A couple of weeks ago I was in the storeroom at Parnassus, which is sort of a large, messy closet where the books that come into the store are first unboxed and entered into the computer system. It’s the best place to find Tristan Hickey, because he’s so good at the whole book receiving thing. I asked Tristan what he’d been reading and he told me he’d just finished Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and thought it was great. He asked me if I’d read it, which I hadn’t. Then Kathy Schultenover came in to put her lunch in the fridge (there is really not enough room back there for three people) and she asked us what we were talking about. We said Waugh, and she said, “I love Waugh!” I asked her what her favorite was and without a moment’s hesitation she said, “The Loved One.” In the space of a few minutes, two people I respect and admire had recommended a book I’d never read. This is what it means to have a bookstore. It’s a place you can find people talking passionately about Evelyn Waugh at 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. It gives me enormous faith in the world.
I left that day with a copy of The Loved One and went straight home and read it. Personally, I still prefer A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited (which isn’t even like an Evelyn Waugh novel) but I was glad I’d read it. It had a biting quality that made me think of Erskine Caldwell and Nathanael West, so now I want Tristan to read Tobacco Road and Miss Lonelyhearts. Does anyone read Miss Lonelyhearts anymore?
Recommending books and having books recommended to me is a big part of how I’ve interacted with people in my life. I’m also nosy, which means I crane around to see what the person next to me on a plane/ train/ bus is reading. It’s one of the things I hate about e-readers – you can’t see what anyone is reading. Are you allowed to just pick up someone’s Kindle and scan through their library? Looking through other people’s bookshelves has always been a major act of bonding for me, or, back in the dating days, a huge part of the courtship ritual. When I was in my twenties, if I looked at a guy’s bookshelf and saw a lot of Ayn Rand and no J.D. Salinger, I would suddenly remember that I needed to go home and wash my hair.
One of my best friends recently recommended the new Edward St. Aubyn novel, At Last. She said it was brilliant and could be read on its own, but that it would be much better if I read the previous four Edward St. Aubyn novels that lead up to this one. Those four books, which I had never heard of before, Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, have just been published in one hefty volume called The Patrick Melrose Novels (Patrick Melrose being the main character in all five books.) I ordered up a copy from the store and when it came in I put it on the giant stack of Things to Read that towers ominously in my study. It’s one thing to recommend a novel, but to recommend five novels, well, that’s a bit much. Once I saw the size of the book I had a feeling it was never going to happen.
Then my friend Jim Fox told me that he was reading the St. Aubyn novels and that he loved them. I agree with Jim on pretty much everything, so I know if he loves a book I’m going to love it. Then my publicist said that she was reading St. Aubyn, and since I talk to Jane more than anyone else I know I like it when we read the same things. If three people I loved were reading these books, how could I not? I had to fly to South Carolina the next day to give a talk, and so I put all the Patrick Melrose novels in my bag. By the time I changed planes in Atlanta I was walking through the airport without lifting my eyes from the page, and when I arrived in Columbia and was offered a tour of the city (which I’d never been to before) I declined in favor of spending my three free hours in my hotel room reading. I wound up reading all five books in five days (each one is short.) The last time I had such an all-encompassing one-author book binge was when I read John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels straight through. Every second sentence in the Patrick Melrose cycle was one that I wanted to write down or read aloud to my husband. These books made me reconsider issues of family, responsibility, entitlement, depression, addiction, and life in general. They also made me think about what makes great writing. They’re brilliant books, especially when read straight through. I would not have been happy to wait years between the publication of each volume. As much as I loved them, I have to warn you: they’re very strong. They’re not going to be for everyone, but they were certainly for me. There’s always a risk in recommending books. In a way, you’re recommending yourself, your taste. One of the things that defines us at Parnassus is our extensive staff recommends shelf right when you come in the door. We’re telling you who we are. Tristan gets behind Waugh and I get behind St. Aubyn. In return, customers are always telling us what we should be reading, and I keep adding books to my stack.
Amazon gives you algorithms: it will tell you what books the people who bought the book you bought also bought (a ridiculously clumsy sentence that I can’t seem to improve.) That’s a shopping statistic. That is not an opinion.
If you’re interested in opinions, come to the store on Tuesday, April 10th, at 1:30. Thanks to our newest employee, former head of the Nashville Public Library System, Donna Nicely, we’re having a series of devoted readers come in to talk about the books they feel strongly about. Our first guest is Mayor Karl Dean. I’m a big fan of the mayor, and I’ll be interested to see what he’s reading these days.
One more recommendation before I go: Madeline Miller is coming to the store on April 17th at 6:30 to read from her new book, Song of Achilles. I read this book last summer when it was in galleys and I loved it. I was hoping that Madeline would come to the store before we ever had a store to invite her to. If you were a fan of the Iliad, or you wished you had a better understanding of the Iliad, here’s your chance. She brings this classic roaring back to life with a take on the text that is completely her own.
Having a bookstore reminds me every day how much there is to read. Please come by and tell us what you’re reading, what you loved and what you couldn’t stand. Books are our entertainment and our education. We all want to be pointed in the right direction.