Notes from Ann: The Smart Staff Grows Up

Photo by Heidi Ross

(Photo by Heidi Ross – EveryOneNightStand.Tumblr.Com )

Read any of the countless (and oh, I do mean countless) interviews I’ve given about the bookstore and there you will find me talking about how smart our staff is, what great readers they are, and how much they love books. The smart staff, real live human beings as opposed to computer algorithms favored by some of the online booksellers, are what make the experience of independent bookstores so deeply satisfying.

How smart are our booksellers, you may ask? Well, let’s just take Yashwina Canter for example. She showed up when Parnassus first opened. She was 15 years old. She said she was going to be in the store all the time, so we might as well just give her a broom and put her to work. She also said we didn’t have to pay her. True to her word, she swept the floors, shelved the books, and worked her way up to the cash register, and to a salary. She’s a senior in high school now, and she was just accepted to Merton College at Oxford. You read that right. The entire staff of Parnassus is teary with pride.

I asked Yashwina if I could interview her for my book report this month. I have posted her answers below. If you tweet (I don’t tweet), please tweet this. Post it on Facebook. Print it out and mail it to your friends. Copy it by hand and pass it around. I want people to read this. I want people to know that passionate young readers exist, that books are not dead, and that there is a lot in this life to be thrilled about. I put Yashwina at the top of that list.

1. What’s the first book  you ever loved? 
YC: I had to ask my dad for the answer to this — my first word was book, and my priorities have not really changed since then, so I loved books long before I could remember them. Apparently, I adored The Snowman. Adored it. When I said my first word, I was pointing at that book with the goal of getting my dad to read it to me again. Being dependent on him for my book consumption is, thankfully, a thing of the past. This is probably why I learned to read so young. I got impatient.

2. What book do you think every child should read? (Children can be broken into size groups.)

  • Cozy ClassicsYC: For babies and toddlers (and also for my high school friends who are reluctant to read the actual books): the Cozy Classics board books. They’re only one word per page, but with combinations like “friends, sisters, dance, mean, sick, muddy, yes?, no!, write, read, walk, marry!” for Pride and Prejudice, these board books incorporate the plots of classic novels. Get ‘em started early.
  • For early readers: We Are In A Book! by Mo Willems. The much-loved duo Elephant and Piggie artfully explain the way that reading works in Willems’ typically hilarious style.
  • For chapter-book and early-middle grade readers: The Bookstore Mouse by Peggy Christian. This fast-paced and humorous literary adventure takes place in the imagination of Cervantes, a bookstore mouse introduced to the wonders of Fiction after a cat chases him from his home in the Cooking section. In addition to providing a wonderful, timeless escapade, this tale romps through tropes and literary devices: for example, Cervantes, with his knight-in-training friend, helps to defeat a giant named Jargon by deflating him with a pointed remark.
  • For confident-but-not-quite-YA readers: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a thrilling and engaging page turner with language that is just challenging enough, and it also shows readers that the classics are accessible. Plus, it has one of my favorite plot twists ever.
  • For YA readers: More classics — Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, and beyond. For more contemporary fiction, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and anything by John Green.

3. What’s the best English class you ever took?
YC: Because the stars aligned and blessed me with a plethora of brilliant teachers, I cannot pick a “best” class. This is the opposite of a problem. In middle school, I had a teacher who let me stay after class to discuss and improve my writing; a teacher who fostered a healthy respect for that most venerable mark of punctuation, the Comma; a teacher who turned a blind eye when my seventh grade independent study in playwriting became less about writing and more about bingeing on Shakespeare; and a teacher who made eighth-graders want to read the classics after lively discussions of Chaucer’s humor. In high school too, I’ve had some of the most incredible teachers. My American literature teacher made Emily Dickinson’s seemingly small poems come to life in vivid detail, and my current AP English teacher has guided me through two incredible independent studies in addition to the challenging AP course, taking time out of her free periods to help me expand my reading beyond the curriculum. I could talk for hours about how influential these incredible teachers have been, and how thankful I am to have been taught by each of them.

