Bookselling Heroes

Jeff Garrett, who helped his wife Nina Barrett launch Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Illinois. Photo by Robert C. Trube, all rights reserved.

They don’t look like our idea of heroes. They are not frontline healthcare workers. The aren’t military service men and women or public safety officers who put their lives at risk for a higher cause. But they also contribute to preserving the fabric of society, the richness of our communities, and the intellectual and emotional health of our citizens. They are booksellers.

If they are independent booksellers, this means they are small business owners who have assumed both the risks and benefits of owning a business, having to pay rent, vendors, and employees. It means long hours and lots of unglamorous work. Everything from cleaning the sidewalks and toilets, lifting and unpacking boxes of books and getting them onto shelves.

One bookseller I know has not been able to open his business during COVID, nor sell books at conferences where he makes a good deal of his profit. He works hard to publicize good books through his online reviews and special offers. His books are meticulously packed, and often order acknowledgements are accompanied by personal notes. In other seasons, I’ve seen pictures of him unloading a truckload of books and then arranging them all meticulously by topics on tables, spending hours over several days interacting with buyers to help them find the right book, and then re-packing and unloading them back at his store. I first met him at a conference and it was a joy to watch him in action, recommending books I’d never heard of, or some which I couldn’t call to mind. It was like watching a virtuoso musician performing. My bookselling friend didn’t just sell books–he knew and loved books and cared deeply about connecting the right book and each of his customers.

And he and his wife work very hard at this, day after day.

While booksellers are all unique individuals, I would say they all have this in common–the work and the love. So, is it right to be considered a hero for doing work one loves? I think so. Having models of people who work hard with excellence to serve others, usually at minimal financial benefit, are worth noting. Beyond this, many of these people see their work as part of the civic fabric of their “main street” or whatever other street on which they work. They participate in community events. They host events from author appearances to readings for children. They highlight the voices of distinctive parts of their communities, whether of women, of people of color, of LGBTQ persons, or those of different religions.

Living in a bigger city, I love visiting small towns. I especially love the ones with a rich mix of shops and restaurants that my wife can spend an afternoon browsing–antique shops, boutiques, hardware stores, and bookstores. It’s the mix that makes it fun. What we don’t often appreciate his how hard all these business owners work to create this magic. But when we visit one of the forgettable small towns that are little more than civic buildings, a convenience store and a gas station, we begin to appreciate the value booksellers and others offer.

Sometimes these heroes have to give up their businesses. Maybe the finances just don’t work out, despite pouring time, energy, and in many instances, personal resources into the venture. More often, the challenge is just time, and the lack of another hero to pick up the mantle. I’ve seen more than one bookseller whose stores I really enjoyed visiting and who did great work for many years come to the realization that they no longer had the energy for that work, or that they wanted to use what remained to see and do things they had denied themselves for many years.

Sometimes, the community is blessed when someone younger comes along who shares the passion of the bookseller and takes over the business, often breathing new life into that business while preserving what brought a reliable clientele through the door. I’ve watched that happen with a store in a small town about 30 miles from us, and how that store is a community gathering place.

I hope these heroes survive the challenges of the pandemic. The books they’ve sent me have tided me and many of my friends through this time. I don’t think these heroes are looking for any acclaim. What would mean the most, particularly if you live in their town is that you would give them your trade, come to a few of their events and buy books, and tell your friends what a grand place their store is.

Why I Read

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Last week I wrote about reading and religion, which I could also have titled “reading as religion,” which I believe it to be for some people. Some may think that is so for me. While I would maintain that is not so, I’ll leave that judgment up to God and others. I’m too close to the subject. Quite simply, I do love reading.

In searching through the nearly eight years of posts on this blog, I’ve never directly talked about why I read. I’ve certainly touched on it or talked around it, but never directly spoken of why I read. Maybe it is like trying to answer why we love a person. We can give reasons, but then we realize we love someone apart from all those reasons. At our best, we love just because….

