Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Starting a Book Club

Book clubs are a great way to both discover new writers and develop new friendships. Many readers, however, do not have a book club they can easily join, and are unsure how to start one themselves. However, starting a book club is far easier than most would imagine.

All you really need to start a book club is two or more friends or acquaintances who share a love of books and reading. Co-workers, neighbors, and friends from church or other organizations are all people you can ask to join your book club, as long as they share your love of books. They do not have to love the same types of books, however; discovering new books, authors, and genres is part of the joy of being part of a group of fellow book lovers.

It is best to limit the group to a small number at the outset; no fewer than three and no more than eight is probably a good guideline. If there are too few it will be difficult to get a good discussion started, and with too many someone will invariably be a wallflower and never join the discussion. And the discussions will lead you in directions that will both surprise and enlighten you.

Once the membership of the book club has been determined, there a some logistical items than need to be taken care of, such as how often you will meet, where the meetings will be, and in what order people will choose the book the group will be reading. These may seem like insignificant issues, but they are actually critical for the club to run smoothly and keep members interested and engaged.

In most cases, meeting once a month will give time both for everyone to read the current selection and to arrange things like childcare for the meeting night. The order in which people will choose the book to be read can be done in any number of ways, from alphabetically by name to drawing names out of a hat. It may make sense for the person who organized to group to choose the first book, and then follow the decided upon order after that.

Book clubs can meet almost anywhere, from the house of the person who chose the current book to a restaurant or coffee shop. You can also take trips to museums or art galleries if they match up well with the subject matter of the book. Just be sure to leave plenty of time for discussion. The person who chose the current book should have questions prepared before the meeting in order to both stimulate the discussion and keep the conversation on topic.

Over time, usually during the first year, one or more people will drop out of the club and others will be added. As time goes on, you will have a feel for what the right size for your group is, and may choose to either expand it to more than the original number or to keep it at the same size. You will also learn what types of book will or will not work for your particular group.

Finally, while each person will tempted to choose a favorite book to share with the group, one they have already read (and should re-read when the group does), one of the most rewarding things about a book club is discovering new authors, especially ones you would never have chosen if left to pick for yourself. In this way book clubs open up new worlds of reading and expand your horizons, both in the literary sense and in our view of the world. There will inevitably be books most of the group hates, but even this can be a valuable experience, as knowing what you don’t like helps steer you toward what you do like.

So don’t be afraid to start your own book club. Reading is a solitary endeavor, but paradoxically one that can and should be shared with others. Discussing books with friends is a great way to strengthen the bonds of friendship and share something you all love.

Thoughts After Reading "Destiny, Rewritten"

If you follow my Facebook page, you know that I just finished the wonderful new novel by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, Destiny Rewritten. What I wrote on my page was not exactly a review, but it summed up what I felt after reading it:

"Go buy it now (you'll find it in the children's/Young Adult's the one NOT about vampires). Whether you're 10 or 110, it will captivate you, and leave you better for having read it. And isn't that what good books are supposed to do?"

I had intended to write a more straightforward review here, but the book has had me thinking, which is always dangerous. For those who want to know a little more before heeding my command to go out and buy it now, it is the story of 11-year-old Emily Elizabeth Davis, who has been told her entire young life that she is destined to become a poet like her namesake, the famous poet Emily Dickenson. But what her mother wants for her destiny and what she wants for herself may not be the same thing, which leads her on a quest: a quest for a lost book of poems that contains her life story, a quest to find her father, and a quest to find out if destiny really is set in stone, or if we can help it along. And who doesn't love a good quest?

My synopsis doesn't come close to doing the novel justice, so here's a passage that will show why Fitzmaurice is the writer and I'm the bookseller:

"We circled the store until we found the poetry section, which was as big as they said it was in the phone book, with shelves to the ceiling and stools you could use in case you needed a book that was higher than your arms could reach. Possibilities, everywhere. It was exactly the kind of place you never wanted to leave."

Possibilities, everywhere. Best two-word description of a bookstore ever.

As I said above, this is a rare Middle-Grade/Young Adult book that doesn't follow the trendy vampire formula, but it is much more. The reason it will appeal to young and old alike is that it's a well-crafted story with real characters and great dialogue, and that's what readers of any age want. Think about some of the great books: Treasure Island (an adventure story for boys and a literary classic), Winnie the Pooh (a children's story and a literary classic), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (a kid's book and one of the best novels to come out in decades, hype notwithstanding).

I mention these books to make a simple point: great stories are timeless and ageless. Carlos Ruiz Zafon put it this way when asked about his young adult novel The Prince of Mist, released a decade before The Shadow of the Wind: "I did not write it for teen readers, but rather for everyone who loves to read."

That pretty much summarizes my feelings about Destiny, Rewritten: it's for your kids, and for you, and for everyone who loves to read.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The "Flabbergasted" Trilogy: A Review

The so called "Christian fiction" genre has grown steadily over the past several years, boosted by the fact that stores devoted solely to Christian books have been opening as fast as other brick-and-mortar bookstores have been closing. The problem with most of these Christian novels is that while they do have religious overtones and far less sex, language, and violence than mainstream fiction, they are typically not very well-written stories. One notable exception is the Flabbergasted trilogy by Ray Blackston.

Flabbergasted is Blackston's debut novel, and it gives the name to the trilogy that ultimately followed. Set in Greenville, South Carolina, Flabbergasted is one of the best beach novels I have ever come across. 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 Sunday school classes. Not a bad idea for those tired of the online dating sites.

I was well into the book before I realized that it fell into the "Christian fiction" description, because unlike many others of its kind, it was not dogma converted into a novel. And when the subject of salvation did finally appear, it was written with humor and subtlety, something many Christian writers (and preachers) lack. From girls who church-hop looking for husbands to missionaries with a fondness for throwing food at people, this is an entertaining group of characters, not some fictionalized hellfire-and-brimstone sermon.

The second book in the series is A Delirious Summer. The premise is similar to Flabbergasted, but with a twist. The narrator this time is Neil Rucker, a missionary on furlough for the summer looking for a wife in the wilds of Greenville, where he encounters many of the same people Jay Jarvis met in the first book. He quickly finds that Carolina beaches may be even more dangerous than the Amazon jungle, and watching this young man try to navigate the Greenville social scene is a lot of fun. Allie, Darcy, and Alexis form one of the most hilarious (if sometimes dangerous) trios I've read in a long time.

The final novel in the series is Lost in Rooville, and it is here that Blackston falls a little flat. For most of the book the characters are lost in the Australian Outback, and while there are entertaining parts, taking the setting outside of South Carolina hurts the story somewhat. We do get to see the resolution of these myriad relationships that started in the first two books, however, and that combined with the familiar and likable characters makes it worth reading.

So if you're looking for some well-written, funny, and sometimes enlightening novels for those long winter nights, check out the Flabbergasted trilogy, particularly the first two books. If nothing else, you'll never look at dating the same way again.

