Inside the peaceful bliss that was Crown Books in West Hills yesterday, I couldn't pick up every single book and read every first page, first because not every book interested me and second, I didn't have that much time. I never looked at my watch when I got there, never glanced at it while I was browsing, but I'm sure I must have spent an hour and a half to two hours there. Not every book could be mine.
I noticed, though, relying heavily on the copy printed on the back of paperback, and on the paper flaps of hardcover books that every book has two authors. There is the author you know, whose latest book you pick up, curious if you'll have the same pleasureable experience you had with the work that got you hooked on them in the first place. Then there are those authors you don't know much about, but either the title attracts you or the cover or, indeed, the copy describing what the book is about. We don't know who those particular writers are. They work for whatever publishing company put out the book, probably working in marketing, and they have to condense that entire book into succinct sentences that can pull in potential readers, can make them buy that book. That's the business they're in, and maybe they're looking to become novelists or non-fiction writers too. Judging by some of the copy I read, whoever they are, they should.
The first paperback book I picked up from a table heavy with paperbacks that joined a harcover Anna Quindlen book called Thinking Out Loud: On the Personal, the Political, the Public and the Private (Quindlen's easy. I'll read anything she writes and I don't need the invisible writer's copy to tell me to read her) was On a Night Like This by Ellen Sussman. The copy on the back reads:
"Blair Clement is a struggling single mother with a teenage daughter, a job as a chef, and a tragic secret that will test all of her emotional resources. Luke Bellingham has fulfilled his early promise and is one of the country's most acclaimed screenwriters. The two haven't laid eyes on each other for decades, not since they went to the same West Coast high school.
Now, for a class reunion, Luke impulsively contacts the woman who has long intrigued him. And before she knows what hit her, Blair is faced with the decision of her lifetime: what to do when the right man comes along...but at the wrong time."
The keywords for me in this copy were "chef" (My sister's an aspiring one, and I'll read anything food-related), "screenwriters", and this reunion between the two. I'm curious about what will happen. Obviously the copy doesn't give away everything because then there may not be a point in reading the book, though I think I would anyway, because writing style interests me as well, the way this author, Ellen Sussman, chooses to tell her story.
Because of that copy, I turned to the first page: "Blair lifted the man's arm and slid out from under him. She tucked a pillow back in her place, and he embraced it easily. She smiled at that. Men. She gathered her clothes from the floor and tucked them under her arm, picked up her shoes, stopped in the doorway. She looked back at the man, his long, lean body curled away from her, his hair a tousled mess, his face half buried in the pillot. I could climb back into bed and stay there awhile, she thought. She closed the door quietly behind her."
Copy and first paragraph together. I'm in. And that's why I bought it.
The same happened with Bed Rest by Sarah Bilston, a novel concept for a novel:
"Quinn "Q" Boothroyd is a young British lawyer married to an American and living in New York City. She's checked off most of the boxes on her "Modern Woman's List of Things to Do Before Hitting 30," and her busy working life has been relatively painless. But when her doctor tells her she must spend the last three months of her pregnancy lying in bed, Q is thrown into a tailspin. Initially bored and frustrated, Q soon fills her days by trying to reconnect with her workaholic husband, provide legal advice for her sweet Greek neighbor, forge new emotional bonds with her mother and sisters, and figure out who will keep her stocked up in cookies and sandwiches.
Q experiences adventures on the couch she never would have encountered in the law firm and learns a lot about herself and what she wants out of life--and above all, about the little one growing inside her."
I hope the name is used for a better reason than just for the simple fact that Bilston may be a Bond fan, being that in the novels, there was Major Boothroyd, the weapons master known as "Q" and certainly as well known in the movies too. To me, that feels too easy, like there wasn't a great deal of thought about the name beyond Quinn. But I'm willing to try this.
I didn't need to read all the copy on the back cover of Do Bald Man Get Half-Price Haircuts?: In Search of America's Great Barbershops by Vince Staten. I wanted to read it just because of the title alone, and the first sentence of the second paragraph of the copy that states: "Staten visited more than three hundred barbershops, in towns ranging from Chowchilla, California, to Mount Airy, North Carolina."
That's all I need!
And with those who work at publishing companies, wise are the ones who find the right critical quotes to put on the backs of books. I picked up Maybe the Moon by Armistead Mapuin, because I had seen it listed on the inside page of every successive Tales of the City novel that I read. And because of my experience of reading those books, which tug at me for a re-read every few months, I decided to see what this one was about.
On the back of this paperback edition was a quote from Publishers Weekly which began: "Though Cadence Roth, the heroine of Maupin's captivating novel, is only 31 inches tall, her impact on the reader's emotions is enormous..."
Stop, stop, stop. That's all I need to know. Now I'm curious about Cadence Roth. But just to be sure, I turned to the first page:
"THE DIARY WAS RENEE'S IDEA. SHE RAN ACROSS THIS NOTEBOOK at Walgreens last week and decided on the spot that it was time for me to start writing things down. Just so you'll know, it's a Mr. Woods notebook, the spiral kind, with a green cardboard cover and the little bastard himself gazing wistfully from his hole in the tree trunk. Renee took this as a major omen. That evening over dinner she made such a solemn ceremony out of giving it to me that I felt like Moses on Mount Sinai. Since then, so help me, she hasn't stopped peeping at me sideways, watching my every move, waiting breathlessly for the muse to strike."
Not only do I want to read this book as soon as possible (Books by Larry McMurtry is next, and today I received The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie, and my Ann Beattie obsession is not going away until I exhaust her entire bibliography, and by then, it'll probably remain on "simmer"), but I feel like I should check in on Mrs. Madrigal again. That pull is back.
I appreciate those whose job it is to write that copy that'll market the book, or picking out the quotes by critics that will best represent the book because otherwise, I would still be at Crown Books at this very moment, reading every first page, seeing if something clicks and yanks me in. It's a great place to be, and it's where I would live if I had the opportunity (though with less dust because when I walked out with my 10 books in a plastic bag, I got a slight headache from my sinuses getting used to fresh air again, clearing out that atmosphere). But I'd rather be reading for long hours, books that I know I absolutely cannot go without. Crown Books is an incredible way station for traveling readers looking for their next destinations, and well-written copy on the backs of many books and the flaps of many book jackets makes the experience worthwhile. But one thing I know from years of reading is that you can't put your faith entirely in that copy. It's only meant as a bridge to the book. The rest of the effort is yours and if the book turns out not to be good, it's not the copy's fault. The journey just didn't work out, and there's always opportunities for others.