by Cathy Pickens
One cold Saturday afternoon, I was browsing the aisles of my favorite local used bookstore when I overheard a young man approach the owner. “I’m interested in reading some classics,” he said.
My ears perked up. The way he said it hinted that he was just starting on this adventure. I too had, not too long before, set about filling some of the embarrassing holes in my reading, so I appreciated the thrill of his search—and how daunting it could be.
He was dressed in jeans and a “Navy” t-shirt bulging with muscles, his hair close-cropped. Home from deployment? He came around the end of the stacks to where the owner had cheerfully directed him, and he stood there, staring at the shelves. He didn’t pull a single book off the shelf. He shifted from one foot to another, one hand jammed deep in his pocket, just staring.
After a while, he wandered off to another part of the store. Then he left without a book.
I felt as though I’d failed a fellow seeker because I didn’t offer to help. But I was just another reader, a seeker myself. Who was I to intrude? I had started with Jane Austen (because C.S. Lewis said she was the best) and suggestions from Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel. How could I know what he’d like to read?
But it broke my heart. I’m still haunted by that reader who didn’t find a book.
So how do readers find books? Would-be readers are inundated with overwhelming abundance. How to know where to begin?
It got me to thinking about how I find books. I spend far too much time in bookstores and libraries, for one. I pay attention to recommendations from friends (particularly from other writers) and reviews from trusted sources in newspapers, magazines, and online—people whose tastes I’ve learned mesh well with mine and whose judgment I’ve learned to trust. Shelf-talkers or displays in bookstores are other sources.
But some of the best guides are librarians, those who’ve turned putting the right book in the right reader’s hands into a life calling.
That day in the bookstore helped precipitate this year’s Sisters in Crime Publishing Summit Report. A SinC team met with librarians and those who provide books and services to libraries to learn some of their magic at the 2011 American Library Association meeting in New Orleans. [The 2011 Summit Report is available now on the website: www.sistersincrime.org]
From Nancy Pearl, Joyce Saricks, Neil Wyatt, and others, I learned how to talk about “appeal factors” in books as a way to guide others to books they might like. What experience is the reader looking for in a book? How fast does she want it to move? Does he prefer the tone dark or humorous? Are deeply developed characters or beautiful language important? Or do particular settings attract?
I learned what questions to ask, to guide my own reading and writing as well as to discover what others like. I learned it too late to help the guy who was ready to read the classics, though. I just hope he found someone to guide him …
Which leads me to ask: So, what are you reading? What would you suggest for others who share your tastes?
Planning a trip to Australia, I picked up one of Kerry Greenwood’s Phyrne Fisher mysteries and Arthur Upfield’s classic The Bone is Pointed, to soak up some atmosphere. And I just finished Carson Morton’s first novel Stealing Mona Lisa, a caper set in 1911 Paris and based on the real theft. How about you?