only escape, McCullers seems to suggest, is death or, maybe, possibly, love (though it is unlikely).

This is hard, angry, bleak stuff. The fact that it was so well-received, both critically and commercially, upon its 1940 release (and through the ensuing years) is attributable to McCullers’ beautiful, unadorned prose and lovely voice. Her writing is warm and sad. It washes over you and carries you along. It flows.

McCullers demonstrates such deep, palpable empathy and understanding for her main characters, all flawed to varying degrees. Her ability to understand and achingly convey the complexities and contradictions within the hearts and minds of such wildly disparate characters (a middle-aged diner owner and widower; an aging African American doctor and father with an explosive temper; an itinerant adult male alcoholic Marxist wannabe-revolutionary; a fastidious, likely homosexual, deaf-mute adult man; and a 14-year old tomboy) is uncanny and charitable…

What’s been left unsaid is the insight and humanity in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a literary achievement for a 23 year-old. The truth is it would be an achievement for a writer at any age. Carson McCullers created a masterwork that burns with immediacy, with hard bleak truths and human understanding that are as relevant and relatable today as they were in 1940.

If it weren’t for the book club, I likely would have never picked this book up and I would have been the poorer for it. See, I need to be forced to pause in my voracious, always looking forward reading habits. I knew this when I suggested the premise for the ICYMI book club. Despite having a mapped-out reading schedule for (frequently) weeks in advance, maybe I don’t always know what I really want, reading-wise. A book I had to read became a book I’m incredibly glad I didn’t just never get around to.

How many other books are out there that I’d like this much and have heretofore missed and will never get to unless forced to? And what are?

Tell me.

(Seriously. I’d like to know.)

*NOTE: This is in no way a complaint. I’m drowning in terrific books to read. <sarcastic italics warning> Woe is me. Seriously, it’s amazing. I love what I do.

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Your Labor Day guide to not picking bad books


It’s here: the last holiday weekend of 2015 before Holiday Season, that temporal catapult that casually flings us from Halloween into January. It’s Labor Day, traditionally a time for the final summer getaway, family cookouts, enjoying the great outdoors. A time for activity and togetherness.

Alternately, if you’re like me, a card-carrying Indoor Kid whose pursuits tend toward the more bookish variety, the long Labor Day weekend looks like the perfect opportunity to stock up for a hermitical reading marathon.

If this sounds like your kind of vacation, but you don’t know what to read, here are some tips to help you avoid picking the wrong book.

You can judge a book by its cover. Most of the time.  

As a bookseller, it’s cliché, borderline embarrassing, to harumph “ignore the old ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ adage, because you totally can.” We know. You can kind of judge a book by its cover. Millions* are spent in the publishing industry each year designing and evaluating cover art for books. They want to grab the eye and quickly convey to people who might like the book that “this is a book for me.” It’s why genre fiction like romance novels all have a certain look, as do mysteries, etc. Cover art for literary fiction does this through odd, arresting, unique or spare presentation designed to intrigue.

*This is totally a guess. I feel certain, however, the number is between $100 and $100 billion.

As a reader, you make snap judgments on covers that enable you to eliminate huge chunks of books within a store, shrinking your considered set of selections. While efficient, you can miss something you would love.

fair fight badBased on the cover, this is not a book I would have any interest in. This is one of my favorite novels of 2015.

When one of my favorite authors, Lyndsay Faye, recommended it to me when she was at the store for a a book signing, the book cover on advanced reader editions looked like this:fair fight good

That’s a book I was interested in reading.

It seems that between when the advanced reader copies went out and the book’s publication date, they decided to change directions with the cover. If they were looking to attract readers like me, this decision was a disaster. I’d normally make allowances that they were not, perhaps, looking for readers like me, but for something different. In this case I can’t. From discussions about The Fair Fight with my publisher representative, I understand that they decided they missed the mark with the cover and are changing it for later printings.

Good thing I had an effusive recommendation from a source I trusted or I would have never picked it up. Sometimes, book covers miscommunicate.

More is not always better. Less isn’t always more.

Getting through a tri-fold pamphlet can take an eternity. Readers of all ages ripped through 700+ page Harry Potter novels in the course of a weekend.

Boring books are boring no matter the length. Great books are a joy no matter how long they are.

While obvious, I know readers of all levels of experience who rule out certain books because of a daunting page count. If you have on good authority that a book is a certain level of quality and you think you might like it, just take the plunge. A great, long book offers an immersive and rewarding experience that is almost impossible to get in a breezy, quick read**.

** Ihallberg just finished City on Fire, a 944-page opus on New York City in the 1970’s, the debut novel by Garth Risk Hallberg. It was pretty marvelous. You will be hearing about this one when it comes out next month. Trust me.

Besides, no matter the length of the book, you only read one page at a time.

Reviews matter. Recommendations do, too.

Avid readers tend to develop their own routines for finding out about books they might be interested in: trusted professional and/or amateur reviewers, the trade publications, friends with similar and discerning tastes, online forums, etc.

