Saturday, February 17, 2007

What we talk about when we talk about books…*

This will have to be short because I have to leave soon to go watch a rugby game, but the language we use to describe we did or did not like about books has always fascinated me. Hand-selling requires a bookseller to ask a customer leading questions, and depending on those questions (and the person you are asking) you’ll either get very concise or very vague responses. Often “What do you like to read?” would earn a categorical response like “Fiction” or “Mystery” or “Political titles” without any additional information, which allows you to take the customer to the right section but not much more. When faced with a question designed to seek more answers “What kind of fiction/mystery/whatever?” people often are unable to explain.

“I read everything,” they’ll say.

Or, “Anything but those cat books. I hate those cat books.”

Doesn’t exactly narrow down the field to make hand selling a little easier. Sure, I can pick up a few of my favorites and start the song and dance, but upon reading the back or hearing my schpeel (spelling?) the customer would respond, “Oh, that’s not me.” Or “I don’t read those books.”

Customers, to me at least, seemed to have a very clear definition of what they didn’t like, but were often unable to express what they did because the concept itself was so broad. It really isn’t a fair question. What they liked in one book they may not find interesting in another. Or they may not use the vocabulary to describe their needs enough to feel comfortable discussing their thoughts.

For the longest time before the rise of book clubs and reader blogs (which have seemed to help a little), it seemed like people got out of high school English and completely lost the skills necessary to express why one book worked and one didn’t. Setting, description, narration, dialogue, tone, their mood while reading it: all things that affect the reader’s relationship with the words on the page and yet I have generations of readers who can’t pinpoint what made them feel they way they did about a title or genre.

And again, genre is a very broad term. When it came to helping people find something new, I would often ask them what they last read and liked. Once I had an answer I could then slowly draw information out of them that I would need to steer them towards another title, “A lot of readers really love the way that history is threaded throughout that storyline, would you like something like that?”

We all have our triggers, things that do and do not work for us, but figuring out what those are and being able to express why is hard. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to be judged or because we’re not reading that closely to pinpoint or it really depends on the book, but whatever it is, it makes the process of hand selling a book that much harder. Because I’ve had many a customer caught up in my excitement over a title, only to have them turned off by a description or word.

The language of books—of how we discuss them—is a fascinating thing, and I’m interested in how it changes and grows with each book we read. I’ve been following Educating Alice’s experiment in teaching her class to discuss their reading through blogs. It is so fascinating to see what these kids pick out in their books as good description or bad, and how they talk about their likes and dislikes. If you’ve got a few hours to kill, I would check these out and if you’re familiar with the books being discussed then leave a message (the kids would love to hear what you have to say). If you’ve only got a few minutes, just drop a note here.

Because I would love to know what you talk about when you talk about books.

*Yeah, I know. Raymond Carver called and he wants his title back.


Little Willow said...

Give me all of the cat books, then!

I believe it is schpiel, but I could be wrong. I don't like to be wrong, but I could be. :)

I like getting the feel for the reader's interests and life, to know I'm zeroing in on exactly what he or she would like to read, to be certain the book I'm putting in that person's hand is suitable and will be enjoyed!

CMonster said...

If there's one thing that defines my reading, it's escapism. I like mysteries, historical fiction, romance, fantasy, adventure, alt history, and some sci fi... all genre terms, but held together by a sense of other. When I read, I want to be anywhere but here.

quiche said...

Kids books cause me the greatest confusion. A grandparent or aunt or uncle comes in looking for something for a 10 yr. old boy or 8 yr. old girl and can't tell me anything about what that child likes. Despite the Harry Potter phenomenon most of them steer away from Sci-Fi for girls when I show them that section. I find that discouraging.

Anonymous said...

Spiel--German spelling for 'play, game, deal, thing you do, to play out' pronounced 'shpeel'

Yiddish spelled the same, meaning 'schtick', 'the bit you need to do', the song & dance, what you're saying when you schmooze.

Hon, I can do more over coffee, as you well know...

(former) Boss Lady

blogbie said...

Interesting point. I think it's a little like art appreciation "I just know what I like".
Thanks for the link to Alice's experiment. I'm looking into using blogs to help teach literacy (amongst other things). You can visit
if you'd like to look or comment

Robin L. said...

What is this handselling of which you speak? I've spent many hundreds of hours browsing bookstores and I've never once had a title recommended to me (chain and indie stores alike). I once asked for help in the children's section because my daughter wanted to read chapter books, but she was only 5, and I needed something appropriate and the bookseller was very helpful.

I'd LOVE it if a bookseller would/could direct me to new books I'd like. It's always such a challenge for me to find them! But I think I'd feel silly asking about that. Like... "do you have anything resembling Elizabeth Peters that isn't her, because I've read them all twice?" I imagine they'd just give me a funny look. Maybe not?

Jennifer said...

Robin L --

They wouldn't give you a funny look at all - that is far more coherent than MOST of the queries booksellers get. If I can stop myself from smirking at the lady who wants a book that makes dog noises so her Yorkie won't be lonely... Elizabeth Peters is no sweat!

All the booksellers I know (indie and chain alike) would say the highlight of their days are when they're turning people on to new books. So ask!