But, without a doubt, the most pivotal class in my literary education was British Literature in the second semester of 10th grade. Before that class, English was my favorite subject in school. After that class, it was what I wanted to do with my life. Dr. Masullo’s class was magical because it spoke to me in a language I understood. It built heavily on the British classics upon which I’d been raised, it took the authors who were familiar to me and delved into their works with gusto, and it made scholarship feel not like a collection of separate tasks (read the book, take the notes, churn out the essay) but rather one cohesive approach to experiencing a text as deeply as possible. It gave me a whole new level of appreciation for all the English classes that I had taken before, and it made me a stronger student, better prepared to engage in all my subsequent English classes. Dr. Masullo really changed everything.

4. What’s the best book you were assigned to read?
YC: Without a doubt, Hard Times by Charles Dickens, read in 10th grade for the aforementioned British Literature class. I owe so much to Hard Times; it’s the reason that I switched into that class to begin with, since the other class section, taught by a different teacher, was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I had already read (and enjoyed — this is not me dismissing Tess. I just wanted something new!). On a concrete level, Hard Times is just such a vivid story, full of stern-jawed fathers, wayward younger siblings, and larger-than-life villains who are mean even to their mothers. However, its message resonates with me most of all: fostering creativity isn’t just about artistic flights of fancy, like Sissy Jupe’s horse-patterned wallpaper; it’s about using education to give kids the skills to think independently and make informed decisions. It’s thought-provoking and brilliant.

5. What were the three best books you’ve read that weren’t assigned?

  • Mr. NorrellYC: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Hands down favorite book ever, because it mixes all the things I love: the drama of Dickens, the style of Austen, and the wonder of Harry Potter. Plus, those footnotes make my nerdy little heart beat a little more quickly. Whenever I’m trying to pitch this book to a customer, I say that I would gladly pay taxes to reside permanently in this book. You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This is the book that made me want to be a bookseller. It just confirmed what I already knew — book people, be they writers, sellers, or readers, are the best people.
  • Paper Towns by John Green. Some Capital-G-grown-ups like to consider all teenagers vapid, but this is just a delusion intended to make these adults feel superior. Thankfully, John Green operates under no such misconception. His Margo Roth Spiegelman brings the rain, not the scattered showers; she changes lives, rocks worlds, and you know what the weapon of choice is for this seventeen-year-old supernova? Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Her co-star, the unapologetically nerdy Quentin, uses his intelligence to save the day and also to unravel the difference between loving a person and loving the idea of a person. Thank goodness for authors who don’t talk down to their audiences.

6. Favorite classic?
YC: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. It’s the classic that made me go read all the other classics I could get my hands on, and as a result, it’s the book that made me so desperate to study English.

7. What are you dying to read right now?
YC: If you’ve seen my Parnassus bio, you know that I love books about books. Have you seen J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s new book S.? It looks unbelievable. It’s so innovative. Basically, there are two books involved; one takes place in the margin notes, where the main characters interact with each other and are working to unravel a mystery, and within that is the text of another novel entirely, Ship of Theseus by the fictional V.M. Straka. Tucked into the book are bits of ephemera — everything from pictures to postcards to doodled-on napkins, all placed in the book by the main characters in the course of their explorations. It’s a love letter to the adventure of reading — what’s more energizing and poetic than that?

But, in a moment of weakness, I gave my copy of S. to my father. He’s been rhapsodizing over it ever since, while taking his time in actually getting done with it, so I’m stuck pining after a book that I technically already own. Should I just get over it and buy myself another copy? Probably. (I just checked, and this book is on backorder!)

8. What’s the story with your personal book stack?
YC: When I was a kid, my parents were very good about saying no to me. (No, Yashwina, you may not have a pony, a television in your room, a hamster, or a disco ball.) However, the family policy was that there was no limit on books. Therefore, I learned self control in every other area of my life except for reading. The rest, as they say, is history.

