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How Do You Choose What to Read Next?

The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg

I'd really like to know.

For those of us in the book trade, the choice is a daily one. How do you juggle reading older books from your shelves and trying to "keep up" with newly published titles, ever-growing ARC stacks, and the ongoing flood of e-mail requests for your readerly attention? I'm sure you could add to that list.

John Evans, co-owner of DIESEL, a Bookstore in Brentwood, Calif., brought up the topic recently during an e-mail conversation we had about last Friday's Marie Kondo-inspired column. He suggested "another article (maybe you've done this?): how to choose what to read from all the books in your library + all the ones coming into your house."

It was a great suggestion, so I asked him: How do you choose what to read next?

John Evans

"There are the books that have happened onto the shelves and are perpetually whispering for me to 'read me,' " Evans replied. "It's a susurrating write-noise sound in the background--hard to tell if it is in the actual physical space, in my head or in my imagination (okay, it's the last one). There are the books by authors I'll be meeting soon, which I like to read before meeting them and often read out loud to Alison when we are driving, as we often go to author dinners together (we only have one car). Then 'the pursuits', subjects, interests, curiosities that are perennial for the most part, but that tug at my reading habits--poetry, spirituality of various stripes, philosophy, silk road, mythology, music, art, nature, science, geography. I am always reading down these paths, sometimes bibliographically--the torch passed from one book to the next either literally from the bibliography, by association, or by author or subject.

"There is no order to it, otherwise, and there's a fair degree of neurosis--books that I've meant to read for decades (Love's Body by Norman O. Brown) or that I think I should have read (so many classics, especially fiction) and core books I feel I should take a deep dive into (the Pre-Socratics). Beyond that, I usually read science fiction or mysteries on planes (His Dark Materials for example), especially to Europe. I usually have three to five books going at once, and then will all of a sudden feel I should just finish them each off and start down a new path."

I recognize something familiar in his response. Any attempt I've made to answer this question results in a similar wide-ranging, yet tip-of-the-iceberg list. Because I--because most of us in the industry--"read for a living," sometimes I have to remind myself that there was a long period of my life when I read strictly for pleasure, for enlightenment, for amusement, for solace, for the hell of it.

This doesn't mean I don't love many of the books I read for work, but I'm also opening them with specific goals and expectations. It's part of my job, after all. So I do have to consciously make time for the kind of personal reading I took for granted when I was younger. And I still worry that I don't read or choose well enough.

"Why there is anxiety about it, I have no idea, but there is," Evans observed. "There are so many, pressing for attention. I've got better at enduring the tension and it certainly doesn't take on the self-critical cast that it did when I was young. I always feel a bit out of touch with what people are currently reading, especially in fiction. So many booksellers seem to be fiction-only readers, while I am only fiction-occasionally.

"Curiosity seems to be the refined essence of being a bookseller for me--curiosity toward people, ideas, and things. And I'm curious about how people decide what they will read as well as what they get from what they read. It all seems to come with the territory."

I like that--curiosity as the "refined essence of being a bookseller."

Before I became a bookseller in the early 1990s, I was practically monogamous when I read. I could spend a month with a book, six months with a particular author. The pages of my books were covered with marginalia. I lived in them for long periods, then moved on, as if walking a long, narrow path rather than driving an interstate highway.

Then I had to learn how to read "at speed." My customers thought I was a reading machine. They'd ask how many books I read a week, as if I was hoovering up pages as fast as they come off the printing press.

The truth was, and is, more mundane. Over almost three decades as a bookseller and then editor, I became a more promiscuous reader. I often just graze, reading 50 pages and bailing if I'm not fully engaged. Nevertheless, the stack on my desk continues to grow at a pace that outstrips my ability to keep up. You know the feeling. I seem to look for reasons not to continue reading a book, reasons to give myself a break and move on to the next title.

For better or worse, I expect myself to know a little something about a lot of books, more about several key titles, and everything about a chosen few. I do my best to oblige. I read voraciously because, well, I have to, in every sense. I read for a living because it's the best job description I can imagine. And I never read enough.

How do you choose what to read next?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3414


Sparking Joy During the KonMari Book Brouhaha

Books like waterbirds
flying over bookshelf pond.
Splash! Some land, most gone.

