Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Losing the Element of Surprise

I've discovered some of my favorite books by accident.

Growing up, my neighborhood library was one big room, kids books on one side, grown-up books on the other. When I was about eleven, I decided to read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE because it was a very grown-up kind of book to read. I loved it, and went in search of FRANNY AND ZOOEY.

I didn't find FRANNY AND ZOOEY, but in that tiny library, an author named Salzman was shelved right next to Salinger, and instead I discovered THE SOLOIST, a very moving story about a failed concert cellist rediscovering his art in the strangest way possible.

I read THE SOLOIST about once every couple of years (and have gone on to read the rest of Salzman's work as well).

As a bookseller, I have a lot of exposure to advance reader copies (ARCs), and so I end up taking home random books from time to time, which was how I wound up reading THE AGE OF MIRACLES last year. That book blew me away and then some, and I haven't been able to stop recommending it to anyone and everyone. The premise sounds crazy, me on this. It's wonderful.

But I've noticed something. These days, with social media, and book sites, and being so plugged in to Goodreads and twitter and the blogosphere, I am never surprised by a book any more. I add my favorite authors' books to my "to-read" shelf almost the moment they're signed. It started with HARRY POTTER, when the moment the release day was announced, it would be on my calendar. Now, it seems, it's almost everything—to the point that sometimes, I see a book on the shelf in the store and think, "Oh wow, that's just coming out? I've been hearing about it for ages and/or read it from Netgalley six months ago."

It's getting easier to know about most of the books you'd be interested in. It's almost impossible to be surprised by a new title these days.

Which was why, when I walked into the store last week and saw AMERICAN SAVAGE* sitting on the table, I just about screamed.

I had no idea Dan Savage was writing another book. (I realized I don't follow him on twitter, which might have something to do with it.) But he's been one of my favorite writers ever since I read THE KID—I'm one of the few people who discovered his memoirs first and his salacious advice column second.

Of course, I grabbed it at once and tore through it in a matter of days. It was a great and interesting read, although certainly preaching to a choir I'm already in, but what I was so much more excited by was the thrill of being surprised. It was the most delightful feeling, like somehow, someone had dropped a little gift just for me on the promo table—"Aha! Jess will want to read this...let's make a new book by one of her favorite authors appear!"

There are a lot of implications to the lack of surprise—it means that people come into a bookstore and don't browse. THey're not looking to be surprised by a book, they're looking for INFERNO or LEAN IN or the latest Jack Reacher novel (if they're coming into a bookstore at all—never before has it been so easy to buy a book without seeing any other titles as when you search for it in your e-reader store or online). For readers who want to know, all the information about their favorite books is readily at hand.

Now, I love goodreads, and I love twitter, and I love following authors' blogs and tumblrs. I hope some day, people will be trawling my website, looking for news on the book I'm releasing next.

But there's a joy in being utterly surprised that a book you want to read has been released and you didn't even know about it. It adds an extra layer of sweet, like you found something that no one else knew about, and now you can go hoard it all for you. And I feel sad that these days, that feeling is getting harder and harder to come by.

I'm glad I got to experience it for what might be one last time.

*I try very hard not to be political on my blog, but I realize my enjoyment of this book more or less 'outs' (if you'll pardon the pun in using that word to describe a book by a gay rights advocate) just about all of my political views at once. Ah, well.

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