Shelf Awareness for Friday, December 4, 2020

William Morrow & Company: Polostan: Volume One of Bomb Light by Neal Stephenson

Shadow Mountain: The Legend of the Last Library by Frank L Cole

Atlantic Monthly Press: The Elements of Marie Curie: How the Glow of Radium Lit a Path for Women in Science by Dava Sobel

Ace Books: Dungeon Crawler Carl by Matt Dinniman

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Millicent Quibb School of Etiquette for Young Ladies of Mad Science by Kate McKinnon

Annick Press: Bog Myrtle by Sid Sharp

Minotaur Books: Betrayal at Blackthorn Park: A Mystery (Evelyne Redfern #2) by Julia Kelly


Oh Hello Again Bookshop Opens in Seattle

Oh Hello Again bookshop, which "specializes in bibliotherapy, or using books to help with life's various problems," has opened at 324 15th Ave. E #101 in Seattle, Wash.

"You can find the topic you're interested in. Or a book maybe you weren't even looking for," owner Kari Ferguson told Capitol Hill Seattle blog. She believes in "the notion that novels and reading can help individuals process, work through, and deal with different issues and concerns in their lives."

Oh Hello Again's books are organized "by topics--mental health, everyday problems, bettering yourself, relationships, travel, and many more--but don't expect shelves of self-help books," CHS wrote. "The sections contain a mix of novels, picture books, young adult books and graphic novels that address the themes of the areas a reader might want to explore."

Ferguson hopes that customers will find books that become "part of the decor in your life and have these emotions and feelings connected to them," but knows that others will just be looking for a good read.

Previously the owner of Dickens Children's Books in Vancouver, Wash., Ferguson "is excited to join Capitol Hill's relatively rich book shop scene," including nearby Ada's Technical Books, CHS noted, adding that Ferguson hopes Oh Hello Again complements her new neighbors, "especially technical and sci-fi-forward Ada's as the two shops provide new spins on the bookstore genre."

She remains positive about the future for indies: "This is why I think there will always be bookstores. There's something so important to seeing and feeling a book.”

Running Press Kids: Your Magical Life: A Young Witch's Guide to Becoming Happy, Confident, and Powerful by Amanda Lovelace

Susan Kehoe Buys Browseabout Books, Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Susan Kehoe, the longtime manager of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Del., has purchased the 45-year-old store from founders and owners Steve and Barbara Crane, the Cape Gazette reported.

Kehoe has worked at Browseabout Books for 16 years and has run day-to-day operations since 2015. Though the sale was only announced in November, Kehoe told the Gazette, the ownership transition has "been in the works for years."

"The plan is to keep doing what's always been done," Kehoe said. "This just felt like the right time to do it. Honestly, I've been here so long that it doesn't really feel that much different."

She noted that her only immediate plan is to get the store, her staff and her customers through the pandemic. Any changes, major or minor, will have to wait until after a return to some kind of normalcy. "Once we all get on the other side of this thing, then we can start to evaluate what the immediate needs are. Three generations of families have been coming to Browseabout Books. It's loved in this community and we want to keep it that way."

The bookstore is now in its sixth location in downtown Rehoboth Beach. When the store first opened, it stocked just 200 titles, all of them mass-market paperbacks selling for no more than a dollar. Now there are some 25,000 titles in stock.

On the ownership transition, Steve Crane said he and his wife knew it was time, and "didn't even offer [the store] to anyone else."

G.P. Putnam's Sons: William by Mason Coile

The Shelf Bookshop Makes Pop-up Debut in Beaver Falls, Pa.

The Shelf Bookshop, a general-interest independent bookstore in downtown Beaver Falls, Pa., made its debut as a pop-up shop on Small Business Saturday, the Times reported. Co-owners Erika Kauffman and Rebecca Bryant plan to open a permanent bricks-and-mortar store next spring, but for now are leasing a storefront for the month of December.

At present the store sells a mix of new and used titles for all ages, as well as gifts such as handmade candles and Christmas ornaments. Kauffman told the Times that the inventory mix may change throughout December and especially when the store opens in a permanent space.