I like Marie Kondo, but I'm keeping my books. Well, not all my books. Actually, my wall of books sparks joy. Then again, I dispose of books all the time. "Tidying up" can be a confusing goal for the professional reader. Help, Marie! No, on second thought, don't look.

Just when you thought it was safe to stop worrying about all the books you haven't read because... tsundoku ("All those books you've bought but haven't read? There's a word for that"; "The value of owning more books than you can read"), last week that bully Marie Kondo returned to the neighborhood with her new Netflix series and inspired a critical cascade of antonyms for "joy."

The series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, is of course inspired by her bestselling books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing; and Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.

The Kondo social media uprising was sparked by a tweet from author Anakana Schofield: "Do NOT listen to Marie Kondo or Konmari in relation to books. Fill your apartment & world with them. I don't give a shite if you throw out your knickers and Tupperware but the woman is very misguided about BOOKS. Every human needs a v extensive library not clean, boring shelves."

Marie Kondo "awakening" the books.

There are numerous threads of anger out there now, as a cursory Googling of "Marie Kondo" and "books" will quickly show.

Among the writers who addressed the KonMari book brouhaha via Twitter were Sam Sykes ("I can't believe Marie Kondo said to destroy all books and then broke into peoples' houses individually and made them eat all their books and then when they tried to protest she said 'don't talk with your mouth full of books, bookmouth' and all the cool kids laughed at them"); Kevin Nguyen, who described the backlash as "both a misunderstanding of Marie Kondo and books"; and Ronan Farrow: "A child scrambles back, wild-eyed and weeping, clutching a stack of dog-eared books. A shadow looms over him. 'Time to declutter,' says a high, prim voice. Marie Kondo pulls a lighter from a spotless cardigan. 'Now burn the books... kudasai.' (How I assume that Netflix show goes.)"

In the Guardian, Schofield observed: "The metric of objects only 'sparking joy' is deeply problematic when applied to books. The definition of joy (for the many people yelling at me on Twitter, who appear to have Konmari'd their dictionaries) is: 'A feeling of great pleasure and happiness, a thing that causes joy, success or satisfaction.' This is a ludicrous suggestion for books. Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us."

By coincidence, I was fully engaged with the Kondo book conflict when I happened upon Sven Birkerts's new Agni column, "Culling: A New Year's Reflection," in which he observed: "It's coming on New Year's and now it's time. I've let it go so long, the cull, but enough is enough. Though even as I type that word I recognize that much will depend on what is deemed 'enough.' I'm talking about books, about winnowing the shelves, getting rid of things no longer wanted or needed.

"It's so easy to describe it this way, as if one were putting away the Summer clothes. But as any book-person knows, there is nothing easy about the actual doing: pulling out a book, looking at it, quickly assessing your life--your memories and ideals--in terms of it. I've been making hundreds of such decisions here in the attic today. Each private confrontation--yes/no--has marked a further refinement of my sense of who I've become. Each has been a confrontation with time."

Much of my life has been spent considering whether a particular book is worth reading and/or keeping. It's even a part of my job description. For me, "sparking joy" is at once more and less complicated than a laying on of hands to give books "a little shake and wake them up," as Kondo advises.

Also, as a fully-vested member of the tribe, I can proudly say that book people are just weird in their own special way. When I watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I was less shocked by how books were being treated than by the fact that "Books" was a major KonMari method category, since they seemed to claim at best a minor--and often non-existent--role in most of her clients' homes. Clothes were by far the alpha possession.

But Kondo insists in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that books "are one of three things that people find hardest to let go," adding: "Imagine what it would be like to have a bookshelf filled only with books that you really love. Isn't that image spellbinding? For someone who loves books, what greater happiness could there be?"

Robert Gray's KonMari-free zone

Well, we have a lot of books in our house, many of which could be said to "spark joy" individually. What really sparks joy, however, is the wall of books in our library, where some titles have a lifetime membership while others stay briefly, then move on to new homes. Our shelves are like a spring-fed pond, which seems calm and unchanging on the surface.

