Friday, May 12, 2006

The perfect read.

This week, at my writing class, guest lecturer Melissa Fay Greene gave the group a lot of advice, but I think my favorite bit of it was deceptively simple. Greene said that what she tries to do, when she's trying to come up with her next book, is imagine her perfect read, the sort of book that she would love, love, love to arrive on her doorstep at that very moment so that she could read it immediately. Once you have that perfect read in your head, Greene said, you have the book that you're gonna write.

Now I work in a bookstore because I love bookstores. I've been a bookstore loiterer since I was 8, when I forced my then-single mom to take me to the children's section of the closest Waldenbooks once a week so that I could peruse masterpieces like SUPERFUDGE. I met Jenipher, one of my best friends ever, because my parents used to abandon me at her B. Dalton every Friday night when I was a teen, before I learned to drive. (This week, I found an audiotape that Jenipher once made me during high school. On the tape over an orchestral score, Jenipher performed her own dramatic readings from SCARLETT, THE FIRM and Danielle Steel's MESSAGE FROM NAM. It's priceless.) Eventually, I worked at a Borders one Christmas, which was fun, and now, partly because I went out on a bad date with a music manager in 1999, I have worked at Barnes & Noble for over six years.

My love of bookstores has caused me some difficulty. I love the stores, oftentimes, more than the books I get from them. I'm a whim shopper, even now when I no longer have space for more books, DVDs or CDs. On my days off, I still feel the urge to go to a bookstore and browse the shelves. If I'm in a bookstore other than my own, I'll still walk along the shelves, realphabetizing sections and straighten displays. Not working, I'll still slip into "salesman" mode and recommend merchandise to people.

One time, giving a lecture to my fellow booksellers during a training meeting, I told them that the best way to become a good salesman was to become a good customer, to understand what you like and why you like it, to keep up on what's new and trendy, to follow articles, to read constantly, to experiment with new books, new music or a different sort of movie. I wasn't just advocating familiarity with the merchandise. I was suggesting a love of the merchandise. I'm so in love with new books that I can identify clearly what they smell like. I actually read about a tenth of what I buy in the store, which is impractical and dangerous. At the same time, my shelves are cluttered yet impressive.

Of course, the dilemma with the Greene challenge, to picture the sort of book that you want to read and write it, is particularly difficult for me, a whim shopper who surrounds himself with books. I'm always on the lookout for that perfect read, the book that will introduce me to a new way of thinking, a new optimism, a renewed sense of the romantic, an unconsidered viewpoint and/or something that will just make me laugh or cheer me up. The perfect book, when I've found it, fits me like the best pair of shoes. I read it slow, to the point of studying it, and I don't notice the hours that pass while I read it. It's been THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH. It's been THE SWEET HEREAFTER. It's been RAMONA THE BRAVE. It's been THE PRINCESS DIARIES. It's been 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD. It's been THE END OF THE AFFAIR or AFTER THE FIRST DEATH or THE CATCHER IN THE RYE or THE RAZOR'S EDGE or GENERATION X or even BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY. It's the story that speaks to you just when you need to hear it.

I have only vague ideas in my head about the "perfect read" I've pictured as my answer to Greene's question. I see themes I would like to see addressed, characters that deserve a story and merit a voice. I don't see a plot yet.

Still, I like this challenge. I'll let you know what comes of it.

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