Friday, August 28, 2009

Sigh-Worthy

Just like there aren’t enough words to describe love and heartbreak and grief, there aren’t enough words to describe how a book is great. You can relate the plot of a book or the subject, and you can talk about style and tone and point of view and lyricism, but a book is really about how it makes you feel. Feelings are not as easy to talk about, so books get boiled down into clich├ęs and sound bites when actually, they are experiences.

A co-worker and friend recommended a book recently, The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez. I could see that she was excited by this book, but the description didn't appeal to me, so I hesitated to pick it up. A while later we were working together when a stack of this book came in for her staff pick. I'd forgotten all about the book, but her wistful smile let me know this was a book she really loved. "Oh, this is your staff pick, right? The one you were telling me about?" She said yes, and then she just smiled and sighed. It was the sigh that convinced me.

In her sigh, she expressed the often futile desire to describe how a book made you feel. What you really want to say is “read this book, please. I promise you will love it. This book touched something inside me and struck a note that still vibrates, and I want you to read it and have that same note sing in you as well. Just trust me.” That little sigh was as close as she could get to expressing her love for this book.

When I'm recommending books, people inevitably want to know what the book is about. I give as short an answer as possible and point out that it doesn’t matter what the book is about. Then I offer an anecdote about how I felt reading the book. The Ministry of Special Cases had tears dripping from my eyes as I stood outside on the corner, late coming back from my lunch break. Madeleine is Sleeping was like being in on a great secret. The Raw Shark Texts had my heart racing like a drug; I couldn’t put it down on the two mile walk from the train to my apartment in DC. And etcetera.

But there’s only so much you can say, only so many times you can say it. Sometimes all you can do is smile and sigh.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Oh kindle, How I Love to Hate You

If we’re friends on the facebook then you already know about my anti-kindle crusade (in an attempt to belittle, I refuse to capitalize “kindle”). It’s been pretty effective. So far I have kept one person from buying a kindle. That was my mother. Amazon is on its knees.

In theory, the kindle is akin to Oprah’s Book Club. I’m for anything that gets people to read more, no matter what they’re reading or how they’re reading it. Personally, however, I’ve never been so against any technology, and I’m not what you’d call a techie.

One night at a party a sales rep for a reputable publisher and I debate the kindle and try to outdo each other with self-righteousness. She finds herself reluctantly accepting the kindle as a tool of her trade. I concede that the kindle is a book in that a book is a collection of words, I agree that an author probably doesn't care how their book is ingested (although I would--wouldn't I?), I agree that the kindle is a good tool for reading many books quickly (but so is a nice sturdy tote). But semantics aside, a kindle is not a book, not really. As a bookseller (not a publisher), I have the luxury to be snotty about the kindle. I can hate the kindle with no remorse. It is a tool I do not need.

When my mother called me at 7:30 in the morning to tell me she was considering buying a kindle, I knew she was weighed down with guilt. I recited all the reasons she should be against the kindle. It doesn’t have pages (those aren’t pages), you can’t flip back to a sentence by muscle memory, it’s less friendly to being hugged in joy or thrown at the wall in anger, it doesn’t have a smell.

But for travelling, my mother counters, think of how wonderful it would be to bring as many books with you as you wanted and not having to choose only one or two because of the weight! Yes, I agree, but think of this: you’re on an airplane over the ocean, you’re in the middle of the new Stieg Larsson book, you haven’t been this excited by a book in ages, and all of a sudden, the battery on your sweet little kindle dies, you forgot to put the charger in your carry on, and you have no more books. Mother gasps. Books don’t disappear, Mom.

Kindle’s new ad on Amazon claims “Kindle reads like real paper, even in sunlight. Beach reading never looked so good." Only, don't get sand in it, spill a drink on it, or leave it sitting in direct sunlight. Kindle, like Pinocchio, dreams of being real.

Later that day I received an email from my mother:
Subject: Kindle
I REPENT!!!!! FORGIVE ME!!!!!! IT WAS TEMPORARY INSANITY. Mom.
The crusade goes on.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reader's Block

I haven’t had a good book to read in what feels like months. I’ve been reading short stories and articles and read a good-enough book on vacation, but I haven't been really satisfied by a book in a while. Finally I diagnosed myself with Reader's Block and prescribed a classic.

Never having read Cormac McCarthy, I started with All the Pretty Horses and was stunned, by page forty-three, at it’s beauty. I hadn’t assumed such lyricism by an author I associated with stark masculinity and grotesqueries like The Road and No Country for Old Men. If I were to guess, before I began this book, I would have assumed his style would be straightforward, in your face, even. Based on nothing, really. Based on the movie version of No Country.

But I was wrong, and from the first page, from the repetition of dark and cold and no wind and the long sentences like rolling hills and the lack of punctuation, commas sparse as Texas trees in my East-coast mind, I’ve been charmed by McCarthy's spell.

This kind of writing is exciting to me, it raises my body temperature and makes my heart beat faster. Do yourself a favor and read this passage out loud:

They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

And that's just one sentence. It’s the kind of sentence you have to read aloud; I whispered it while reading and walking down my block and again, louder, as soon as I got home. This sentence reminds me of a passage from Midnight’s Children which is too long to quote here but spirals up and down around a green and black witch. Poetry. My faith in books is restored.