In the pre-internet days, back when the caterwaul of a dial-up modem was still just an impossibly irritating dream, books used to be the place to go when we wanted to explore provocative material.
Like lists. (What did you think I meant?) Lists are provocative for the following reasons: 1) What is on it; 2) What got left off.
Back then, if you needed a gift for someone you didn’t know well or if you just didn’t want to walk more than five steps into the store, there were books – sometimes small and slim, other times squat and overstuffed – filled with the kind of empty factoids we now google and find on the internet: Things like themed lists, “fun” facts, world records, 5 or 9 or 117 Datapoints You Need to Know About That Thing You Like. Or anything about golf.
These days, type in something completely random into your browser like “best books about bacon” and there is plenty to choose from (including, strangely, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Colson Whitehead’s nonfiction book about poker, “The Noble Hustle,” because, I’m assuming, the subhead mentions beef jerky).
Or if you require a list, there are so many online there’s even a joking list of the 100 best lists – and it’s from that flirty clickbait trap known as The New Yorker.
In the primordial pre-internet, the Guinness Book of World Records, the standard listy text for vacation rentals and guest bathrooms, would regularly be hurled into the backseat of moving vehicles to keep kids entertained before there were things like computer tablets or iPhones.
These days, we don’t need that kind of thing anymore, right? Or so I thought.
On a recent Saturday, despite the roughly 47 thousand books I already have or want or need to read, I stopped into the crowded Lost Books in Montrose (down the street from another good bookstore, Once Upon a Time) to scan the shelves.
That’s when I came across a book that made me snort, I’m embarrassed to admit (and yet am still admitting it), just a bit.
The book, let me add, isn’t funny or bad or silly. No, it was like seeing an old friend. I remembered how many books of lists I’d thumbed through and enjoyed with friends and realized that the internet had probably killed off most of these kinds of books, the kinds you used to find at stores all the time.
The one I found was called “Books: The Essential Insider’s Guide” edited by poet Mark Strand, which was part of the City Secrets series edited by Robert Kahn. Clothbound with heavy white pages and silk bookmarks sewn in, the cover promised, “Award-winning novelists, poets, journalists, humorists, critics, and booksellers– among many others – reveal great but little-known works of literature.”
“Books” reminded me of the books I recall seeing near the cashiers at chain stores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, and maybe even Crown or B. Dalton. Books for people who maybe didn’t really like books all that much but liked other things: books with pictures of animals for animal lovers, books with photos of race cars for race car enthusiasts, books with photos of homes for people who wanted homes that usually had no books in them (except for a dollop of art tomes tastefully peeking out from under an end table).
Interestingly, this book of lists published in – believe or not – 2009, long after the internet supplanted tomes like the very real “The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes,” is terrific as far as I’ve flipped through it. Writers including Anne Applebaum, Jim Harrison, Oscar Hijuelos, Radhika Jones, Peter Orner, Jane Smiley, Calvin Trillin and more (including what seems to be a lot of magazine journalists) offer up favorites that, more often than not, I’ve never heard of.
There are suggestions to read works by Charles Willeford, Rebecca West, Tove Jansson, Josephine Tey, Julio Cortázar, June Jordan and so many more.
There’s even Buck Henry, the screenwriter of “The Graduate” and co-creator of “Get Smart,” writing about Polish sci-fi novelist Stanislaw Lem – and I probably would have bought it just for that.
It was the kind of book I didn’t think I cared about, or even liked, but did.
Is this somewhat retro book one that you must own? No. Is it a book that I will read from cover to cover? I doubt it. Am I glad I picked it up for $5? Yep. (And used booksellers seem to have plenty more, should you decide to go look for it.)
Maybe there will always be something appealing about lists of things you like, whether online or in physical form. (Though maybe not for things you don’t, such as the very real “The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said” and its sequel, which I also saw on a used book shelf but didn’t feel the urge to rhapsodize about.)
But hey, a thoughtful list compiled by smart people? That might have some staying power.
Got any recommendations for me? Please send them to [email protected] and we might include them in the column.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Debut LA author Jeff Bishop shares the power of Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants’
Los Angeles writer Jeff Bishop is the author of the debut comic novel, “A Heavy Dose of Allison Tandy,” about an injured teen whose medication causes him to have visions of his comatose ex-girlfriend. Bishop will be in conversation with Suzanne Park at Chevalier’s Books on July 12th at 7 p.m.
Q. Is there a book or books that you always recommend to other readers?
Anything by Samantha Irby. No other writer makes me laugh as much as she does. We both went to Evanston Township High School, which is just north of Chicago. So, unfortunately, I’ll never hold the title of “Funniest Wildkit.” (Our mascot was the Wildkits) (Evanston is where Northwestern University is located) (They’re the Wildcats) (You get it)
Q. What are you reading now?
“Bunny” by Mona Awad.
Q. How do you decide on what to read next?
At this point, I am at the mercy of the BookTokkers. They recommend; I read as I’m told.
Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?
Besides my own? (Pause for laughter) “The River Has Teeth” by Erica Waters is pretty sweet. “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” by E.K. Johnston is another one I’ve always really liked.
Q. Which genre do you read most, and what would you like to read more of?
I love whodunnits because I absolutely do not have the brain to write them. It’s the one genre I can actually relax while reading since my brain isn’t constantly comparing it to my own work.
Q. Do you have a favorite book or books?
“How To Talk To A Widower” by Jonathan Tropper
Q. Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?
I have “The Agathas” by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson queued up. Then Casey McQuinston’s new book, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler.”
Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?
Two teachers stand out; the first, Mrs. Mull, was my third-grade teacher and the first person (other than my family) who encouraged me to pursue a career in writing. The other was my freshman English teacher, Ms. Hartley, who urged me to lean in to writing with my own voice.
Q. What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?
If there’s a character named Jeff. I don’t know what it is, but I just find something so relatable in that.
Q. What’s a memorable book experience you’re willing to share?
Somewhere in my parent’s house there is a copy of “Bossypants” by Tina Fey filled with notes. I stopped writing as a teenager and didn’t pick it up again until I was in college. I was an Econ major; we weren’t exactly learning joke structure in class. So “Bossypants” became my de facto textbook.
Q. What’s something about the writing of your book that no one knows?
I almost scrapped the project back in 2020 when I couldn’t figure out how to fix the plot. Thankfully my agent and my editors believed in me more than I believed in me. And so today, we have “A Heavy Dose of Allison Tandy.” And it’s good as hell.
How LA influenced “The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry” author Gabrielle Zevin’s latest novel. READ MORE
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“American Detective” TV star Joe Kenda talks “Killer Triggers” book. READ MORE
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“Friends” and “Cheers” TV director James Burrows looks back at TV career in new book. READ MORE
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The week’s bestsellers
The top-selling books at your local independent bookstores. READ MORE
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What’s next on ‘Bookish’
Sign up for the next free Bookish event coming July 15 — it’s the 2-year anniversary greatest hits edition! — with host Sandra Tsing Loh.
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