By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
September 23, 2012
This summer Molly Ringwald said that she read "Fifty Shades of Grey" because "when a book becomes that big, I feel like it's culturally relevant."
No book in recent memory has sold as fast as the lead title of E.L. James' erotic trilogy. It enjoyed an avalanche of popularity: The more people were reading it, the more other people wanted to read it. But "Fifty Shades" is the exception: Today it's easier than ever to find something to read. But the right thing? That's another matter altogether.
Almost any book you could hope to buy is just a few clicks away online. When it launched in 1995, Amazon proclaimed it was the world's largest bookstore; the site makes it easy to find what you know you want. What it's not as good at is helping you discover the thing you don't know you want but might like.
The ideal place to find that something new has traditionally been a room with a lot of shelves, display tables and maybe some helpful staff — like bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Yet they've been disappearing; when Borders went bankrupt in 2011, its nearly 400 bookstores closed, and there are half as many independent bookstores now as there were 20 years ago.
Seeing an opening, bloggers and booksellers have converged on the idea of telling people what they should read.
Last month the group blog Book Riot used the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to raise $25,000 for a volume of book recommendations. "Start Here" will point readers to the best entry point for famous authors, on the assumption that everyone has a writer they'd like to read but find too daunting.
With an emphasis on accessibility, "Start Here" is tapping a mix of writers, critics and bloggers to provide its recommendations. Among them is Kevin Smokler, a publishing consultant and author. He believes that the best way to suggest a book is when "the recommender writes like a human being and lets their passion show, naked and uninhibited." For the anthology, Smokler is writing about Sherman Alexie's short-story collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."
That book, first published in 1993, is easy to find online, as is "Water Flowing Home," Alexie's 24-page collection of poems printed in 1995, even though it's so rare that it costs $500 and more. Just about any title you could want — and thousands you might never think to ask for — are easily purchased online.
All that choice can be downright paralyzing. That's where booksellers come in; they are professionals who can find what you're looking for, even if you don't know what it is. Former bookseller John Warner, now an author and professor, regularly appears as the Biblioracle in the Chicago Tribune: Tell him the last five books you've read, and he promises to tell you your next favorite.
The new book "Read This!" (Coffeehouse Press, $12) compiles similar expertise of booksellers from all over the country into one cheerful red volume. It was edited by Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's Books in St. Paul, Minn., who began the project on the store's blog.
"Lately it's become en vogue to describe booksellers as 'tastemakers' or 'curators,'" Weyandt writes. "Our job is to constantly search through the new and old to find works that entertain and challenge us, and make us want to pass them on."
Expect to find it near the cash register at your local independent bookstore. Subtitled "Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores," the book is packed with lists and lists of books. The lists are given context with short profiles of the bookstores they come from and notes from the bookseller who created them.
The lists are intimidating — so many! And they all come with checkboxes! — but they are both broad and deep. If you like Zadie Smith, Larry Doyle and Graham Greene, says Subterranean Books in St. Louis, you'll probably like "The Slap," a dark comedy by Christos Tsiolkas.
Novelist Ann Patchett has written the introduction to "Read This!," describing the book as a "catalogue of matchmakers." She's uniquely positioned to think about how books reach readers — not only is she a bestselling author ("State of Wonder," "Bel Canto"), she's the owner of Parnassus Books, a new independent bookstore in her Nashville hometown.
"I love it when a book I might not naturally gravitate to is brought to my attention," she says.
The nonfiction book "The Other Wes Moore" is an example of what Patchett whimsically calls "a Universal Donor. Pretty much everyone, men, women, young readers, non-readers, they're all going to find something in this book."
On the other hand, she continues, "My favorite books this year are the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn. Those books are decisively NOT Universal Donors. They're about as universal as anchovies, but they are electrifying and utterly brilliant."
One of the great delights of visiting friends' houses is peeking at the anchovies on their bookshelves. For readers, a line of book spines can be a window into a new love, a portrait of where we've been, a means of semi-public self-definition — something rendered invisible by e-readers.
"My Ideal Bookshelf" (coming in November from Little, Brown, $24.99), a visually entrancing collection of illustrations, explores how we use books to represent us. It's an expansion of the work of artist Jane Mount, who has been doing a series of paintings based on the essential reading lists of clients. She and writer Thessaly La Force, who interviewed all the contributors, got lists of books from writers, chefs, designers, musicians and artists.
"I think your books always tell a story about you," says La Force, a former online editor at the Paris Review studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. "They're a way to touch on ideas and thoughts that aren't your own but are essential to you. A lot of people would put books on shelves they hadn't read or were by someone who had touched their lives."
The "Ideal Bookshelf" images hold some surprises. Yes, chef Thomas Keller has a lot of books about French cooking, but he's also got one by the late UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden — because it's about teamwork, he says.
Judd Apatow includes Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes" because after Owen Wilson recommended it to him, it inspired him to begin reading again. Pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman's ideal bookshelf features the unexpected, massive Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination.
"There's an endless feeling of searching for something," says La Force. "You kind of are what you read — and what you're interested in reading becomes what you are."
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