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

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

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

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 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?


How many books do you read a month?

It depends on how much time I have. I read 40 books when I was sick over Christmas. I plow through lots of mysteries. That’s easy.

Have you read a truly great book lately that you’d unhesitatingly recommend?

"The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat" by Edward Kelsey Moore may not be considered a “great” book, like "Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk," but it’s an absolutely delightful book that brought me great joy, and I recommend it to everyone I know. It’s coming out March 12. From last year – "The Song of Achilles," by Madeline Miller. Brilliant. I haven’t had anyone who’s read it dispute that.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

The Enid Blyton series, which is British, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and of course the Little House on the Prairie books, which I have read over and over.

Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?

"50 Shades of Grey." (I know…way too easy an answer).

Care to speculate on why it’s such a publishing phenomena?

I have not a clue – it mystifies me. Just think of all the Masters theses being written about it right now.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?

Anything by Barbara Brown Taylor or Frederick Buechner. Mary Oliver’s poetry and many, many mysteries.

So mysteries are your genre of choice? Any favorite authors?

So many…. Let’s try British women: Josephine Tey, P.D. James, Deborah Crombie, Val McDermid, Georgette Heyer, Patricia Silver, Dorothy Sayers.

When and where do you settle down to read?

Anytime I can. On the sofa in the living room, with two cats – one by my left leg, the other draped over my right shoulder. Works a treat in the winter. But I also am never without a book, and can read anywhere. I think the paper book is the perfect vehicle for transferring information. I hate reading books electronically.

What do you see as the future of books as we know them? And what does this mean for authors and the book trade?

While wishing that e-books are a fad, I know that’s not to be. But I think the sales will level out – that’s what most prognosticators think – and there will be room for both. Indie bookstores are figuring out how to sell e-books with the new Kobo initiative, which will help keep them in business selling physical books. I do worry that with the growth of e-books, readers will see bookstores as showrooms and will not understand why their favorite bookstore closed.

I think the biggest threat to authors right now is the consolidation of publishing — fewer publishers means less competition for an author, which means less money, or perhaps more money for fewer authors. The big bucks will go to authors with a successful track record. That’s pretty much how it’s been anyway, but seems like it will get more so. I think independent publishers are growing and thriving, but they are still struggling relative to the big players. And for all the hoopla about how self-published authors can make a killing with e-books, they are still in the definite minority.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown Taylor. It’s all about discovering the sacred in small things, the value in getting lost and paying attention.

What do you plan to read next?

I should probably pick a book that is available rather than a pre-pub, although, if the next Sookie Stackhouse fell into my lap, all bets are off.

I’m going to read a YA novel I’ve heard nothing but accolades about — "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green. It’s about three teens diagnosed with cancer; our reviewer said it’s not morbid, it’s funny and poignant. And I’ve been saving "Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel for a special occasion, i.e., a time when I know I’ll have two whole days to read.

What Val’s Reading This Week: "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn. Book City interviewees have expressed varying opinions (It disappointed Mary Ann Gwinn, Erik Larson loved it); so far it’s a wild ride of a plot with devilishly unreliable narrators.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.