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Pretending to Have Read Books as a Life Skill

"Since 1988, Pamela Paul has recorded the title and author of every book she reads in a battered notebook she calls her Book of Books--the eponymous 'Bob' of her engaging memoir, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues," Newsday reported Wednesday to introduce an interview with the author and New York Times Book Review editor.

Although she had "kept diaries sporadically" earlier in her life, Paul said that they were not as interesting or helpful as her Book of Books while she was writing the memoir: "[W]hen I look back in Bob, I think, 'Yeah, I remember that exactly. I remember reading that, I remember where I was, I remember why I read it, I remember what I thought.' That all felt like me; Bob was a very reliable reference point."

I envy her. Reading the brief interview with Paul sparked some thoughts about my own reading life as well as my, for lack of a better term, not-reading life. I realized that even though I am a Bob, there is no "Bob" for me to consult. I've never kept journals or books-I've-read lists during my six decades as a reader. There are, of course, hundreds of titles scattered along the trail behind me, and some vivid memories: discovering the James Bond novels in high school; stumbling across a paperback edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle on a pharmacy spinner rack in my small hometown; reading Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge at a particularly vulnerable moment in my life.

But no lists. Where have all the titles gone?

The upside, I suppose, is that there is also no hard evidence of all the books I never read and feel guilty about. This realization led me to consider the advantages of pretending to have read a book. 

Here's a confession from my bookseller days: sometimes I fictionalized my reading history just a touch. Call it a retail survival skill. You can't be an idealist through an entire 8-hour shift. For example, a customer might ask if I'd read a particular novel. Not wanting to lose complex handselling momentum (Let those among you who haven't done this cast the first stone.), I might begin with a parrying move on the national ("It's been getting great reviews.") or local ("Everyone in the bookstore who's read it loves it.) level. Sometimes, however, in a moment of weakness, I may have said, "Oh, I'm reading it now."

What did that even mean? I had opened it? Read the blurbs? The first line? It meant nothing. And more often than I would ever care to admit publicly, the strategy worked. I wonder what a journal of all the books I pretended, even if only for a desperate minute under frontline bookseller sales floor stress, to have read would look like.

Apparently, I'm in good company.

According to a recent survey by the U.K.'s Reading Agency, an impressive 41% of respondents admitted they "will stretch the truth" when it comes to what, or how much they have read. "Men are the biggest culprits, with one in five (19%) admitting they'd lie about their reading habits in order to impress in a job interview. Other top scenarios are stretching the truth while on a date, when meeting the in-laws and on social media profiles." An impressive 64% of 18-24-year-olds confessed to lying about the number of books, or the kinds of books, they've read, with 25% saying they have "lied about reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, when they have in fact just watched the film."

"Fibbing about our reading habits is, apparently, more common than we realize," David Barnett wrote in the Guardian earlier this week. "So, why do we fib? Not for shame at not having read these books, but to impress people by pretending we have done.... Still, I find it strangely heartening that people are still lying about reading in order to impress others--it means reading is at least still impressive."

Even Barnett has fallen prey to temptation: "A few years ago, while working at a regional newspaper, I had to interview a local author about his self-published novel. It was a 500-page brick of a thriller with tiny, close type, a good third of which a professional editor would cheerfully have hacked out.

" 'What did you think?' the writer demanded. 'Oh, I loved it,' I blithely lied, having managed about two pages before it brought on a migraine. He then quizzed me on the finer points of the sprawling, outlandish plot, and the individual characteristics and motivations of the cast of thousands. By the end, I was so exhausted I might as well have read the damn thing. But I think I got away with it."

I think I got away with it.

There are probably worse mottos. I believe the line is from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, though I can’t be certain since I read that novel (most of it anyway) a long, long time ago. Or did I?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2995


#NationalPoetryMonth--Last Call

I knock off work, 
have a beer 
at the bar.
I look down at the glass
and feel glad.