I took a photo of our bookshelves this morning, just to frame my thoughts. I suspect Marie Kondo would have a field day here, despite the fact that within the past three years we have actually handled and dusted every volume. Were we also "waking them up?" I hope so.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3409


'What are you optimistic about? Why?'

May we raise a toast to all you wonderful readers. May we shout our appreciation for the writers, those conjurors of words. And to the publishers, large and small, we are grateful for all your attention in bringing the finest and most enlightening of books for our reading pleasure. We are delighted to be your book purveyors and will continue to take part in the age-old alchemy of joining readers and books. To 2019! --Otto Book Store, Williamsport, Pa., in a New Year's Day Facebook post

At Sherman's Books

"What are you optimistic about? Why?"

These seem like excellent questions to begin any new year, especially when posed by a lifelong fatalist during turbulent times. In fact, I first saw them paired in 2007 as the "Edge Annual Question" (I know, two questions, but who's counting?). If you visited the Edge World Question Center then--and now, as it turns out--you found 160 responses from "a who's who of interesting and important world-class thinkers."

Among them was bestselling author Walter Isaacson, who deftly turned early 21st-century paranoia regarding the future of publishing into a mischievous, prescient fable: "I am very optimistic about print as a technology. Words on paper are a wonderful information storage, retrieval, distribution, and consumer product.... Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 400 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures onto pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the Internet."

More than a decade later, a variation of this process is happening. For example, on Wednesday the Bookseller reported that the print market in the U.K. "has grown in value for a fourth year running, with 2018 showing a marginal volume increase too." This is consistent with statistics from other countries. "We are buying books--especially the kind with physical pages--and we’re doing so, increasingly, in well-loved indie bookstores," Quartz wrote last week.

At River Bend Bookshop

As a Shelf Awareness editor, I often--by no means always, of course. Pollyanna I ain't--get optimistic readings when I check on the book trade's vital signs daily.

This even includes actual signs, like those posted recently by Main Street Books, Mansfield, Ohio; A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland, Calif.; River Bend Bookshop, Glastonbury, Conn.; Solid State Books, Washington, D.C.; Sherman's Books & Stationery, Boothbay Harbor, Maine; and Run for Cover Bookstore & Café, San Diego, Calif.

I'm optimistic when I see that the Writer's Block Bookstore & Café, Anchorage, Alaska, celebrated the new year and its first anniversary with a Facebook post from January 4, 2018: "Before the books, the tables, the dishes, the art, the words, the people."

Holiday season sales floor rush humor from London's Kirkdale Bookshop also sparks optimism:

Haven't tidied away any of our Christmas cards. Slack.
Customer: "This will sound weird,"
Me: thinks "yeah, probably"
Customer: "but have you got any Christmas cards?"
Me: gestures "Yep, we just do it all year long"
Turned it round, see
Retail is detail

At Solid State Books

Monitoring the heartbeat of the world of books in media coverage has sparked increasing optimism lately as well. For example:

In her New Year's resolution shared with Bookselling This Week, Angela Maria Spring, ABA board member and owner of Duende District Books in Washington, D.C., said: "In 2019, I will continue to build Duende District locations and event programming with my new partner, Nicole Capó Martínez. Nicole will take over D.C. operations when I relocate to my home state of New Mexico in January, where I'll be launching our first pop-up collaborations in Albuquerque. This is the first step in expanding the Duende experience and model nationwide."

Tim Godfray, executive chairman of the Booksellers Association of the U.K. & Ireland, told the Bookseller: "An e-mail arrived from Pippa, our membership manager. I'm not at liberty to divulge the details, but we will have a positive story to tell on bookshops for the second year in a row. This is no mean feat, after so many years of decline, and it's a sign of the renewed confidence in the sector that new, energetic and creative people are entering it.... We believe the tide is continuing to turn in favor of printed books and bookshops."

Digital life got some bad press in a recent New York Times op-ed ("In Search of Lost Screen Time"), which reported that the "average reader, reading at a speed of 280 words per minute, would take approximately 71½ hours to read the 1.3 million words in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. With 1,460 hours repurposed from device usage, a reader would get through the books almost 20 times. With the $1,380 in device-free savings, you could spend the weekend in Illiers-Combray, the setting of Proust's first madeleine-soaked memories, and see if he got it right."

