Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane: A Review

Katherine Howe's debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was one of the surprise best-sellers of the past few years, made all the more so because of the strange title. In fact, the first time I saw the cover I thought it was about physics (fortunately I took the time to actually read the publisher's synopsis on the inside cover). Yet even clearing up the premise did not prepare me for how good, and original, this novel would be.

The story actually has dual protagonists: Connie Goodwin, a Harvard graduate student in 1991, and Deliverance Dane, a woman in late 1600s Salem, Massachusetts. And while Connie's storyline takes up the majority of the novel, the sections featuring Deliverance Dane (and later her daughter and granddaughter) are by far the most compelling. It is in these vignettes that the reader learns a great deal about life in Salem at the time of the Witch Trials, and the lives of women in that society.

The plot starts out in a very straightforward manner: during summer break from grad school, Connie moves to her late grandmother's house in Marblehead (near Salem) to prepare the long-abandoned property to be sold. While there, she comes across an old key in a family Bible; inside the key is an ancient scrap of paper with two words on it: Deliverance Dane. This begins a search to discover who this woman was, which leads to a search for her "physick book," which is in reality a spell book. Connie sees this original source material as perfect for her doctoral dissertation, if only she can find it and at the same time avoid the malevolent presence that seems to lurk on the edges of her perception.

In spite of the fact that Katherine Howe is herself a doctoral candidate in New England Studies, the vast amount of historical detail she provides fits seamlessly into the story. The obligatory love-story subplot is actually both interesting and vital to the resolution of the tale, and Howe's cliffhanger chapter endings kept me turning the pages long into the night.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane will definitely cause you to rethink the long-held, nearly mythic stereotypes we have about both the Salem Witch Trials and "witchcraft" itself. Yet it happens so gradually as the story unfolds that by the end you may find yourself believing in magic just a little more than you did at the start of the book. Regardless, it is a wonderful first novel by an author that we can only hope will have a long publishing career.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Joe Hill's "Horns": A Review

Long before anyone knew he was the son of horror legend Stephen King, author Joe Hill's outstanding debut novel Heart Shaped Box made it clear that a major new voice had arrived on the literary scene. His second novel, Horns, shows that he was no one-hit wonder, and may ultimately have a career as successful and prolific as his famous father. And as he did with his first novel, Hill opens Horns with a hook that grabs readers right from the start.

Ignatius "Ig" Perrish wakes after a night of drunken chaos to find that two horns have sprouted from his head, and not just any horns: devil horns. But these horns are not mere ornaments; they've got powers as well, which is both a blessing and a curse for Ig. As he struggles with his new condition, he comes to understand that these powers can be used to find (and punish) the person who murdered his longtime girlfriend a year earlier, a crime for which no one was charged but for which Ig remains the prime suspect.

Like his father, Joe Hill is firmly planted in the horror genre. But Hill diverges from most horror writers in that he creates truly literary novels at the same time. His plotting is tight, and his characters, both hero and villain, are fully formed. In fact, what makes them so real is that none are completely hero or completely villain, just like in life. You find yourself caring about the characters because they are not cardboard cutouts of people, they're us (even with horns growing out of their heads).

In Horns Hill also delves into how we view religion, God, and most importantly Satan. He doesn't preach or cajole the reader toward a certain viewpoint, but by the end of the book even a Pentecostal preacher would find it hard not to have, as the Stones put it, some sympathy for the Devil. This may sound blasphemous now, but maybe not as much after reading the book.

If there is one "flaw" in Horns, it is the fact that some of the flashback sequences seem to slow the breakneck pace of the story. But perhaps this isn't a flaw at all, because it is the only time the reader has a chance to catch their breath. All told, Horns is an excellent second novel from a writer of great ability and limitless potential.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Great Books for Your Fall Reading List

It's time for my First Annual Fall Reading List, one that anyone can stick to. I have included fourteen books, one for each week between now and the week of Christmas. Some are new, most are older, and a few are ones you should have read in college but didn't. You will also find that some can easily be read in one day, leaving extra time for a longer one.

With a few exceptions the list leaves off current best sellers for the simple reason that these are not yet out in paperback. This is important because while most, if not all, are available at your local library, many cities are drastically cutting library staff and hours, making obtaining these books more difficult.

