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


“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.


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.


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

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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?


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.

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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.


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.


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.

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