If you pressed me though, I could express some of the reasons why I read. I suspect there is more to it than what I write, as other bibliophiles will probably agree.

I love stories. I suspect for most of us, reading started with a love for stories, and that reading was a way to take in a story when there was no one to whom we could say, “tell me a story.” As we grow older, we think of our lives as a story, and perhaps a part of a larger story. Sometimes, reading serves to help me understand the story within which I live, and maybe how I might live within that story. I find that when I read the Bible, but also when I read fiction like Lord of the Rings or All the Light We Cannot See.

I read to understand the world. I love science writing that helps me understand the wonderful world I live in. Even gardening or home repair books can be interesting when I am trying to figure out how best to grow something or fix something. History helps me understand how we got here. Sometimes it is more indirect. It could be the history that led to a particular part of the world being the way it is today. History helps me understand the news–to set it in a bigger context.

Reading stretches and changes the way I view the world. I have a certain way of seeing things. All of us do. And because we are limited, so is my way of seeing the world. I will never be omniscient. The most I can hope for is to cultivate the mental flexibility and empathy to grasp how another might see the world differently, or even imagine a world unlike our own.

Reading also makes sense of my inner world. Perhaps it is a spiritual work that gives words to longings or perplexities. Sometimes a biography reveals a character of courage or grace I want to be more like. Sometimes a work of psychological insight reveals why I can be my own worst enemy.

I read to keep company with great thinkers, some who I’ll never have a chance to meet because they were dead before I was ever born. What a wonder that before recording technology, people wrote down their ideas, sometimes refining them in the process, and preserving them in books. Then there are some I’ve met or heard speak and was so intrigued by their ideas that I want to take a deep dive into them, deeper than a lecture or casual discussion.

When I read, I can travel the world without leaving home, a great advantage during a pandemic! If nothing else, I can appreciate how many different ways people approach this thing of making a life.

Then there are the times when I simply want to lose myself in a book. The detective fiction of Louise Penny has gotten me through the pandemic. Instead of all the fears a pandemic could summon, I could imagine for a few hours what it would be like to live in Three Pines. Or in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Or Lothlorien.

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve loved to read. If nothing else, it is a habit. At this point asking me why I read is like asking why I breathe or eat or sleep. It is that much a part of life. There are a number of other associated delightful habits–reading reviews, browsing book sites, wandering around bookstores and book sales, visiting libraries, or even just organizing my TBR pile.

I love that reading is both solitary and social. There are the quiet moments along with a great story or a new insight. Then there are book discussions with others who love the same things, and sometimes help me understand what still perplexes me.

Books and reading are a cultural good worth preserving (one of the objects of this blog!). Like other readers, the one thing that most baffles me is, why people don’t read. But why do I read? It’s all of the above, and yet there’s something beyond that I can’t fully explain. I guess I read just because…

Reading and Religion

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Have you ever noticed how some of the great libraries are not unlike the great cathedrals or other religious structures? The quest for knowledge and the quest for ultimate meaning are at least akin to each other, and I sense for some, are one and the same.

It may be a controversial idea, but in hanging out with many readers, I can’t help but wonder, if for some, reading is their religion. Oxford Languages includes this definition of religion: a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance. Consider these quotes for example:

  • “We lose ourselves in books, we find ourselves there too.”
  • “Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines–it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.” –Robin Sloan
  • “I didn’t choose the book life, the book life chose me.”
  • “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on.” -Nora Ephron
  • “Reading was a way of trying to get control over a world that was out of control. I liked doing it. It’s your source of power.” -George Anders
  • “Books wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Certainly it is a risk to take these too seriously. They are memes and quotes that express the love of reading so many of us share. Yet the idea of losing oneself in books and finding ourselves there sounds much like Jesus’ words: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). “I didn’t choose the book life, the book life chose me” sounds eerily like Jesus statement: “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John 15:16).

