July 20, 2010


I decided to buy a new book last week. I can afford the luxury because I don’t spend much on clothes, my mortgage is paid, I own my car and I’ve done most of the major repairs on the my 113 year old house – I hope. I won’t give away the title of the book as I haven’t read it yet and can’t say whether it’s good or bad. Today I’m ruminating on the process of making a purchase.

Usually, I’m not a browser. When I enter a shop, I have the recommendation of a friend in mind or I’ve read a review that’s piqued my interest. But on this particular morning, I had no objective.

What I wanted was a “feel good” story like Heart Land. The economy, the BP oil gusher, the sea-saw war in Afghanistan had left me longing to escape down the yellow brick road. 

The front of the establishment was a maze of book tables marked “new arrivals” and “best sellers.” I picked up several then put them down again. None of them offered the escape I was looking for. Finally, I drifted to the almost endless rows of shelves at the back of the store, toward the fiction section. My hand fell upon a cover that wasn’t particularly inviting: a picture of a school girl’s knees draped in brown woolen socks that wrinkled above her thick, sensible shoes.

I have no idea why the cover attracted me except the photo was so bland as to be interesting. The title wasn’t compelling either. It was from an old song, probably from the 1930s, the kind Fred Astaire might sing to Ginger Rogers. In sum, the whole effect was homely in the English sense of the word, meaning ordinary yet comfortable.

I pulled it out and read the jacket. The story was about an eleven-year-old girl whose divorced father was negligent and whose mother suffered a drastic life change that caused her to abandon her daughter. Eventually, the girl hitched up with a young woman who ran a coffee shop and who had fallen madly in-love-at-first-sight with a customer who flirted with her and suggested they fly off to Europe together. The charmer was the negligent father.

After reading the cover, I paused to consider and then not quite convinced, I slid the book back into its slot and headed toward the front of the store again. Maybe I’d missed something wonderful among the best sellers. Familiar names greeted me, names I trusted; but none of them called to me on that day. The book at the back of the store did and I returned to it to rethink my rejection. I read the plot summary a second time before returning it to the empty place on the shelf. No, not this book, I said to myself, and I walked away.

I repeated this ritual three more times and as a consequence, learned something about myself. I’d grown stodgy in my tastes. As a reader, I gravitated toward the known, afraid of anything new. There’s some justification for this attitude, of course. If I’m going to invite characters into my home to share my couch or bed, I want to believe that falling in love with them is possible.

As a writer, however, my sentiment is the opposite. I want book buyers to be adventurous and give new authors a try. 

Confronted by my hypocrisy, I tucked the new writer under my arm and having paid for her, left the store. I hope I like her. She certainly has my good will. It’s difficult for a novice to compete against the heavy hitters who reside at the front of the book store. If she’s good, I’ll let my friends know. Maybe they’ll give her a try. That’s how best sellers are grown, one book at a time, just as grains of sand make a beach.