What do you do when you're lost? I'm talking signal down, battery off, no access to Google Maps. For me, the first step is to take a deep breath. Slow things down. Tell the fast-paced panic button part of the brain to hold its horses.
I was ready to try a different approach to the bookstore. I was like a player pulled out of the basketball game, Hey Chris, catch your breath, get some water. When I stood up from the bench, I had shed the Google brain and was operating at a much slower pace.
I walked back over to the wall of fiction.
The staff at Unabridged has little notecards taped to the shelves with their personal handwritten recommendations. I looked over and saw Jac Jemc’s novel, The Grip of It, with a notecard underneath.
Jac was a former co-worker of mine at Jellyvision. I remember her goodbye email, she said she was going to write full-time. Everyone was excited for her; her boss included. I pictured her leaving the 9-5 world to go off to a cabin somewhere in the wilderness and just write. Here was that book. Here it was!
Not only was she in the bookstore, she was on a notecard.
There are two ways I react to this kind of thing. The first is the ugly side. The side I don't want to admit publicly because it's selfish and greedy. It's like the actor clapping on camera at the Oscar's, forcing a smile, but you know in his head it's just a loop of, "That should have been me. That should have been me."
When I hear someone's blog post went viral, 100,000 views, too often I'll look at the title and think, "Oh come on. Well yeah, it's about Trump. Of course. If I wanted to write about politics, I could have that too."
Or the Facebook post that's got 500 likes and I've got 35 on a joke about fast food. I'm sitting there with sour grapes playing the world's smallest violin emoji.
The other reaction is what I had in the bookstore. It's a mixture of being proud and inspired. It's like being a kid, and a famous athlete comes to speak to your class, and it turns out they grew up in your hometown. I was just like you. You stare in awe, and the whole thing is motivational. Maybe I could do this one day.
Jac is miles further down the road, but she left a trail. Keep writing. Keep moving forward.
Close to Jac's book was another notecard under "My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante. I had heard this title mentioned on two separate podcasts, both with high praise, saying it might be some of the best writing of the 21st century.
I picked it up. Is this my style of book? Is it too "literary" for me? I don't know. But if someone told me they had prepared the best Brussels sprouts in the world, I'd give them a try; I wouldn't say, "You know, I'm more of a sloppy Joe guy."
I took a second to appreciate how amazing books are. Elena Ferrante is an Italian author. She wrote this book in Italian, it gets translated into English, and now here it is on a Chicago bookshelf, being picked up by a guy from Midland, Michigan. How awesome is that? And how cool would it be to be part of the reverse? Some woman in small-town Italy picking up Toilet Bowl, taking it to the checkout counter.
It's a Wonderful Life
Too often with writing, I measure success by the number of views or number of sales. And if those numbers aren't high, well, then I'm a failure. I wasted my time. I wasted my life.
But, and this will be a leap, so stay with me. It's kind of like when Clarence takes George Bailey to the cemetery. He's telling him how if he didn't save his brother Harry from falling in the ice when they were kids, then there would be no Harry the war hero, no rescued people. I thought back to how much of an impact different books or different stories have had on me over the years.
What would my world look like if those books didn't exist?
My dad read me The Book of Virtues. My mom used to read that tear-jerker of a children's book, the one that says, "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, As long as I'm living my baby you'll be."
Roald Dahl. The Fudge books by Judy Blume (until a girl in my class said, "You know those are for girls, right?). I remember the devastating ending of Bridge to Terabithia; I think that was third or fourth grade. Holes. Finding Buck McHenry.
During these years, I was always writing. Fifth grade I filled up an entire 120-page notebook with a story that I think eventually evolved, at least the main characters, into Toilet Bowl.
The list goes on and on. Middle school it was all about JK Rowling and Harry Potter. When I was 16, I got my license, but more importantly I found my favorite novel of all time, East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Now I'm not going to get over-dramatic, say that book saved my life, but it did make a significant impact. Maybe there are better novels out there, but when it comes to personal impact, it would take a LOT to ever dethrone East of Eden as my all-time favorite book.
