Recently I was waiting underground for a train with a friend when we started a discussion about reading. First I told her about the books I was reading, a couple she’d never heard of, indeed that many of my friends have likely never heard of. Then she told me that she wasn’t much of a fiction reader. She said she wanted to read more, but she didn’t know where to look when it came to finding books. She said she usually turned to those first few tables we all come to in every bookstore, the ones that act as serving platters for the books that anyone and everyone could potentially be interested in reading. That’s a good place to start, I said. I said, read one of those books, and if you like it, read more by that author, or read other books from the same publisher.
But she wanted to know where else she could look when she wasn’t in the bookstore. She asked me where I find my books. And I started to tell her about the sites and the blogs and the podcasts I like, and I named off the places I turn to and the people and entities I follow on Twitter. The train came while I was talking and cut me off in the middle of a sentence, and when we got inside the car, I stopped talking about it. I felt like the information I was imparting was getting overwhelming and wouldn’t be of any use. Maybe she’d check out those sites I’d recommended, but then what would she do once she got there? Going to a site loaded with content for the first time is like being pulled into a conversation that you know nothing about and to which you have nothing to add.
In retrospect, that day on the train was pretty close to as good a starting place for my friend’s new exploration of fiction as any. She had shown great interest in what I had said at the station, and we certainly had the time during the train ride to converse further about what I was reading and what compelled me to read those books. Perhaps I could have told her more about the characters and plots. Perhaps I could have lent her the books right there, despite that I was in the middle of both. She could have read my copies, and I could have taken copies out from the library, and we could have discussed our reading experiences. But instead of any of that, we changed the subject there on the train.
Christopher Newgent is someone who isn’t changing the subject. In fact, when it comes to Christopher’s new book-promoting endeavor, Vouched Books, talking about books is the only subject.
Put simply, Vouched Books spreads the word about small press literature. Christopher sets up a table – maybe at a farmer’s market, maybe at open studios – places down his favorite books and literary magazines, and invites people to come by the table, talk about literature, and buy the books and mags he has on display.
But Vouched is much more than an opportunity for Christopher to spread the word about indie publishers and their authors. By inviting people to come and talk with him about his favorite books, Christopher is shattering a boundary that has plagued literature for years, one that has separated different types of readers into groups, like readers of suspenseful crime or “trashy” novels, or those that seek out the most experimental writing, or those who read from only one particular school of writing.
It seems in many cases as if readers flock to one part of the spectrum and give the others the cold shoulder, with the idea that one person might have too pretentious an outlook on what literature should and should not be, or another person might be cheating himself out of a worthwhile reading experience by only exposing himself to books that require very little thought or interpretation. It’s the kind of thinking that alienates all readers.
A lot of really incredible literature has been overlooked because it’s not been printed by a major publisher, or because no one has heard of the author, or even simpler than that, because it’s never been featured on the New Releases wall at Barnes & Noble. Take this year’s National Book Award winner, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, which fits all three of those. Here’s a book, written by a virtually unknown author and published by an independent press (McPherson & Co.), that likely would not have garnered the readership that it’s bound to receive now that it has that shiny golden sticker on it. In a way, that sticker makes the book far more accessible, despite the fact that many readers would have never given the book a second glance otherwise.
With a concept like Vouched, books don’t need stickers on their covers to become accessible. All they need are a dedicated reader (Christopher), an interested reader (innocent bystander), and a discussion. By setting up shop at a gallery opening or a farmer’s market, Christopher knows he’s reaching audiences that have an appreciation for the fine arts or a keen awareness of the food they’re eating and the process that goes into creating and nurturing both products, and thus he has an audience that cares about something important, and could more likely than not care about other important things, if only given the opportunity to experience them. Christopher leaves the Barnes & Noble bestsellers wall far behind him — where there’s no room for discussion, and just enough room in the top left-hand corner of each book’s cover for a 20% off sticker — and does the very best thing that can be done for literature: he talks passionately about the books that he loves. The kind of passion that is emitted from the love of a book is infectious. You can likely ask anyone who’s ever picked up a book from Christopher’s table and they’ll probably tell you so.
Vouched is kind of like a stunted, introductory version of a book club. Book clubs work so well because they encourage discussion. If everyone at a book club meeting just held up a set of fingers to rank from 1-5 how much they liked a book, no one would ever join a book club. It’s the same reason why Vouched has so much potential. There isn’t enough time for everyone to travel from site to site, review to review, trying to get a grasp on a book they may or may not enjoy based loosely on a star-rating system. Many need to be engaged by others who can share their own experience. Having a discussion about books also gives readers more dimensions than the crime reader or literary reader or sci-fi reader or experimental reader labels we stick on each other. I imagine this abandonment of labels makes people feel more comfortable coming up to Christopher’s table and talking with him about books. Also, books are just beautiful materials, and just about everyone reads them, so flocking to a table with books can be quite unavoidable at times. Christopher has that going for him too.
I think that Vouched is the beginning of a movement. If it’s not, it should be. The format not only works for books, but could work for film, music, artwork, etc. etc. One-to-one discussion is the best way to spark people’s interest in almost anything. If someone comes away from a discussion truly intrigued, there’s a good chance that he will individually explore the topic further. And that’s what Christopher is truly promoting – not just a readership for the books that he loves now, but a readership also for the books he will love in the years down the line.
*Vouched logo and photo courtesy of Christopher Newgent