Geezer Book Love

In lieu of my usual laundry-list style consumables this week, I am going to focus on one thing. And that thing is the Joy of the Old Man Book.

If you are a person who is interested in books or the publishing industry at all, you probably know that there is something out there called Chick Lit. I’m not going to try to define what Chick Lit is, because that term is hotly debated and you can hear about that whole mess in many other places besides here. But we can all probably say- whether we agree with the term or not- that we kinda sorta know what is meant when people talk about Chick Lit. We know, or at least we think we know, that it’s a way to market to a demographic. The term originally probably came from some Don Draper type. And I agree with the critics of the term that it’s come to mean something derogatory and dismissive. All I have to say about that, in my uber articulate way is: not cool.

However! I do have to say that grouping books into a sort of reader profile can be pretty helpful sometimes when part of your job is to recommend books to hundreds and hundreds of stangers. If someone says that they like Jodi Picoult, and you ask them what exactly it is about Jodi Picoult that they like, what they say might lead you to recommend Anna Quindlen. Or if they say something different about Picoult, you might say Nicholas Sparks would be the direction to try. Or if something else was said, you might try Alice Hoffman with that person. And so on. But things that seem really similar can sometimes totally bomb. People that love Jackie Collins don’t automatically love Danielle Steel or Judith Krantz. A lot of the time they do, but not all the time.

There is a science and an art to reader’s advisory, and we librarians spend a lot of time thinking about how to do it well. We write books about it, we have meetings to talk about best practices about it. We set up databases about it. We have lots and lots of theoretical discussions about it. It is a bonafide Big Hairy Deal to us. So although there is a part of me that despises the term Chick Lit, there is also a part of my brain that sees that term as just as legitimate of a place to start to talk books with someone as anything else. It’s a complicated alchemy, people’s taste in books. And in my experience, readers have a hard time explaining what they love about a book (people usually are much more articulate about why they hated a book, however, which is a whole other can of beans). So if they want to use the term Chick Lit when they tell me what they like or don’t like, I go with it and start from there. If there are common terms that help people have some language to tell me what they like, so much the better for me to do my job well.

Unfortunately, there aren’t very many terms like that that are commonly used by people. It’s up to us librarians to decipher what people mean when they say very subjective things like “I like things that are really well written,” or “I want a real page turner” or “I like things with really interesting characters.” That’s usually a place for the librarian to start digging for other clues by talking with the person and asking a lot of questions to figure out what they mean.

I confess that I have little profiles in my head for common reader’s advisory questions that I get. There’s Legal Thriller Guy (or Girl), and there’s Cozy Mystery Girl (or Guy), and there’s Dystopian Sci-Fi Lady (or Dude), and there’s Political Biography Dude (or Lady). This isn’t to limit what I am going to recommend to the point where it’s restrictive, but it does give me a ballpark from which to start. Sometimes that ballpark will end up with a result that makes the person happy, and sometimes the person lets me know that I have totally misread what ballpark I think they are in at all. (“Oh, you like House on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford AND Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie because they are both set in Seattle! I get it. So tell me more about…”)

One of the profiles that I have discovered is what I have termed, in my own mind, the Old Man Book. Please forgive me, as I understand that this profile is sexist and ageist in much the same way as Chick Lit is, but there you have it. The Old Man Book has to do with the following topics: wars (most usually The Civil War and both World Wars), certain very specific historical figures (US Presidents, Lewis and Clark to name two), the history of baseball and maybe football (Satchel Page! Knute Rockne!), various forms of nautical-ness (The Master and Commander series, viking exploration, Christopher Columbus), and such-like.

Of all the profiles above, I see how they can be a bit helpful at times, but only as a starting point. Because when I think about how I read, I can fit into any one of those profiles, depending on the book and depending on the day. I can be Cozy Mystery Lady, or Dystopian Sci-Fi Lady, or Political Biography Lady, or Celebrity Tell-All Lady, or Esoteric Philosphy Lady, or Comic Book Geeky Lady, Or Travel Memoir Lady, or Magical Realism Lady, or Paranormal Romance Lady. People usually aren’t their profile, or just one profile. And part of the fun of being a librarian is helping someone discover something outside of their norm. Or even helping them discover something in their norm. Just helping them discover something is the fun part.