These lines are from "Another One," written by Ron Padgett for the movie Paterson, in which we literally watch Paterson, N.J., bus driver/poet Paterson (Adam Driver) create this poem and others. Since I saw the film, I've been more than a little haunted by an image: Paterson sitting quietly at his local watering hole, trying to mind his own business, late into the night, with his dog waiting patiently outside. Maybe it's a nice way to consider the final weekend of National Poetry Month 2017, which could get overwhelmed by the bright lights of Independent Bookstore Day.

Last call for Poetry Month. Here are a few items I found this week in my e-mail inbox and elsewhere that may tide us over until May, which also happens to be poetry month (lower case), as are June, July, August and the lot. In my house, at least.

Bookshop haiku: John Evans, co-owner of DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland, Larkspur and Brentwood, Calif., responded eloquently to last week's writing prompts for booksellers column: "Thanks for prompting us to participate in National Poetry Month directly. Here's a little haiku for you":

Rilke in Boulder
reading Borges in Boston
summer in bookstores

leaves silently turn
voices murmur about books
autumn wind in store

soft blocks made from trees
open pages in bookstore
now warm as snow falls

green sprouts from paper
cool breeze moistens open eyes
Whitman off the shelf

Poetry vending machine: Colin McDonald, marketing manager for Chicago's Seminary Co-op Bookstores, told me the Co-op "has 'installed' a free poetry vending machine at the entrance to our store, designed by poet Yvonne Zipter and stocked with poems we've been sharing on our blog this month in celebration of poetry published by university presses. The machine has been a hit so far, with NBCC Award winning poet D. A. Powell recently tweeting about it during his visit to the Co-op."

They have also been featuring a promotion called "Free Poetry in Five Easy Steps" and, for the second year in a row, both the Co-op and its sister store, 57th Street Books, celebrated Poem in Your Pocket day on April 27 "by inviting poetry readers and doubters alike to memorize and recite for our staff a poem at least eight lines long and receive 20% off their purchase of poetry," McDonald noted.  

Spoken word poets: "We're still celebrating National Poetry Month. Are you?" the Green Toad Bookstore, Oneonta, N.Y., asked on Facebook this week in linking to the Nylon piece "Five Spoken Word Poets Whose Work Will Change You."

"Be aware of the small things": Yusef Komunyakaa shared some advice for aspiring poets with the New York Times: "Attempt to write every day, to read everything, to listen, to be in the world, to challenge ideas and to question ourselves. Because it's not just poetry; it's the experience of inquiry.... Be aware of the small things in the world, not necessarily the monumental things. The small things add up to a monumental reality." Although he is the New York State poet laureate, Komunyakaa is from Louisiana and has lived in other states but calls New York the birthplace of American poetry because it was home to Walt Whitman.

Whitman, Alabama: "This is an experiment in using documentary and poetry to reveal the threads that tie us together--as people, as states, and as a nation." For two years, filmmaker Jennifer Crandall traveled through Alabama, "inviting people to look into the camera and share a part of themselves through the words of Walt Whitman."

Juan Felipe Herrera: "Somehow it is the last week of April, which means it is the last week of National Poetry Month, and the end of Juan Felipe Herrera's term as Poet Laureate," Anne Holmes wrote in a blog post for the Library of Congress. His closing celebration, Speak the People/the Spark/el Poema, was held Wednesday.

Herrara said: "Meshing poetry and music with the Fresno State Chamber Singers, a panel on Latino culture, music by Quetzal--this night is a culmination of two years of beautiful and thoughtful audiences; of trains, planes, cars, highways, children, teachers, and artists; of poetry seekers driving for miles to listen and exchange and tell me about their lives. This event will have all the love I can bring to it, and all the appreciations that have been given to me during these last two years; I hope to give back."