The Shadow of the Wind: A Review

Rarely will a novel be critically acclaimed, a huge commercial bestseller and a cult classic, yet Carlos Ruiz Zafon accomplished this literary hat trick with his novel The Shadow of the Wind. First released in Spanish in 2001, and translated into English in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind is the first of a series of four planned novels revolving around the city of Barcelona (The Angel's Game and The Prisoner of Heaven are the second and third installments, respectively). To date, the novel has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, and the most common reaction of readers was that they were sad to see the story end. It is one of those books you wish would go on for another 500 pages, and one you buy multiple copies of to give to friends (I gave away a copy just last week).

The novel is the story of Daniel Sempere, who at age 10 is taken by his father, a Barcelona bookseller, to the amazing Cemetery of Forgotten Books. While there he chooses a book called "The Shadow of the Wind" by Julian Carax. He is so enthralled by the novel that as he enters adulthood he sets out to find every book Carax has written, but encounters a sinister obstacle. Every copy of every book the author has written is being tracked down and burned by a disfigured man who bears a striking resemblance to a character in Carax's novel. Daniel's quest to save the remaining copies is intertwined with the story of Barcelona and its recovery from the Spanish Civil War.

But The Shadow of the Wind is much more than a literary mystery. It is a Gothic masterpiece, filled with action, romance, mystery and, of course, books. One reviewer has called it a "love letter to books," because it examines the power of books to change our lives in ways we often don't even realize. One quote from the novel 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 electronic, Kindle e-book reader world. Books, real ink and paper books, matter. They 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 tangible creation, a contract of sorts between writer and reader. The Shadow of the Wind is such a book. It is a novel with a very strong soul, and books like this don't come around nearly often enough. It is a modern-day classic that everyone should read.

The Bookman's Wake: A Review

Take a detective turned book dealer, a rare volume of Poe's The Raven, and a young woman with the improbable name of Eleanor Rigby, and you have John Dunning's second Cliff Janeway mystery, The Bookman's Wake. However, like the now-classic first installment, Booked to Die, there is much more here than a typical formulaic mystery novel, and if you're not careful you might just learn something about rare books (as well as the long-lost art of book printing and binding) on the way to the book's climax.

The novel begins with Denver ex-cop turned book dealer Cliff Janeway on his way to Seattle to bring the young Eleanor Rigby (yes, like the Beatles song) back to New Mexico for trial; she is accused of stealing a rare 1969 Grayson Press edition of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Then the real trouble begins, because Janeway is won over by the girl's claim of innocence and sets out to protect her from an unknown assailant who has been killing people for more than 20 years in an attempt to get the book. Along the way we get more insider information from Dunning (himself a rare book dealer in Denver) on the book trade, including some amusing rants about inscriptions and remainder marks. As with Booked to Die, Dunning accomplishes this "reader education" without ever slowing down the pace of the story.

The Bookman's Wake solidifies John Dunning's place as the master of the serial bibliomystery. A bibliomystery is one in which a book, manuscript, author, or bookstore is central to the plot of the novel; there have been quite a number of them, from the 1920s up to the present day. And while Lev Grossman's The Codex and Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas are both outstanding examples of stand-alone bibliomysteries, only Dunning has been able to successfully convert the genre to series form. For those who love both books and book culture, this is a very satisfying combination.

Though the plot is not as tight and the ending a little less surprising than Booked to Die, all in all The Bookman's Wake is still a fine mystery novel. Janeway remains one of the most interesting main characters in mystery fiction this side of Robert B. Parker's Spenser. And as is true with all of John Dunning's books, the time spent reading them is always rewarding.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Booked to Die: A Review

Every so often a book catches readers by surprise; even more rarely that book becomes part of the very world it seeks to chronicle. Both were the case with John Dunning's Booked to Die, the first in the remarkable Cliff Janeway "Bookman" series.

Booked to Die is the story of a burned out cop named Cliff Janeway who quits the police force to become a rare book dealer. Janeway has turned in his badge; he keeps both his gun and his penchant for solving crimes. The mysteries now revolve around the new world of rare books he inhabits, which puts this book squarely in the genre of bibliomystery.

As I wrote in an earlier post, a bibliomystery is one in which a book or manuscript is central to the plot of the novel. The definition can be expanded to include mystery novels in which libraries, librarians, bookstores, booksellers, publishers and/or authors play a key role in the story. The genre existed well before Booked to Die, going back at least as far as Agnes Miller's The Colfax Book-Plate in 1926, but Dunning's contribution was a turning point, much like Springsteen's Born to Run (which helped both save and redefine rock music in the 70s). In many ways, Dunning opened the door for many of today's hugely popular bibliomysteries, from Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas to Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind.

What stands out in Booked to Die is not simply the solving of a mystery, though Dunning takes the reader on a non-stop thrill ride in doing so. This novel is unique because it gives the reader a behind the scenes look at the world of rare book dealers, as well as an education into rare books themselves, without ever bogging down the narrative. In the end, watching Janeway scout through a pile of books in an East Denver thrift shop is as interesting as witnessing the brutal fight that ends his career as a cop. And Dunning gives us some twists at the end that would surprise even Sherlock Holmes.

John Dunning is himself a rare book dealer in Denver, and Booked to Die made the leap into the real world of rare books in a way he never imagined. The initial print run was a minuscule 6,500 hardcover copies, at least in part because Dunning had not published a book in more than ten years. He says he doubted that even that small number would sell out; he was wrong. The book sold out overnight, and has since gone through at least five hardcover printings and more than 20 paperback printings.

That first hardcover print run is now one of the most collectible books on the market. Unsigned copies sell for as much as $800.00, and signed copies for close to $2,000.00. With a novel this good and print run that small, Dunning should have seen this coming. Cliff Janeway certainly would have.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Thirteenth Tale: A Review

I have to admit at the outset that I doubted Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale could live up to the hype surrounding it. In various reviews it had been compared to everything from Dickens to the Bronte sisters to Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind (this seemed the most outrageous claim to me, loving that novel as I do). After reading it I can honestly say that it lives up to the hype.

I am by no means saying that Setterfield is Dickens, nor that The Thirteenth Tale is The Shadow of the Wind. Neither is true, and Setterfield never claimed this for herself or her novel. But in a world where we love to stuff people, books, and everything else into neat little categories, invoking these literary greats when talking about The Thirteenth Tale is understandable, because it is one beautiful read.

This is one of those novels that literally has everything you could want jammed into its 416 pages, and yet it all works. There is mystery and history and ghosts and danger and romance and books and feral twins and even two heroines, and all of it weaves together perfectly. Maybe best of all, you won’t guess the ending midway through (I thought I had…wrong). And yes, in that list of things a few sentences ago I included "feral twins;" got your attention now?

The publisher’s blurb on the inside flap of the book says: "The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading…a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and that we loved as children. Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied upon the shores of your everyday life." That’s one bold guarantee, but Setterfield delivers.

This is the kind of book that deserves to be read in front of a crackling fire in a comfy chair over a long weekend; a storm raging outside would be a nice addition, but isn’t critical. What is critical is that you make sure there are no pressing items on your calendar, because you won’t get to them once you start this book. It is a literary escape of the very best kind.