9. What’s the best part or parts about working at Parnassus?
YC: The best part is the people. Everyone feels like family. That’s a cliche thing to say, but I mean it in the most genuine way possible. I’ve learned so much from being around such a phenomenally intelligent group of people that I honestly cannot imagine the person I might have become without my Parnassus family in my life. (Love you guys!)

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10. What are you recommending to everyone right now?
YC: My problem with recommending a book to people repeatedly is that, in convincing them to read it, I also convince myself. Therefore, because I am weak, I am rereading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. There is nothing like a fun, lighthearted, bookish adventure with a plot that reaffirms why you love reading.

11. If you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island with the life’s work of only one author, who would it be?
YC: Jane Austen. I’ve reread all her books so many times, but each time I revisit them I find something new. Those houses and villages feel like home; those characters feel like friends. You’d want friends with you if you were stranded on a desert island, right? Plus, I’m sure that between the guidance of Captain Wentworth and Mr. Knightley, I’d be able to get off the island and back to my civilized bookstore.

12. Will you quit a book you don’t like?
YC: I won’t say no, because I have quit books in the past, but it is very, very rare. I will sooner suffer through a book just to make sure that I don’t miss out on something incredible than put a book aside and wonder if I would have adored it had I only read five more pages.

13. Do you ever judge a book by its cover?
YC: All the time! I maintain that this isn’t shallow. Life is short and shelves are long, so a book has to have a presence that makes you want to read it, reread it, and keep it around.

14. How did you get the idea to apply to Oxford?
YC: This is actually a Parnassus story. I would not be going to Oxford if it weren’t for a serendipitous meeting and a wonderful customer.

At the beginning of last year, my parents and my coworkers were the only people who knew how desperately I wanted to go to Oxford. I hadn’t even told my teachers. However, when one of our regular customers came in and, after a lively discussion of The House at Tyneford, inquired about my college plans, something compelled me to tell her about how much I wanted to go to Oxford. I am so thankful that I did. I had only expected her to smile and say, “That’s wonderful, dear,” or something to that effect, but instead her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “Oh, my son goes there!” She answered so many of my questions, and then she promised to bring her son into the store when he came home on break so that I could meet him. A few months later, she returned with both him and his girlfriend in tow. They were all a treasure-trove of information. They answered all my questions, from how the University’s college system worked, to the procedure for applications and interviews. They even gave me their emails and offered to read my personal statement essay. In short, they were incredible. For the first time, I felt as though Oxford were an actual possibility rather than a distant dream. Aren’t Parnassus people the best people? They really are.

15. What would your dream job in life be?
YC: I want to be to some future student the inspiration that my own English teachers have been to me. I want to be the English professor that students write home about.

16. If you could get your mother to read one book, what would it be?
YC: This is challenging, because my mom’s the one who made me read Pride and Prejudice, and I have no idea how to repay a favor of such magnitude. Well, I do have some idea. With her love of history and her appreciation of the fantastic, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the ideal book for her. (Hint, hint, Mom.)

17. Dad?
YC: When my dad heard this question, he rolled his eyes and replied “It could be any of about a thousand.” I’m always inundating my parents with book recommendations (sorry, not sorry), but Dad, if you’re reading this, please please please read Hard Times. The character development! The social commentary! It’s perfect for him.

18. Ann?
YC: Wow. Um, no pressure, right?

I’d love to hear your opinions on Mr. Penumbra, but I couldn’t say whether or not you’d like it. I do appreciate the way that it handles the differences between print and digital reading, and I think the way that it portrays the two as equally viable options that complement rather than compete with each other is really interesting.

Okay, here’s an idea. Have you read The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak? I know I mentioned it as a YA pick earlier, but adults everywhere should read it too because it is simply so unique, insightful, and evocative. It is set in Munich during World War II, but the very fact that the book is narrated by a personified Death (a wry, thoughtful, and ultimately heart-rending narrator) should establish that this is not your typical WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. This is, first and foremost, a story about the redemptive power of reading and of language in a society that has been twisted by rhetoric.

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