Last call: Posted on Facebook by An Unlikely Story‏, Plainville, Mass.: "#NationalPoetryMonth is almost over! Would you like a recommendation?" Seems like a perfect way to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2990


10 Poetry Month Writing Prompts for Booksellers

We're looking for some composed and composing booksellers (and bookstore fans) as National Poetry Month enters its final stretch. After weeks of hosting poetry events and handselling collections, you may be ready for a little personal creativity. Below you'll find 10 poetry writing prompts, along with sample opening lines, to get you started. We invite you to share your creations with us.

1. Mending bookshelves: Take a poem you love and rewrite it from the perspective of a bookseller. Maybe William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow" (so much depends/ upon/ a red dust-/ jacket) or "This Is Just to Say" (I have borrowed/ the ARC/ that was on/ your desktop). I chose Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," as reimagined by a children's bookseller.

Something there is that doesn't love full shelves,
That tempts the children's fingers into them;
And spills so many books upon the rug;
And makes the gaps where no books can be sold.
The work of mothers is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one book by a book,
But they would have one title from hiding,
To please the yelping kids. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But after story-time we find them there...

2. This book is...: Write a poem about staff shelf talkers, using blurb clichés.

This book is
a stunning page-turner
that kept me up all night;
a lyrical, haunting
and compelling tale
that reads like a suspense novel
even as it transcends
the genre with sweeping prose
that is at once
timely and unputdownable...

3. Bookstore haiku: Compose a haiku about reading in a bookshop.

In bookshop armchair;
murmurs, novel, coffee, jazz,
then street noise... Shut up!

4. Handselling blind date: You just spent 20 minutes of fully engaged handselling with a new customer who was looking for "something good" to read. They leave empty-handed, saying, "Thanks for your help, but nothing really sounds like me, y'know?" Write a poem about handselling connections deferred or deflated.

Sometimes handselling
is like a bad blind date
that catches you by surprise.
It starts so well, the cheerful greeting
exploratory chat, shared interests,
then gives way, like thin ice,
to awkward silence, rushed parting,
maybe next times...

5. Author non-event: Write a poem about an author event that drew a sparse audience.

That terrible moment when
it's all too clear
no one else is coming.
The author shuffles his feet,
while you give the introduction
from a podium
to chairs...

6. Limerick: Create a limerick about bookstores or bookselling.

In a used bookstore called Books Just a Buck,
Locating titles took patience and luck.
In every section I delved,
Too many books were mis-shelved.
I guess the owners just don't give...

7. Confessional bookselling poem: Seems like a natural for booksellers, who must keep their emotions, even when borderline homicidal, professionally... under wraps.

They demand all their stuff
be giftwrapped so neatly, 
too neatly. They watch me, 
I pause, then focus
on the table, the tape, 
the festive red paper,

the newly sharpened scissors...

8. Words found on the sales floor: Write a found poem using things you overhear from customers during the course of a single shift on the sales floor.

They sure have a lot of books here.
Where's the nonfiction?
Did you read this one? It's great!
Have you seen the birthday cards?
Can I have this, mom? No!
Can I...? No!
Read me a story, let's get lunch, 
look at those comfy chairs.
You almost done here?
We have to go!
I'm coming back tomorrow.
Wish we had a store like this at home.

9. Ode to a Bookstore Cat: Write a... well, you know.

Flashing her Cheshire grin
from deep within the stacks,
our bookstore cat can read
the tone of customers' words,
the subplot of their movements,
the character of their nature,
like prey...

10. Independent Bookstore Day: Consider the poetic implications.

Not on our turf, you don't.
Indies Unite, you have nothing to lose
but the chains and Amazon do,
their customers 
to you
on Indie Bookstore Day
and after, and before.
Taking it from the shelves
to the streets...

Verse up, booksellers, and anyone else who loves bookstores. We'd love to see your creations. Send your poems to rgray@shelf-awareness.com. (Disclaimer: An amazing assortment of prizes is not at stake.)

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2985


#ScrabbleDay--That's Not Even a Word!