But let me just confess this. It’s true I can and do read in all of the profiles above, and more. But if I am going to be real here, I have to tell you. There is a big part of my reading tastes that GETS OFF on the Old Man Book. My brand of Old Man Books tends to be historical. World Wars, Civil War, Revolutionary War. Oh yeah. I love it. Love, love, love it. Demographically, I guess I “should” be more of a Chick Lit reader. But in some ways I am more Statler and Waldorf and less Carrie Bradshaw. Maybe a lot of ways.

I just checked out The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn and I am going to crack into that 500 page sucker today. And I CAN NOT WAIT. Don’t hate. Appreciate.

On a related note, I really want this t-shirt
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9 comments

  1. I attended a library conference several years ago and it was an all male panel on "Guys Read" – Terry Trueman was on the panel and he was making fun of "Chick-lit" and called what he wrote, "Dick-lit" – most hilarious thing I've heard in years! Honestly, seeing chick-lit as an authorized subject heading makes me cringe…

  2. LibrarianGirl,This post alone would have won you my unswerving fandom. I actually think about this all the time, because I DON'T KNOW — as articulate and smart as I am — what it is about the books I like that separates them from the books that are in the "same vein" but just okay, or hold my interest not. A case in point: I read history more than perhaps anything else, but I almost never read military history, like the brilliant moves that won this one and the gaffes that lost that one. Couldn't care less. But I loved a book my Civil War buff brother gave me by Peter Svenson called "Battlefield – Farming a Civil War Battleground", maybe because interwoven with the history of that part of the War Between the States that was fought on the farm this guy purchased and the hilarious letters from a frustrated Lincoln to his incompetent generals ("I see that you are at Moorefield. You were expressly ordered to march to Harrisonburg. What does this mean?") is the story of the author's coming to know that piece of earth, and what living on the earth means in that context.) I considered "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot a page-turner, not even sure why, I just found it so compelling from the family's point of view. I can't get enough of books like Rob Sullivan's "Rats" that take me through history but focus on one subject and entertain me with interesting characters. And my favorite author (you may already be aware) is Joseph Mitchell, the Herodotus of the Hudson. Uh…I completely forgot the point I was going to make, so I'm going to button it up now, but thanks for this post and for getting me thinking about the books I love and why I love them.

  3. Hey LG, It appears I left an extra end-parenthesis in my comment. I don't suppose you could be a dear and fetch it out of there for me? I won't be able to sleep.

  4. Matt- I think your Old Man tastes are similar to mine. It's the human details that I like, not the facts or brilliant battle strategy. All the books you named are right up my alley. I've got Henrietta Lacks on my list.You'd love listening to librarian-talk about reader's advisory. It really is a fascinating thing.And editing your comment- blogger let's me do that? I didn't know that.

  5. LG,Not sure you can edit on Blogger. You can on WP. Whether or not it's "cool" is another matter. I think the ethos of the blogosphere is generally that typos support the authenticity of a thing…its "rillness". To edit is to lie, etc. Probably you should leave the comment alone unless you want to be flamed. Still, having discarded a sole parenthesis is like having worn just one sock. It messes up one's cycle for a long time.

  6. Great, head-nodding post – whether I like that stuff or not, and I sometimes do, I can wile away tens of minutes with any of several dozen old guys discussing the crucial turning points in the second world war or what a bastard Ulysses S. Grant really was or how Douglas Reeman is the only author working out there who really understands the details of in-line rigging on 18th century Barquentines. Man, I am in school – and can even sling when the conversation strays into my own pet areas, such as mid-5th century Greece. There's a great unknown self-published reference book called The He Man's Guide to Thrillers or some such – it is at my desk at work, I think – where the author created his own elaborate rating system for books in which more familiar literary qualities are weighted rather less than, say, whether the author incorrectly states where the safety is on a Glock. Lots of fun. BUT, …and not intending to air my astonishing breadth and depth of knowledge in the most scholastic details of all things reader's advisorish, but… I do believe the correct technical term for what you're referring to is "Coot-lit."

  7. Heh. I'm one of those that doesn't mind "chick lit", either as a genre or as an organizing concept. I very much love Statler and Waldorf and will be requesting that t-shirt for Christmas 🙂

  8. So, it’s true: haters gonna hate. And. There is a great google image for the phrase: potatoes gonna potate. It’s a little potato filled with not caring what other people think.

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