It’s no secret that we’re Serious Readers over here at powerHouse. Our tastes run from the erudite to the indie-quirky to Brooklyn’s literati and then back to the erudite—we’re the kind of people who wouldn’t think twice about taking Middlemarch to the beach. Or a Melville House novella (Bartleby, anyone?). We have MFAs, you guys.
A casual scan of our staff picks shelf reveals Her, Christa Parravani’s heart-stopping debut memoir about her identical twin sister’s rape, subsequent struggles with addiction, and eventual death; The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Teddy Wayne’s uncanny rendering of an 11-year old pop star; Julian Barnes’s quiet stunner Sense of an Ending, one of the most deserving Booker winners in recent memory; master genre-manipulator Mark Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword, which kept this events coordinator—and ghost story addict—from falling asleep the night she turned its final page; and Diane Williams’s Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, about which bookseller Matthew writes, “if these stories were given physical form, they’d most resemble Dr. Manhattan’s floating brain, from The Watchmen.”
But most of us didn’t start as pleasure readers of Thomas Pynchon. (Okay, most of us still aren’t.) We came to our choosy taste through reading. The more we read, the easier it became for us to hear the clang of sloppily written sentence, or sniff out a shopworn plotline. We craved better books. We craved artful, revelatory details, like this one from Amity Gaige’s Shroder: “Behind us, the shoreline fell away, and a chaos of seagulls hung over our wake like bridesmaids holding a veil.” Those of us who write craved books that would teach us how to write better—with more insight, with a sharper eye. And so we read Charles Dickens and Heidi Julavits, Shirley Jackson and Roald Dahl, George Saunders and Joan Didion and Herman Melville and Jamaica Kincaid and Marcel Proust and that Marcel Proust of girlhood, Jo Ann Beard.
In other words, we got better at reading, and as we got better at reading, we wanted more from reading.
This is a post in praise of every time we pick up a book—not because it is recommended, or because we read about it on a blog, or because everyone calls it a classic—but simply because we like the first sentence. This is a post for the little girl (no more, I’d say, than 11) who came into the store last week and asked me if she’d like Moby Dick. The first page is very good, she said, holding the book out to me, her two hands bracketing it on either side like halves of a parenthesis. It looked almost too heavy for her. I asked what she liked to read now. Oh, she said. Everything.
Yes, I said. I think you’ll like it very much.