Book City: Why reading for a living is like herding cats

Marilyn Dahl on her dream job and which best-seller is most overrated.
Marilyn Dahl

Marilyn Dahl Photo: Paul Gjording Photography

Marilyn Dahl’s world is 24/7 books and authors. Firmly rooted in the book world, she comes to her job as editor of the national newsletter "Shelf Awareness for Readers" via jobs at the University Book Store, a book wholesaler, and Amazon.com. With stacks of new books delivered to her door, Marilyn needn’t worry about the fate evoked in her email tagline: “It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read” (Elizabeth Savage, "The Last Night at the Ritz"). She lives in Montlake with her husband Paul Gjording and two cats.

Valerie Easton: What is Shelf Awareness and why is it based here in Seattle?

Marilyn Dahl: We publish two electronic newsletters, one for general readers and one for people in the book business. "Shelf Awareness: Enlightenment for Readers" appears Tuesdays and Fridays and helps readers discover the 25 best books of the week. It has news about books and authors, author interviews and more.

"Shelf Awareness: Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade," which we've been publishing since June 2005, provides booksellers and librarians the information they need to sell and lend books. It appears every business day and is read by people throughout the book industry. Both newsletters are free. Sign up here.

It’s actually co-based (is that a word?) in Seattle. Jenn Risko, who is the co-founder and publisher, lives here, and John Mutter, co-founder and editor-in-chief, lives in New Jersey.

How did you get lucky enough to get paid to read? What’s the best part of your job?

I have been in the book business forever! I left Amazon after six years, thinking that I needed a rest, and after a few years of no book business, Jenn easily lured me back into the fold. I started by agreeing to review one mystery a month … and my job’s morphed into being the adult book review editor and the editor of Shelf Awareness for Readers. I send galleys (pre-publication books) out to 40 reviewers, set up author interviews, choose the authors for our Book Brahmins feature in Shelf Pro, email back and forth with publicists and write columns for readers.

It often seems like a cross between herding cats and changing clothes in a small mummy bag. But I love the anticipation and discovery. It's like Christmas every day – galleys come in constantly, and there’s always one more good book waiting to be discovered.

What author interviews stand out in your mind?

Hugh Rowland, author of "On Thin Ice." He’s one of the guys on the History Channel’s reality show Ice Road Truckers. His nickname is “The Polar Bear”, and when he was in town we met for a couple of beers and an interview. He’s an absolute delight, and his book is strangely compelling.

And it was such a privilege to interview Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam vet who spent 30 years of his life writing "Matterhorn," a novel about the Vietnam war. It’s a brilliant, devastating book and he’s just a dream; honest, thoughtful and gracious.

What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Galleys – so the books aren’t quite published yet – of "Ghana Must Go" by Talye Selasie, a novel about a family from Ghana who settles in the U.S. It made me cry, in a good way. "The River of No Return" by Bee Ridgway is a time-travel fantasy that’s beautifully written, a wonderful adventure. I gave it to a reviewer who loved it so much she’s going to name her puppy after one of the characters. "The World’s Strongest Librarian" is a memoir that’ll be published in May, by Josh Hanagarne, a 6’7”, 260 pound librarian in Salt Lake City who has Tourette’s. He tells hilarious library stories. And a Will Shortz crossword puzzle collection.

You work crosswords in bed?

Yes

How many books do you read a month?


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