"I'd like you to play a game of Scrabble with me," he says.
I hold myself absolutely rigid. I keep my face unmoving. So that's what's in the forbidden room. Scrabble! 

--from Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale

The game is almost 80 years old. It has long been a sidelines staple for indie booksellers and a lure for community gatherings in bookstores and cafes (though a bookshop selling letters could seem a bit like a bakery that sells flour, eggs and sugar). It takes up floor space at Old Books on Front Street in Wilmington, N.C.; covers the bar at Toronto's Famous Last Words; and appears in this mural at the Last Word bookstore in Lahore, Pakistan. It has not only found extended, perhaps eternal life online, but also inspired too many virtual imitators to tally. (Let's be nice and say they're paying tribute to an elder.) It is probably even stashed away somewhere in your home.

There's an eight-letter word for it: SCRABBLE.

Scrabble floor at Old Books on Front Street in Wilmington, N.C.

Maybe you don't know this (I didn't), but #Scrabble Day is celebrated annually on April 13, the birthday of Alfred Mosher Butts, the game's inventor.

As someone for whom reading and writing have been a lifelong obsession, I have to admit that when it comes to letters, words fail me. I'm a terrible Scrabble player. You could beat me.

"Unlike most serious Scrabble players, I don't have the patience to study all the possible three and four-letter words, for example, but still, I am extremely competitive. It's an awkward combination," Roxanne Gay observes in her essay on competitive Scrabble, "To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically" (collected in Bad Feminist). I get that.

And yet, my outsider's fascination with the game still prompted me to celebrate Scrabble Day by reading and thinking about letters and words--what we do with them, and what they do for and to us. Words are as trustworthy and untrustworthy as lovers, though we want to trust the words we read. We want to believe we "understand" meanings. We want clarity. We want definition. Yet we struggle constantly with a want of clarity, a want of definition.

What can a word possibly mean? How do you spell it? ("That's not a word!" screams my imagined Scrabble opponent.) And if we can't understand a single word, how can we hope that stringing tens of thousands of them together will make things clearer? As writers and readers, that is precisely what we do hope.

We may not be able to quantify words, but we do know the value of letters, thanks to Mr. Butts, an unemployed architect who invented the game in 1938 (though it didn't acquire the name Scrabble until a decade later). You have to wonder what would motivate a man to count the number of times individual letters were used on a single page of the New York Times and then assign relative numerical values to them. One hundred tiles, two of them blank.

What kind of a player was the Father of Scrabble? Butts told the Times in 1981: ''Not the best.... I like to play for fun, so I've never been in the tournament-player class. In fact, my late wife used to beat me at my own game.'' After his death in 1993, the Times couldn't resist rubbing it in: "Alfred Butts, a New York architect who died this week, wasn't much of a speller."

At literary-themed watering hole Famous Last Words, the bar is covered in Scrabble tiles.

During my Scrabble Day reading celebration, I learned it is estimated that at least 30,000 games are started every hour and there are more than a million missing tiles. That's from a recent Country Lifearticle in which Jeremy Taylor took on world Scrabble champion Brett Smitheram. Their game was played at Peter Harrington Rare Books in London, "mainly because the shop has an intimidating collection of dictionaries that could prove a distraction," Taylor wrote. "However, I'm going to need more than luck. Even a watching group of well-read staff is bamboozled as Mr. Smitheram reveals his letter mixology: 'I won last year's title scoring 176 with braconid, which is a type of parasitic wasp.' "

Bamboozled, indeed. 

I remember reading, many years ago, a poignant local newspaper story about the closing of a small Vermont factory that had manufactured Scrabble tiles out of maple boards for more than two decades. The production had been "outsourced" overseas and a domino effect ensued for the area--no more sawdust from the Scrabble tile factory to be used as bedding for local dairy cows, and the wood-fired ovens of the town's bakery could no longer burn rejected tiles, which the baker said were ideal. They knew the value of words. What is the exchange rate for letters?