Early in the novel, there is an exchange between the two main characters, the elderly reclusive author Vida Winter and her young, naive, would-be biographer Margaret Lea:

"You have given nineteen different versions of your life story to journalists in the last two years alone."

Vida shrugged. "It's my profession. I'm a storyteller."

Vida is indeed one hell of a storyteller, and so is Diane Setterfield.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Heaven in Scotland

The video below is from a BBC News Magazine interview with Jessica Fox, author of the upcoming book Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets: A Memoir. Fox is a former NASA employee who left a great job in Los Angeles and found real life (and love) in a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. Wigtown has a population of 1,000, 1 grocery store, and 16 bookshops. Heaven indeed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Friends of the Library" Book Sales

Most children develop a love of reading at their local library, and few people can afford to own every book they want to read. Therefore local libraries and local bookstores coexist in an important literary ecosystem. With cities around the country facing huge budget deficits, however, funding for libraries is often one of the first items slashed.

One way to help your local library (and get great deals on books in the process) is to support the annual book sale held by the Friends of the Library in your town. And if you happen to live in a large metropolitan area, there is the added bonus of multiple sales every year, since each city has their own Friends of the Library chapter. At these sales you can find books, sometimes in like-new condition, at prices even lower than at the average garage sale.
There are a few things to know in order to make the most of a library sale, and the first is when and where they will be held. The best resource for library books sales is the website Book Sale Finder, which lists every book sale in the country by state. The site lists both annual sales and ongoing sales that some libraries have.
When researching an upcoming sale always look at the total number of books items and the percentage of donated items (this will also be listed on the Book Sale Finder site). The best sales will have at least 25,000 books; those with under 5,000 are often a waste of time. This is because the total number includes things like textbooks, VHS tapes, and vinyl records, and without a high number of total items, the number of books will be too small for a good selection.
The number of donated items is equally important, especially if you are a serious collector. Donated books are copies given to the Friends of the Library by the public. If 50% of the items are donated, that means that the other 50% are ex-library copies that have been removed from the shelves for one reason or another. While these are perfectly fine reading copies, most folks don't want a bunch of tattered, discarded library books on their shelves at home. Look for sales where at least 75% of the items have been donated.
The next thing you will want to do is check the hours of the sale. Most will start on a Thursday night and run through either Saturday or Sunday. Thursday nights are usually a "sneak peek" for those who have a membership in the Friends of the Library. Those who are not members can join at the door for anywhere from $10.00 to $35.00; it is a good way for the Friends to increase their membership and for members to have first choice of the books available. Prices for the rest of the weekend will usually be $2.00 for a hardcover book and $1.00 for a paperback. Many sales will use a sliding scale over the course of the weekend, with hardcovers dropping to $1.00 on Saturday or Sunday and paperbacks to fifty cents.
If you attend on a Thursday night or Friday morning, arriving at least thirty minutes to an hour early is essential; even then there will already be people in line. If the sale allows, you should bring an empty box or crate for the books you choose; most sales only have small plastic bags available for patrons' use. There will also typically be a map showing the layout of the sales floor. Look over this before the doors open so you can determine the best route to your areas of interest. Also, although most sales now accept checks and credit cards it is always best to bring cash just in case.
Finally, bring a large amount of patience with you. There will be a lot of waiting, both for the doors to open and during the checkout process (the books will be tallied at one table and paid for at another, and there are never enough volunteers). People will push and jostle, and it is entirely possible that a sweet little old lady will punch you in the kidney so she can get to that Janet Evanovich hardcover before you do. Such is the gentle passion of book lovers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

When is the last time you wrote someone a letter? Not an e-mail or text message, a real, handwritten with pen and paper, mailed in a stamped envelope letter. That's what I thought. And while this may seem an odd question to pose on a blog about books and reading, I think that they actually go quite well together.

We have become so addicted to instant communication that the very idea of writing someone a letter seems as ancient as 8-track tapes (if you don't know what those are, ask your mom). Even the speed of text messages and e-mails isn't fast enough for some people, giving rise to a host of abbreviations that I can't even begin to keep up with. And whether we realize it or not, there is a great danger in the loss of the letter.

The danger is that we will become the first generation in history to leave no written record of ourselves. If George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Ernest Hemingway had only used e-mail, would we have the same record of them that we possess through their letters and journals today? If Jefferson had sent text messages to Adams, think what would have been lost to history.

I realize the irony of saying this as I type an article that people I have never met will read. But will anyone go to the trouble of printing the article and filing it away for posterity? Not likely. Because it's just one of possibly hundreds they'll at least scan over the course of the day. It may have good information, and they may even put some of it to use, but no one will keep the article.

Even if they did, it is still not the same as a letter. A letter is a personal thing, even more now because we receive so few of them. They matter because they are personal in an increasingly disconnected world, and because they take time and effort (just like reading a book...see, the two can go together).

Here are a few suggestions for getting your letter writing started, and at the same time leaving a tangible, personal record that you really existed:

1. Choose a few friends or family members who are most likely to agree to begin a written correspondence with you. While it is not critical that someone respond to your letters, it helps if you have an actual correspondence going. This worked quite well with a friend of mine until I moved to a house only a few blocks from hers. It makes more sense if there's a little distance involved.

2. Use good stationery and a quality pen. Don't just scribble off a note like you're making a grocery list. This has its place, of course, but not in this instance. Take the time to make your writing legible, something we have done less of since the proliferation of computers.

3. Write about what's happening in your life, but try to leave out the mundane things we often include in text messages, e-mails and tweets. Use this opportunity to delve into deeper things, either about the world, or your relationship with the person you're writing to, or just about yourself. If, for example, your great-grandson someday reads these letters, you wouldn't want him to think great-grandpa was nothing more than a boring complainer.

4. While many of your letters will go unanswered, keep writing them. You will ultimately derive as much pleasure from writing the letters as you will receiving one in return. Be prepared, however, to receive e-mails in response to your letters. It takes a while to change people's habits.

In the end, one of the greatest benefits of letter writing is that, like keeping a daily journal, it forces you to slow down and think about the events of the day and your part in them, and all of us can benefit from slowing down a little. So think of someone you care about, turn off your computer, and write them a letter. You'll both be glad you did.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What Makes a Book Valuable?

One of the most important things to know when collecting books is that "old" and "rare" are not the same thing. Many people assume that the age of a book is what determines both its scarcity and its value, but this is seldom the case. Antiques dealers are especially fond of putting high prices on books based solely on their age, but most antiques dealers are not book experts.

Rarity, and thus value, is determined by a number of factors. So while a book that's been in your family for generations may have great sentimental value to you, unless that book is a Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare's First Folio it's probably neither rare nor valuable. There are several variables to consider regarding a book's value, and each is important:

1. Condition, condition, condition. Always buy a book in the best condition you can possibly afford. A book is not valuable simply because it's old, and a very old book in poor condition is worth little or nothing. For modern editions, the condition of the dust jacket is easily as important as the condition of the book itself when determining value. In fact, the dust jacket can account for up to 90 percent of the value of the book. For example, a "clipped" dust jacket (one where the original price on the inside cover has been clipped off) can cut the value of a book by 75 percent or more.