“Reading is everything…” sounds like an interest of supreme importance. Touching the spines of books and feeling the presence of sleeping spirits sounds like a religious experience. Books washing away dust from the soul sounds like baptism or other ritual ablutions in various religions.

These may be only figures of speech, or even hyperbole for the pleasure and enrichment we derive from books. I say “we” because I include myself in such experiences. It is part of why I am a reader and one who enjoys inviting others into the joy of reading. But can it become a religion? I think for some, it can be. I don’t want to pass any judgments here but simply invite some honesty among my reading friends.

If books and the reading life and the enrichment, insight, and joy this offers are indeed what we deem of supreme importance, to live that way is simply consistent with what one believes. I respectfully see things differently. I ascribe these joys of reading to the One who created in humans the love of story, the capacities of language to write and enjoy what is written, who in fact directed prophets to write down in books the stories and pronouncements that articulate how humans and the divine may engage each other. Books are one of the material artifacts, along with works of art, majestic buildings, music and song, and so much more that reflect the gifts of the Maker who made us to make. For me, the gifts point back to the Giver. To make reading everything is to shrink a much larger universe to something too small.

The question of whether reading is my religion is one I therefore need to ask of myself. It is possible to give it a place that is too large in my life, that de-centers not only God but human relationships and the enjoyment of other good things in life. My own conviction is that only when God is at the center do all these other things find their proper and good place for me. I think that is a too-tall order for reading. For me that actually saves reading from becoming an obsession or addiction to merely being a very good gift of enriching knowledge and delighting stories. Not a religion. Just a very good thing.

My Reviewing Philosophy

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This summer I will be coming up on eight years of reviewing books on the blog (and a few more before that of reviews on Goodreads) accounting for something like a thousand book reviews. Since this is one of those days when I don’t have any books I’ve finished waiting for a review, I thought I’d reflect a bit on my reviewing philosophy as it has evolved over the years

  1. First of all, I try to review books that I’m actually interested in reading. I avoid requesting or accepting books to review I know I won’t like reading (one of the privileges of doing this work as an unpaid reviewer). So most of the time, I will be fairly favorable in my review of a book. That will be true even of books I don’t agree with.
  2. The major exceptions to this rule are when a book is badly written, or poorly argued, or takes too long to say what it is trying to say. I read such a book recently. It was on a topic I was interested in and had some information that I found enlightening. But it was repetitious and there was a lot that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Maybe 200 pages worth. I was especially unhappy because this was a book I bought because of my interest!
  3. Speaking of concision, I try to write fairly brief reviews, in most cases 500-800 words. My aim is to give people enough for them to decide whether or not they want to buy the book. That means a summary of the book’s ideas, maybe a quote to give a sense of the author’s style, and some brief evaluation.
  4. I try to write for literate people rather than the academic guild. While I read some scholarly theological works and more serious works of fiction and non-fiction, I try to write for people somewhat like me, those with some education who want to benefit from those who are specialists without becoming one and who want to read good works of literature and enjoy them rather than overly deconstructing them. I think it sad that there are some in the academic world who cannot remember when they last enjoyed a book!
  5. I’m committed to respecting authors. I know how hard it is to do what they do both in writing and in launching a book. I believe respect means that I represent a book fairly, even when I disagree with the book or cannot appraise it favorably.
  6. Speaking of disagreements, I believe there is a fine line reviewers walk. Properly, a review is about the book, not about my personal views. So you will see books I don’t fully agree with. I often find much of worth in such books. Where I may engage a book is in appraising the arguments of a book, and whether they’ve fairly engaged my own views, when there is a disagreement between me and the author. Even here, this will usually be brief, with more ample space given to the content and what I see of value in the work.
  7. That said, I recognize that as a reviewer, while I try to read carefully, I cannot help but read from my own social situatedness and my own views of the world. I try to be aware of them, acknowledge them when relevant, but I will not apologize for them.
  8. I do have interests, which can be fairly diverse from mysteries to presidential biographies. I also have areas of focus from Pauline theology to environmental writing to anything decent by an Ohioan or about Ohio. I am interested in promoting Ohio writers as well as friends who are writers, if I think I can say something helpful about their books.
  9. I am still learning to review fiction. The art of brevity here is to say just enough to interest people in the plot of a book without taking away the fun of discovering the plot twists and turns for themselves. It goes without saying that one doesn’t leave spoilers. More difficult is the avoiding of connecting dots that the perceptive reader could use to deduce a conclusion. I have to learn more about the analysis of characters, of themes, and writing styles, again without giving away too much. I probably need to read other reviewers of fiction more to learn how they do it.
  10. Finally, I want to do my best to honor the relationship between reviewers and publishers. I love when I get to know publicists. I try to always express appreciation for the consideration of being sent a book for review and to do so in a timely fashion. And I make sure they have a copy of or a link to the review.

