Let’s see if I can make this analogy work.
Buying a book on the internet is like online dating: you know what you want and you order it. Buying a book in a bookstore is like going to a party full of interesting people and talking to them to find out who you like: someone who is not your type catches your eye. You pick the book up, you browse, the book surprises you. This isn’t the kind of thing you ever thought you’d be interested in and yet you can’t put it down, you love it.
I’ve always been a member of Team Fiction. Give me a novel, a collection of short stories, and I’m happy. But since Parnassus opened four and a half years ago, I’ve been reading indiscriminately. If I looked at the list of books I’ve read since we’ve had the store, I’d bet half the titles would be nonfiction (okay, maybe a third). There was a time I would have told you I wasn’t the nonfiction type, but it turns out I would have been wrong. Here are some of the true stories I’m presently obsessed with:
I’ve been a guest on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show twice, so when I was asked to interview her for the Kentucky Author Forum in Louisville, I said yes. Interviewing Diane Rehm is a little like cooking dinner for Julia Child. You know she’d do a better job at it than you, but you also know she’s a nice person and she’s going to be supportive no matter what. Her new book On My Own focuses less on her career as a famous radio talk show host and more on her husband’s long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. Both John and Diane Rehm wanted a physician’s assistance in his death, but it isn’t legal in Maryland where they lived. (Rehm has since begun working with the group Compassion & Choices to raise awareness for end-of-life issues.) Even if the need for assisted suicide is the ultimate point, the book’s short chapters read as scenes from a life. As they go back and forth through time — adding details of tremendous happiness as well as discord and isolation — a remarkable portrait of love and loss emerges. This is a moving account of the grief that comes with the death of a loved one, and I’d give this book to anyone who was trying to cope with a loss, not to mention anyone who is a fan of Rehm’s show.
The problem with memoirs is that they’re so often sad. If you round up a bunch of them they start to look like tragedy’s greatest hits. But memoirs have a lot to teach us, and sometimes it’s an enormous comfort to see someone struggling with the same things we’ve struggled with ourselves. It can also be a gift to be allowed inside another person’s life. Those are some of the many strengths of Where the Light Gets In by Nashville’s own Kimberly Williams-Paisley. When her mother was first diagnosed with a particularly harrowing strain of early onset dementia, the close knit Williams family rallied around to support her, but they also made some mistakes. Her mother was such a powerful figure that she continued to call the shots even as she was falling apart, insisting that her illness be kept a secret, insisting she could still drive, insisting she that she didn’t need any outside help. The outcome was disastrous for the family but extremely instructive for the reader. Almost everyone I know has been through some variation of dealing with dementia, but let me tell you, these people had it worse. The amount of truly helpful information in this book, combined with the abundance of tenderness and honesty, makes it well worth the sadness. We’re thrilled that Kim will be part of our Salon@615 series at the downtown Nashville Public Library on April 19, so be sure to come out for that.
Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City weighs in with an entirely different kind of sadness, one that spreads a wide net instead of digging deep into a single family. Evicted stands among the very best of the social justice books: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. As I’m typing up this list I realize I could go on and on. I’m a big fan of social justice books, and I have the highest admiration for writers who use their talents, compassion, and courage to expose society’s problems in hopes of correcting them. Evicted focuses on the high-priced rental market that exploits America’s poorest families and creates a constantly revolving door for the people who can least afford to be put out on the curb. The book is meticulously reported and beautifully written, balancing statistics with family stories that draw you in and keep you there. I hope that all the people who read and loved Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity will give Evicted a chance. It can be a lot harder to look at poverty in our own country. I would bet on this book to be a big winner for prizes next year.
One answer to all the countless books I get that people want me to read is simply not to read them. Another answer is to pawn them off on friends. When Hope Jarhen’s Lab Girl hit my doorstep, I thought my friend Judy Lewis might like it. Judy teaches biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt, and Hope Jahren is a geobiologist who studies trees. That’s close enough, right? I stuck the galley in Judy’s mail box, feeling self-congratulatory for having found the book a good home. Two days later Judy called to tell me she LOVED it, she needed extra copies for colleagues immediately (even though this was six months before publication), and that I had to read it. So I did. I’m crazy about science books, and this one is so full of passion and focus, so full of trees, I couldn’t tear myself away. Hope Jahren approaches her work with such single-minded devotion that she inspires a certain amount of zealotry in her reader as well. She is willing suffer just about any hardship in the name of science. Her love and respect for the natural world is unwavering. I’ve been anxious for this book to come out so that I could say to everyone, Read this!
Now that I’ve recommended four books that are brand new, I want to throw in two that have been around for awhile. Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart was first published in 1994, which is when I read it. It’s always stuck with me for its beautiful writing, terrifying story, and willingness to tell a difficult truth. Mikal Gilmore, a longtime reporter for Rolling Stone, was the younger brother of Gary Gilmore, who was executed in Utah in 1977 and was the subject of Norman Mailer’s classic (but lesser) book The Executioner’s Song. With everyone at the bookstore talking about real-life crime shows, from the Serial podcast to Making a Murderer, I remembered this terrific book and brought it back to the store. If you like true crime, or you have a deep respect for well written, thought provoking literature, then this one is for you. (Always remember, any book you haven’t read is still a new book.)
Finally, I would urge everyone who hasn’t already done so to take a look at Stephen King’s 2000 classic On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. As you may have heard, King is coming to Nashville on June 11. (For details on the event as soon as it’s finalized, make sure you’re on our email list.) The event will be huge, to put it mildly. Of course the house will be packed with Stephen King fans who have read every single one of his books twice, but there will also be people like me: I admire King greatly for all that he’s done for publishing, for engaging readers, for his reviews, his opinions, his intelligence, his work ethic. I find him fascinating even though the vast majority of his books are just too scary for me. I’ll be there on the front row cheering but I won’t be reading the back list. So if you’re full of admiration without the nerve to delve very far into horror, read On Writing. It’s such a great book regardless of whether or not you want to write. It’s the story of how the past shapes the future, how a career is made, how addiction is overcome, and how having a rock-solid and supportive spouse makes all the difference.
Maybe you want to read all six of these books but you haven’t had a chance to get to the store. Good news! Our new mobile book van, Parnassus on Wheels, is coming to a neighborhood near you. First we bucked the system by opening an independent bookstore, then we bucked it again by filling that store with dogs, now we’re breaking the mold a third time by taking our show on the road.
I like to say that the Parnassus First Editions Club is like Fruit of the Month Club, except it doesn’t rot. Well, Parnassus on Wheels is like an ice cream truck, but without the calories.
Think about that.