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June 11, 2008

Reading Update and a Long Detour About Indy Bookstores

Got a bug up my ass and spent all my free time in the past three days re-reading Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series. I was partly inspired by badgerbag's Moomin, who dressed like Kel (complete with birds glued to his tunic! so cute!) at Wiscon, and partly by finally getting to organizing my bookshelves (still not done)--which I put off for a year and a half, until I realized that not being able to find books meant that I was starting to buy second copies of books I already had, boo--and finding the books again.

Anyway, I loved the series again. It held up well. I'm still trying to figure out what that glow around it is for me. It might have something to do with the fact that Pierce was the first middle-grade/YA author I read as an adult going back to YA. When I was working at the lamented A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, our resident YA expert recommended the at that time incomplete series to me.

Indy bookstore people ... now there's a topic all of its own. Working at an indy bookstore was my first "real" job, after babysitting and a paper route, i.e a job where I had a boss present and coworkers and coffee and a break room. I was seventeen and had just dropped out of high school due to depression, ennui, and a whole buncha other issues I won't get into. My town in southwest Michigan in 1987 was the kind of place where 60 adults would apply for a position at an indy bookstore that gave a written test to all applicants, and a 17-year-old high school dropout would get the job because she was the only one who could answer half the questions.

(The test just gave titles and asked for authors, gave authors and asked for one title from that author's bibliography, then gave titles and authors and asked what section you'd shelve the book in. Many of the books I was able to answer questions about were books I hadn't read, but had seen on my family's bookshelves, so I could match author to title and title to author. If that isn't a demonstrable economic advantage that having books in the hizzouse gives a person, I don't know what is.)

In between 17 and 29, when I started working for A Clean Well-Lighted, I forgot what indy bookstore people were like. Don't get me wrong, I didn't leave the world of cultural capital behind me at all. I was in a German university, working for an international gallery, and then in San Francisco community arts. Smart, well-educated people, all. But there's a difference between people who read books, people who use books, people who write about books, even people who write books ... and people who sell books as a career.

Educated, cultured people are discerning about books. They know, or think they know, what is good and what is not. They have their blind spots and prejudices. They are afraid of whole categories of books, and love and depend on other categories. They say they love books, and mean something very incomplete and limited by that.

Booksellers love books with a completeness and passion that no one else has. All other relationships with books are partial: readers love what's in the book, for a time or forever; collectors love the physicality of the things; academics view books as extensions of colleagues, things to argue with, treasure, stumbling blocks and tools; writers understand how books come to be, and see in them the shapes, textures and histories geologists see in a landscape.

But career booksellers are like good kindergarten teachers: they have a more discerning eye about quality and ability than nearly anyone else except parents, but unlike parents, they love all the babies distantly and unreservedly. Every book, no matter how bad, deserves respect and place. And good books are to be found in every category and genre. When it comes to books, career booksellers are more democratic than anyone.

Which is why most of the ACWLP employees were reading YA, along with everything else. Had it not been for my second brief stint in an indy bookstore, I probably would not have gone back to reading YA, or gotten started on science fiction, or continued with mystery. None of my tastes were suspect at ACWLP. No one was embarrassed to debate the virtues of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, or Elizabeth George and P.D. James, or Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis. Some of the men in the store had read Georgette Heyer! And had opinions!

This is what we're losing to Amazon and the internet: a ground zero for a complete love of books. I'm not one of those who thinks that bookblogging is somehow less than: book blogging is an unreserved good, not to mention, something new under the sun. It's great and it's a great place to get people excited about books. But there's nothing like an indy bookstore to replace it; noplace to take your actual body and sit in a big armchair and drink some coffee, and browse the realm of physical books, smelling the print and paper, admiring the covers, looking askance at the displays, reading the shelf-talkers, and asking the staff to recommend something for you.

Okay, back to Tamora Pierce. I think the glow in rereading these books comes not just from remembering my first fun adult YA experience, but also from the books just being really good. It's not that the books aren't forumlaic. Pierce has perfected her own formula, and that's what makes her so popular. But within that, these books fulfill exactly what they promise, and don't overdo any of the elements. In the third book, Kel has to foster a stolen baby griffin, who scratches and bites her all the time and whose parents might kill her when they find him. This device is amusing for a while and then gets tiresome, but before it becomes boring, Pierce gets rid of it.

Likewise, Kel faces misogyny, as the first girl to try for knighthood without disguising herself as a boy, and in the first book her obstacle is the misogyny of her authority figures. In the second book, it's the misogyny of some of her peers, but it's also her own fear of heights. By the third book, although we know she'll encounter misogyny wherever she goes and we see it, Pierce doesn't tax us, or Kel, with it, because she has bigger fish to fry. The whole thing is perfectly intuited, perfectly shaped to please the reader ... and it does.

Pierce was at WisCon this year and I missed my chance to meet her, but I haven't forgotten what a surprise and pleasure a good YA can be and I'll definitely look her up next time.

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Comments

Hi Claire, Chris Hill here. It was great to meet you at WisCon!

I was on the 'Why Return a King (or Queen)' panel with Pierce. She had some interesting things to say, 'though I admit I found her a little intimidating!

hi chris! nice to meet you too. why intimidating?

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