For the more casual reader, that may seem like a lot of work. They may prefer to just browse, look at covers, read book jackets and cover blurbs. This is fine, but if you’re looking to reduce your chance of picking a dud, you’d be best served looking at some reviews and/or getting some recommendations. It’s important to remember that book cover art, story summaries and blurbs are marketing, designed by smart people at the publishers to put the book in the best possible light in order to sell the maximum number of copies. It’s not sneaky or underhanded. It’s their job.

Personally, I’ve found reviews to be most helpful, especially in aggregate. When numerous critics all praise a book, I’ve rarely been steered wrong. I’ve also got friends and co-workers who know me (and vice-versa) and what I like and whose opinions I trust. I rarely get steered wrong and, as such, I rarely ever read anything bad.

I enjoy almost every book I read, not because I’m undiscerning, but because I’ve put in a little research before I pick a book.


Ask a bookseller.

Most people want to avoid reading a not-good book, but have zero interest in putting in the work beforehand to reduce that likelihood.

That’s where we come in.

See, sales growth at independent bookstores, like Booksellers, is outpacing books sales’ growth in general. One of the main reasons for this is that booksellers know their stuff. From an article in The Week from earlier this…ahem…week:

“The well-read employee is one of the most valuable resources bookstores offer. They know the store’s unique collection inside out and can help a customer find a book just for her — in a nuanced way that’s very different than Amazon’s machine-generated recommendations. That kind of human-customized shopping experience is hard to find, and creates loyal customers.”

Yesterday, I got into a long conversation about books with a customer. After a bit, she marveled “you must have the best job in the world, getting to talk about books all day.”

She was surprised to learn how little opportunity we have to talk about books we love. Most of the day is, rightly, spent helping customers get the book that is right for them: books for their job, for their school, for self-improvement, for their esoteric (to me) hobby. Even when a customer is looking for something to read for pleasure, our interests and tastes frequently don’t overlap.

But that’s the great thing about working with other passionate readers. We have different interests and read different things, so even if a customer is looking for something completely outside of my experience, one of my coworkers usually is at least somewhat versed in the genre or subject and is eager to help.

When you’re looking for a book, booksellers are the experts and can help steer you away from picking the wrong book.

Enjoy the holiday. Hope to see you this weekend. Follow these tips and set yourself up for some happy reading.

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The wondrous paper-based mode of transportation, or When I’m reading, I’m not myself


When I’m reading, I’m not myself.

I’m not just referring to mind-melding with vivid, original characters who move through exotic times, locales and events impossible for me to experience firsthand.

I mean that in my very reading behavior, I am someone different than I am in my day-to-day life.

As a reader, I’m adventurous. In real life, I find one thing on the menu I love and order it almost every time.

As a reader, I seek out a challenge. In real life, I have neither the time nor inclination to conquer mountains, tend a bonsai garden or make artisanal olive oil.

As a reader, I love complexity, having to puzzle out “the meaning” of a text. In real life, assembling a one-tool-required IKEA end table inevitably becomes a textbook Kubler-Ross evening for me. “The 30-degree slope is actually kinda cool…I think the leg will hold as long as I don’t put anything on the table.”

In my reading life, I am not myself.


My favorite novel of 2015 (so far) hit shelves this week. While “it’s not for everybody” can be said of most books, it truly applies to You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, the debut novel by Alexandra Kleeman. To give you a taste, here are four snippets about the story from the book’s jacket:

—  “A woman known only as A lives in an unnamed American city with her roommate, B, and boyfriend, C… B is attempting to make herself a twin of A

—  “A…watches endless amounts of television, often just for the commercials— particularly the recurring cartoon escapades of Kandy Kat, the mascot for an entirely chemical dessert…”

—  “…fifteen minutes of fame a local celebrity named Michael has earned after buying up a Wally’s Supermarket’s entire, and increasingly ample, supply of veal.”

—  “…her neighbors across the street, the family who’s begun “ghosting” themselves beneath white sheets and whose garage door features a strange scrawl of graffiti: he who sits next to me, may we eat as one.”

This, my friends, is a strange one.

While strange, it is in no way difficult to read. The plot is linear. The prose is clear and expressive, not ornate. It is also smart, incisive, hilarious, and powerfully evocative. I can’t recall a book making me so acutely aware of my physical body: how weird it is to have meat and squishy organs and viscous fluids held in place by a flexible casing of skin. Most of all, it’s an inventive examination—critique, I’d argue—of how we live today.  Kleeman takes on our modern existence, our capitalist, consumerist, and mediated lives and explores (and infects the reader with) the disconnect one feels in a place and time where even the imitation of a fake is packaged as “real” and the real becomes merely a simulacrum for a fake we’ve previously been sold.

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine got its claws into me and hadn’t released me since. It subtly transformed me, changing the way I think about some things.