The National Retail Federation predicted that the "challenge for retailers in introducing more experiential elements is avoiding 'Instagrammable' gimmicks and keeping it authentic: Values like sustainability and transparency are becoming key product features. In a survey, nearly 60% of consumers said they would stop shopping one of their favorite brands or retailers if they found out the company's values didn't match their own." Indie booksellers weren't just ahead of that curve, they held the pen that started sketching it.

What am I optimistic about? Book people, and the world of words they create, share and fiercely protect. Why? Because I'm a book person, too.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3404


Too Many Books for the Holidays? Bah! Humbug!

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.... The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading.

While I'm not exactly Scrooge, I'll confess that on a scale of Scrooge-to-Hallmark Christmas movies, I'd scan more toward the former than latter. That said, each year I do find a way to re-engage with Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, whether by watching one of the zillion film/TV adaptations, listening to an audio performance (Neil Gaiman and Patrick Stewart are personal favorites), or making a pilgrimage to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, where the original manuscript is displayed annually.

This year I've been reading a lovely new edition of A Christmas Carol: and Other Stories (Oxford University Press). In his introduction, editor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst notes that the classic tale, published in 1843, sold 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve and "kept on selling well into the New Year," though the high cost of production meant that Dickens "received less than a quarter of the profits he had been expecting." In the book trade, we care about the numbers. Think Scrooge, but in a nice way.

Any personal quest for the spirit of the holiday season is complicated by the fact that the reader in me tends to identify with the boy Scrooge reading by the feeble fire, while the business person in me, whose livelihood depends upon the success of the book trade, can't help but feel just a little sympathy for old Ebenezer, who "beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker's-book."

For booksellers, the holiday season can be an ongoing drama of comparing daily sales figures to last year's numbers. This is at once an exhilarating and intimidating time of the year. Some days "bah, humbug" doesn't seem like an overreaction to unpredictable weather, late deliveries or demanding customers. Wise ghosts of past, present and future seldom visit with neat, plot-twisting solutions to multilayered challenges.

So how do we remember in such times that this mad world we've chosen to live and work in is still primarily about something as simple and complex as putting the right words together so that someone will buy and read them?

When I was a kid, "holiday spirit" was beautifully gift-wrapped in stories I read and heard, including Dickens, of course. These tales reminded urchins like me that the holiday season was about much more than tinsel and toys.

As adults, we read to live. We read to find our way in the world. This time of year, we read, handsell and exchange books as gifts to encounter, if we can, a holiday spirit that is not always apparent around us.

I've been imagining an alternative Scrooge, who inherited Old Fezziwig's Bookshop and made a go of it. Each year at Christmas Eve, he would host a party for his beloved staff, always remembering his days as a young apprentice bookseller and honoring his kind mentor:

"A small matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
"Small!" echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said, "Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"
"It isn't that," said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

If only the Scrooge who, as a child, found refuge in The Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe had kept reading, had run a bookshop instead of a counting-house, had let Bob Cratchett eagerly handsell beautiful tomes in a fireplace-warmed, festively decorated storefront location downtown.

Bookseller Scrooge would have had a perfect response to the absurd notion that there could be an excess of books in anyone's life before, during or after the holiday season: Too many books? Bah! Humbug!

"And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!" The capital letters and the exclamation point belong to that old rascal Mr. Dickens. Feel free to copyedit and paraphrase to suit your own needs and beliefs. I wish you great reading for the new year.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3401


The Wizardry of Bookshop Holiday Windows

By 1897, holiday window dressing was such a heated enterprise, L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz and was thereby an authority on all things magical, began publishing Show Window, a magazine devoted entirely to holiday window displays, which awarded prizes to the best designs. Baum saw the artistry in each window and aimed to raise 'mercantile decorating' to the status of a profession by founding the National Association of Window Trimmers. --Lucie Levine in a 6sqft piece chronicling the history of New York City's legendary holiday windows

After last week's virtual sleigh ride through an independent bookstore Christmas tree forest, it seemed only natural to bookend the adventure by heading downtown for a complementary tour of another retail tradition, the bookshop holiday season window display.

