Every year before I renew my friend Beverly Lowry’s subscription to the First Editions Club, I check to make sure she still wants it. This year she wrote back, “I love the First Editions Club. Maggie Shipstead followed by Nathan Harris? Both on the Booker Long List? What’s not to love?”
The way she said it, it sounded like picking two Booker Prize finalists had been our plan, or, better yet, that the judges of the Booker Prize had kindly slipped us their list of finalists in advance.
No such luck.
Finding books for the club is a combination of labor and love. We read as many advanced copies as is humanly possible, and make our choices four to six months in advance of publication. Some months (think September) offer an embarrassment of riches—the hardest part is deciding what great book to pick—while other months (sorry December) we’re frantically looking for anything that isn’t a diet book. I remember the joy I felt when Cat, the most energetic reader the bookstore had ever seen, found an advanced copy of Joan Silber’s Improvement, for December 2017. It was a spectacular novel to be coming out so late in the year, and we weren’t the only people to notice. Joan Silber went on to win the PEN/Faulkner and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Our rule of thumb for the First Editions Club is to find books our members will want to keep. Take our very first pick in 2012, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. Not only did it win the Women’s Prize in the U.K., but all these years later it’s back on the New York Times bestseller list. People are still discovering how great that novel is.
When I look back, I’m amazed by the collection we’ve assembled.
Here’s a quick overview of some of the highlights:
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, was the first of three Erdrich novels we’ve picked for FEC. This one went on to win the National Book Award. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you want to make impressive choices, keep picking Louise Erdrich.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This is one of those rare first novel masterpieces. I’m so proud to have this book on our list.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. When I read this novel, I was absolutely positive it would win the Pulitzer. I had the same feeling when I read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (FEC 2016), George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (FEC 2017), and Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman (FEC 2020). Turns out I was wrong about Lincoln in the Bardo, but it did win the Booker Prize, so, not too shabby.
I remember sitting on my front porch, reading the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and feeling like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. That was an easy pick.
Seeds of Hope, by Jane Goodall, was not only a beautiful and important book, I just couldn’t believe I had a book that Jane Goodall had touched.
My pal Elizabeth McCracken’s short story collection Thunderstruck won the Story Prize, which is a very big deal in the short story world. We were so dazzled by the collection that we picked her collection The Souvenir Museum this year.
Tristan, who used to be the buyer at Parnassus, was the one who found Phil Klay’s Redeployment and said we had to pick it. It was a first collection of stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it went on to win the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Thanks, Tristan!
While the Nobel Prize is given for a body of work and not a specific book, we felt pretty great about picking The Buried Giant just before Kazou Ishiguro won. It was our first Nobel.
If you were a member of the First Editions Club in 2016, congratulations! It was a banner year. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett, LaRose by Louise Erdrich, and Moonglow, by Michael Chabon, were all finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award (LaRose was the winner). It was also the year we picked the fabulous Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton (look for the follow up to that book, Oh William! which will be our November pick this year). We also picked a novel by a very promising writer named Amor Towles called A Gentleman in Moscow.
Not only was this the year we chose Lincoln in the Bardo and Improvement, we also had Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and Weike Wang’s Chemistry, a tiny book with a huge heart that has really stuck with me. When I was asked to fly to D.C. to interview Tom Hanks for his story collection, Uncommon Type, I said I’d do it if he would be willing to sign first editions for our club members. Who doesn’t want Tom Hanks’ autograph?
Tayari Jones won the Woman’s Prize with her Oprah pick, An American Marriage. Lauren Groff won the Story Prize for her collection, Florida. And I got to meet the dreamy Michael Ondaatje when he came to sign copies of his novel Warlight.
Of all the books we’ve picked, none has meant more than Tony Horowitz’s Spying on the South. After doing a terrific event at the store with his wife Geraldine Brooks (whose novel The Secret Chord we had picked in 2015), Tony went to his next book tour stop in D.C., where he had a heart attack and died at the age of sixty. We love him, miss him, and feel so lucky that he and Geraldine came to the store.
2019 was also the year our favorite local author, Margaret Renkl, published her stunning essay collection, Late Migrations, and our favorite almost-local author, Kevin Wilson, came to sign Nothing to See Here.
When Alice Randall, another beloved Nashville author, came out with Black Bottom Saints, it was a cause for celebration. Truly, there’s nothing else like it. Yaa Gyasi followed up her smash debut Homegoing with the elegant and deeply felt Transcendent Kingdom. Jeanine Cummins found herself in the center of a literary hornets nest when she published American Dirt. The book launched a great deal of necessary conversation about the publishing industry, and was also, in my opinion, an unforgettable novel.
Which brings us to this year. There could have been no better way to kick things off than with George Saunders’ meditations on classic Russian short stories, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, followed by Chang Rae Lee’s thrilling bildungsroman, My Year Abroad. And still, there are so many terrific books ahead of us. I should know, I read them all months ago.
This is a lot of books to consider, but I’m only scratching the surface. We send out twelve selections a year. At Parnassus, we’re reading late into the night. We’re always thinking about the future, the books we’ve loved and talked about, the books we hope you’ll love and talk about. FEC selections make great reading, great collecting, and great gifts. If you wonder what people at Parnassus are reading, now you know. We hope you’ll join us.
More about our First Editions Club: Every member receives a first edition of the selected book of the month, signed by the author. Books are carefully chosen by our staff of readers, and our picks have gone on to earn major recognition including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Plus, there’s no membership fee or premium charge for these books. Build a treasured library of signed first editions and always have something great to read! Makes a FABULOUS gift, too.