It has been a full decade since I’ve read a book of my own, singular choosing. What I mean is that every book I’ve cracked open and read in the past ten years has been read because of some friend, colleague, teacher; some review, prize, or list; some class, job, or writing goal dictated that the book was a must-read. The last book I read was a Man Booker finalist, the one before that was written by an old professor of mine, and the one before that had been both on the New York Times Bestseller list for weeks and adapted into a movie. The books on my to-read list are just as semi-known, semi-vetted. Don’t misunderstand — I still read widely (in fiction, at least), and I don’t feel constricted by the focus recommended reading gives me. But I also can’t stop thinking of how I used to read. Wildly, haphazardly, with no safety net.
When I was younger, during the summer months, I used to go to my public library every weekend to check out a new stack of books. I went with no real compass besides the library signs that marked certain aisles “Fiction” and others “Non-Fiction.” Instead, I would patiently peruse the shelves, pulling out whatever covers or titles caught my eye. Then, if the inside flap summary and the first few pages seemed interesting, the book would go into the canvas tote I always managed to fill to bulging capacity. I’d take these books home and make my way through them, and though my memory gets foggy with the particulars, I do know that every week there were some real duds, as well as some gems. And didn’t the gems appear that much more brilliant because of the duds?
When I think back to that time, I’m shocked at how I managed to find a book to read with no New York Times reviews or media hype to guide me. The way I goggle at my past self is the way most people exclaim about the fifties and sixties. “We didn’t know anything back then!” these people always say. “We smoked in hospitals and hitchhiked in strangers’ cars! How did we survive?”
“How did I survive?” I ask my past self. “I read anything with a pretty cover or a funny title. I could have stranded myself amidst all those books.” I shake my head. I throw my hands up. “How did I ever manage to I find anything good to read?”
Yet mixed in with my shock and condescension is a yearning. I remember the anticipation of plucking an unknown book off the shelf, but also the certainty that somewhere in my canvas tote, my next favorite book was lurking. Even as I shake my head at how naively I used to read, I’m also romanced by my previous self-sufficiency, as others are drawn toward the idea of reading the stars like a compass or building one’s own wood cabin from scratch. And when I consider all the people and media and motivations that buffer my encounters with new books, I grow a little frightened. If one day I’m left completely rudderless, with no one to tell me what book is best, then what will I read? I try to picture myself in front of a wall of unknown books, no gold medals stamped into the front cover or numbers sold on the back, not a single reference point except the book itself. And where I once would have felt the thrill of discovery, of potential literary seduction, now I feel powerless and lost. Where did my natural, childhood instincts go? How did I lose the ability to find good books on my own?
My panicked way of thinking is linked, of course, to my bookseller job at Literati. Now that I’m in the position of being one of the guides to good reads, I can’t help but think back to all the ways I’ve been guided myself. Especially since Literati is the perfect place to go when you’re a reader who is tired of being lost at sea.
Literati, being on the smaller side, is necessarily curated. Books are expensive, space is limited, and so if a book winds up on our shelves, it has been recommended in some way. It is, in other words, a book someone would want to buy. This kind of curation is both practical and considerate, but even so, I can still see disorientation settle over new readers’ faces as they wander the aisles, wondering where to start. The staff review cards — laminated index cards that highlight certain books in each section — are yet another compass, and it’s not an unfamiliar sight to see a customer make their way down the shelves one card at a time, our reviews their stepping stones across what must seem like an ocean. The last safety net is the staff themselves, who can offer up their recommendations based on what each individual is looking for. The business, it seems, is not so much selling books, but selling the right books to the right people.
Working at Literati, being driven to find great books that I can then drive other people to read, has added a new focus to my reading practice. During the slow periods, I go up and down the shelves looking for my next book to read, by which I mean my next book to review. The books I mentioned at the beginning of this essay are also the last three books for which I have (or intend to have) written a staff card. I want to be helpful — to Literati, but also to fellow readers. I like the idea of being a guide, until I start thinking of the multitude of things that guided me. Do I want to rob someone of the joy of discovering a great book on their own? Do I want to install so many safety nets to the reading experience that there is hardly an experience at all?
What I forget, and what it has taken me the process of writing this essay to remember, is that my reading practice is evolving even in periods of wildness. Every book I read adds itself to my web of reference. Favorite and despised authors light my way, leading me to and away from their contemporaries, their influences, their genres. I’ve never read in a vacuum. More importantly, I’ve never read randomly for the sake of reading randomly, nor even because reading randomly was something I enjoyed. I was reading randomly in the hopes that I might one day read with purpose.
Of course, I could stand to benefit from a little random reading, and in doing so expand this web I’ve spun. But if and when I do pull a great book from the masses, there’s no way I’m sitting on that information, believing that a recommendation will rob someone of the full experience. Great books deserve to be pointed out on everyone’s reading map.
Now, when I look at lost customers at Literati, when I read a book in the hopes of recommending it, when I look forward to a new book because of all the good things I’ve heard about it, I am thankful for the safeties I’ve installed for myself over a decade of reading. I feel gratified to do the same for those who are still in the wild, peering up to make out the dim stars to guide them.
Image: Belott, Brian. “Books, books, books, books, books, books, and books.” 2005-07. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.