1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. If I continue this list for the next 50 years, this book will still be first out of the gate. It has moved into a tie with The Razor's Edge as my all time favorite. It touches on such diverse topics as forbidden love, the Spanish Civil War, and the innate need we have for books. It layers all of these things on the mystery of why a disfigured man is burning all of the copies of books by Julian Carax, an obscure author whose novel, The Shadow of the Wind, was discovered by main character Daniel Sempere when he was 10. But be sure you have a lot of free time when you start this one; I stayed up all night reading the last 250 pages.

2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A runaway bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, the story takes place immediately following World War II in both London and the English Channel island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Nazis from 1940 through the end of the war. It centers around Juliet Ashton, an author and columnist in her early thirties, and her correspondence with her publisher, friends and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a group of islanders who used a love of books as way to survive the hardships of the German occupation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is captivating because of its story of perseverance in wartime and the discovery of love in unexpected places; the hardships the islanders endure actually help keep the story from being mere lighthearted fluff. But at its heart, this is a book about books and the role they play in our lives.

3. Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill. Unless you've been living in a cave for the past few years or so, you already know that Joe Hill's real name is Joe Hill King, son of Stephen King, and if his first novel is any indication, he should have a run of success that will eventually rival his dad's. Heart Shaped Box is a great read, and much more than your typical horror novel. The characters are well written and three-dimensional, the pace picks up with each page, and in the correct places it is really, really scary. Hill's seconds novel, Horns, is an exceptional book as well, but not yet out in paperback.

4. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. This novel packs a lot of emotion into its slim 256 pages as we follow the sometimes-intertwined stories of four characters trapped during the devastating Siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s. Much has been written and reported about the large-scale atrocities committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia; this novel brings the vast human tragedy down to a much more accessible scale.

5. The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion by Alice Kimberly. This is the fifth book in the Haunted Bookshop series, one that has both an interesting premise and a different twist on the mystery genre. Penelope Thornton-McClure owns a mystery bookshop in Rhode Island; she's the "cozy" side of the story. The shop is also inhabited by the ghost of Jack Shepard, a private investigator murdered in the store 50 years earlier; he's the "hard-boiled" side of the story. I've never seen the two mixed before, and never to such satisfying effect. And the four earlier titles in the series are easily as entertaining (reading them out of order is no problem).

6. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, but her follow-up effort, The People of the Book, may be even better. The novel is, interestingly enough, the fictional story of a real-life book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the first Jewish religious books to contain images, written and illuminated at a time when only Christian texts were illuminated because both Jews and Muslims considered it idolatrous. The book's journey from Spain in 1492 to 1996 Sarajevo is unveiled through a series of vignettes explaining its history over the past 500 years: from Spain at the time of the Inquisition to Renaissance Venice to Sarajevo in both World War II and the ethnic wars of the 1990s.

7. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Stylistically similar to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this short yet amazing book consists of the real-life (and often hilarious) correspondence that took place over a 20 year period between New Yorker Helene Hanff and London bookseller Frank Doel. And for readers who came of age during the reign of, there was indeed a time when you had to write letters to booksellers to find used and out of print copies of books.

8. The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham's finest novel, one of the best ever written, and one I'll soon be re-reading for the 26th time. It's become an annual ritual for me, and each time I get something new out of it. Larry Darrell's search for meaning after WWI is just as timely and relevant to our world today as it was when Maugham wrote it over 60 years ago.

9. Cadillac Jack by James McMurtry. Not your typical McMurtry novel, Cadillac Jack follows the exploits of Cadillac Jack, an antiques "scout" always on the lookout for the next big score. We get an amusing look at Washington, DC in the early 1980's as well as a bygone era before Antiques Roadshow, when you could still hope to find a Ming vase for $2 at a flea market in Tulsa.

10. On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It was required reading in college, but most of us ignored that and simply carried it around to impress girls. Here's your chance to finally get to know Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, two icons of American literature. On the Road is one heck of a trip. This is also one of the few times I would suggest listening to the book on disc rather than actually reading it. Matt Dillon reads the audio version, and does a magnificent job.

11. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. This was one of the surprise best-sellers of the past few years, made all the more so because of the strange title. The story actually has dual protagonists: Connie Goodwin, a Harvard graduate student in 1991, and Deliverance Dane, a woman in late 1600s Salem, Massachusetts. And while Connie's storyline takes up the majority of the novel, the sections featuring Deliverance Dane (and later her daughter and granddaughter) are by far the most compelling. It is in these vignettes that the reader learns a great deal about life in Salem at the time of the Witch Trials, and the lives of women in that society.

12. Flabbergasted by Ray Blackston. The first installment of a comic trilogy set in South Carolina, this may be the perfect beach novel. The characters are vividly drawn, and definitely grow on you as narrator Jay Jarvis and his friends navigate the Southern singles scene by, of all things, visiting various church singles classes. Not a bad idea for those tired of the online dating sites.

13. Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. There really aren't any sub-par Lincoln/Child books, especially ones that feature FBI Special Agent Pendergast. This is not the first Pendergast novel, but is the first of what the authors call the "Diogenes Trilogy," three novels that can stand alone but should really be read consecutively. The other two are Dance of Death and Book of the Dead. Let's call it a thinking-person's thriller.

14. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Zafon's semi-prequel to The Shadow of the Wind.The Angel's Game is the story of David Martín, a young Barcelona author with a troubled past who writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As he struggles with his love for a woman he cannot have, he also realizes that his talent has been sold to the highest (in fact only) bidder, and despair overtakes him. Then he receives a surprising and lucrative offer from a mysterious French publisher to write a book that will change people's lives forever. He accepts the offer, only to learn that his new situation is far more deadly than the first. This novel is the perfect way to end an autumn of great reading.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Banned Books Week 2010

The 29th Annual Banned Books Week will be held September 25th through October 2nd, and will involve special events and displays at libraries and bookstores across the nation. Banned Books Week began in 1982 as a collective effort between the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers and the National Association of College Stores to raise awareness of censorship problems in the United States and abroad. Surprisingly, after 28 years, it remains the only national celebration of the freedom to read.

Although it receives little press coverage, book censorship of all kinds (including book burning), continues today. Challenges to the content of books come from parents, teachers, clergy members, elected officials, and organized groups, typically because of objections to language, violence, sexual or racial themes, or religious viewpoint. In 2009, the American Library Association counted 460 challenges, mostly in schools. The majority of cases, however, go unreported.

The American Library Association reports that 42 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been banned or challenged at some point, including nine of the top ten. These include The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, and To Kill a Mockingbird (which ranked 4th on the Top 10 most-challenged list in 2009). Since the first Harry Potter book was released in 1997, fundamentalist Christian groups have attempted to ban the series because of the use of witchcraft as a central theme. The most ironic banning attempt targeted Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which is itself about censorship and the destruction of books.

Independent bookstores have typically been in the lead in supporting freedom of expression, from City Lights Books' Lawrence Ferlinghetti publishing Alan Ginsberg's Howl to Shakespeare and Company's Sylvia Beach publishing James Joyce's Ulysses. Both books were banned, yet the bookstore owners pressed on, and in Ferlinghetti's case the result was a Supreme Court ruling that established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work with redeeming social importance.

Examples of censorship such as those listed above are the reason that Banned Books Week is important, and why it is more than simply another marketing gimmick used by bookstores to generate sales. In a time when freedom of expression has been weakened in the name of both Homeland Security and political correctness, we must remind ourselves and our children that censorship still exists in America and that we must speak out against it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Angel's Game: A Review

The success of a book can be a very strange thing. Some books are huge bestsellers but are written quite poorly, while others are critically acclaimed yet sell very few copies. And there are some that achieve a cult following, sometimes years after the author's death.

It is extremely rare, however, for a novel to be critically acclaimed, an international bestseller and a cult classic. Carlos Ruiz Zafon accomplished this literary hat trick with his novel The Shadow of the Wind. Released in Spanish in 2001, and translated into English in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind has been universally praised by critics around the globe and has sold 12 million copies worldwide. As for the cult following, it is one of those books you'll buy several times a year because you keep giving your copy away to friends.