I am thankful for the chance to write and talk about what I think are good books. I’ve come to realize that reviewing is its own craft, and worthy of being done well. While I’m glad when an author says, “you got what I was trying to say” what means more is when a reader writes to say a book was illuminating or helpful or just a good read and a pleasant diversion. I’m even glad when someone tells me that my review convinced them this wasn’t a book they need to read. None of us can read everything!

I’m blessed to have friends who are authors and friends who are readers (some are both!) and my great fun is introducing these friends to one another in a way that enriches the social, intellectual, and literary capital of the world. That (and some free books) is pay enough!

Reading When We “Shouldn’t”

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Have you ever tried to read when you really shouldn’t have? It is so tempting, especially when we are in the middle of a good book, or have something we need to read before an imminent meeting, to try to read and do something else, sometimes in situations where this might be a very bad idea.

I asked the Bob on Books Facebook page about this and discovered there are a number of instances where this might occur. The instance pictured above was surprisingly common. Almost everyone who mentioned this said they gave this up long ago. I hope so–probably just as dangerous as texting or even looking at your cell phone. I can think of a few instances I tried it on a long boring stretch of road. I really couldn’t focus on what I was reading. So I gave it up. I want to read books when I can enjoy them.

I was surprised how many read during classes–something other than the textbook. There is the book inside book trick (ideal for comics) or the book in your lap approach. Sadly, some felt so ignored by the teacher that this was how they coped.

Then there was the forbidden reading–those “adult” books that we snuck into our rooms. As an adolescent boy curious about sex, I got an education of sorts reading a number of Ian Fleming books until dad caught me and the books ended in the trash can. Another wrote about reading her mother’s hidden copy of Forever Amber back in 1950!

Of course, nearly all of us dedicated bibliophiles were accomplished at reading under the covers in bed with a flashlight! When a flashlight wasn’t available, one person captured fireflies in a mason jar and read by the light of them under the covers. Some of us still stay up all night reading a page turner only to pay for it the next day.

Then there is the creative multi-tasking reader. One was so caught up with a book that he read a book while showering by holding the book outside the shower. Another tried to do this while proctoring a test. One was reading while their flight was leaving (presumably without them) and another during her labor (I mean, what do you do between contractions?).

The funniest stories were those where the person got busted. Of course, sooner or later most teachers caught us with books inside of books or on our laps. A few even let us do it if we got our work done and got good grades. Then there were those who gave us more work or had us write a book report on the book we were reading. Then there was the guy who read while waiting to bat in baseball practice and ended up doing a lot of running. Or the doctor who got pretty angry when his patient (8 years old) started reading after retinal surgery. Sometimes we bust ourselves, particularly if we try reading while walking and trip or walk into walls or light posts.

Sometimes we really ought to be doing something else–hosting a party, listening to a sermon, washing dishes, running a die cast and trim press, or just listening to our son. We readers are an incorrigible bunch. For many of us, our books are the introvert’s refuge. For some of us, the worlds created by an author are preferable to the hum-drum of our lives.

