Beyond the Bestseller–The Answer to a Book Lover’s Dilemma

My recent purchases

I’m always reading novels, memoirs, or essay collections, sometimes two books at once. Given my love of reading, it seems odd that in recent years I’ve had trouble finding books that I really enjoy.

My tastes have changed. Since 2016, I often have wanted to step back from the real world and put my brain on the rinse cycle for a few hours. Unfortunately for me, some of the books that attract critical acclaim often are challenging to read.

The stories may portray truly awful events (slavery, abuse, war crimes) so vividly that reading them leaves me drained, not recharged. Other stories feature antihero characters who are so unlikable that I don’t want to spend a week with them. Or the author may be experimenting with narrative techniques that are intellectually interesting but not emotionally satisfying.

I want escape, but not just any escape. I’m not looking for syrupy sweet, happily-ever-after novels. Instead, I prefer a believable, involving story, one in which the characters are likable or interesting enough that I can engage emotionally and care about their plight.

Finding good books has gotten harder. Zillions of books are published every year. Amazon has millions of them. The public library has thousands. So what’s the big deal?

I’ve realized that my habit of reading with Kindle (whether purchased books or books checked out from the library) has stunted my reading list. In both cases, the recommendation and search algorithms are pretty rudimentary. Just finished a novel about the Holocaust? The library’s app and Amazon’s will suggest three more Holocaust novels. Wait, noooo!

The problem is compounded by the way book marketing and promotion works. During any given month, only 20-30 books are being touted, and the same ones appear on everyone’s bestseller lists and in numerous articles with titles like, “Best Books of 2018” or “This Summer’s 10 Must-Read Books.” Obviously, there are way more than 30 new books out there!  So how can I find them?

An aha moment. Duh. At bookstores. Where they have actual books. Made of paper. Recently, I visited Magers & Quinn and quickly found several good books by award-winning writers and added more to my “Want to Read” list. The books I chose are considered to be “midlist” (which is publisher-speak for a well-written book that is not a bestseller), so none of them were mentioned in any of the reviews or blogs I consult.

What a relief! The books are out there, but I’ve been looking in the wrong places!

If you’re curious, here are three really enjoyable books I purchased recently–The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, and I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows.

 

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Idiosyncratic, Incomplete Best of 2015 List

Tis the season of year-end lists . . . the best books, movies, new words, etc., etc. Some of the lists are fun (Wait, I forgot about that book!) Some are annoying (Why is that movie on the best-of list??) Some recaps are depressing (I won’t remind you of what went wrong in the world this year—I’m sure you haven’t forgotten).

I’m offering you my list of some VERY GOOD things that happened in 2015.

Let us know about something that made your best-of list for 2015.

The WordSisters wish you all the best in 2016!

Bookstores Beat Amazon for Browsing

I love that I can zero in on several pairs of cool shoes on Zappos that will fit my hard-to-fit feet. Yippee! The Internet brings me things I can’t find locally. Problem solved! I have happily spent time searching for deals in the clearance sections on Banana Republic, JJill and Macy’s websites (usually when I should have been doing something else). Score—70% off! But I do not love browsing on Amazon to find books I might enjoy. For that, nothing replaces the sense of discovery and delight I experience in brick and mortar bookstores like Magers & Quinn, Common Good Books, or Subtext.

Amazon’s “Recommended for You” algorithm is too simplistic. Just because I recently read a book about the Holocaust doesn’t mean I want to read three more books on that subject. At least not right now.

The trouble is—I don’t always know what I want to read. Until I picked up Praying Drunk, a collection of short stories by Kyle Minor and One of Us, a novel by Tawni O’Dell that’s set in Kentucky coal country, I didn’t know I would enjoy them.

Magers & Quinn

Magers & Quinn

Browsing in a bookstore is almost meditative. I give my mind and feet permission to wander and I open myself to discovering what’s there. When I find a good book that wasn’t on anybody’s bestseller list, it’s a pleasure. The title or cover lures me. After reading a few pages, there’s a moment of victory, “Yes! This one will be good.” I feel inordinately lucky. It isn’t just a book. It’s a good read—sometimes a journey to an interesting place. Other times it’s a respite from a bad week.

If I find a book, I buy it, but often I am torn. I also love to read ebooks. I can read in bed without turning on a light and bothering my husband. I can carry 10 pounds of books in a 1-pound device when I’m traveling. Unfortunately, ebooks lead me to Amazon. Buying there just hastens the demise of all those independent bookstores that I love. If independent bookstores could offer books in either paper or digital form, I’d gladly buy my ebooks from them. They’ve earned the sale by giving me a great experience. Amazon is procurement, not browsing. Visiting a bookstore is an adventure.

A Fool’s Errand or a Worthy Risk?

I just submitted my memoir manuscript to a publisher. I sweated over every word of the query. I drafted the synopsis and revised it and revised it again so the narrator’s growth was woven into the plot. I fussed over the manuscript sample to make sure it was tight and engaging.

I believe in my book. If I didn’t think it was worthy, I wouldn’t have spent more than 10 years on it.

But as I read and reread my handiwork, doubt crept in. I thought, “Am I wasting my time? Will this book even appeal to the publisher?” I sent it off anyhow.

Next, I polished and fussed with my entry for a writing contest.

Once again, I was assailed by the same suspicion that this is a fool’s errand. I’ve entered that contest half a dozen times and haven’t won yet. Will this year be any different?

Some stubborn, optimistic part of me persists.

While working on these submissions, I countered my doubts with platitudes like, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t try.”

Then I questioned the platitudes. It’s ingrained in the American psyche to believe that you’ll succeed if you try hard enough. That isn’t always true. Sometimes you fail anyhow. Then you have to live with the failure and wonder if it’s your fault because you didn’t try hard enough. Huh?!? What maddening logic.

Americans also love noble failure and tell ourselves, “At least you tried.” That is comforting. Like many Americans, I do believe that it’s better to risk failure than to attempt nothing. Risk is scary, but safety is stifling.

Finally, I come back to Margaret Atwood’s sensible advice: “Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

I’m going to stop whining. As for the entries? Stay tuned.