Success, however, can be a writer's worst enemy, and huge global success even more so. For years now, the question has been when the second book would arrive and whether there was any way it could live up to the bar set by The Shadow of the Wind. We now have the answer to both.

First released in Spanish in 2008 as El juego del angel, the new novel is universally acclaimed by critics across Europe. It has already sold 1.6 million copies in Spain and has been a #1 bestseller in Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Norway, and several Latin American countries. The English translation of The Angel's Game was be released in the US in June 2009, and the trade paperback version came out earlier this year. Without a doubt, The Angel's Game was worth the five-year wait.

The Angel's Game is the story of David Martin, a young Barcelona author with a troubled past who writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As he struggles with his love for a woman he cannot have, he also realizes that his talent has been sold to the highest (in fact only) bidder, and despair overtakes him. As he nears the edge of the abyss, he receives a surprising and lucrative offer from a mysterious French publisher to write a book that will change people's lives forever. He accepts the offer, only to learn that his new situation is far more deadly than the first.

Although Zafon has said that the book is not a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind (even though it is set in Barcelona only two decades earlier and brings back a few of the same characters), his website describes it in this way:

"Set in the turbulent 1920s, The Angel's Game takes us back to the Gothic universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere & Son bookshop, and the winding streets of Barcelona's old quarter, in a masterful tale about the magic of books and the darkest corners of the human soul."

This may be the best description, because at their heart, The Angel's Game and Shadow of the Wind share far more than locale, a few characters, and the amazing Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Both are, as one reviewer said about the earlier novel, "love letters to books." Both examine the power of books to change our lives in ways we often don't even realize. One quote that appears in both novels sums this up:

"Every book has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."

This is not something we often consider in our digital, Internet-driven world, yet every so often a book comes along that stays with you long after you've finished reading it. You almost come to think of the characters as real people, and miss them when they are gone. These books challenge us to examine our inner selves and the world around us, and they can change us, hopefully for the better, while at the same time being a contract of sorts between writer and reader. The Shadow of the Wind was such a book, and The Angel's Game is as well. When I finished reading the advance copy of The Angel's Game, I found myself wishing it had gone on for 500 more pages, and hoping that the next novel doesn't take Zafon five years to write.

This is a novel with a very strong soul, and books like this don't come around nearly often enough. You should relish it, and then share it with everyone you know.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Bookman's Booktown

Small-town West Texas is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about books, and even less so when thinking about a Mecca of books. But thanks to native son Larry McMurtry (author of such books as The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove), that is exactly what Archer City, Texas has become.

By his own account, it always bothered McMurtry that his hometown had no bookstores (and no library until he helped build one after his writing career flourished). Given that the town has only 2,000 residents, his frustration may have been unrealistic, but men with big dreams are seldom deterred by reality. Thus, when rent at his Booked Up bookstore in Washington, D.C., became too high he moved the store back home to Archer City after more than three decades in the nation's capital. What he created is nothing short of amazing.

Booked Up is not a "store" in the normal sense of the word. It comprises four buildings that take up the better part of downtown Archer City. Spread throughout these four buildings are roughly 400,000 books arranged, according to the comical description on their website:

"Erratically/Impressionistically/Whimsically/Open to Interpretation."

And don't ask them if they have a particular title in stock; they don't know, and wouldn't want to deprive you of the joy of browsing if they did. They're not being rude; the staff is actually very friendly. It's just a quirk you have to deal with when one of the biggest independent used bookstores in the United States has only two employees.

Those employees can almost always be found in Building 1, which houses the rare and signed books as well as the cash register. If you're looking for books on military history, you have to walk to Building 2 and then bring the book back to Building 1 to pay. It's a throwback to a time when merchants actually trusted their customers, as well as an assumption that someone willing to drive that far to shop for books loves books too much to steal them.

And drive you will; the nearest large city is Fort Worth, 110 miles to the east. The bulk of your drive will be on TX-199, the old Jacksboro Highway, which is not the most scenic route in America. But it's easily worth the two-hour trip, or even a three-hour flight from the East Coast followed by a two-hour drive, for both a look at the books and what you might find inside.