"We want to get a feel for who our customer base will be, and what genres they're interested in reading," she said. "So we could curate it a little bit more once we open permanently."

The pop-up shop drew so many shoppers over the weekend, Kauffman and Bryant said, that they had to restock the shelves quickly. There was so much enthusiasm and support that the pair "feel very confident for the future."

After the pop-up's one-month lease ends at the end of the month, Bryant explained, the store will close for a few months. She and Kauffman will "get our lives together and figure out from this research what we have learned and what we can do to serve this community best, and hopefully reopen around March or April in a permanent location."

International Update: English Bookshops Reopen, Indie News from Australia, Canada

English booksellers, who were allowed to reopen their shops Wednesday after almost a month in Covid-19 lockdown, are hoping "to land some of the vital Christmas trade that will, they hope, keep them in business," the Guardian reported.

"We have had a fantastic morning," said Bob Skillicorn, co-owner of the Bookshop Liskeard. "Of course we have to socially distance and limit the number of customers in the shop but have been very busy since opening at nine. We were ready and very happy to reopen. December is a critical month for us. Had we remained closed that would have had a serious impact on the ongoing viability of our bookshop."

"There's an awful lot riding on these few weeks," said Mike Sansbury at the Grove Bookshop, Ilkley. "October to December is our biggest period of the year and that's been hit really hard by by the lockdown. We kept it going to some extent, but we did miss out on the buzz. You can go online and order, but you don't get the serendipity of picking up a book that you weren't expecting while browsing."

Booksellers Association managing director Meryl Halls observed: "There is anxiety about the ability of already stretched booksellers to maintain their click-and-collect business as well as run the bookshops, but booksellers are famously resilient, and they are battle-hardened after this year. They are well-placed to cram seven weeks' trade into three.... Hopefully they can make up enough lost ground to get through to January with their businesses intact and ready for the onslaught of 2021."


The Australian Booksellers Association shared a Blue Mountains Gazette article about a group of residents that "has banded together to attempt to establish the only community-owned bookshop in Australia." The Turning Page co-operative's share offer was released November 12, offering 4,000 shares for A$100 (about US$73) each, with 350 shares selling in the first week.

"As a regular customer, mother and [primary school] teacher I was keen to support this venture," said Virginia Fortunat, the foundation's director. "The word is beginning to get out there and the excitement we are seeing in the Mountains and around Australia has caught us by surprise. We even have enthusiasts from Western Australia buying a share."

The Turning Page in Springwood has been running for 36 years, but about a year ago owners Annie Sharkey and Alan Crooks put it on the market. When they weren't able to find a buyer, "the idea was born to float it on a kind of community stock market," the Gazette wrote.


Canadian publisher Nevermore Press showcased Bookmark in Halifax, N.S., on its blog. The bookshop opened in 1989 and manager Mike Hamm has been on board since 1998. "It's important to have the right books at the right time and to have an interesting bookshop," he said. "That's what I like about other bookstores when I visit them. I like to see a sense of vibrancy, community, and interesting inventory. A shopper may not buy everything, but all of the interesting things are what makes them love a store."

To compensate for space limitations and keep inventory interesting, Bookmark "will often order one copy of several unique books and then reorder once that copy sells. Through this method, they've discovered some interesting niche audiences," Nevermore Press wrote.

"We become friends with our customers and there aren't a lot of business that can foster that type of relationship,” Hamm said. "There's a strong community element as well. We're a small business, a small bookstore, and we want people to support us, so we always try to find supplies at other small businesses and attend other events locally. Whatever helps our local publishers and authors, we want to be there.... We want to be the best kind of bookstore we can be and to be an important part of the community." --Robert Gray

How Bookstores Are Coping: Great November; Author Partnerships & Virtual Events

In Norfolk, Va., Prince Books never completely closed during the pandemic, owner Sarah Pishko reported. During the mandatory shutdown in the spring, she spent a lot of time "pleading with the staff at the governor's office" for the bookstore to be considered essential, citing the way customers were "rushing in" to get books. Eventually, she continued, she was told "not to worry about it," and could stay open with no more than 10 people in the store.