Even on Scrabble Day, I just had to take letters and words as they came to me, for what they're worth, and make the best of them. Like these words about words from a love poem, since this is also Poetry Month:

Want a laugh? Look us up in the dictionary now
since they changed that old illustration.
We look stunned by all of this hesitant pleasure
and sweet, sweet pain. Words get in our eyes.
--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2980

When I Heard the Poet Read

ne of my April traditions for many years has been to consider not writing about Poetry Month, but I always succumb to temptation. It's a weakness. I read poetry almost daily; I write about it from time to time here; and poetry occupies significant real estate on my bookshelves.

Speaking of which: During a recent, noble (if still not quite finished) attempt to bring order to the semi-chaos of our personal library, I became reacquainted with my copy of Adam Zagajewski's Without End: New and Selected Poems. I bought it during the winter of 2002, though I had first heard him read from his work in the summer of 2001. At the time, I wrote about how a poet's words, spoken as well as written, can, in just the right light, open eyes. My eyes, at least. The beginning of Poetry Month 2017 seems like an appropriate moment to reflect on my first encounter with Zagajewski's work.

Begin with lines from his poem "Letter from A Reader":

Too much about death,
too many shadows.
Write about life,
an average day,
the yearning for order.

When the poet read, I hadn't seen any of the poems yet. His voice made words appear in the air before him. When the poet read, I leaned forward into those words to receive the brunt, the wave, the wash of image, and the sound of lines forged and bent in unlikely combinations ("A poem grows/ on contradiction but can't cover it.") that felt as fresh and inevitable as water down a hill (Europe's "coarse plaid of borders" or clouds that "swim on their backs, / gazing calmly at the sun.").

When the poet read, I heard the sketchbook of his work, and wanted more. Later, when I read the poet, sketches filled with color, hazy borders were framed, outlines of images came alive, the words irresistible in their knife-edged engagement with, and disengagement from, a mad and beautiful world.

Contentment is a moment for Zagajewski, a ledge to rest on as he climbs, not a habit or goal. The poet may be in America, but he is not from America. He is wary of our frenzied and well-documented pursuit of happiness. "Dutch Painters" begins with "Pewter bowls heavy and swelling with metal./ Plump windows bulging from the light"; and offers an evocative portrait in words of a place and time where "Doors were wide open, the wind was friendly./ Brooms rested after work well done./ Homes bared all."

Not the poet's home, however, because simplicity and peace are moments frozen. "The painting of a land without secret police," the poet observes and can't help wondering:

Tell us, Dutch painters, what will happen
when the apple is peeled, when the silk dims,
when all the colors grow cold.
Tell us what darkness is.

What is darkness?

where the horizon's razor lay in wait,
and the black spider of evening
and night, widow of so many dreams.

What is hatred?

I found the phrase
'There are blows so terrible...
Don't ask!'
I don't....

What is a poem?

Poetry summons us to life, to courage
in the face of the growing shadow. 

Zagajewski's Without End, like an artist's retrospective, is a timeline. I read, and hear, the poet again. A younger Zagajewski writes of complacency:

Don't let poems lull you
just don't read them you haven't got time
time's got you grips you in its fist
its claws if it's a bird
chokes you slowly you think it's only asthma 

A decade passes and he writes of quiet strength:

That force that grows
in Napoleon's dreams
and tells him to conquer Russia and snow
is also in poems
but is very still. 

Another decade passes and the poet writes of learning

I read poets, living and dead, who teach me
tenacity, faith, and pride.

And later, when the poet might have been driven to his knees by the world, Zagajewski writes a clear-eyed hymn to beauty and horror:

You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
And leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

When the poet read in 2001, I listened. When I read the poet in 2002, I heard. When I reread the poet in 2017, I understood that Zagajewski's poems are still speaking to me. 

It's April. Go find poets. Listen to them

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2975

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