October 21st, 2020 / 9:00 am
Behind the Scenes & I Like __ A Lot & Random

A Bookseller’s Reading Snapshot

The bookstore I co-own with two other women: Thank You Books in Birmingham, AL

I like to hear about people’s reading habits—not just what they’re reading, but how. In the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, on the train, on the toilet, three books at a time, strictly poetry, in a deep musician biography phase—whatever. I like to hear when people are struggling to read—maybe because they can’t find the time or can’t find a book that holds them, maybe because they’re in the throes of grief or just having too good a time. It occurs to me every once in a while that some people just don’t care about books the way I just don’t care about, say, golf. Part of my job, if I’m being completely honest, is to make books look good, and make the reading life look good. I need people to buy in to the idea that owning stacks of books is important, that books are worth spending money on, especially since it’s entirely possible to own zero books and read as many as you want for free. I love this challenge. I hate capitalism but I love selling books, talking about books, and trying to learn as much as I can about why and how people read.

The place, generally speaking, where I feel most “free” to read, is in bed, before sleeping, after I’ve written in my five-year journal. I started my Tamara Shopsin journal three years ago and I cannot sleep until I’ve written something down—it’s a mental logging off for me, downloading my day somewhere safe and physical, which frees me to read without Bowsers from the day sneak-attacking my brain, enticing me to regret what I said to so-and-so or how I handled xyz parenting situation. Not now, Bowser! I’m reading. I also work hard to clear swaths of daytime hours on the weekend at least a couple of times a month, actually schedule this as I would a doctor’s appointment. Otherwise it won’t happen. The rest of my reading happens catch-as-catch can, while I’m waiting for other things, when I have a surprise thirty minutes, etc.

I read a lot because that’s my job, and it’s my job, in many ways, because I read a lot. The reading a lot part came first, and led me down a very winding path to where I am now. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

The second Harry Potter (I don’t know what it’s called, don’t feel like looking it up)

This isn’t really by choice. My 8-year-old daughter S is into HP right now. We read the first one together, a chapter a night, me reading out loud, and now we’re on to the second. I guess we’ll probably keep going this way, unless she decides she wants to go it alone at some point. I sort of hope she does, because I can’t imagine five more of these, with the latter ones being very fat. That said, I love reading out loud, and doing voices and accents. Roald Dahl is particularly fun to read aloud, too. In 6th grade I got an award in forensics—public speaking, not criminalistics—and then I was a theater kid and, I don’t know, I guess I’ve always loved reading words with my voice, finding the rhythm and the music of sentences. It feels collaborative and exciting. Harry Potter is fine.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Each chapter of this book feels like an episode of an eminently watchable Netflix show. The characters are vivid; Tokyo and Osaka are vivid, and I keep thinking of the first penpal I ever had, from third through fifth grade, a girl my age named Takako Abo who lived in Osaka, Japan. I wish I could find her again. She wrote the best letters and had the coolest stationery. Anyway, Breasts and Eggs is a really fascinating story about class and self-worth told through a sister relationship crisscrossed with two mother daughter relationships. The title is provocative but also extremely banal, and the book is sort of the same way: it exposes the most rudimentary aspects of womanhood so plainly that a new complexity gets revealed. Kind of like taking for granted how the sky is blue, and then listening to a second-grade explain why it’s blue. Vanity, ambition, anti-natalism all given rigorous and enjoyable treatment.

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

The other day I went to visit my parents. My dad had warned me that he may still be tied up on a Zoom call. When I walked into the house, my dad emerged from the alcove in the kitchen that he has been using as his office wearing a nicely ironed work shirt, exercise shorts, and slippers. Come see, come see, he gestured excitedly. I followed him to the computer. Don’t worry, I’m not on video. It’s Dan’s grandson’s bris! I’m the only non-family who was invited. He was beaming, bragging. Broder’s forthcoming book somehow feels exactly like that moment in my parents’ house, watching a mohel in LA place the baby in his grandfather’s lap, telling the people assembled and the people watching online when the baby screams, the gates of heaven open while my 81-year-old dad nudges me and nods, misty-eyed, proud to be in attendance and happy for his friend: religious, beautiful, intimate, a little painful. I adore the characters in this book, the sharp, snappy chapters, and the skillful writing whose smoothness belies a fathomless profundity. It’s a novel as kind and funny and generous and wise as Broder is herself, and it’s also a brilliant repudiation of shame, taking the reader so deep into the wound—capillary-level—that the wound becomes a whole world, a space that needs to be inhabited and admired before it can be healed. The other day, when I was about halfway through the book, I left Melissa a voice text telling her how much I was enjoying it, how sad I was that it would soon end, despite the fact that I was trying to pace myself so as not to finish it too quickly. I couldn’t help it. It’s just that good.

Various works of Muriel Spark (The Driver’s Seat, The Comforters, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

I’m obliged to read a lot of new books for work, but I try to read something older for every couple of new ones. I’m working my way through Muriel Spark’s oeuvre and it’s very satisfying. There’s something ferocious in her sentences and in how she handles time—zero preciousness, clearing her path forward as if with a scythe. So much contemporary storytelling, I feel, and god knows I struggle with this in my own writing, has this bogged-downedness, as though the writer feels it is their solemn duty to account for every single contingency, emotional or otherwise. To this Spark says nuh. I had the frequent thought while reading: Spark does what she wants. She was a late-adopting Catholic, and famously said that her Catholicism helped her see the whole of human existence, and I do feel like each of these books has the “universe in a blade of grass” quality.  

Up next: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, Late Wife by Claudia Emerson, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Down Along with That Devil’s Bones by Connor Towne O’Neill.

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  1. Bobby Dixon

      this is great. have struggled w/ reading time alongside ~the world stuff~ plus also having a kid. she has recently been really good about grabbing a book & sitting it down to purposefully open it to a specific page — half the time the book is upside down but this is progress. sometimes we can even sit & both pretend to read. my pretend reading is like me constantly looking around to wonder why it got quiet

  2. old unicorn

      i love you.


  3. Kristen Iskandrian

      haha, I remember those days. Pretending to read/wondering about the quiet can be a kind of reading, too.

  4. Kristen Iskandrian

      <3 <3 lolol