The “Gateway Books” That Led to a Sisters’ Book Club

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The other day, we were talking about the concept of “gateway books” — the reads that might be a little outside your comfort zone, but which you try anyway and end up discovering a whole genre you never knew you liked.

It works for book recommendations, too, we decided. If you’re careful in what you suggest, you might just get someone to branch out and read something they never would have tried on their own. Niki Coffman, our director of events and marketing, told a great story about how she and her sister did just that; and it was so sweet, we asked her to write it down. Here it is:


Niki (left, in Easter bonnet) and her sister, Trish (right, in equally fabulous hat)

For a long time, I was the only reader in my family. I’d squirrel away books like Little House on the Prairie, The Giver, and Anne of Green Gables, make a nest of blankets in my closet, and read all day long. I’d always take a stack of books into my fortress, because the minute I finished one, I needed another in my hands. Every two weeks, I’d check out the maximum number of books my local library allowed, then plow through them. I’d beg to go to the grocery store with my mom, simply so I could sit on the floor of their tiny book area and read.

In my house, I was the anomaly. Neither of my parents were big readers — perhaps because juggling full-time jobs and five kids ate up every second of their time — and none of my siblings liked to read much either. My older sister Trish was cool, funny, and completely disinterested in books. But I wore my love of reading as a badge of honor, proud that I’d found something that set me apart from the rest of my family. By seventh grade, I was devouring Jane Eyre and Jane Austen, preferring the company of books to boyfriends, a fact that made Trish think I was probably an alien, or at the very least, adopted.

My status as the lone-reader of my family gradually began to change when I took a job at a literary agency in New York City after college. I’d find a book I just knew my mom would love, or a novel my dad would really get into, and they’d trust my literary ‘chops’ enough to read my suggestions. Even my friends had started saying to me, “What should I be reading?” and “I loved Little Bee, so what do I read now?” But recommending a book to Trish — at this point a married mother of four — still seemed like an impossibility.

One of my favorite parts of being on the staff at Parnassus is helping readers connect with books we think they’ll love. Tell me two or three of the books you’ve liked in the past, and I’ll gladly suggest something else I think you’ll adore. However, when my sister finally took up reading as a hobby, she was inspired by her husband’s fascination with the genre of fantasy. I didn’t know what to recommend, as I tend to avoid anything with witches or vampires or made-up languages. I thought we’d never find a book we agreed on. And for a long time, this self-fulfilling prophecy proved true.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 11.01.50 AMBut as Ann always likes to say, reading is a gateway to more reading. Start your reluctant reader off with Captain Underpants, and before you know it, they’re devouring Frank Einstein and Sideways Stories from Wayside School. This summer, in my fourth year here at Parnassus, a funny thing happened. My sister, fresh off the high of reading Ann’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage in an effort to discover the secret to marital bliss, called and asked me what she should read next. It was the first time she’d seemed open to my suggestions, so I knew I had to hit it out of the park if she was ever going to ask again. I scanned my library, trying to hold in my head her penchant for fantasy alongside my own reading tastes. I handed her The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

I waited, anxiously wondering whether she’d be swept up in the magic and beauty of Celia and Marco and their fantastic circus of dreams. And it WORKED. She texted me a few days later to say she’d absolutely loved it. So started one of the happiest book recommending exchanges I’ve ever had. I moved carefully through my suggestions, from things I knew would be guaranteed hits — Gone Girl and Big Little Lies — to ones that seemed less safe — The Family Fang and The Secret Keeper.

Trish has loved some books more than others, of course. The Cuckoo’s Calling made her rave, while The Jezebel Remedy, which I loved, made her say, “OK, but what’s next?” She’s run through all my go-to suggestions, the books I love more than most, and now I’m suggesting things I’m just starting on myself, or books I’ve heard about but haven’t been able to read yet. It’s like we’ve become our own two-person book club. Though we’re wildly different, as adults we’ve discovered a remarkable, marvelous fact that unites us, my sister and I: it turns out, we have the same taste in books.

Niki; her mom, Sally; and her sister, Trish.

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