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I recently attended a City Arts and Lectures interview with Gary Shteyngart (to be aired on KQED radio on 7/24/11). The interview focused on his recent novel, Super Sad True Love Story, which I’m halfway through right now. In this (near) futuristic world, it is rare for people to own and read books, which are regarded as smelly. No one understands the appeal when they have information streaming into their electronic gadgets. During the Q&A, Shteyngart was asked if he thought the bound, printed book will continue to exist in this new age of the electronic download. Like the rest of us, he hopes books still remain a viable delivery system for literature. He mentioned an interesting statistic. According to a Canadian study, when you read a book electronically, you actually comprehend 9% less than reading it on printed matter. But, he added, it’s good that people are reading ebooks as opposed to not reading at all.

With the recent closing of Borders stores (one employee said about 30% are closing nationwide), it seems we are getting closer to Shteyngart’s dystopian future. But in this ultra-accelerated culture of ours, I think electronic media has created better access to literature where there might not have been before and perhaps a new kind of fiction market. I wonder if smart phones and other portable information devices are creating a demand for flash fiction or shorter short fiction. Online literary journals with apps like Narrative, Scarab, and Electric Lit come to mind.

I think we all could see the end of the big chain bookstores coming. In my naiveté or denial, I wanted to believe this would translate into more customers for local, independent bookstores. But with the convenience and discounted prices of Amazon and Amazon-like sites, not to mention the success of ebook readers like Kindle, I’m afraid it may be a matter of time for these beloved bookstores. My hope is that the business model of a Books Inc. or Book Passage, which have expanded their services beyond just selling books, from providing author readings to holding workshops, is sustainable.

And let’s not to forget used bookstores or smaller chain book stores like Half-Price books who also sells used books. I really hope they are able to continue. Used books and public libraries are why I became an avid reader, and later, a writer. When I was a kid, I’d go with my mother to the second-hand store. (At that time, only my dad was working, so for a family of seven, my mother had to make a dollar stretch until it screamed for mercy.) While she immersed herself in the disorganized racks of clothing (How I’d dread what she’d pick out for me) and mismatched housewares, I was cross-legged in the book area with dozens of opened, weary-looking books around me like a skirt around a Christmas tree. I didn’t bother with the used toys, which were usually broken or incomplete, but more importantly, required negotiating with my mother. Not with books. She didn’t care what I picked out or how many. I think she believed it didn’t matter what I read, only that I read. Plus those used books were dirt cheap. A dollar would get me an armful of books. This was why by twelve I’d read The Great Gatsby, For Whom The Bell Tolls and Catcher In The Rye.

So while I bemoan the closing of Borders’ stores, I’m taking advantage their deep discounts as they try to sell everything that’s not nailed down. It’s enormously satisfying to walk along the half empty shelves and rescue a book of an author I’ve been wanting to read. “How-to-write” books and articles frequently advise new writers to read as much and as often they can. In her memoir, The Faith of a Writer, Joyce Carol Oates elaborates further:

Read widely, and without apology. Read what you want to read, not what someone tells you you should read…Immerse yourself in a writer you love, and read everything he or she has written, including the very early work. Especially the very earliest work. Before the great writer became great, or even good, he/she was groping for a way to acquire a voice, perhaps just like you. (24)

But I also find myself considering books written by unfamiliar authors. At these prices, why not? So there I am sitting on the floor of the store and rifling through pages to see if these books deserve a place on my already full and overflowing bookshelf. And it seems my criteria for choosing a book hasn’t changed much from when I was a kid in that second-hand store: I first examine the book cover. While I know good artwork isn’t necessary for a good read, it is my first impression. In her book The Forest for the Trees, literary agent and former Doubleday editor, Betsy Lerner sees the importance of the right book jacket:

Jackets, like faces, can tell you quite a bit about what’s inside. When an editor and author see a jacket for the first time, it’s like looking in the mirror. If the reflection doesn’t radiate the qualities you believe your book possesses, it will be disappointing, maybe worse. (236)

According to Lerner, although some people go into bookstore with a subject in mind or a good review or recommendation of a book, many simply browse, unsure what they are in the mood to read. “A jacket, a title, an author – some combination of these elements will beckon…the prospective buyer” (237).

On my quiet corner of carpet, I scan the book flaps for the story summary and the author’s bio. (I don’t know why I’d look at the author’s bio when I was a kid. Maybe on a subconscious level, I imagined someday this would me. Nowadays, I’m mostly curious to see where they went to grad school.) If the story sounds intriguing, I keep going. I check out the reviews in the book – now I know they never include bad reviews, but critics will sometimes compare the author to others or will hint at language, lyricism, emotion, humor, etc. I then read the first page, and sometimes flip to a page in the middle, but the first page is everything if I’m unfamiliar with the author or his or her works.

Here are some which make it through the long line to the cashier, along with their first sentences:

Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work by Jason Brown
Everything Natalie said seemed, to herself, to have been said better by him. He was less fond of speaking, however, than he was of hitting people in the face, which seemed a more like source of her love to those of us in speech class with him.

Quiet as They Come by Angie Chau
I live in a three-bedroom house with my mom and dad and little sister Michelle. We have the corner bedroom because my mom can’t sleep.

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
No way Blair insisted to anyone who asked, no self-respecting bunch of extortionist rebels would ever want to kidnap him.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
It happens like this. He sets out in the afternoon on the track that had been shown to him and soon he leaves the little town behind.

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman
The man is not happy at home. When he sees his wife or son, he knows that he should be, but he is not.

Edible Stories by Mark Kurlansky
What could explain it, as he half stood, his left knee planted on the sidewalk, head turned down away from the rain, looking at the wet, dark, sparkling pavement, the leaves like soggy cornflakes, his right foot in the hole?

The Companion by Lorcan Roche
Urgently Required: Mature, responsible person to act as Big Brother/Companion to a young man with Muscular Dystrophy. Ideal candidate will be courteous, kind and considerate.

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville
Lucy says we aren’t watching to see if he would die. “That would miss the whole point,” she says.

Ghosted by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall
Mason Dubisee dodged a boozed propelled bullet on the day he was born.

In the store, it looks like others have the same idea and are sitting in a dim corner or empty aisle reviewing their stacks of books, and I wonder if they have similar rituals for judging their books before buying. How do you select a book if you don’t have an author, title or subject in mind? And what hidden treasures have you unearthed this way?