During my last trip to Booked Up, I discovered that McMurtry was right when he said they rarely get around to re-pricing their books after they've been shelved (it would be a Herculean task, to be sure). In Building 3, in the Foreign Books and Translations section, I discovered a signed first edition of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind on the bottom shelf in the back of the building. The price for a signed copy has risen in recent years to roughly $200.00, and I got it at Booked Up for $40.00, an obvious beneficiary of their inability to continually re-price all that stock.

McMurtry says he likes it that way, because the lure of finding a hidden gem keeps people coming to his store, keeps them buying books, and most importantly keeps them reading. Given that this Pulitzer and Oscar winning writer still considers bookselling his true occupation, I'm certainly not going to argue.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Books Still Matter

My last post dealt with the question I’m often asked of why we still need independent bookstores. Another question that often comes up when discussing my goal of opening a bookstore is equally alarming: “Do we really still need books?” In this instance, however, the question is deceiving, because invariably what the person means is do we still need printed books. Following the “success” of Amazon’s Kindle and copycat readers from the other members of the Axis of Evil (Borders and Barnes and Noble), barely a day has gone by without some media genius proclaiming the end of books on paper within the next 10 years.

But does this increase in the sales of e-readers and e-books really mean the demise of the printed book? In a word: no. One thing must always be remembered about the Kindle (and any other e-book reader): it is first and foremost an electronic gadget. Tech-craving consumers will buy anything new that will connect to the Internet. However, the fact that these same consumers will discard a perfectly good cell phone simply because a new version appears six months later should put the recent appeal of the Kindle in its proper perspective.

Both the manufacturers of e-readers (and the legion of people who bought them as gifts last Christmas, which was when the first sales spike occurred) assume that if books are offered in the same format as every other form of media, then people will automatically prefer that method. However, this is simply not the case. Games, social networking sites, and even to a degree newspapers are a good fit for computers, cell phones, and other hand-held devices; books are not, for several reasons:

1. Printed books provide a tactile experience. Music is heard, and films are both seen and heard, but books are experienced both visually and by touch. There is an aspect to the feel of books (the smooth glossy cover, the roughness and even smell of the paper) that provides a physical sensation that is both separate from and intimately linked to the story you are reading. We bond not only with the author (novels being the only art form that requires many hours of commitment on the part of the audience) but with the book itself.

2. Great novels, from War and Peace to The Shadow of the Wind were not meant to be read on a digital screen, no matter how much “like paper” they try to make that screen. Most of us spend our entire workday staring at a computer screen, plus additional hours in front of a computer or television after we get home. The last thing most readers want to do is spend even more time staring at a screen.

3. Books can be written in, dog-eared, loaned to friends, stuffed in your back pocket, browsed for on rainy afternoons, and then sold to a used bookshop for cash to buy yet more books. Try that with a Kindle.

4. Most readers (and we have always been remarkably few as percentage of the total population) like having a personal library. It may or may not contain highly collectible items like a signed Hemingway or first-edition Faulkner, but a bookcase loaded with books can be much more than a simple collection. It can serve as a timeline of our lives: the copy of Homer you read in the same college class as your future wife, that Robert Parker Spenser novel you read in the hospital waiting for your son to be born, that copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets you read to your daughters over a snowy weekend, and that biography of Maugham you discovered in a cool little shop in London. These are books you pass down through generations, even though they may have value only within the context of your own family. Once again, you can’t do that with an e-reader. The books in a Kindle don’t even exist except as bits of binary code.

Finally, we need only look to our own history to see that printed books will always find a way to survive. Books have weathered far greater threats than the Kindle for over 100 years. The book's demise was first predicted with the advent of radio, then with the arrival of motion pictures, television, video games, and finally the Internet and the iPad age. It was even thought that the launch of Penguin Publishing's paperback book line in 1935 would quickly spell the end of hardcover books; 75 years later hardcovers are still around. And given our attention span with gadgets in general, I think that printed books are quite safe.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why Independent Bookstores Matter

In my first post I mentioned that I am often asked if we really need independent bookstores in an electronic age. After my frustration at the question subsides, I explain why the answer is a very definite yes. There are many reasons why we still (and always will) need independent bookstores, but it really boils down to two basic reasons: economic and social.