Books are graded according to condition. Typical grades include As New, Fine, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor, Ex-Library, and Book Club Edition. You will often see "Near Fine" as well, and it is important to note that Book Club and Ex-Library Editions have next to no value except as reading copies. The problem, especially when purchasing books on the Internet, is that what one person calls Fine may in fact only be Good. If you are unable to personally inspect a book before buying it, at least ask for photographs of the dust jacket, binding, and copyright page.

2. In most cases, only the first printing of a first edition is of interest to collectors. This is one reason it is important to see the copyright page; especially for books printed in the past 20 years, the edition is typically clearly marked. There will be a series of numbers near the bottom of the page, and if a "1" is not visible, then you probably don't have a first printing. For example, you would want to see "First Edition" and 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 or 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1. This is not true for all publishers, however, and it is worth the time and money to become thoroughly acquainted with the different ways some publishers identify a true first printing.

When speaking of first editions and first printings, we are always referring to the hardcover edition. The only exception to this occurs when the book has no initial hardcover run and is released only in soft cover. This is rare for literary fiction, but does occur more frequently in the mystery and science fiction/fantasy genres. When only a paperback first edition exists, the rules regarding condition still apply.

3. Unless a later book was particularly notable( for example, winning a Pulitzer Prize), an author's first book will always be the most valuable. This is because a first book is usually released with a small first print run, making the book scarce from the outset, and more so if the author becomes popular later. J.K. Rowling is a perfect example of this: the first UK print run of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" ("Sorcerer's Stone" in the US) was a tiny 500 copies, of which 300 went to libraries; a first printing now sells for tens of thousands of dollars. The final book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," had a first print run of 12 million, assuring that this book will never be collectible unless it has Rowling's elusive signature. A book must be either scarce or rare, or both, to generate enough interest to cause the value to increase.

4. Signed copies are, in most cases, worth more than unsigned copies, but the rules regarding condition and edition trump an autograph. In other words, while a signed first printing of "The Kite Runner" in Fine condition can be worth well over $500, a signed copy of a fifth printing in Good condition will be worth less than the original cover price. Also remember that signed copies of books by an author who is hot today may be over-inflated, and could easily drop in value as time goes on. If you want to collect signed editions, the best way is to go to signings by the author where you can have them signed for free. Some authors will sign and return copies sent to them, but this happens far less often today than in the past. Always check with the author before sending anything.

One last thing to consider is that unless you are planning to become a full-time book dealer, you should stick to collecting books by authors that interest you. This way, even if the value of a particular book doesn't increase (or worse, decreases), you will still have a book in your collection that you actually want, rather than something you bought simply as a commodity.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Best Selling Book of All Time

If you ask people to name the best selling book of all time, some will say "The DaVinci Code" or one of the Harry Potter books, but most will correctly name the Bible as the all-time best seller. Amazingly, in spite of the great sales numbers, it is also the least-read book in America today.

Don't get me wrong; most people in America own a Bible, and a large number own more than one. But to borrow the line from a less biblical question, 90% of people don't read the Bible, and the other 10% lie about it. Even many regular churchgoers in the Bible Belt only dust their copy off long enough to carry into Sunday services; they then toss it into the back seat of their SUV until the next week.

We weren't always biblically illiterate; only a generation ago most Americans were at least familiar with the majority of the Bible stories, if not the theology. That's not true anymore, and if you think I'm exaggerating, consider the following responses to some simple Bible knowledge questions:

In the first book of the Bible, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked, "Am I my brother's son?"

Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients.

Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.

Samson slew the Philistines with the Axe of the Apostles.

Lot's wife was a pillar of salt during the day, but a ball of fire at the night.

Noah's wife was Joan of Ark.

It was a miracle when Jesus rose from the dead and managed to get the tombstone off the entrance.

Keep in mind that these responses came from children ranging from elementary to high school, most of them in Catholic schools. How much worse would the average "man on the street" do, since many can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map of the U.S.? But that's another rant for another day.

I raise the issue of Biblical illiteracy because it goes hand in hand with our growing illiteracy overall. Whatever your religious affiliation, the fact is that many of our laws are based on the Bible, and much of the great art and literature of the Western world was inspired by the Bible. Not knowing anything at all about the Bible is as unacceptable as knowing nothing about the Constitution, Shakespeare, or Michelangelo (all three of these owe the Bible at least some debt for their content).

So here's a challenge: try reading the Bible for 15 minutes a day, focusing on things like the lives of Moses, David, and Jesus. Try either the New International Version or the New Living Translation (rather than the King James Version) as both are extremely readable. And before you misunderstand my goal, I'm not trying to convince anyone to convert; rather, I'm trying to convince everyone to read.

Whether you're Anglican or Agnostic, Buddhist or Baptist, I think you will find that by reading this best-selling book, your literary, historical, and cultural literacy will improve considerably. Plus it's got wars and romance and treachery and heartbreak and redemption, just like a good novel. And if you read close enough, you may even learn the amazing fact that while God isn't a Republican or a Democrat, he is a reader. After all, he gave us a book.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Review

It has been a long time (just over 7 years, in fact) since I stayed up all night to read the last 280 pages of a novel. The other night Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan broke that drought. I realize that the title doesn’t roll easily off the tongue, but do not let that deter you from picking up this marvel of a novel.

In brief, the book tells the story of Clay Jannon who, after losing his position as a San Francisco web-developer (for a bagel company), stumbles upon a job as a night clerk in one of the strangest bookstores he, or we, ever encountered. Since the store’s shelves reach so high you can’t see the top, he is hired mainly on his ability to climb a ladder like a monkey. But in a recession a job is a job.

After a while, however, Clay discovers that there is more to this store than a strange name, strange (and few) regular customers, and an even stranger owner. There’s a secret contained within these walls…a very old secret…and Clay enlists his friends to help him solve the mystery. And once the chase is on, it never lets up.

It sounds like your basic literary mystery, but is much, much more. The supporting characters are all so well written any one of them could have just as easily been the narrator as Clay. The collision of old-world knowledge and modern-day technology is handled with respect for both, and Sloan’s depiction of life at Google’s headquarters is all the more hilarious because it’s probably all true.

Most mysteries leave you feeling either satisfied or cheated; Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore leaves you satisfied and thinking. Sloan has created a world that’s just like ours, yet not like ours. It’s a world that, like the bookstore itself, you will want to explore long after the book is finished.

Looking back over this I realize that it barely scratches the surface of even the first 100 pages of the plot, and even that is only the bones, not the soul...and as Zafon taught us, every book has a soul. Suffice it to say that while the ending is a good one, with this book, as with life, the journey itself is really the best part.

