“Nope. Stop. Say no more.”: Toxic Terms, Deadly Descriptors and the books I’ll never read

This week I had a mildly uncomfortable (for me) exchange with a customer. In a poorly-executed attempt at lightheartedness with a customer who had expressed surprise that I’d never heard of an obscure (to me) book on an arcane (to me) topic, I joked something along the lines of “I really try to know about every book in existence, but…”. She didn’t laugh. She didn’t react at all. I’m not sure she even heard me. As I walked away, however, I felt that chest-hollowing feeling…that “oof”… that my good-natured sass might have come off as lacking its lead “s”.

Booksellers read books. I read almost as much as is reasonably possible within the confines of having something like a life. While I try to be open-minded and wide-ranging in my reading interests (and have been known at times to encourage or chide others to be so), I’m somewhat a hypocrite.

True confession: I’ve got a lengthy list of book biases. Certain terms and phrases used to describe a book will shut my mind faster and more securely than severing a rope on a medieval drawbridge. For me, these lead descriptors are toxic. And I’m fairly rigid in my close-mindedness to them. They’re radioactive recommendation-enders. Dealbreakers.

I don’t think this is uncommon. There are a finite number of books we’ll be able to read in a lifetime. There are enough books that I already know about and I already really would like to read that I can relegate scores of books to the “Nope, never gonna read it” mental landfill. This is done swiftly and usually without second-thought.

Here is a partial list of my you-can-stop-now descriptors:

–Fantasy: if a dragon is present, I’m not

–Ancient Greece/Rome/really anywhere: Swords-n-sandals? Nope-n-nope.

–A “feel-good” story: if you’re leading with that, I’ve already filed it under “sentimental treacle”

–“Human triumph”: while I’m all for humans triumphing, I’ve read enough to know the formula (suffering, more suffering, even more suffering, false triumph, even greater suffering, triumph…*yawn*)

–“Southern gothic”: these sweaty characters and tired tropes are as overused and lazy as an old front porch fan

While I’m here to cop to my biases, I’m also here to caution you. I almost missed out on one of my favorite books of the year because of one such bias: “post-apocalyptic”. Ugh. Been there. Done that.

I am so glad I listened to a publisher representative and many enthusiastic mainstream media reviews, because otherwise I would have missed Station Eleven, one of the absolute best books I’ve read this year. While Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is post-apocalyptic in that it largely takes place after a worldwide swine flu-like plague has wiped out almost 99% of the world’s population, it in no way fits into the Mad Max grooves that Cormac McCarthy’s elevated to art in his The Road only to have less worthy genre knock offs lazily follow. Station Eleven is beautifully rendered with an even-handed, human touch. The characters a fully-formed, their fates are fairly plotted and their emotional send-offs are completely earned.

Yes, Station Eleven is post-apocalyptic fiction. It is also a gem that I think almost any lover of fiction would enjoy. I would recommend it to almost anyone…

…though I admittedly try to do so without describing it as “post-apocalyptic.”  That toxic term–that deadly descriptor–almost kept me away.

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