David Hoey, senior director of visual presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, told the New York Times what his holiday store window goal is: "Here's what we're looking for: We're trying to induce aesthetic delirium."

Indie booksellers are not generally pressured to build window displays that induce altered states of consciousness in their customers. That's what books are for. The goal is to reflect a more tranquil atmosphere with an invitation to the coziness and even retail sanctuary within the shop (though additional sales never hurt).

Books of Wonder, New York, N.Y.: "The BoW holiday window has arrived!! Stop by the 18th St. store and check it out--and stay tuned for the 84th St decor...."

And while I did spend a few crazy hours plowing through the seasonal madness of Midtown Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, I have also been dashing through the social media snow to check out the wizardry of bookshop holiday window displays, from Downtown Books in Manteo, N.C., to Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska, and many places in between, including:

Barbara's Bookstore, Chicago, Ill., acknowledged historic--"When Macy's was Marshall Field's: Christmas store window featuring furniture; holiday shoppers on State Street. circa 1941."--as well as contemporary traditions: "Our State Street bookstore is located inside Macy's, where it's really beginning to look a lot like Christmas--especially on the seventh floor."

Poppies Howick, Auckland, N.Z.: "Our lovely Christmas window."

Two Sisters Bookery, Wilmington, N.C.: "Queen Katie, and Her need for sunshine in the afternoon, is truly testing MY need for symmetry! I curtsy. Sighhhh."

Mabel's Fables Bookstore, Toronto, Can.: "Mabel's Fables is here for all your last-minute Holiday needs! Even the mice agree!"

Books & Mortar, Grand Rapids, Mich.: "You know your signage is working when the American Book Association posts about it. It's really not a big deal. We're being chill about it... okay, okay, we may be a little geeked."

Greedy Reads, Baltimore, Md.: "Quick reminder that tonight is the second of our special evening shopping hours! Come browse the books from 5-9pm with wine, snacks, and special giveaways."

Browsers Bookshop, Olympia, Wash.: "[W]e have a wreath on our building, our staff holiday party is tonight, and we are looking forward to a bustling shop in the next couple of days."

Lighthouse Bookshop, Edinburgh, Scotland: "We have a new window display; It's... festive! Red. Raging. Revolutionary. Fitting for these days of ours. Yes, it's us doing 'Festive' while the world goes mad."

Skylark Bookshop, Columbia, Mo.: "Living Windows in The District from 6-8 tonight! Mary Poppins has a fierce game of cards going right now."

Kirkdale Bookshop, London: "Christmas Window 2.0."

At Simply Books, Bramhall, England

Simply Books, Bramhall, Eng;and: "Thank you  @CressidaCowell & @LaytonNeal for inspiring our #christmas window this year!"

Let's Play Books, Emmaus, Pa.: "According to the Conductor of the Polar Express, the weather looks good for a trip to the North Pole! See you at 2018 Old Fashioned Christmas--see you on the trolley!"

Run for Cover Bookstore and Café, San Diego, Calif.: "Our ever so talented Ferril painted our window today and we love it. We are entering the OBMA storefront window contest so keep an eye out for voting info soon!"

New Dominion Bookshop, Charlottesville, Va.: "Getting in the holiday spirit!"

Next Page Books, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: "We're ready for Deck the District this weekend in NewBo. Join us for a spot of good cheer!"

The Green Toad Bookstore, Oneonta, N.Y.: "Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot. But the Grinch who lived just North of Whoville did not!" And from the inside: "Window with your stars so bright, won't you light our books tonight?"

Bards Alley, Vienna, Va.: "Our Polar Express window display won the Town of Vienna, VA - Government 2018 Holiday Window Decorating Contest! Of course, our community of authors and book-lovers inspired us. Thank you for helping us ring in the holiday season! A special note of gratitude to Phil Charlwood for creating this magical scene!"

At the Ripped Bodice, Culver City, Calif.

FoxTale Book Shoppe, Woodstock, Ga.: "One of our holiday windows!" And: "Our kids’ themed window display!"

Lake Forest Book Store, Lake Forest, Ill.: "Celebrate your local shopping district."

And, finally, a few seasonally appropriate words from the Ripped Bodice, Culver City, Calif.: "And to all a goodnight."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3396