One last thing…don’t wait for the paperback to come out. Buy the hardcover…it actually glows in the dark. Try pulling that off with an e-book.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Some Thoughts on Audio Books

It may come as a surprise to those who know my disdain for e-books and e-reading devices that I actually like audio books. It really shouldn’t be surprising, however, given that e-books and audio books are two very different things. Rather than go off on my usual anti-Kindle, anti-Nook rant I will confine this post to the positives of audio books.
First of all, one thing audio books don’t do is rob authors of royalty payments. Since they actually cost more than the hardcover version, authors make more on audio books than any other format. These tend to sell fewer copies as a result, mainly being bought by libraries, but the author gets paid nonetheless.
Audio books are also great for those who, like me, have a long commute to work every day. Rather than spend 3 hours round-trip listening to talk radio idiots or the same old sports news, I can use the time to reduce my ever-growing reading list. And for those working in the ubiquitous cubicle farms of corporate America, an audio book can stave off death by boredom in a way nothing else can.
If you’re in doubt about purchasing a particular book, an audio book checked out from your local library can either confirm that it’s worth a hardcover purchase, that you should wait on the paperback, or that you should pass altogether. But you have to be careful that the book just doesn’t seem bad because the person reading the audio book isn’t that good.
Which brings me to the thing I love most about audio books. I had already read all of the Harry Potter books, Kerouac’s On the Road, and The Great Gatsby before I ever listened to them on audio. But listening to Jim Dale, Matt Dillon, and Tim Robbins (respectively) read these great novels added a whole new dimension to my experience of the books.
So if you’ve never done so, give audio books a try. They can be a very rewarding addition to your reading life.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Adapting Books to Film

For as long as there have been movies, filmmakers have been turning books into films. From The Iliad and The Odyssey to the plays of Shakespeare, Hollywood has always been ready to bring a successful (and even an unsuccessful) book or play to the big screen. They do this in part because people are more likely to see a film that is based on something they are already familiar with. This is why sequels, though typically inferior to the original, still get made in large numbers. This built-in audience makes films made from books less of a financial risk, and Hollywood is more about money than art.

Given that books are a ready source of material for the movies, are there certain authors Hollywood is particularly partial to? Beyond the obvious classics (the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens), which authors have had the greatest number of their works turned into films? Following is a list of the 20th Century authors with the most book-to-film numbers (note: these do not include television shows, only motion pictures):

1. Stephen King. With 86 films made from his novels and short stories, he may indeed be The King of print-to-film success. Beginning with Carrie in 1976, film adaptations of his works have been huge commercial hits, including The Shining (1980), Misery (1990), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). While never as frightening as his books, the films made from Stephen King novels continue to scare the hell out of us to this day.

2. W. Somerset Maugham. This name will surprise many today, especially those who have never heard of him, but in the first half of the 20th Century, Maugham was the most commercially successful author alive. The 64 films made from his works also span the longest period of novel to film success: his novel The Explorer was made into a film in 1915, and most recently The Painted Veil was released in 2006. Maugham also likely holds the distinction of most books filmed multiple times: The Painted Veil (1934, 2006); Of Human Bondage (1934, 1946, 1964); The Razor's Edge (1946, 1984); Theater (1962, 2004); and Miss Thompson (1928, 1932, 1953).

3. Ernest Hemingway. At 29 films, he falls well back of the previous two authors on this list, but he is, after all, Hemingway. From A Farewell to Arms in 1932 through Night Express in 2006, Hemingway has been a fixture both in print and film for over 75 years.

4. John Grisham. With 10 books made into films in the span of 11 years, Grisham has one of the best ratios of any author. The Firm (1993) remains both a great book and a really good film, which is rare in itself.

5. J.K. Rowling. The list would not be complete with Rowling, perhaps the only author to have all but one of her novels turned into a film (no word yet on whether The Casual Vacancy will hit the big screen). Her Harry Potter novels have set sales records that will never be broken, and the films may ultimately be the most successful series in history.

There will always be arguments about whether the film versions are better than the books from which they came (The Godfather comes immediately to mind as an example of this), but the debate is part of the fun, as long as you both read the book and see the movie.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On Re-Reading Books

A few weeks ago I reread Helene Hanff's wonderful book 84 Charing Cross Road (you can see my review of it here). After I was finished, a thought occurred to me: why did I just read a book (slim though this volume is) that I've read at least ten times before, when there are so many other books out there I haven't read yet?

It doesn't seem all that strange when we watch a favorite movie so many times we can quote the dialogue word-for-word, or when we listen to the same song or album repeatedly. But with books it is a bit different. Watching films and listening to music are essentially passive forms of entertainment; with a book there is a serious commitment of time, and the inability to do anything else while reading. You can use a power saw or fry chicken and listen to Beatles at the same time; try doing those things while reading A Farewell to Arms and you may end up in the hospital.

I believe there are several reasons we go back to the same books over the years. For one, we know what we're getting. There is nothing worse than spending hours or days reading a book only to find out it wasn't really worth the time, especially if the ending was a disappointment (for a good example, see my review of The Historian here). With a book you've read and loved, you know you will not be disappointed.

Another thing about rereading a well-loved book is that in many ways it is like visiting an old friend. I find that the books I tend to read more than once have especially strong and well-written characters in addition to a good story. Spending time with these characters again is like running into an old college roommate. You may not want want to live with them again, but it's enjoyable spending a few hours together.

Finally, the books I reread almost always give me something new each time I read them. Whether it's a passage I somehow didn't catch before, or an event that speaks to me in a new way, there's always something fresh about them. For example, I have read The Razor's Edge every year for nearly 30 years, and each time I get something new out of it. The book hasn't changed, but my life has, and the novel reaches me in ways in my 40s that it never could have at 20.

So while I encourage everyone to read as many books as they possibly can (it's the key to a well-rounded life), be sure to take the time to go back and read the books you loved again. They'll wait for you and welcome you home every time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Poll: Which Bestseller Has the Worst Writing?

It’s been a while since I did a poll, but here’s one that may get some conversation started (vote on the right side of this page). Which of the following mega-selling novels contains the worst writing?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Twilight by Stephenie Myer

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

I can only vote for The Da Vinci Code, having thankfully not read the other two literary masterpieces. I feel comfortable with this, however, since Dan Brown’s dialogue is even worse than that of George Lucas, no small feat indeed.

The voting will remain open for 1 week, at which time the winner (loser?) will be announced.

UPDATE 2/20/13:

We have a winner (or loser):

Fifty Shades of Grey: 50%

Twilight: 32%

The DaVinci Code: 18%

Monday, February 11, 2013

Longfellow Books Undaunted by Snowstorm Damage

Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine sustained significant damage to their stock during this weekend's snowstorm, but are optimistic about reopening by Valentine's Day. Co-owner Chris Bowe was interviewed in The Portland Press Herald, and explained that the store sustained serious water damage during Saturday's storm after a frozen water line burst, but added that firefighters' efforts to save thousands of books will allow the store to reopen.

Firefighters covered the books with large tarps normally used to cover items salvaged at fire scenes. They also carried books outside to keep them from getting soaked.

