I'm a handseller. You're a handseller. Everyone in the book trade is a handseller if they routinely use two simple yet intricate sentences in daily conversations. One is: "You've got to read this!" The other was used by Will Schwalbe, Macmillan executive v-p and bestselling author, to open a BookExpo Downtown Stage event featuring a live recording of his podcast, But That's Another Story.
"As anyone who ever has met me knows, my favorite question is, 'What are you reading?' " Schwalbe said. "I ask it of everyone everywhere and I'm constantly surprised, amazed, delighted and challenged with the answers I get."
From left: Will Schwalbe, Aarti Shahani, Stephen Chbosky, Nicole Dennis-Benn
This discussion was a treat for me as well because I've always loved hearing authors talk about other writers' books. Schwalbe began by asking each of his guests to choose a work that had changed her or his life. His guests on the podcast were Aarti Shahani (Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, Celadon) Stephen Chbosky (Imaginary Friend, Grand Central) and Nicole Dennis-Benn (Patsy, Liveright)
Shahani recalled that when she first read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, her engagement with the character Ifemelu was like the experience of meeting someone she immediately knew she was going to be friends with.
"She is a really sassy, self-made young woman who decided to leave where she was from," said Shahani. "And she loved where she was from. She had really good relationships with her family, with her friends there. She felt a deep connection to it. And still she ached for more and different. And the book is about that journey. And she's fun. She has access to really random and variant places.... I think that that woman who is not only capable of living in very different worlds, but whose heart actually needs to live in very different worlds; that's part of who she is, the constant navigating is authentically her. It's not one identity, but multiple coexisting. I'm drawn to that person. Those are a lot of my friends."
For Chbosky, the book that changed his life was Stephen King's The Stand, which he read while he "was living on 108th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, and it was right about the time that I started writing The Perks of Being a Wallflower. You wouldn't necessarily look at The Stand and Perks in the same light, but I will say The Stand--even though I think the mass market is like 1,450 pages long and was very daunting to me--I started reading and I got to Page 70 and then I couldn't stop reading for four days. I blew off work. It was obsessive. And when I realized that you could have a narrative, a story that was that complex, that imaginative, but also that intimate... lf it's just an epic, I'm not terribly interested, and if it's just intimate--if it's great writing I'm interested--but to have them both at the same time is just fascinating."
Dennis-Benn said she first encountered Audre Lord's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name at the college library where she was a work-study student. "This was around 1999, 2000 and as I read Audre Lord's story, I saw my story in that book as well because I grew up not seeing myself on the page or seeing my experiences on the page. So when I started reading Zami, seeing that here is a writer who was also from Caribbean heritage, a self-proclaimed lesbian, a poet, you know, somebody who actually was raised under the roof of a very strong Caribbean woman and kind of pushing against that and also herself grappling with her new American-ness, with her immigrant family background....
"So, reading and writing were the ways I coped with being in this new country, and when I read Zami it spoke to me in many ways.... Audre Lord, in terms of her unpacking what her blackness, her queerness, her womanhood, to me seeing that intersectionality on the page was what drew me in even more to her writing and then subsequently to her poetry and her other essays.... And actually I ended up writing. That's how I started journaling because most of my journaling was really me processing my identity, and Audre Lord was a big influence on that."
At the end of the podcast, Schwalbe returned to his favorite question: "What are you reading?"
Shahani recommended Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist ("amazingly written") and This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto by Suketu Mehta ("a fantastic book"). Chbosky has "been on a kick" with Blake Crouch's novels and was reading Dark Matter, "which is fantastic." And Dennis-Benn is "delving into poetry," most recently with Warsan Shire's "amazing collection" Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.
"When you're reading, you aren't just doing it for yourself," Schwalbe observed. "You're partaking in a conversation that includes everyone who has ever read that book, everyone who might read that book and everyone who comes to mind as you read the book. And you connect them in your mind and heart to the book you're reading. Reading is a conversation that connects us all."