During those early months, Pishko and her team actively discouraged browsing and requested that customers "come in, get their books and leave." Masks have been mandatory for the duration, and the store has sneeze guards in place around all the registers. The store also started doing curbside pick-up, and that has been so popular that Pishko officially announced a few months ago that it is "here to stay."

Pishko noted that while a lot of other bookstores have been hurting due to the loss of in-person events, her store was "not on the A-circuit." She would do them, but they were never especially big. Her store suffered a bigger loss due to the lack of state agency sales, which have gone down due to budget cuts. The incredible surge this summer in the sale of antiracist titles and books by diverse authors, she continued, helped make up a lot of the difference.

When asked about buying, Pishko said she never went month-to-month. And while she was cautious in the beginning, she is now reordering "more than I used to," and especially is bringing in more backlist.

The store had a "great November," and Pishko made a big early shopping push last month. Some of the major titles so far, along with A Promised Land, have been Jerry Seinfeld's Is This Anything? and Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline, and cookbooks in general have been big. So far, Pishko added, she has not run into any major supply chain issues this holiday season.

Pishko also wanted to note that the ABA, and the IndieCommerce team in particular, has done a "spectacular job" keeping the online machinery going. It's been huge for the store, and it's "amazing" how much of a "big deal" it's become.


Since reopening to browsing in early May, Oxford Exchange in Tampa, Fla., is seeing better foot traffic now than earlier in the pandemic, but it's still down from last year, bookstore and programming director Laura Taylor reported. When the store first reopened, the restaurant was operating at reduced capacity, but is now back to nearly 100% capacity. 

Masks have been required since the store reopened, and while there were some "reluctant" customers and community members early on, there have been hardly any issues recently. She noted that although there are not a lot of restrictions being imposed in Florida, people seem to be "playing it safe on their own."

The store has had a lot of success with direct partnerships with various authors, and online sales in general are a "much bigger chunk of overall sales." Oxford Exchange has also "really converted" to virtual events. While they don't generate book sales the way in-person events do, Taylor said, they are easier to host and draw wider audiences, especially for the store's book clubs. And despite so many people talking about experiencing "Zoom fatigue," that doesn't seem to be the case for a lot of older folk, as their attendance has gone up.

When it came to ordering for the holidays, Taylor and her team were more aggressive on books they knew would sell, including A Promised Land and a variety of children's Christmas titles. There was not a lot of early holiday shopping, Taylor added, though the store did wrap its first gift book on the day after Halloween. There was much more holiday shopping over Thanksgiving weekend, but it's still been a bit slow to take off.

Taylor supposed that the surge of cases in Florida might be putting a damper on people's holiday shopping, even though customers seem to be "really embracing the holidays" this year. The store has also started to see more shipping problems, with things taking longer to arrive and a "definite lag" with a lot of customer service. --Alex Mutter


Bookseller Moves: Promotions and Retirements

Beth Wagner

Beth Wagner has been named general manager of Phoenix Books in Vermont, which includes the four Phoenix Books stores as well as Onion River Press, Book Nooks, The Bookstore in Brandon and The Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock. She is now a principal consultant and adviser for setting goals and strategies for all Phoenix Books operations. She was formerly lead buyer and tech guru at Phoenix Books and is president of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, which reported on her new position.


Mary Fran Buckley

Mary Fran Buckley, co-owner of Eight Cousins Bookstore, Falmouth, Mass., since 2015, is retiring at the end of the year, the store announced. Buckley joined Eight Cousins in 2007 and worked in a variety of areas, including finance, book clubs and adult fiction buying, before buying the store, with Sara Hines and Eileen Miskell, from longtime owner Carol B. Chittenden. Earlier she had some 20 years of experience as a magazine editor and served as the director of communications for a private high school in Washington, D.C.

The store wrote that Buckley "has been instrumental in expanding Eight Cousins from a children's book store to a general book store. She runs the monthly book club, Readers Night Out, and coordinates the programing with local community organizations. We have all benefitted from her enthusiasm and diverse book recommendations."