"When I got there, they had already broken in a side door," Bowe said. "There were maybe 20 of them, and they were amazing. Instead of standing around and letting the water fall, they were carrying books to safety.  I couldn't believe how fast they worked to save the books. They saved an enormous amount of stock."

"It was a reverse 'Fahrenheit 451,'" Bowe said, referring to Ray Bradbury's 1953 science fiction classic, in which books are outlawed and burned by firemen.

On Saturday night, after they reported on Facebook that they were closing the store indefinitely, nearly 200 customers wrote responses, many of them offering to help or organize fundraising events.

Bowe said he plans to open the store by Thursday night, when the store will host a special Valentine's Day reading. He doesn't know how much of the damage his insurance will cover, but he is confident that the store can rebound.

"Never underestimate the power of an independent bookstore," he said. "We have survived the chains. We have survived Amazon. We have survived the Kindles. The bookstore is one of those good places in the community. We will struggle, but we will get there."

With that kind of resolve, I am confident Longfellow Books will get there as well.

Collecting Signed Books

For book collectors, a volume signed by the author is often the most treasured part of their collection. Owning a book that the writer held in his hands (if only long enough to scribble their autograph) gives a sense of connection between novel, writer, and reader that goes beyond the story contained within the covers. At least in part because of this, collecting signed first editions has become a specialty within the book collecting community which has exploded in recent years.

Before going into specifics about signed books, a few brief thoughts on book collecting in general are important, as they affect the value and desirability of signed books as well. With nearly any collectible (and books in particular) condition is always key. A book in poor condition is almost never valuable, and for modern editions the dust jacket must also be pristine. Furthermore, first printings of first editions are generally the only ones of interest to the collector. Simply check the copyright page for the words "First Edition" at the bottom and/or a number sequence starting with a "1." Finally, when speaking of first editions and first printings, this always refers to the hardcover edition.

From a strictly financial standpoint, signed copies will almost always be worth more than unsigned copies, so in most cases you can expect to pay a higher price for these volumes; just remember that the rules regarding condition and edition outweigh almost any autograph. In other words, while a signed first printing of "Booked to Die" in Fine condition can be worth well over $1000, a signed copy of a sixth printing in Fair condition will likely be worth less than the original cover price. Also remember that signed copies of books by an author who is popular today may be over-inflated, and could easily drop significantly in value as time goes on.

Perhaps the best way to collect signed editions without any cost beyond the cover price is to attend signings by the author where you can have them signed for free. Many authors, particularly in the mystery genre, will do book signing tours every time they release a new novel; details can be found on either the author's website or the website of the publisher. They will also typically sign copies of their previous books, but check with the bookstore holding the event first. A common rule is that you can bring in a certain number of your older copies, but you must buy the new book at that store to have all of them signed (booksellers have to earn a living, after all).

If you don't live in an area that is usually visited by authors on tour, another way to collect signed first printings is to join one of the clubs offered by several independent mystery bookstores around the country. For example, both The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and Poisoned Pen Books in Scottsdale, Arizona offer book clubs that enable member to receive signed books (chosen by the store's staff) by mail on a monthly basis. These range from debut novels by a new authors to specific sub-genres like British mysteries. The biggest advantage here is that you get the knowledge of an experienced staff and still only pay the normal retail price for the book. Most of these signed books won't skyrocket in value, but some will; Tana French's 2007 debut "In the Woods" now sells for over $150.00.

Some authors will sign and return copies sent to them (even Hemingway was known to do this), but this happens far less often today than in the past, and is far more likely with new authors than established ones. Always check with the author or their publisher before sending anything, always send return postage, and bear in mind that every time you ship a book, even for as good a reason as this, you risk it being damaged during the shipping process.

If you are collecting older signed books (particularly by authors who are no longer living) the process becomes more complicated. The proliferation of so-called booksellers on the Internet has both artificially driven up prices for these works and made the phrase "buyer beware" more critical than ever, yet the diminishing number of brick-and-mortar rare bookshops often makes the Internet the only option. If you must go this route, check out sites like AbeBooks, and whenever possible only buy from dealers who are part of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. These tend to be exponentially more reputable than those you will find on eBay. Always ask for both detailed publishing information and photographs of the outside of the book, the copyright page, and the signature itself.

In the end, collecting signed first editions should be viewed in the same manner as any other hobby that borders on obsession. If you're doing it in the hopes of getting rich, it would be better to simply buy a lottery ticket. If you're doing it because you love books and respect their authors, it can be one of the most rewarding endeavors of your life, and can be a legacy passed down to future generations.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When Do You Give Up On a Book?

It is a simple fact that there are more books in print today than any of us will ever be able to read in one lifetime (and this doesn't even take into account the new books that will come out during our lives). Faced with a finite amount of time in which to read, one question that must be asked is at what point is it acceptable to give up on a book and move on to another?

In an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, librarian and author Nancy Pearl (of "Book Lust" fame) gave the following suggestion:

"On the spur of the moment, with no particular psychological or literary theory in mind to justify it, I developed my Rule of 50: Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you're really liking the book. If you are, of course, then great, keep on reading. But if you're not, then put it down and look for another....

"This rule of 50 worked exceedingly well until I entered my own 50s. As I wended my way toward 60, and beyond, I could no longer avoid the realization that, while the reading time remaining in my life was growing shorter, the world of books that I wanted to read was, if anything, growing larger. In a flash of, if I do say so myself, brilliance, I realized that my Rule of 50 was incomplete. It needed an addendum. And here it is: When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book. As the saying goes, 'Age has its privileges.' And the ultimate privilege of age, of course, is that when you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover."

Certainly an interesting reading rule to live by, but I tend to know well before page 50 if I like a book or not. It is true that some only really get going once you reach the middle, but even those show enough glimpses of what is to come to make you want to keep reading. I live by more of a "Rule of 25" unless the book came highly recommended with advance warning that it starts slowly.

When it comes to abandoning a book, I actually find it harder with the "classics." Every year I start Ulysses again, hoping it will somehow click for me, and every year I bail before page 20. The thing is, I feel bad enough about quitting that I try again year after year; after all, Hemingway and Sylvia Beach loved it, so I must be missing something. But with the critically acclaimed books and/or bestsellers of today I feel no such guilt. I quit Wolf Hall ten pages in, and have no regrets at all.

So what about you, dear reader? Do you slog your way through every book you start, out of principle as much as enjoyment, or do you bail after Chapter One if it's not a page turner? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

(And I still haven't made it through Ulysses...)

If You're a Bookseller, Then Sell Books

For obvious reasons, I tend to notice stories in the news that relate to bookstores. I came across one recently that, though a couple of years old, caught my attention. The article in The Grand Rapids Press profiles moves by a Michigan bookstore to remain solvent in a challenging time for bookstores across America. Here is the opening paragraph:

In the battle for survival in the cut-throat retail world, Schuler Books & Music is coming out swinging oven mitts. There are also scarves, kitchen utensils, board games, puzzles and dozens of other items meant to bring in shoppers looking for more than the printed word.

