Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Where is human nature so weak

...as in a bookstore?
-Henry Ward BeecherI sneaked another of Sloane Crosley's essays in Barnes & Noble during our lunch break.

This is a terrible thing, you know. I fell in love with her story about plastic ponies during my last visit, and tried to track her down in an independent bookstore. They couldn't find her for me. The man behind the counter took down my phone number and never called. C'est la vie.

I want you to go to Barnes & Noble this week and read the opening paragraph of her first essay. Tell me honestly that you can walk away from that book without wanting more.

Here is a video she made about the opening story. (via The Stranger)

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley from Book Videos on Vimeo.

The essays feel more exciting and fresh when I court the book in many visits. I never read more than one essay at a time. I laugh and then feel guilty for laughing because I know (a) I feel indebted to this author and immediately want to financially support her, so she continue her writing career, and (b) that I bought dental floss and soap yesterday, which adds up to almost as much as this book. Though I can justify an occasional book purchase with investing in material for future interviews, I have a feeling basic hygiene is more intrinsically valuable to an interview than nonfiction.

I will inevitably buy her six times for friends' birthdays. That is how much I love this book. But I can't bring myself to buy it for myself.

I did, however, make a purchase. I spent my final graduation gift certificate at B & N. Are you ready?I found a paperback copy of The Maytrees by Annie Dillard.

I don't know how you approach books in bookstores, but this is what I do. I stand in front of the front tables like a picky eater at a bountiful feast. I study each cover carefully, and pick up the book that caught my eye first. The design on the cover is simple and Chip Kidd-esque. I read the back cover. If it's a well-known author, the back is filled with quotations. I have no use for quotations. I can understand in a grasp if it's notable. (There is an exception here: if a critic I respect, James Wood for example, I will read the quotation and feel impressed, then debate how that person knew the author, agent, or editor.)

I will turn the book on its side if the production manager has chosen a notable binding style or interesting pages. I will carefully open the inside cover and read the publisher's name. I will read acknowledgments. I will read the first sentence of the first page.

I always skip introductions. They tell me nothing about how I will connect with the author.

And then I will judge, all the while reminding myself that I wouldn't buy my OWN book if I shopped for it in this way, because it's nearly impossible to write a sentence that one connects with and respects and loves and feels invested in immediately. You have to reach down to a reader's core and pull out something from there she didn't know was inside her. It's very much like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. You have to reach like this:
And the reader has to revel in the joy of finding whatever you dig up.

Of course, you have about six seconds to do this. Blame the internet all you like. But I often set books down after reading only the back cover and judging the cover. As I mentioned, it's like standing in front of a buffet table. You only have a little time to try a taste of everything.

Annie Dillard didn't call to me by page two. But she did mention Provincetown, and I liked the tone she'd chosen for Cape Cod. I stuck with her for the first chapter.

And she struck me once. Here is the sentence: "They acted essentially in two events - one ordinary, one spectacular."

I thought, Well, that's nice. You can almost hear the hems of her skirt brush against parallel structure as she side-steps. But I still didn't feel indebted enough to buy her work.

My eyes traced beyond the line break. And at the bottom of the next page, they grasped this:

"Between them they read about three hundred books a year. He read for facts, she for transport. Nothing about them was rich except their days swollen with time."

She's a literature student's dream. No one expects less from Dillard. But did you catch how delicately she handled those sentences? The final one is almost saturated with description, but it took that to catch my attention. The sentence I love most is, "He read for facts, she for transport." She took so few words to nail these people. And I instantly felt I could understand them. Each of them. It was triumphant.
But more than that, I walked to the counter feeling helpless. I have no resistance against deckled pages. I think they're phenomenal. When the publisher puts that kind of time and money into a book, I am inclined to believe it's worth it. Divisidero rather upset that theory (though Ondaatje will always have my affection, thanks to every other book he's published).

This is a paperback with an embossed cover and deckled pages. Honestly, did I stand any chance against it?

[Please leave me a comment with the way you tend to browse in Barnes & Noble. I want to hear about you.]


Dunford said...

Wow, that post was beautiful. I think I'll do something like that the next time I'm in a big bookstore.

I suffer from extreme shop-phobia, with the exceptions of used record stores and used bookstores, in which I'll look for whatever I've been thinking about lately.

Typically, I'll swoop in to B & N with something specific in mind. Generally, I only buy new books out of paranoid reflex: if it's something I want to read many times, I buy it in case I get trapped somewhere without a library.

JFS said...

Um...Sloane works in my office. You want a signed copy?

(She's fabulous--and by far the best dressed person here. Seriously, cutest skirts ever.)

Was great to see you last night!

Kay Arr said...

Thank you, Mike! I really like hearing how you read.

Jess, that would be a dream! Thank you so much! Oh man. Of COURSE she wears cool skirts. Miss you.