Eight Cousins will have a pandemic-appropriate reception for Buckley on Tuesday, December 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.


Shawn Wathen

Now that Marisa Neyenhuis has joined Chapter One Book Store, Hamilton, Mont., as a co-owner, Shawn Wathen, an owner with Mara Luther since 2010, is retiring, the Ravalli Republic reported. Luther continues as a co-owner with Neyenhuis, but the two are looking for another co-owner.

Wathen became a co-owner of Chapter One in 2002, when became a partner of former owners Russ Lawrence and the late Jean Matthews. In 2012, he was named one of 10 Humanities Heroes by Humanities Montana, an award that honors people "who have contributed significantly to the humanities by presenting engaging programs, hosting many humanities events, composing important books and articles about humanities topics, donating funds to sustain humanities work and more." Wathen's nomination noted that his "passion for books and ideas has influenced the culture of humanity in the community through reflection, examination and reexamination of core values and cultures."

'Baby Yoda' Stars in ALA's New READ Poster & Bookmark

The American Library Association is featuring The Child (aka Grogu or Baby Yoda), breakout star of the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, in the organization's new READ poster and bookmark campaign, with all proceeds funding advocacy, awareness and accreditation programs for library professionals worldwide. ALA's READ campaign, supported by ALA Graphics, celebrates the joy of reading and the importance of lifelong learning. Reminiscent of the original Yoda poster ALA Graphics offered in the early 1980s, The Child's poster and bookmark continue the tradition of previous Star Wars READ collaborations.

"Baby Yoda is one of the biggest stars in the galaxy--and we're thrilled to feature such a beloved character in one of ALA's most recognized campaigns," said ALA president Julius Jefferson, Jr. "We hope that library supporters, Star Wars fans, and others will use this poster and bookmark to inspire minds to discover the vast resources libraries offer. Special thanks to Disney-Lucasfilm Press for their continued generous support of libraries."

Personnel Changes at Penguin Young Readers; Macmillan Children's Publishing

Shanta Newlin has been promoted to senior v-p, executive director of publicity & corporate communication for Penguin Young Readers. She was formerly v-p, executive director of publicity & corporate communications.


Molly Ellis has been promoted to v-p, executive director of publicity for Macmillan Children's Publishing Group. She joined the group in 2012 as publicity manager.

Media and Movies

Media Heat: CBS's 'Holly Dolly' Dolly Parton Special

CBS presents A Holly Dolly Christmas with Dolly Parton: Dolly Parton, co-author of Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics (Chronicle, $50, 9781797205090).

TV: Gutsy Women

Apple TV+ has given a straight-to-series order to Gutsy Women, an event docuseries hosted and executive produced by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, Deadline reported, adding that the project was inspired by their book The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience. The series will be produced by HiddenLight Productions, the new company founded by Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and Sam Branson.

Books & Authors

Awards: Bard Fiction, Cundill History Winners

Akil Kumarasamy has won the Bard Fiction Prize for her debut story collection, Half Gods (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The $30,000 prize, for "a promising emerging writer who is an American citizen aged 39 years or younger at the time of application," includes an appointment as writer in residence at Bard College for one semester, without the expectation that he or she teach traditional courses. The recipient gives at least one public lecture and meets informally with students.

The Bard Fiction Prize committee called Half Gods "a breathtaking debut by one of those rare writers whose compassionate understanding--in this case, a multigenerational family with a frayed, crazy-quilt history--is matched by the narrative gifts necessary to bring her tales to life. While each individual story in this inventive collection is told in vivid, lusciously worded, image-rich prose, the overarching symphonic whole has--much like Jamaica Kincaid's first book, At the Bottom of the River--the sweep and scope of a novel. What Kumarasamy has given us with Half Gods is ultimately a meditation, as most great stories are, on time, memory, and hope for the future."


Camilla Townsend won the $75,000 Cundill History Prize, which is administered by McGill University to recognize "the book that embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal," for Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press USA).