Seriously? Oven mitts? I certainly understand the need for sidelines to add to a bookstore's income, and some are natural fits (bookmarks, journals, etc). But when you move beyond the point of a few additional money-makers to becoming a department store that also sells books, it's time to question whether you are really a bookseller or simply someone who loves being a retailer.

For example, there was a husband and wife team in my area that began selling books online because they realized that with books you didn't have to keep a lot of different-sized shipping boxes on hand. I kid you not: they sold books because it saved them money on boxes. They are out of business now, and their demise was reported as yet another bookstore failing.

Later in the story on Schuler Books and Music, we have this gem:

But Schuler isn’t giving up on books. Books still make up 60 to 65 percent of total sales.

Wow. Books make up 60 percent of total sales...for a bookstore. That means that if the oven mitts and puzzles grab another 11 percent of the business, Schuler can no longer have "Books" be the first word in the name of the store without engaging in false advertising (see the "bar and grill" vs. "grill and bar" rulings by your state alcohol commission).

This is America, and every business owner has the right to run their business in the way they think will make it successful. But if you're a bookseller, then sell books, and not just because you see them as a commodity, but because you love the written word. If not, then do something else. That way your eventual failure won't be incorrectly reported as another bookstore closing.

Friday, February 8, 2013

February is National Library Lovers' Month

Since the founding of our nation, libraries have played a key role in our society and culture; this is particularly true today, as libraries offer everything from books to Internet access to job-search resources. It is therefore appropriate that February has been declared Library Lovers' Month, a month-long celebration of public, school, and private libraries of every kind. It is also a time for library supporters around the country to promote the valuable service libraries provide at a time when budget cuts threaten their very existence.

While National Library Week is held in April each year (with a particular focus on showing appreciation for library workers), Library Lovers' Month is more broad in scope. It encompasses libraries of every type, from the small home library to the New York Public Library. This month-long focus is particularly important for public libraries around the country today; with the ongoing recession hitting local economies hard, many public libraries face the stark reality of reduced staff, reduced operating hours, and even closure, all at a time when usage by citizens has increased dramatically. Large cities like New York, Phoenix, and Dallas have all cut their libraries' budgets and operating hours over the past few years, and California has considered completely eliminating state funding for public libraries (a devastating $30 million cut).
National Library Lovers' Month provides a wonderful opportunity to make people aware of how and why libraries are a crucial part of our communities. In fact, most of us have taken libraries for granted since we were children. However, libraries today (both school and public) are nothing like what most of us remember. The old card catalogues are gone, replaced by computerized searches, and the vast majority of libraries offer the free use of computers with Internet access. There are also typically activities for children and a wide variety of DVDs and CDs for far less than you'll pay Netflix or iTunes (because they're free).
Public libraries can also perform an invaluable service for those wanting to build their own personal library by allowing readers and collectors to "try before they buy." Reading books for free first eliminates buying new books only to find that they're not as good as the reviews claimed, and enables people to discover more new authors and titles than most of us could otherwise afford. Stopping at the library first can help you later to only spend money on books you know you want to collect.
For those with children, there is nothing better than browsing the titles in the children's section with them, only to stumble upon a book you read in fourth grade. Sharing something from your childhood like "The Three Investigators" series with a whole new generation certainly beats sitting in front of the television watching the latest "American Idol" installment. Simply noticing which books your kids naturally gravitate toward will give you more insight into what interests them; you can then look for opportunities to encourage and build on those interests.
Libraries aren't as flashy as the Super Bowl or Valentine's Day (which will get most of February's publicity), but all of us should make a point this month to visit our local library and show our support. Thank the staff at your children's school library, and maybe even begin a collection of your own that you can pass down to future generations. Libraries are a part of who we are and should never be taken for granted, lest we lose them.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Bibliomystery

There are many different genres (or sub-genres if you prefer) within the mystery novel category, and although many people read all types of mysteries, most will naturally gravitate toward one of these genres. They range from the hard-boiled detectives of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to the more comedic heroines of Janet Evanovich and Cleo Coyle. One genre that deserves attention (and is a natural favorite of book lovers) is the bibliomystery.

A bibliomystery is one in which a book or manuscript is central to the plot of the novel. The definition can be expanded to include mystery novels in which libraries, librarians, bookstores, booksellers, publishers and/or authors play a key role in the story. Sadly, readers who love bibliomysteries must engage in a more arduous search for quality novels than those who read classic detective tales or legal thrillers.

There are several examples of good bibliomysteries from the early 20th century, among them "The Colfax Book-Plate," written by Agnes Miller in 1926, "Murder in the Bookshop," written by Carolyn Wells a decade later, and "Fast Company" by Marco Page (1937). These books deal with, respectively, murders surrounding a newly-discovered bookplate, the disappearance of a book valued at $100,000 (in 1936), and the theft of several valuable first editions. It's not necessary to go back 77 years, however; some of the best bibliomysteries were written in the past decade or so.

One of the very best bibliomysteries is "Booked to Die" by John Dunning (1992). "Booked to Die" is Dunning's first novel in his "Bookman" series, and it's a minor classic, especially if you're a fan of the bibliomystery genre or a book collector. It's the story of a Denver cop-turned-rare book dealer Cliff Janeway, and it will teach you a lot about the book trade while taking you on a mystery thrill-ride at the same time. Dunning is himself a rare book dealer, which makes the story even more authentic.

The list of bibliomysteries is not confined to detective novels, however. Some of the best feature protagonists who are ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances, all with a book or manuscript at the heart of the story. They include "The Book of Air and Shadows" by Michael Gruber, "Interred with Their Bones" by Jennifer Lee Carrell, "Ex-Libris" by Ross King, "The Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Alice Kimberly's Haunted Bookshop series, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon's classic "The Shadow of the Wind," one of the best novels ever written in any genre.

So if you love books and mysteries centered around books, be sure to pick up one of the titles listed above. Every one is well worth your time.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Judging a Book By Its Cover

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you can do just that. Or at the very least you can judge the cover itself, both in relation to the book contained within and as a stand-alone work of art. The ten covers below are among my favorites, for reasons that will be explained beneath each one.

One of the greatest novels ever written, with an iconic cover that was replaced in the paperback editions by the more familiar (and perhaps more fitting) bullfighting image. If you see this cover in your local thrift shop, grab it; you just made several thousand dollars.

Another amazing book (perhaps my favorite of all time). It is simply done, with the tag line at the bottom that sums up the book better than any New York Times reviewer could.

I discovered this book shortly after it came out in 1985, and it is as disturbing now as it was then. But the writing was like nothing I'd read before, and it was the vanguard novel of a new generation of writers. Just as important, the cover art screamed "cool." 

Another legendary cover from one of the "Lost Generation" writers of the 1920s. A great novel and a cover every college student since World War II would recognize immediately.

This was one scary book, and the darkness of the cover reflects the darkness contained within. The road fits nicely with both the physical and emotional journey the characters endure, and (like the cover for The Razor's Edge) the tag line at the bottom is sure to grab you.