The point of this post is not to tell other adults what they should or shouldn’t do in terms of reading habits, other than I’m pretty persuaded that reading and driving are a bad combination. What I have personally come to is that books, at least good ones, like good friends, don’t deserve to be multi-tasked. They yield their greatest benefits when we give them our full attention–whether to amuse or instruct. But as long as no one is hurt, I have to admit that the stories of reading when we “shouldn’t” can be pretty fun–and if you are a reader, you have them! I know I do!

Reading as a Competitive Sport

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Jamie Canaves published an article today on BookRiot on “Calling a Time-Out on Reading for Sport” She speaks of tracking books read, page counts, planning your next book before finishing the one you are in, frenetic reading in the spare moments, and not reading fat books when you can read a couple thin ones.

Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me. I have a Goodreads Challenge, I do watch page counts (and have used my librarian privilege on Goodreads to add them when the publisher leaves them out!), and because I review books do think ahead about what I’m going to read. I think twice before leaning into a long book. Some of this is fun. It didn’t bother me that my reading numbers were down in 2020. After all, it was 2020. My reading challenge usually is at least 25 percent less than what I read the previous year.

I sense a certain uneasiness of readers about reading under pressure. I asked recently about how people who had set reading goals felt they were doing. I shared mine, which weren’t numerical, but about kinds of books I wanted to read to get out of my own “reading ruts.” Most of the responses I received were a pushback about numbers and simply reading for enjoyment and moving from book to book serendipitously.

Where the article hits me is that I do recognize that reading has changed for me. Some time ago, I knew someone who started making some stained glass items for a few friends, and this suddenly turned into more, and a hobby became a job. That’s what has happened with reviewing and blogging on books. While I still enjoy it, especially when I can put on some good music with a good beverage at my side, reading often seems a bit more like work. I’m aware of the pile awaiting review as well as books I’ve purchased that I wanted to read. I’m thinking about what books I’ll finish for review in the coming week. And I spend time keeping track of and requesting books that I think will be interesting to review. Some of the books I read are for work–I interview authors as part of my job, usually about a dozen a year. Other books I read, I choose for their relevance not only for me but for work colleagues

In fact, if there is anything that would bring reviewing and blogging to an end, other than a health crisis, this would be it. And that is a warning signal. Maybe I need to listen to the BookRiot writer. I want others to know the joys of a good book. If I lose that, I suspect it will come across in my reviews. It may be time to revisit the old books I’ve wanted to re-read but have deferred because of the new ones awaiting. Maybe I just have to admit that I cannot read all those new books people are buzzing about. It may be a matter of reading when, and at a pace that keeps it enjoyable. At some point, I may need to scale back the blog from six days to three or four. I’m not there yet.

I do believe reading should enrich our lives. When it doesn’t, something has gone awry. It could be pressures we feel from others or ones we place on ourselves. I appreciate the friends who push back about reading goals. I suspect most of us have enough of these in the rest of life. Sometimes we just need to lose ourselves in a book. At other times, we may read something with such challenging ideas that we need to read slowly and reflectively. As Mortimer Adler put it, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

My 2021 Reading Challenge Update

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A number of you at least took a look at my Bob on Books 2021 Reading Challenge from back in December. I never heard if any of you took it on, but a query from a Facebook friend suggested it was time to pull it out and see if I’ve made any progress or if it was just a fanciful New Year’s Resolution. Turns out, I had read in a number of areas, and was reminded of things I need to look at. So here is what I wrote, with notes in vivid red on what I read:

Old. Read one book that was written before your lifetime. One of the hazards of reviewing is that many of the books I read are published in the same year I’m writing. Old books can give a sense of perspective at times. My book: Death Of a Peer by Ngaio Marsh, published in 1940. Not exactly an ancient classic, but at least before my lifetime.

