"Handselling." It's a word beloved by booksellers, because it's one of the things they do best--recommending books from a personal perspective. Publishers' reps use a variation: "This book is a good handsell." That means the book (usually) has a modest print run but is worthy of extra attention; with enough, it will break out of the pack, especially if it becomes an indie favorite, like Matterhorn, Mudbound, Water for Elephants, The Time Traveler's Wife, Shadow of the Wind....

There are many ways to handsell a book: via conversations, e-mails, social networks. A good friend e-mailed this to me about The Snow Child, a novel by Eowyn Ivey due out February 1: "What a stunning debut. It has the magic of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, the poetic nuances of Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas, the wild spirit of Jack London, and the deep warmth of a single-malt Scotch. Most of all, it gave me the sense that despite a bleak world, magic can still appear when we least expect it and when we need it most.... I can't think of a more perfect novel to usher in the winter season with. It deserves to melt the hearts of many readers." How could I not immediately read it? I did, and he was right.

Nationally syndicated columnist and author Leonard Pitts, Jr., raised the bar for handselling in his January 15 editorial for the Miami Herald, "The New Jim Crow Alive and Thriving." He recommends Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (now out in paperback from the New Press), which he called a "troubling and profoundly necessary" work. The book has an "explosive argument. Namely, that the so-called 'War on Drugs' amounts to a war on African-American men and, more to the point, to a racial caste system nearly as restrictive, oppressive and omnipresent as Jim Crow itself." Pitts believes in this book so much that he will send 50 readers a copy, purchased with his own money, if they promise to read it. That's all. That's a powerful handsell. --Marilyn Dahl, book review editor, Shelf Awareness

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