A street shrouded in fog, a streetlamp from a bygone era, the solitary silhouette of an unknown man. They couldn't have come up with a better cover for this stunning novel if they tried for a hundred years.

Long before we ever saw Daniel Radcliff on a movie screen, we knew exactly what Harry Potter looked like. The broom, the scar, Hogwarts in the distance. This cover is perfect.

Dan Jenkins is one of the funniest writers ever, and since he sets most of his books in my hometown, I have a special fondness for him. In the case of Baja Oklahoma, simply seeing the cover reminds me of home.

This the only cover represented that is not the original, first edition cover. Not that the first edition cover for On the Road was bad; for me this later version just captures the spirit of the novel much better.

This cover is the best so far from "The Hollows" series about a bounty hunting witch. It's also one of the only times I bought a book because of the cover. What can I say...I'm a guy.

One last note about book covers. For any book published in the last century (about the time they started putting separate dust jackets on hardback books), 90 percent of the value to collectors is in the condition of the dust jacket. It may simply be because adult novels no longer contain illustrations and the only visually artistic part of the book is the dust jacket; whatever the reason, keep those covers in perfect condition.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Buy Local

In a post a few days ago I touched on the importance of buying local. The focus of that post was the upcoming Second Saturday Biergarten Bazaar, and the main “buy local” point was that that many local brick-and-mortar stores got their start as at-home enterprises and at small events (craft fairs, expos, etc). There are many more good reasons for buying local, however, and I’d like to discuss a few of those now.

As a bookseller, I naturally look at buying local from the viewpoint of independent bookstores, but the concept is applicable to nearly every business you can think of. And in the end, while there are many reasons to buy local, it really boils down to two basic reasons: economic and social.

As corporate giants from Amazon to Walmart continue to dominate the global retail world, local businesses (from bookstores to hardware stores to grocers to clothing shops) 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. Barnes and Noble offers 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. 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.

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 cities (including those as large as Dallas and Fort Worth) have no independent bookstore to patronize.

The personal interaction mentioned above is the other reason we need independent stores of all kinds, including 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, local coffee shops, and the like 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.

Author Jon Katz recently addressed this issue in a post on the website I’ll let him have the last word:

"Buying local is not a political notion to me, it is very personal, very important. Buying local affects and changes my life in so many different ways. I love buying things from people who know me. A kind of friendship develops, a mutual relationship that is important. It is foolish to sell junk at high prices to people who will be back in a couple of days, people you know. It is easy to do that online, customer and seller will never meet.

"But the tragedy of technology is that for every thing it brings, it takes something away. Post offices are closing, mega-chains have pressured community hardware stores, bookstores are fighting for their niche in the world. I'm shopping local. I don't want to live a life of loneliness and disconnection even if it might be cheaper. Price is important, but it is not the only thing that is important."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Super Bowl Sunday Book Review: Semi-Tough

Tonight the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers will face off in Super Bowl XLVII. Therefore it seems like an appropriate time to review the best football novel ever written, and one of the funniest books of any genre, Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins.

The novel chronicles the journey to the Super Bowl of two Texas-born NFL players, Billy Clyde Puckett and Marvin "Shake" Tiller. Billy Clyde and Shake play for the New York Giants, who are battling their arch-rivals, the "dog-ass" New York Jets in the Super Bowl in Los Angeles. In addition to being the Giants' star running back, Puckett has also been asked by a book publisher to keep a journal of events before, during, and after the big game, a journal that will later be turned into a book. Billy Clyde does a fine job of this, mainly because author Dan Jenkins (a Fort Worth native himself) has been a sportswriter for most of his life, and his description of in-game action is one of the highlights of this book.

First published in 1972, Semi-Tough is not just a book about football, and not simply a hilarious read throughout; it is also one of the least politically correct books you will ever read. It contains booze, drugs, sex, smoking, foul language, and humor that would certainly be considered both sexist and racist, especially today when we are actually censoring the language in classic books like Huckleberry Finn. Yet the book works, perhaps because rather in spite of the coarse humor; in Semi-Tough the humor is always honest and no one is spared, regardless of race, color, gender, or creed.

It is likely that many more people have seen the film adaptation from 1977 staring Burt Reynolds than have read Dan Jenkins' novel. This is a shame, because the movie (as is usually the case) is nothing like the book, and nowhere near as good or as funny. Semi-Tough is a must-read for both football fans and fans of great books, and a great way to spend the long hours before kickoff tonight. So run to your closest bookstore (preferably an independent one) and pick up a copy of Semi-Tough. You'll be laughing so hard you just might miss kickoff tonight.

Books About Bookstores

There are those who love books, and then there are those who love books and bookstores. Here are three books that every bookstore lover will want on their shelf:

1. Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company by Jeremy Mercer.

The title of Jeremy Mercer's book comes from a line in his book, Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company. He writes "hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter.... time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I'd ever felt." This account of his time living at the Paris landmark is as much about the characters that reside at the famous bookstore as the books themselves, but books are ever-present in his narrative.

Mercer was a crime reporter in Canada who felt forced to flee to France following a threat on his life in late 1999. As he runs out of money and faces the prospect of living on the streets of Paris, he is invited to live at Shakespeare and Company by the owner, George Whitman, an expatriate American who has run the store since the 1950's and who claims to "run a socialist utopia that masquerades as a bookstore."

Whitman was not, as he claimed early in his life, the son of the poet Walt Whitman, and his bookshop is not the same as Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company, the store that published Ulysses and closed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Rather, this store is the sister store to the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and Whitman was a longtime friend of its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Though Mercer is the narrator, and we learn much about his life before and during his time at Shakespeare and Company, Whitman is the central character of this book. We learn of his struggles to keep the store from falling into the hands of real estate developers, his unique ways of keeping the residents of the store fed, and his fascinating life story. Most importantly, we learn of his lifelong commitment to the idea that books are important, that they matter to us both as individuals and as a society.

2. Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins

This memoir tells the story of Collins' time living in a book lovers dream: the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. With only 1500 residents and 40 bookstores, it is truly a bibliophile's nirvana, especially if you love old books. Collins and his wife relocated there from San Francisco with their young son in the hope of finding a more idyllic life, and their attempts to purchase a house in the town, while having nothing to do with books, is as hilarious for us as it was frustrating for them.

The centerpiece of the town, and the place book lovers will most want to visit someday, is Hay Castle, a centuries-old castle now converted into a rambling bookstore and owned by Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed king of Hay-on-Wye. After meeting Booth, Collins spent a brief period attempting, with limited success, to organize the American Literature section at the castle. The remainder of Collins' time is divided between revising his first book, wandering through the town's myriad of second-hand bookshops, and trying to navigate English real estate laws that would drive most Americans mad.

Sixpence House is an entertaining read that will have book lovers planning their next vacation around the annual Hay Festival, hoping to find a rare gem of a book in the mountainous stacks of Hay Castle. But make your reservations early; the event that former President Bill Clinton called "the Woodstock of the Mind" is Britain's little secret no longer, thanks in part to Sixpence House.

3. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff