Like the rest of you, I’m sorting through an onslaught of holiday catalogs these days, and what seems especially popular now is any gift that can keep on giving. Sure, you can order up 12 months of boxed fruit, but you can also get the pastry of the month, or pajamas of the month, or licorice, or floral arrangements. Pretty much anything you wanted to give to someone once you can now give to that person 12 times.
Books are no exception. When we opened the doors at Parnassus Books in November 2011, we were already thinking about launching our First Editions Club. We were nervous and young in those days, and having a First Editions Club seemed like a great way to ensure we would sell some books in February, because we had no idea if people bought books in February. After making it through that first madhouse Christmas, we started reading advanced galleys of books that would be coming out in three or four months. We liked the idea of a first novel for our first pick for the First Editions, and so we went with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. Not only did we love the book, but we loved Madeline. It was great to be able to buy 75 copies — a big deal for a first-time novelist. We wrote a letter about our selection, put the book in a pretty linen bag with our name on it, and shipped it out to all the kind people who had signed up without any proof that we knew what we were doing. The book was a hit! It won England’s Orange Prize (now called the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction). We were thrilled for Madeline, thrilled for our subscribers, and, honestly, thrilled with ourselves for having looked into the future and picked a winner.
The First Editions Club is a bit of a balancing act: it’s mostly fiction, but we also chose Jon Meacham’s book on Thomas Jefferson. It’s mostly novels, but then we add the occasional collection of short stories, like Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, which won The Story Prize, and Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts, which was a finalist for the Story Prize. I tend not to be a big reader of memoir, but some of my favorite books on the list are the memoirs we’ve chosen: Hunger by Roxane Gay, and What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas. We can do a thriller when it’s Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night or Maile Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed, and we can do something a little lighter when it’s as good as Matthew Quick’s Love May Fail.
Since we started the club we’ve been astonished by our own good fortune. Did we know that Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow was going to turn out to be the book that everyone would be reading? We did not. Amor not only signed his books, he stamped them with two rubber stamps. Did we know that Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was going to become a cult classic? (Well, we probably did know that.) Did we know that Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West would become so central to the conversation about immigration? All we knew was that it was central to our conversations.
In October of 2012, I was asked to interview J.K. Rowling on stage at Lincoln Center for her first post-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, a book I love passionately and still think about all the time. Instead of getting paid, I asked if we could order 300 signed first editions, which, of course, turned out to be a big hit with our members. That was a good lesson in the power of celebrity. When I was asked to interview Tom Hanks in Washington D.C. for his wonderful short story collection Uncommon Type, I said I’d do it if he signed 600 copies for our club. (Have you noticed the numbers keep going up? This club is growing!) They offered signed book plates. I refused. I needed signed first editions, I said, and eventually I got them. Even the 1,700 people who came to see Tom Hanks in D.C. that night did not get signed books. Membership has its privileges.
While there are loads of books we love passionately, the question we ask ourselves when making our selections is: what book will be especially meaningful to have as a signed first edition? The answer: it’s fun to pick books that go on to win prizes. In our first year we picked Louise Erdrich, who won the National Book Award for The Round House. In 2013, Donna Tartt made us feel like we’d won the Pulitzer right alongside her for The Goldfinch. In 2014, Phil Klay (very possibly the nicest guy in the world) won the National Book Award for his debut collection of short stories, Redeployment, and made us winners all over again.
For March of 2015, we picked a book that seemed like a bit of a stretch, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There was a dragon in that book, and an aging knight, and a bunch of people who had lost their memory. We loved it, and a couple of months ago Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature. It was our first Nobel. You can just imagine how we felt about that.
Basically, we crushed it in 2017. We won the Pulitzer AND the National Book Award for Underground Railroad. (OK, no, sorry, Colson Whitehead won those. But we picked him first. We picked him before Oprah!) Louise Erdrich won the National Book Critics Circle Award for LaRose and the other finalists were Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone — all of which we had picked earlier in the year, too. This year Weike Wang’s Chemistry won the National Book Foundation’s Five Under Thirty-Five award, George Saunders won the Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, and Jesmyn Ward just brought home her second National Book Award (our fourth, but who’s counting?), for Sing, Unburied, Sing. These aren’t just books we love, these are people we love, authors who’ve come to the store for readings and stood in our messy backroom signing hundreds of books, cracking jokes, telling stories, eating donuts with the staff, and playing with the dogs. We passed Jesmyn Ward’s baby around while she signed. We LOVED that baby. We are so proud of Jesmyn’s achievements and honored to know her.
If we were picking numbers at a roulette table, and to some extent we are, you might want to come stand beside us. We’re on fire. And while all the Parnassus employees are great readers who have each brought amazing books into the mix (I’m looking at you, Tristan Charles, for insisting that we all read Redeployment), the beating heart of this project is Catherine Bock, who not only manages the administration of the club but reads more than is humanly possible. She has an amazing eye for books, too.
So if you want to give a gift that will not rot or go stale, a gift that will keep the people on your list entertained and make them smarter, consider giving someone a prepaid membership to the First Editions Club. You can also give it to yourself, thus ensuring you’ll always have the perfect present at your fingertips! Who would like an excellent collection of short stories written and signed by Tom Hanks that comes in a pretty linen sack? Everyone, that’s who.
And don’t forget about our young adult club, ParnassusNext! It sends out 12 books a year with a whole lot more fanfare than the First Editions Club, making the arrival of every book a true event in your mailbox. It also turns out that lots of adults who are interested in YA literature buy it for themselves. What a great way to stay current! (It’s picking winners, too — read more about it here.)
No matter which club you choose, we can ship the books to you or, if you’re local, you can come by the store and pick them up. That way you can have a Peppermint Pattie and pet a shop dog. We always love to see you.
To read along with Ann and catch up on our past First Editions Club picks, just click any title in her note. And if you’d like to send someone a gift subscription to either the First Editions Club or ParnassusNext (or give yourself a prepaid subscription), sign up here! Your (or your recipient’s) subscription will begin with our January shipment.
PS: Order this weekend — now through midnight CST on Sunday, December 17 — and get 10% off all prepaid memberships. Just enter code GIVEBOOKS17 at checkout.