How we fall in love with booksPlay
“What’s a book you love with all your heart?”
As I contemplated, post-Christmas, how to decorate the windows of the bookstore I own, this is the question I began to repeat to myself. I had settled on Valentine’s Day as a motif, not because I particularly like Valentine’s Day — I really don’t — but it’s secular (mostly) and with its hearts and red palette, easy to choose decorations. Also, I’m a participant in a capitalistic marketplace and I have a whole lot of V-Day cards in stock.
My favorite card we sell, from a company called The Card Bureau, says, “I’m so glad I get to spend this problematic holiday that reinforces heteropatriarchal gender norms with you.” As I thought about the windows, I moved away from the idea of traditional coupling up and toward the idea of “love” in general and what it even means in a place like a bookstore.
Maybe once a day, someone exclaims, “Oh my god, I loved that book!” So I put the question to our community: “What’s a book you love with all your heart?”
Book lovers can never pick just one, but that’s what I wanted: one book per post-it, one post-it per customer. The idea was to fill our front windows with the books people love, putting all of those exclamations of undying love on display. Of course, people found it awfully hard to choose. Customers will stand at the counter thoughtfully for minutes on end before telling me they’ll have to email the answer. When I tweeted the question, many people listed two or three or 10.
It turns out, though, it’s a question people really like answering. Responses have flooded in.
I have learned, for instance, that “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith might be the most beloved book of all time. (Embarrassingly, I’ve never read it.) Mostly I’ve been delighted at the sheer breadth of answers, how few repeats we’ve had. We were hundreds of responses deep before someone wrote “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. And then someone else finally wrote “The Lord of the Rings,” the third bestselling book of all time (behind The Bible, which was mentioned once or twice, and “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, which received a handful of votes), and I thought, “Yes! Where have you been?”
What does it mean to love a book with all your heart? I could have written any number of titles on my own post-it, but I tried not to overthink it. I wrote “Becoming Duchess Goldblatt” by Anonymous on a red sticky, the first post-it in the window. It’s a book that brings me joy, a book I think could be widely read and enjoyed by others, a book that shines light in dark places. It’s also a book I think would still be a discovery for many people and, though I wasn’t necessarily conscious of this as I was writing it, as a bookstore owner, I wanted to show people I can help them find great books they’ve never heard of.
Because I’ve realized that part of what goes into making this declaration of undying love is the fact that it will be read by others. Would people choose different books if they were merely writing the answer in their diaries? When you post your most beloved book on Twitter or in our store’s window, you are signaling to others who you are, and that can be scary.
We all have exterior personas we’re trying to cultivate. Do you want to signal that you’re widely read (“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula LeGuin), that you’re hip to current events (“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond), that you’re worldly (“The Lying Life of Adults” by Elena Ferrante)? Will the book you choose be intellectual enough (“all about love” by bell hooks), cool enough (“M Train” by Patti Smith), whimsical enough (many adults named children’s books they’ll never stop loving: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, “Katy and the Big Snow”by Virginia Lee Burton)? Are you a tried and true book lover (“The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr)?
Sometimes we love books for completely inexplicable reasons — the same way we fall in love with people. There’s no explaining it. We just do. All books, like people, have flaws, but one of the great joys in life is discovering those books — and people — we love in spite of, or even because of, those flaws.
I asked my brother (and co-owner of the bookstore) for a book he loved with all his heart, and he answered, “I think, and I kind of feel guilty about this, it would be ‘The Great Gatsby.’” Why does he feel guilty? Has it been canceled? I love that book, too. No, no, he assured me, it just feels a little cliche, and then we went on to discuss its continued relevance and his memories of discovering the book on our parents’ shelf as a teen.
When someone posted “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut, it reminded me of how I fell so hard for his books in high school, borrowing one after another from the library. Then someone posted “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver. I hadn’t thought about that book in a long time. I remembered, too, falling for her books, reading “Pigs in Heaven” over and over. The books we discover in our formative years have lasting power, but, like lovers we now realize were never right for us, we move past them in a search for something that makes us better. Makes us understand more about how to love ourselves.
Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, chasing that feeling of falling in love for the first time. Maybe that’s what all book lovers are doing.
There’s one thing I know for sure, after reading hundreds (thousands!) of these declarations of love: our windows — and hearts — are full.
This segment aired on February 14, 2023.