As corporate giants like Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon continue to dominate an increasingly competitive booksellers market, independent bookstores find it harder than ever just to survive. Yet these locally owned businesses contribute far more to the local economy than retail chains, according to several studies by the American Bookseller Association.

Major retailers present some obvious advantages to consumers. Barnes and Noble, for example, offers everything from books to music to movies, and sell coffee as well. Their children's section is larger than many independents' entire store. And they offer deep discounts that smaller business often cannot match. Both Barnes and Noble and rival Borders offer a comfortable environment, with large overstuffed chairs where customers can browse through books before making a purchase.

But there are costs to such convenience that are not so obvious. National chains take far more out of a community economically than they ever put back in. According to a study conducted by the firm Civic Economics in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, trading independent retailers for big-box chains weakens the local economy. This occurs because while local stores recycle a much larger share of their sales revenue back into the local economy, chains siphon most of the dollars spent at their stores out of the community, sending them back to corporate headquarters or to distant suppliers.

The study applies to all local businesses, not only bookstores, but bookstores are a part of the local economy, and therefore the findings are worth considering. The study found that spending $100 at one of the neighborhood's independent businesses created $68 in additional local economic activity, while spending $100 at a chain produced only $43 worth of local impact. The difference was due to four factors:

Local Payroll: The locally owned businesses spent a larger share of their revenue on local labor (29% vs. 23%), because they carried out all management functions on-site, rather than at a corporate headquarters.

Procurement: The local retailers spent more than twice as much buying goods and services from other local businesses. They banked locally; hired local accountants, attorneys, designers, and other professionals; advertised in local media; and where possible ordered inventory from local firms.

Profits: Because their owners live in the area, a larger portion of the local retailers' profits stayed within the local economy.

Charitable giving: The local retailers donated more on average to local charities and community organizations than the chains did.

Also, with regard to local sales tax revenues, sales effectively skirt sales tax collection entirely. None of us like paying taxes, but sales tax pays for the little things like our police officers, firefighters and teachers. Buying at a local independent bookstore keeps that revenue in your town where it belongs, serving the needs of your community.

Beyond the economic impact, the Andersonville study found that over 70% of the people surveyed actually prefer to patronize local businesses. Surveys have also shown that people prefer a more unique store and more personal interaction to the cookie-cutter, impersonal feel present in many large retailers. Sadly, many areas (including those as large as the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex), have no independent bookstore to patronize.

The personal interaction mentioned above is the other reason we need independent bookstores. It may be hard to believe in the age of Facebook and Twitter, but there was a time when our social activity wasn’t done from a distance in front of computers. Bookstores were among the places where people gathered to exchange and debate ideas on everything from literature to politics.

As important to readers as a lively discussion is helpful book recommendations from knowledgeable booksellers. Few of us can afford every book that catches our eye, so being able to avoid the bad ones is crucial. It is also a pleasant feeling in this increasingly disconnected society to see a familiar person who remembers that you like both the hard-boiled novels of Mickey Spillane and the occasional Agatha Christie. For me at least, ordering a book online can never replace ducking into a local bookstore on a rainy day, browsing down countless shelves of titles, usually ending up with a novel I’d never even heard of before that day, often based solely on the recommendation of the bookseller. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

Welcome to Somerset Books

Welcome to the first post of the Somerset Books blog. I should start with a disclaimer: the picture of the bookstore on the right side of the page is not my store. It's the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, but it pretty much captures what I think most book lovers envision when they think of a bookstore, and what I hope my store will someday be.

My goal is to open an independent bookstore for the readers of the North Texas area and beyond. It boggles the mind that a metro area of 6 million people has no choice for books but the corporate Axis of Evil that is Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Half-Price Books (the Wal-Mart of the book world), and my aim is to change that. This blog will chronicle the process of taking Somerset Books from dream to reality, as well as thoughts on books, reading, and the trends currently shaking the book world today.

The most common questions I get lately are "Why do you want to open a bookstore?" and "Do we really need bookstores in an electronic age?" The answer to the first question is simple: there has never been anywhere I've been more at peace than in a good bookstore, so why not take what you love and make it your life? The answer to the second question is the subject of my next post.

Thanks for stopping by.