New. At the same time, I tend to read authors I like and am familiar with in different genres. Most have published a number of books, so I can keep doing that for a long time. Find a new author in your favorite genre–read reviews, talk to your bookseller, or local librarian. My book: I had never read either Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood. Read The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Different genre. We tend to have our favorite genres. Get some recommendations and a book in a different genre. My son introduced me to graphic books, which I’m coming to like. A friend has been bugging me about reading a few thrillers. That might be the different genre for this year. My book: Thanks, James for reminding me about this one and giving me some suggestions. Dean Koontz will fill the new category for me as well!

Science or technology. I’ve observed that most people have never talked to a working scientist. The ones I’ve talked to have opened my eyes to the wonders of the world. There is so much we see but don’t really understand. I want to read something that will help me understand some part of the physical world a bit better. My book: Carl Zimmer’s Life’s Edge fills this category exploring what we mean when we say something is alive.

Issues. Go deeper on one issue in the news. If you’ve already formed an opinion, try reading something that takes a different perspective. There are people as intelligent as I am who disagree with me. I’m curious why. Are you? My book: Early this year, I read a book about reparations rather than just racial reconciliation. I wasn’t convinced before and still am not sure, but I better understand the case. The book? Dear White Christians by Jennifer Harvey.

Foreign country. Read a book about a country or a person from a country other than the one in which you reside. It could be history, biography, or even a travel book. My book: Closest I’ve gotten in this category is Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff on a rescue effort on the icecap in Greenland.

Local history. From writing about the town where I grew up, I’ve discovered that both I and many of my readers knew little about the place where we grew up. So, now I have a book about Columbus on my reading stack–I’ve lived here 30 years and don’t know that much about my current home town. My book: I read that book, The Columbus Anthology, kind of a literary review edited by Amanda Page that exposed me to a number of writers who call Columbus home. Still feel like it would be good to read a good history of this place.

Foreign fiction. Fiction written by someone not from my country of origin allows us to see the world through a person who sees it from a different perspective. My book: In addition to a couple of Louise Penny Inspector Gamache books, I’ve read Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Old People, as well as the Atwood and Marsh books.

Re-reads. It can be a fascinating thing to re-read something we read at a different time of our lives. The book hasn’t changed but it is a mirror reflecting how we have. My book: No re-reads, I’m afraid. I’ve wanted to re-read the Chronicles of Narnia probably last read at least 25 years ago.

Religious Text. Here I have several suggestions. You could go deeper in exploring something in your own faith or you could read about a different religious tradition within your faith. You could read about another faith to understand it better. Spiritual but not religious? You might try a work of philosophy. Whatever is the case, we all could do with living up to the tenets of what we believe and understanding others better. My book: I read Thunder In the Soul by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the outstanding Jewish religious leaders and thinkers of the 20th century.

A possible new hobby or interest. Yes, I know, reading is your hobby. It is one of mine as well. But you might try reading about a hobby you might take up or an interest you could pursue. My book: None here, but there is a book on singing technique that I’d like to get into, and perhaps I ought to read a book on painting technique before joining my wife in plein air painting outings this summer.

Health. This is a year that has reminded us we can’t take our health for granted–physical, mental, or spiritual. Read a book for you. It might be to better understand your body and care for it, or perhaps books to help us understand ourselves. Books on the Enneagram have helped been helpful in my own self-understanding. Perhaps you’ve discovered how important resilience is and want to learn how to cultivate that. My book: Nothing here. My last visit to my doc suggests I might want to read something about low carb diets. Any suggestions?

Actually, that’s not bad for two and a half months and without trying too hard. Taking a look reminds me of the reading areas to take a look at and suggest some things I want to look for or just pull off the shelf and onto the TBR pile At some point, I want to read some older theology, something I’ve not done so much since I’ve not been part of the Dead Theologians group. How about you? The idea of the Reading Challenge was to suggest some goals to get out of one’s reading “ruts.” Yours will likely be different than mine, but part of the value of reading is new ideas, new perspectives to help us avoid “hardening of the attitudes.” There are still nine and a half months in 2021 to work on that!