One of the challenges—really, the primary job—of being a bookseller is putting the right book in people’s hands. Some books lend themselves to being “right” for a larger number of people than other books do. This is why I’ve found myself talking to customers far more about Station Eleven than about Annihilation, the book that I rated as my favorite of 2014. Like You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) are strange, at times disorienting, reads. While not particularly difficult to read, I found them a challenge to understand…to get. The assembling and rearranging and fine-tuning of an operational framework with which I could understand what’s trying to said. The slow unpacking of meaning. The rush of it clicking into place. That adrenalized “Eureka!” moment. This is clearly what I savor and seek out most in a book.

Others read for other reasons. Sometimes I read for other reasons. Being challenged is the last thing many people want when they read. I get it.Go-Gos-Vacation---Tour-O-80557

“Escape” is a word commonly applied to pleasure reading. We read to escape from the day-to-day, to be transported into another time, another place, another life besides our own. Adventure, wish fulfillment, emotional stimulus. “Escape” for me, can also apply to pulling me out of my cultural, racial, geographic, national, economic, etc. default settings, challenging me to see things a different way.

Books are a wonder: whatever we’re looking for is waiting for us in the right book somewhere.


I, too, read to be transported.

Sometimes, while transporting me, a book can change the way I see the world…the way I see myself.

Sometimes, in the process of transporting me, a book transforms me.

When I’m reading, I’m not myself. Sometimes, the “myself” that finishes a book is a subtly different “myself” than the one who started it.

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The confession, or When it comes to books, what is true love?

manly art

Yesterday, I might have hugged a book.

Sitting on the couch in Bookseller’s windowless breakroom, the air as warm, still and humid as the inside of a mouth, I lost myself again in British author Anna Freeman’s debut novel, The Fair Fight.   Having completed the final thirty or so pages, I closed the book feeling so delighted. Satisfied. Full.

I might have hugged the book.

I’m not being cagey, adopting a defensive posture to protect myself with some Paleolithic notion of “manliness”. I’m saying I might have hugged it because I really don’t know. I know how I felt when I finished The Fair Fight. Embracing that stack of bound pages in a totemic quest to prolong the feelings that Anna Freeman’s words evoked within me is entirely possible.

At that moment, on that well-worn floral print couch, in that wet-towel-in-a-July-hot-car breakroom, I loved that book.

wilde love

Since its early June paperback release,   I’ve found myself talking to a lot of customers about Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I’ve found myself describing it with phrases that make me sound like a genteel elderly aunt describing a neighbor’s pound cake recipe: “it’s just wonderful” and “oh, you’ll love it.”

This reaction is somewhat surprising to me, and not just because of the phrasing and tones I’ve been using to describe it. It’s most surprising because when I was compiling my favorite books of 2014, Station Eleven didn’t even make my top 5.  Don’t get me wrong. I really liked it. It was probably #6 or #7, and, after reading it last fall, I did talk it up with customers who I thought might be interested. But in the ensuing near-year, my affection for it has grown. I certainly find myself talking about it more than those that finished in my top 5 last year. It’s a special book, one that a fan of thoughtful, beautifully rendered fiction could fall in love with.  I certainly have.

beatles love at first sight

In my youth, I could fall in love daily. With a fiery intelligence shining in her eyes. With her ease within her own skin. With her sideways wit and open laugh. With the bravery and confidence in her personal aesthetic. With the way her mouth curled up at the very edges, like a cat’s. Whatever. It could be anything. It was as ineffable. It was nebulous. It was fleeting.

With time comes experience and perspective. What I was experiencing were the attractions and infatuations of a youthful, peripatetic heart. There can be many reasons we find ourselves attracted to someone, but love is something different*.

*Note: the author makes no claims to being able to accurately define what love is, merely what it is, in select usages, not.

The books I named in my favorites from 2014 similarly reflect the numerous ways I’m rewarded by reading. Some challenged and edified (and possibly flattered) me intellectually. Some dazzled me with the alluring textures and curves of their language. Some charmed me with their formal inventiveness. However, reflecting back, they, for the most part, didn’t move me. They surprised and delighted me, but they didn’t, it appears, penetrate me the way Station Eleven did.*

*I’ll allow for the possibility of confirmation bias impacting my perceptions. Between having several coworkers who also adored Station Eleven and it having a broader appeal than the other titles on my “best of 2014” list and, as such, giving me more opportunities to talk about it with customers, perhaps it’s standing with me has benefited from the repetition with which I’ve talked about it.

proust things past

One of the things I’ve found to be consistently reliable is the complete unreliability of my memories. I can generally trust my impressions, the vague emotional hues and contours affixed to past experiences. The details? Forget about it*.

*As I have.

Whatever makes the final cut for my “best books of 2015” list will reflect the most accurate reflection at that time of my inaccurate memories of my favorite books this year. In time, I’ll surely be unable to recall the reasons I found some of those books worth listing. I’ll surely omit something that will Station Eleven its way into my heart.

Memory is a liar. But yesterday, my love of The Fair Fight was true.

I might have even hugged it.

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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.


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.


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.


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

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