I think of scenes and passages. I think of 1 John 1:7. I think of the chapter in Moby Dick when Starbuck is this close to changing Ahab's course. Non-fiction too, last week how inspired I was after finishing "Shoe Dog" or how much I learned from Originals by Adam Grant.
Yeah, I'm a nerd. I love books.
I looked around and saw the bookstore for what it is; it's a celebration of stories. The trophy case is the thousands of books on the walls. Books written by people I'll never meet, many of whom lived hundreds of years ago, but for 200, 300, 500 pages they make a personal connection. Granted, some books are great, some are a struggle to get through chapter one, but one thing I know, I've wanted to be a part of that world, reading and writing, ever since I was a little kid.
It got me thinking about my next book
I'm working on Toilet Bowl's sequel called "The Romcoms." The book takes place over three years but only during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. I was wondering are there any books out there similar? Any books about families coming home for the holidays?
I saw The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen nearby Ferrante and thought, "Yeah, something like The Corrections just over the holidays."
I saw one of the staff members, maybe he was the owner, helping another customer find a title. I thought, you know what, I'm going old fashioned search bar. I'm going to ask a real human being for help.
When his time freed up, I asked, "Hey, I was wondering if you knew of any good books where a family is back together over the holidays. And you've got like multiple siblings, you've got the parents. Kind of like The Corrections but not as dysfunctional. Anything like that?"
"Interesting. Interesting. I've got a couple movies that come to mind, you know what, let me go ask the team," he replied.
A few minutes later he returned with a book in hand. How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas. He told me how the author grew up in Paris, now lives in Chicago, actually comes into the store a fair amount. She's signed this copy. He tells me it's not exactly what I was looking for, but it is about family, and it's a really good read.
Of course I said thank you and put the book in my check-out stack, but I did think about how funny it would be after all of that to say, "Yeah, I'm all set. Thanks for looking though!"
I ended up checking out with more books that were not on my list than the ones that were.
So much of modern day is about algorithms. How do systems get smarter, know us so well that they can deliver on exactly what we want. For instance, I clicked on a pair of LeBron James basketball shoes, and for the next two weeks, those things followed me around everywhere across the internet. Facebook, display ads on different websites. Those Nikes were chasing me down. Even after I bought them. I was like, "Remove the ads, you won! You have my money, I'm waving the white flag of surrender here!"
What's great about the bookstore is the power of recommendation. Navigating outside the algorithm, picking up books off the beaten path. Nothing in my search or reading history would have led to The Grip of It, My Brilliant Friend, or How to Behave in a Crowd. The bookstore is a chance to discover new stories, to feel inspired, and yeah, sure, it was a cold walk home, but I'll always remember that trip and will keep coming back to Unabridged.
It's an entirely different mindset. Less about speed, more about experience. You wouldn't want an auctioneer teaching your yoga class. Bookstores should be about taking your time.
I put my stack of books on the front counter. The cashier scanned the barcodes on the back. When I heard the bell ring on the cash register (alright, that didn't happen, but for the sake of the story!) I looked up at the ceiling.
Thank you for reading this bookstore saga. On Monday, I'll have a story up about shopping carts with a ridiculous idea on how to make grocery stores more like bookstores. Should be an interesting ride!
Three quick plugs:
- If you're looking for a new novel to start the year with, consider giving Toilet Bowl a try. I like to think of it as Casablanca meets Saved by the Bell. It's a story about love, friendship, and how to overcome internal worries and fears.
- I'm not really promoting this one until April or May, but wanted to give you early access to Moving Sucks. Those familiar with the blog might remember a few of these posts. I turned it all into a "Chicken Nugget", an ebook that's too long for a blog, too short for a book.
- If you're a basketball fan, make sure to check out - mediumrarebasketball.com. Lot of college basketball coverage going up these next 3-4 months + a new Chicago Bulls show that I hope will be as fun to follow as it's been to create.
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See you Monday!