Ten Things Readers Would Like Publishers to Know

I suspect most of us take publishers for granted. We may not even be aware of who published the book we are reading. For most of us, unless we are writers or are in the book trade, publishing is a “black box.” That doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions about publishing. That’s true of my reader friends on Facebook who recently shared what feedback they would give publishers. Here are ten of their suggestions:

  1. The biggest beef they shared was poor proof-reading. Some of the errors reflect the use of spell-check or autocorrect, sometimes resulting in a correctly spelled wrong word. If you were raised to pay attention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling, these kinds of errors are huge distractions. Also keep the convention of quotes around dialogue.
  2. Maps were a big deal for some reason. One person requested maps at the back easily folded out for reference at any time. Maps are always appreciated when there are geographic references and territory changes. Some of us like pictures as well.
  3. Covers are a big deal. People really don’t like it when you change graphic style in the middle of a series. Also, don’t make all the covers in a genre look alike.
  4. Romance covers came in for criticism for racy covers. This is particularly objectionable if you are not heterosexual.
  5. People like “soft” soft back covers that don’t crack.
  6. People do want options of both physical and e-books. Don’t release books in only one of these.
  7. Print size. Make it so that people don’t need magnifiers to read the page.
  8. One person asked for the abolition of endnotes–footnotes only. I understand. Flipping back and forth can be frustrating.
  9. Release books at the same time in different countries. It can be aggravating when friends in another country have a book months before you do.
  10. Finally, some people would love to see publishers open to new blood, to give a chance to new writers, whatever their age.

This last reminds me of what a challenge publishing is, sometimes because of the sheer number of manuscripts to evaluate and the challenge to calculate what books will do well, going through multiple printing, and which will go to the remainder sales. One person responded, “None. I believe it is hard enough to be a publisher without any additional advice and I would not like to see the end of this essential species.” There’s something to that. They take the risks, make the calls, and we get to read the finished products. We may not always like the books and have probably wondered how some made the cut. Then there are those wondrous books, sometimes from a new voice, that make you grateful that they took the risk.

Author Photos–Do They Matter?

I’ve seen a number of websites with tips for authors that stress the importance of a good author photo for the cover or inner flyleaf of their book. The basic advice is have a professional photographer do a photo shoot. Don’t use that picture from family vacation. A good photo helps sell the book. After all, people judge books by their covers and the author image on the cover is part of that.

Take the photos above. Tara Beth Leach has a new book coming out titled Radiant Church. The author photo conveys a radiant person–someone who would light up a room and make you feel welcome. At very least, there is a congruity between the person in the photo and the title of her book. Esau McCaulley wrote Reading While Black, reviewed here earlier this week. The book is somewhat scholarly, exploring how the Bible is interpreted in the traditional Black church in ways that offer hope for its people. Notice the glasses and the tweed jacket that gives the author a friendly, professorial look (he is one!) and the warm smile that suggests this is a person of hope. Again, the author photo is consistent with the book theme.

Theory meets reality. I asked the Bob on Books Facebook Page “How do author photographs affect your decision to buy a book?” The overwhelming response is that they are not a factor. One person wrote, “I don’t care what an Author looks like. Only how well they write. Sinclair Lewis was not a photographic man but he wrote many good books. Agatha Christie was plain as porridge but also was a great writer of mysteries.” One person wondered why the big deal about this–it is not a modeling job they are applying for. Cover art, the synopsis of the plot, a sense of the quality of the work, even the book blurbs seem to play a bigger part in why people buy a book. I also was reminded of the fact that many reserve books through libraries that they are interested in or buy e-books online where they rarely pay much attention or even see author images.

