Two things you ought to know about me before we begin: I am a bookseller, and I love lists.
When December rolls around, all the books published in the last eleven months are rounded up into best-of lists — best fiction, best business books, best books for women, best of the best. Being rather opinionated, I enjoy scrolling through and making my own judgments — scoffing, sighing, and smiling in turn.
But also, because I’m a bookseller, there’s a lot on those lists that I haven’t read. I’m the primary frontlist (newly published books) receiver at my store, and I curate our quarterly newsletter, which features books published in a three-month span that we think are worth reading. Between these two jobs I see hundreds of new books: children’s books about science-loving sleuths, diet books centered around cocktails, mystery novels starring robots built to kill. There are too many for me to read them all, and if everyone is reading something, I don’t need to read it to do my job: finding customers the perfect book.
As I scrolled and clicked through list after list of last year’s best, I began to formulate my own list: the best books of 2018 that I’d had every intention of reading but didn’t.
This was as funny as it was depressing. As I clicked over to new tabs I murmured to myself, “How could I have forgotten that. God, is that galley still around here somewhere?” From more than two dozen titles, I winnowed the list down to ten: the books I had the worst excuses for not reading; the books I was most surprised to find still unread.
There, There by Tommy Orange
There are books that get talked about so frequently you’re soon sick of them; those that you assume can’t live up to the hype; those that everyone else is so behind you don’t bother with because you can sell it without reading it. There, There is not one of those books. In a New York Times review titled “Yes, Tommy Orange’s new novel really is that good,” Colm Toibin describes it as “an ambitious meditation on identity and its broken alternatives, on myth filtered through the lens of time and poverty and urban life, on tradition all the more pressing because of its fragility.” I feel like I’ve missed out on a moment in not reading this book — good thing I have five months before the paperback is released and the hype starts up all over again.
The Merry Spinster by Daniel Ortberg
It is ridiculous that I haven’t read this book yet. It’s described by the publisher as “darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales,” and I love fairy tale retellings — especially those that flip the classics on their head and expose their grimy, slimy underbellies. I took home a copy with every intention of reading it, and then I shelved it. Once shelved, a book has a far slimmer chance of being read; I am too distracted by the shiny new books crossing my path every day. In the new year, perhaps, I’ll resolve to stop buying books for a while and only shop my own shelves.
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
I keep forgetting about this book. I can’t remember where I first heard of it, whether it was a review or my bookstore or an interview with Carmen Maria Machado — who is effusive about this particular title (and I am effusive about her work, so anything she enjoys I feel certain I’ll enjoy too). I remember a friend or co-worker or stranger was enjoying it. Each time I heard about it, I thought “That book sounds right up my alley.” And then I would lose it, until next time, which, this time, was the NPR Best Books list. All the Names They Used for God is another collection of strange short stories; Machado describes each story as “a perfect diorama: scrupulously assembled, complex, unsettling. Completing one is like having lived an entire life, and then being born, breathless, into another.” Now, how could I forget that?
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
I listened to Broder’s essay collection So Sad Today, and it was like getting a really excellent hug — firm, warm, loving — from a naked stranger. So of course I was excited to receive a galley of her first novel, which is about a woman who falls in love with a merman. I listened to an interview with Broder on the podcast Other Ppl — I think she talked about how she writes her first drafts by dictating them to her phone, later parsing through what her phone picked up compared to what she actually said — and I became more excited about reading her novel. I’m still excited; I still have the galley. It’s on a very full shelf where I keep galleys I have not read for books that have already come out. Maybe I should just borrow the audiobook from the library.
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
You know that terrible feeling you get when you encounter someone insanely talented and accomplished and find out they’re five years younger than you? That’s what I feel like when I flip through Tillie Walden’s comics or scroll through her Instagram. Her artwork is stunning: intricate and precise with engulfing, dreamlike watercolors. And her latest graphic novel, On a Sunbeam, is a space story and a boarding school story (the latter is a theme I was a bit obsessed with years ago; the dregs of that obsession still linger). This is her thickest book yet, and every Friday I mean to check it out for the weekend (the perks of working in a bookstore), but I still haven’t. Maybe next weekend.
These Truths by Jill Lepore
This is the first book on my list that I don’t feel very guilty about not having read. I mean, have you seen it? It’s nearly 1,000 pages. It makes me think of another book I’ve been meaning to read, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which I started reading at a friend’s house when I was a precocious (read: obnoxious) twelve-year-old. The way history is taught in US schools has irritated me ever since. But here is the perfect opportunity to refresh (read: learn for the very first time) my US history. And how lucky are we to be alive for the publication of the first single-volume, comprehensive history of the United States to be written by a woman! I mean, we’ve only been a country for well over two hundred years.
Belonging by Nora Krug
Now this one, this one I really thought I was going to read in 2018. I buy for the comics section of my store, and, scrolling through Edelweiss (the system publishers use for frontlist orders) I was immediately grabbed by the art style: it’s like a scrapbook — with old photographs, letters, magazine cut-outs, photocopies, and other ephemera, along with more traditional comics. I’ve always loved reading journals or flipping through sketchbooks; it feels so intimate, and a bit like you’re getting away with something. I’d never seen a comic quite like this. I wanted to buy enough copies to display it everywhere. I decided to feature it in our quarterly newsletter. Unfortunately, another bookseller signed up to review it, and I had to give up my galley. I read two other books for the newsletter and then had to write and edit reviews. And so another great read slipped from my grasp.
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Who wouldn’t want to read a book that’s referred to as “treacherously surreal”? What does that even mean? I don’t know, and I still want to find out. But, like every other book on this list, Friday Black got pushed aside by other obligations; other booksellers read and loved it, and frankly it didn’t need much help from us anyway, it flew off the shelf on its own. Come to think of it, I actually didn’t read many short story collections at all this year. I guess I was trying to expand my horizons, read outside my comfort zone or some such nonsense.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
Probably the slimmest book on this list, and one that was published all the way back in February: you would think I’d have gotten around to Heart Berries by now. It’s an Indigenous woman’s coming-of-age memoir, delving into mental illness, intergenerational trauma, motherhood, womanhood, and so much more (from what I can tell, not, again, having read it). What really entices me is the language; a co-worker described it as “nearly synesthetic and often dreamlike.” I love when a short book takes forever to read because you linger over the language; I expect Heart Berries will be like that.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
I haven’t read Chee’s work before, but a number of friends have heaped praise on his novel The Queen of the Night, not to mention his Twitter presence. So I was extremely excited to receive a galley of his essay collection well before pub date, and even more excited to receive a finished copy (paperback original!) on the pub date (bookselling doesn’t pay very well, but if you spend most of your money on books anyway it has its perks). And yet … as you’ve already surmised by its inclusion on this list: I haven’t read it. But I hear there’s an essay in there about tarot reading, and I’m pretty excited about that.
I’d like to tell you that I’ll get to these books eventually. They’re all worth reading (nine out of ten best-of lists agree). But for a bookseller, there’s quite a bit of pressure to stay current; to read and review the forthcoming books; to be well-versed in the next big thing. I miss sitting down with a book and not worrying about when it was published. But I always feel a little guilty reading older books; I tell myself they don’t need someone to get behind them like the new books might.
Now that I think of it, that’s kind of a load of shit. Old books, new books, they all deserve championing. But we both know there will be just as many excellent reads in 2019 as there were in 2018. It’s time to admit that there will always be good books left unread. Better that, though, than having nothing to read at all.