Our Reading Lives

My Used Bookstore Revelation

Kit Steinkellner

Staff Writer

Kit Steinkellner is a playwright, screenwriter, and creative writing teacher. She also writes about books and reading  at Books Are My Boyfriends. Follow her onTwitter: @BooksAreMyBFs

My husband’s been bugging me to get my butt to our local used bookstore forever. I’ll LOVE it, he said. It’s walking distance from our house. The owner’s always asking if you want cookies or a bottle of water or a chair to sit and read in. She discounts the discounted books even further at the register. And, bonus historical preservation society points, the upstairs used to be Albert Einstein’s office.

“Holy shit, Albert Einstein lived in Pasadena?” I asked. “Did he leave some of his smart person brain atoms floating around in the air?”

“Come to the bookstore,” my husband insisted.

So the other night I walked over to meet him at Century Books in Pasadena, CA.

It was while I was upstairs in Einstein’s Former Office/ the fiction section that I had my Used Bookstore Revelation.

I picked up a copy of the novel Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue. You probably recognize Donoghue for the same reason I did: her 2010 novel Room sold a hundred bagamazillion jillion copies.

The thing is, I thought Room was Donoghue’s debut. No one told me that. I just got it in my head. But it wasn’t. Donoghue published 6 novels in the fifteen years before Room hit bookstores. And Slammerkin, the third of these novels, published in 2000, was a New York Times Bestseller, had all the shiny, fancy reviews a book could ever hope for, and I had never heard of it.

This bothered me. A lot, actually. I pride myself on having, if not an encyclopedic knowledge of modern literature, then at least an extremely comprehensive one. Yet as I stood in this fiction section I flipped through book after book that had been a “bestseller” in the last few decades, books with golden reviews from publications I deeply respect and glowing blurbs from authors I love to pieces, and I hadn’t heard of ANY of these books. This bothered me even more.

There are so many books published every year, we all know this, but I think we think (or at least I kind of thought) that enough books sold and enough praise bestowed is the literary equivalent of dipping said book into the River Styx (that’s the Greek Mythology Achilles thing where you become invincible once dipped). Instead it’s more like Mario knocking his head against a brick and getting a power-up super star. You get some invincibility as long as that really annoying song is playing, and then it’s right back to being regular Mario, susceptible to goombas and koopa troopas alike.

The thing is, I rarely SEE these once-bestsellers, the aging beauty queens of the book world. At a new-books bookstore I’m inundated with the new releases sitting on the tables out front and the Indie Next Bestsellers bookshelf in the back. Everything that’s gotten a little older, a little less relevant is either spine-not-front-cover out on the shelves…or not on the shelves at all. If I get a recommendation for something a little old, a little forgotten, I’ll put it on hold at the library. So I’ve kept myself unknowingly insulated from these Reading Experiences That Might Have Been.

I didn’t realize just how much of a slave to literary pressure I am. When I read a new book, I read it yes, because I have high hopes that I’ll love it but also because I have high hopes that I’ll gain social currency from the read. When I read a classic, it’s the same, yes I think I’ll love Edith Wharton but also I think people will think I’m much more intelligent and worthwhile for having read Wharton, EVEN IF I NEVER SAY A WORD ABOUT IT, THEY’LL JUST KNOW, COOLNESS TRANSMITTED VIA TELEPATHY.

When a book has fallen off the radar, through the cracks, it takes a reader with real spine (pun kind of intended) to pick it up and decide to read it anyway and be okay with the possibility that she will receive no points from other readers when responding to the question “What are you reading these days?”

I picked up Slammerkin and bought it for $4.50. I don’t pretend to have a stegosaurus-sized reading spine, but I’m trying to add just a little more literary vertebrae to the mix.


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