Chair of the jury, Peter Frankopan called Fifth Sun "a work of breath-taking originality, accomplishment and importance. Camilla Townsend revolutionizes how we should look at Aztec society before, during and after the arrival of Europeans in Central America. After more than five hundred years, we are finally able to see history through the eyes of the indigenous people themselves rather than those of their conquerors. Not many books completely transform how we look at the past. This is one of those that does."

Also praising the winning title were jurors Lyse Doucet ("a magical book, the kind where you find yourself pausing on pages to absorb the beauty of words and imagery"), Eliga Gould ("history at its very best, a landmark in the field") and Sujit Sivasundaram ("richly evocative and deeply humane").

The two runners-up are Vincent Brown for Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War and William Dalrymple for The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East-India Company. Each receives a Recognition of Excellence Award and $10,000. 

Reading with... Carlos Andrés Gómez

photo: Friends Lovers Photography

Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Colombian American poet from New York City. He is the winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry and the Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize, and has been published in the New England ReviewBeloit Poetry Journal, the Yale ReviewBuzzFeed Reader, CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape and elsewhere. Gómez is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. His debut full-length poetry collection, Fractures (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, October 2020), was selected by Natasha Trethewey as the winner of the 2020 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry.

On your nightstand now:

I'm just finishing Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which is an astounding read. Hamid's prose is spare and unpretentious but completely riveting. He'll make these abrupt pivots, mid-narrative, often posed as a simile, in which the speaker will perfectly articulate some profound revelation about the human condition.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I adored Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (probably because I related to being the misbehaving kid sent to his room). I love(d) books where you can get lost in a fantastical world. It's beautiful to share that with my kids now, who also love the book, though we typically read it in Spanish. Doesn't every author dream that readers will cherish and continue to reach for a book they've written nearly 60 years after publication?

Your top five authors:

I don't know a better novel than either Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye or Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both Morrison and Márquez command language on a sprawling and epic scale, with stories that somehow seem to honor the most minute and epic proportions of what it means to live.

James Baldwin will forever be a guide to me as a writer and human being. Reading Go Tell It on the Mountain for the first time as a high schooler was a revelation. Is there a more uncompromising literary figure than Baldwin?

Patricia Smith is one of the most important and versatile writers alive. She's also a very dear mentor of mine and, probably, the most generous example of literary citizenship I've ever encountered. I recommend buying all of her books immediately. I'm not sure who I would be without her example.

Natasha Trethewey, perhaps better than any other poet, is able to connect the historical with the personal. As a poet who's often mining both the personal and historical, within a narrative framework, I'm not sure I would have been able to write my book without Trethewey's Native Guard. For this reason, in particular, it was especially meaningful that Trethewey was the person who made the publication of my debut collection possible by selecting it for the Pollak Prize.

Book you've faked reading:

I was at a party in college and this woman I was talking to brought up Leo Tolstoy. I mentioned War and Peace (kind of assuming no one had actually read it), trying to impress her, until it became clear that she had. The conversation didn't last too much longer than that.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Two exceptional books, both of which have been lauded with awards and critical acclaim but can't be celebrated enough in my mind: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, which seems to transcend genre, description and is a singular reckoning with white supremacy; and Layli Long Soldier's WHEREAS is unlike any other poetry book I've ever read. It doesn't just push against conventional notions of language or the American ethos but completely explodes and recasts the reader's relationship to both. If it was up to me, every person would be required to read both of these books.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I was at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2006, and I saw Here, Bullet by Brian Turner sitting on a table. The combination of the title and the cover image just captivated me. It's a searing collection. It turned out to be a book whose content was even better than the mesmerizing cover.

Book you hid from your parents:

Basketball was my first love. Reading short biographies of basketball greats was how I finally got a handle on reading (after a delayed start). In seventh grade, I checked out Wilt Chamberlain's autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, from my local public library and was completely enthralled by it. Mostly, to be honest, the explicit sexual exploits that Chamberlain recounts across the book. I remember telling my parents that he mostly talked about "his games," and then I'd sneak up to my room and re-read the salacious stories of his orgies and mid-flight hookups.

