My fellow ShelfTalker bloggers have been handselling of late — not just in their stores, but to each other. It began with a suggestion from Meghan Dietsche Goel to spend a week as a group with Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls challenge, and specifically to select a title that met one, two, or three of his criteria, read it and write about the experience. Great idea, Meghan, but “YIKES!” I thought. In my on-the-floor, apron-wearing mode, I happily recommend all types of books to young readers, and read stacks of ARCs and award list titles rather indiscriminately. It’s a rare luxury, as a bookseller, in just choosing what you like to read for fun, much less to pick up something not required.
I imagine that many of our desks and nightstands and car floormats are piled with towering stacks of next season’s releases, this season’s “next up” before launch date, and the backlist offerings of our next visiting author. So much of this reading is just to put out the fire, so to speak – it’s what we MUST read next, to introduce, to review, or perhaps to hold our own at a dinner or panel. It’s often an embarrassment of both literary riches and a failure of housekeeping. It was a straightening of the spine, as my Nana would have said, to look at those shelves and think about what I should read to thoughtfully respond to Gene’s challenge: specifically to stretch by choosing something out of my ordinary in either format, character, or topic.
Fortunately, my colleagues had plenty of ideas for me, and confessions of their own about genres that were less regular in their reading rotations. (Note to self: stop asking potential new hires what they LIKE to read, rather, ask them what makes them uneasy… fascinating answers follow.) I shared my hesitance about the science fiction section, and was offered a GREAT BIG STACK of titles. Why is it, I wonder, that so much science fiction is so FAT? Does it really take that many pages to invent a new reality? I thought technology was supposed to save time? Never mind. I’m procrastinating. Into the shelves I went to pluck Book One of the Chaos Walking series from Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go. Just in case, I took home books two and three, which effectively toppled the precarious stack next to the bed, and disturbed the sleeping bulldog.
I was familiar with the trilogy, and could recite a couple of good “hooks” from staffers for customers, but had never handsold the books with the passion of a first-hand reader. I had sold A Monster Calls by the stack, but that is such a stand alone novel that I never went back to read the author’s crossover debut. The Chaos Walking series has all the imagined foreboding qualities of science fiction that make me skip to the next title in the pile: the books are lonnnnggg, presented in a trilogy format (which can be like agreeing to a prom date before Valentine’s Day, as you just don’t know how you’ll feel by spring break) and an (imagined) introduction of detailed futuristic technology to set the story. I was wrong about that third assumption, as I was about many of my generalizations about the genre. The book launches from a perfect first sentence for a technophobic reader (“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say”) to the introduction of a society filled with the NOISE of every person’s thoughts. As I turned off my phone (must remember to silence that buzz announcing emails) and pushed the laptop over to my spouse’s side of the bed (no, I don’t want to watch the video with the duck and the dog best friends), I flew through the first 100 pages, completely connected to young Todd, and knee deep in the swamps around Prentisstown. I was alternately shocked, frightened, amused, and altogether riveted by a story that races along, and fulfills that “just one more chapter before I turn out the light” that moves a title from shelf talker status to emotional handsell.
While the novels are clearly science fiction, the story transcends genre in the best of ways, through heart-stopping, sleep-preventing adventure, cheer-worthy heroes and shocking evil hidden by societal norms. I find myself still haunted by themes of this trilogy, published in 2006, that seem all too 2017: the incessant noise of a constantly broadcast stream of consciousness masquerading as information, the ease of manipulation of a large group of people, the role of guilt in controlling behavior, and the struggle to come of age in a society with a distorted view of adulthood. Like many good books, this one will need rereading in different times both in our customers lives and experience, and as reflection on changing times in our politics and society. Ohhhh… I get it, Mr Yang. We must read the strange to see the familiar, and look inside the cover to see further what’s outside. Let’s take down a few more of those walls in our bookshelves, to start. Two to beam aboard.