“What are you reading right now?”
This is the time of year when I dread this question. Imagine my typical customer, a nice, middle-aged, middle-class, well-dressed woman who loves to read, standing in front of me, asking this question with an expectant, hopeful look on her face. She needs a new book, perhaps a read for her book club, or maybe “a really good book” or “a book I can’t put down.” Surely, she has come to the right place: her favorite (I hope) independent bookstore, where the knowledgeable, well-read bookseller will certainly issue forth a formidable slew of worthy current titles. She doesn’t expect me to panic, fidget, and say, “Um, uh…nothing!”
Yes, today I am here to let you in on an ugly and well-concealed truth: Sometimes booksellers just don’t read. Oh, I don’t mean permanently–but, like other humans, we (or at least I) go through phases where we’re just not reading much. For me, spring and early summer is usually that time. My husband and I have a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. We feed nine households with our all organic, intensively planted vegetable garden worked almost entirely with hand tools. It’s actually a wonder we have time to do anything else at this time of year, including go to our off-farm jobs.
Time isn’t the whole issue. When it gets down to it, my real problem right now is focus. I find myself nodding along with mothers of small children in the store who say, “Even when I have time to sit down and read, I just can’t concentrate, so all I read is fluff!” Yes (here’s the other ugly truth), this well-educated bookseller is anything but a literary snob; I often indulge in so-called “fluff” because it’s what I can focus on. Unfortunately, my nice, expectant customer often doesn’t want a light read. She wants something to chew on, or something that will impress her book club. She’s often retired, and she wants something she can get into and think about. For me it’s sort of the opposite. At this season, my life is like a jigsaw puzzle, full of little pieces of work, garden, exercise, cooking, commuting, household chores, and other tasks that make my brain so full I often can’t stuff one more thing in it. Add to that the fact that I have chronic migraines, and for pieces of most days, I can’t focus on anything at all.
But this isn’t what the customer looking for a brilliant recommendation wants to hear. Imagine her still standing there looking expectantly at me while I panic. What do I say?? I think I read a book in, oh, February. What was that, anyway?
Okay, so I have read some good books lately. I really enjoyed Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid, The Throne of Fire, and The Serpent’s Shadow. I’m all set if someone wants a recommendation for their ten-year-old who likes fantasy, but somehow I don’t think my hopeful customer here wants to read a series of children’s books about magical adventures based on ancient Egyptian mythology. I can’t fathom why, but most adults aren’t into reading children’s and young adult books. They’re some of my favorites. But never mind. I still have to find something for this lady.
Wait! The Kane Chronicles with their Egyptian background just reminded me that some time ago I read Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, which takes place in a Middle Eastern city, possibly in Egypt, and also draws on some of the old mythology. Now there’s a stunning book for you. A modern-day magical realist coming-of-age story and heroic quest tale, it’s a rare kind of book that resonates on many levels, an entertaining adventure story that also carries serious literary weight.
Well, this recommendation could be chancy. A lot of my customers give anything that smells of magic a wide berth. But at least it’s a real grown-up novel that I can brag I’ve read “recently.” I’ll just leave out the little detail that I read it back in the winter. Adjusting the truth is a storyteller’s prerogative.
Phew! Okay, I have something to offer the customer. Now that I’m at it, I’ll throw in some other books I read a few months ago. How about Jennie Shortridge’s compelling new novel Love Water Memory, for example? I stumbled on the advance reader of that and fell in love with the mysterious and beautiful story. Ah, I’m finding the secret here– talk about every book as if I’ve just read it! Of course, I have to be careful about this with repeat customers.
As summer progresses, things will change in the garden, and in the store. The needs of the garden will become slightly less urgent, and we’ll be less chronically behind. Meanwhile, in the store, I’ll get more kids and more people looking for “just a good story to get lost in,” which is often much easier for me to come up with. So I guess this discomfort won’t last forever. Also, I just started a new book, Menna van Praag’s The House at the End of Hope Street. It seems like the kind of book I’ve always wanted to read, but haven’t been able to find until now. If it lives up to its promise, I’ll start foisting it on every customer who asks me the Dreaded Question.
Amanda MacNaughton is a bookseller at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond, as well as the assistant gardener and chief cook and bottle washer on the little farm she and her husband run. Right now she is weeding pesky quackgrass out of the garden, eating lots of greens, and, oh yeah, reading a book once in a while, too.