Book that changed your life:

Martín Espada visited my high school when I was 17, shortly after I'd starting quietly writing poems and having a bit of an identity crisis about it. He read from his poetry collection Imagine the Angels of Bread, and I sat in the back row of that auditorium in Providence, R.I., and wept and cheered and, for the first time, admitted to myself I was a poet. Then, I walked up, bought a copy of the book from him, and he wrote inside of it:

Para Carlos,
Poeta del futuro.
Martín Espada

That's another book that is currently, and will forever be, on my nightstand.

Favorite line from a book:

This is (like many of these!) an impossible prompt, but the first that comes to mind is from Ilya Kaminsky's masterpiece, Deaf Republic, and his poem "A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck":

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?

Five books you'll never part with:

My two favorite books of all-time are One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I can't imagine two more perfect novels or books that more expansively and precisely render what it means to be human. It's impossible for me to put into words what those two books mean to me.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was crucial to my politicization and growth toward the person I am still trying to become. That journey of Malcolm X across his life is such a powerful example of the possibilities of a person evolving across time. Being very much a flawed work-in-progress, I'm galvanized toward my best self by bearing witness to that kind of trajectory from an iconic figure. Alex Haley's notes at the end are essential reading as well. It's a book I always keep close.  

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire is another book that was critical to my political orientation and, also, my approach to pedagogy and engaging with the world. Freire gave me the language and a frame that I needed as a sophomore in college to be an accountable global citizen and really step into my convictions.

Finally, the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (I have the Stephen Mitchell translation) most clearly reflects my faith and life belief system. At my most centered, I'm very much a Daoist. It's a book that anchors and calms me at my worst, and it helps me realign and recenter.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was a watershed moment for me in 10th grade. I was a delayed reader, so I read very slowly as a high schooler and often skimmed books that were assigned. I was so captivated by Invisible Man that I read it in three days. It was one of the first novels that both helped me fall in love with reading and books (at a vital crossroads) and gave me a permission to reckon with race and identity in more complex and uncompromising ways.

Book Review

Review: Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning

Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning by Tom Vanderbilt (Knopf, $26.95 hardcover, 320p., 9781524732165, January 5, 2021)

Any adult who is eager to tackle a challenging new pursuit but just can't turn off the mental chatter about old dogs and new tricks might consider picking up a copy of Tom Vanderbilt's Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. Accessible and highly informative, the book is a fast-paced exploration of the science of skill acquisition and a delightful account of journalist Vanderbilt's personal adventures among fellow new learners.

Inspired by his daughter's decision to enter the world of competitive chess, on the cusp of his 50s Vanderbilt (You May Also Like) set out to acquire five new skills: singing, surfing, drawing, making (a wedding ring to replace one of the two he lost while surfing) and juggling. From his Brooklyn home, he had ready access to capable teachers, and he makes generous use of their patient instruction, instead of turning to the estimated 135 million instructional videos available on YouTube. To set the stage for the account of his journeys up these learning curves, he also draws upon the work of a wide range of helpful professionals in fields that include neuroscience, child development and something called movement science, who offer insights into the process of human learning.

Vanderbilt's efforts are dogged, even as, he recognizes, they fall far short of mastery. The most interesting chapter is the one on surfing. It begins on a chilly November day at a beach in the Rockaways, N.Y., and culminates in a trip to a surfing school in Costa Rica, where his classmates award him the nickname "Gumby" to describe his unique posture. Most emotionally satisfying is the story of his stint with the BritPop Choir, a Lower East Side group of 50 amateur singers that functioned for him as a "small-scale model of what a vitally functioning participatory democracy looks like." His 10 weeks of training with the group end with a concert, the first time he had sung onstage since third grade.