Before authors wonder why they spent all this money on a photoshoot, I still think there is a case to be made for the author picture. When we read, we are engaged in a kind of a conversation where we listen to another’s words, enter the mind and world of another person. Haven’t you found yourself wondering what kind of person this is who would write this way? I’ve looked at images of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and read whole biographies of both authors to try to get a sense of the persons who brought us so many wonderful works. One of the wonderful things about author readings when they were being done, and the many interviews we can watch online is that we can get a better sense of the people whose written works mean a great deal to us. To be able to look at a face offers a glimpse into the person. Somehow, for example, I look at pictures of James Lee Burke and see how he could create the character of Robicheaux.

I realize as I write this that the photos become more important as I read an author’s work. But I do also find myself trying to get a sense when I browse a book of whether the author seems the kind of person to deliver on what is said about the book. Am I going to like spending a number of hours with this person?

All this makes me realize how important the work of the photographer is in this enterprise. The author is trying to capture the person who wrote this book. No more and no less. Sure, dress, lighting and pose matter. But what we want is something of the essence of the person. We don’t want to be disappointed. And the author doesn’t want to be misrepresented. I wonder if there is an award for author photography. There probably should be.

These are at least some of my musings about this aspect of books and publishing. What do you think? How important is the author photograph to you when you pick up a book and decide whether you want to buy it?

My Post-Pandemic Bookish Bucket List

Photo by Janko Ferlic on

I’ve missed places that look like this for the past year. It’s been OK from a reading point of view. With plenty of unread books around the house, new books that have arrived for review, and book orders from a few of my favorite book outlets, I’ve not lacked for books. Perhaps I’ve spent more time reading books rather than looking for them. Ordering online makes me more selective. But with the hope of a return to some kind of “normal” and staying healthy (Lord willing), there are some bookish favorite things on my post-pandemic bucket list:

  1. Browsing at our local Barnes & Noble with my wife and enjoying Caramel Frappucinos together and sharing our finds.
  2. Selling the boxes of books that have accumulated in the last months at our local Half Price Books and seeing if we can spend less money than we get for the books.
  3. There are a couple of newer bookstores around town I haven’t visited yet (ordered from one during a Small Business Saturday): Prologue Bookshop and Two Dollar Radio (I love the name). Two Dollar Radio is a brick and mortar indie that is also the headquarters of Two Dollar Radio, an indie book press.
  4. Visiting my local library. It is always a good place to learn about new books that I missed or browse ones I’m interested in. At various times we’ve been e-book only, reserve online only or restricted in person. It will be nice to just make a leisurely visit to the library.
  5. It has been a long time since I’ve visited one of the best used bookshops in the Midwest, the Book Loft, located in Columbus’s German Village. They have 32 rooms of books in this rambling store.
  6. Among the in-person events I look forward to is gathering with people to talk books. I’m in an online book group with my church. It’s been good. I’m torn–one of our members is from out of town, but in person would be enjoyable.
  7. Donating some books to a couple different organizations not currently accepting donations due to COVID.
  8. I look forward to scoping out bookstores in towns we are visiting. No plans yet–just something that is always fun to do. Hoping some of my old friends will still be there.
  9. Someday I hope to actually visit Hearts and Minds Books in Dallastown, PA. Need to find a reason to go to eastern Pennsylvania. I’ve been friends online with the owner whose newsletters I always look forward to. I love ordering from him and getting the meticulously wrapped books.
  10. This would really be a lark, but having read about the various libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie, I’d love to visit and photograph some of the Carnegie libraries still operating.

A few of these are technically possible (and many are not due to COVID restrictions) but being in an at-risk population, we’ve been very conservative about exposures. We are able to start signing up for vaccines for our age group on February 8. I’ve no idea when any of my bucket list will be possible, but at least it is fun to dream about the day when these may be possible. However, for me, none are worth taking the risks while infection rates are high, so until then, I’ll keep working on that TBR pile!

What items are on your post-pandemic bookish bucket list?