The message of Vanderbilt's book--one he says is not a " 'how to do book' as much as a 'why to do' book"--is relentlessly positive, reminding readers that it's "never too late to be a beginner." Summing up his efforts, he writes: "I achieved modest competency on a number of things to which I'd long been attracted, from the outside. But doing these things brought me an immense and almost forgotten kind of pleasure." Despite the inevitable setbacks, his is an empowering story that will have adventuresome readers eager to head off in search of some new challenge the moment they've put it down. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: An engaging perspective on the joys of embarking on the process of learning something new.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Book Clubs in Lockdown

Call it an obsession, but since last March I have been consumed by, and addicted to, the daily flood of information about booksellers and publishers adapting to the time of Covid-19. Okay, you can also call it my profession, but there was one aspect of the book world that I wasn't thinking about nearly as much as I should have been: book clubs. Maybe I just assumed they had seamlessly made the transition from living rooms to living Zooms.

This week, however, my knowledge gap narrowed significantly with the release of Book Clubs in Lockdown, a new report from BookBrowse exploring how reading groups are adapting to the unique challenges presented by 2020. The findings are based on a survey conducted over two weeks in late October with more than 3,400 respondents--90% of whom are in the U.S.--currently participating in a book club.

As has been the case throughout the book world this year, "resilience" is the key word. Three-quarters of survey respondents currently in a book club were in groups that were meeting at the time of the survey. BookBrowse found that members "would prefer not to be meeting with restrictions, but the majority have persevered and found a way forward, with many saying they now have a greater appreciation for their group. In fact, half say their group is more important to them than last year."

Book clubs not currently meeting were more likely to be part of a group that normally gathered in a public location, like a library, bookstore or restaurant. BookBrowse suggested that when conditions eventually permit, they will likely reconvene, since 90% of book club members not currently meeting said they had been happy in their group in 2019, and 89% said the book club was important to them.

Although the majority of groups had previously met in person and indoors, 65% of those currently meeting are doing so virtually, almost all on Zoom, while 17% are meeting outdoors (with some looking for a new winter location). Although attendance has been lower, primarily due to technical issues with online meetings or not feeling safe meeting in person, 14% of virtual groups have gained members, due to the ease of meeting online and former or part-time members being able to join virtually.

As far as acquiring books is concerned, the BookBrowse survey found that many of the groups currently meeting rely on their libraries and have been hampered by book quarantining delays. While e-books provide an alternative, the technology been a challenge for some, and about 20% said they had purchased books this year when they would previously have borrowed. In general, they plan to revert back to borrowing from the library when it is practical to do so.

Last April, in response to questions from book clubs struggling for ideas about what to discuss when they were unable to borrow books in print, BookBrowse recommended 15 alternatives, including shopping locally: "Even if you normally borrow books from the library, if you have the funds to do so there's no more important time to support your local bookstore than now. Many are open for pickup, or will deliver or mail books. An added incentive is that they will deliver a great deal faster than a certain online retailer who has deprioritized book deliveries, which can now take up to a month. If you aren't fortunate enough to have a local bookstore, offers competitive prices and gives a portion of their sales to indie bookstores."

What are book clubs reading? The survey found that for groups currently meeting that select books six months or less ahead, 28% are reading more books on racial justice than last year, while 17% are picking more books that provide an escape from current events. Among U.S. groups, 37% said their club has discussed politics in 2020. Asked whether there were any topics they had agreed not to discuss, 27% said politics was off the table (up from 11% in 2018).

What happens after the pandemic will of course depend on what that "new normal" looks like. Although the majority of survey respondents said they were looking forward to meeting in person when conditions allow, about one-third of those currently meeting virtually expect their group will retain a virtual element--3% anticipated that all of their meetings will be virtual and 29% expected to continue using video technology to allow absent members to join in-person meetings, or to occasionally host the entire meeting virtually, such as when weather conditions are poor or when many of the members are elsewhere.

BookBrowse noted that in previous research, some former or potential book clubbers had said they were not in a club due to reasons such as childcare, frequent travel or disabilities, so an all-virtual or hybrid group would likely be an appealing option for them.

"The resilience of book clubs shines through," said BookBrowse publisher Davina Morgan-Witts. "Of course, book clubs would prefer to be meeting without restrictions, but the majority have persevered and found a way forward. It is truly heartening to see how these groups of dedicated readers have worked together to maintain, and even grow, their community."

--Robert Gray, editor

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