Recently I was watching the Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa. Ina Garten sent her husband Jeffrey out to shop for French wine to go along with her lovely French dinner: veal chops with Roquefort butter. Jeffrey engaged in a discussion with the wine shop owner/expert about what wine to select. He was shown the pretty labels of three bottles of wine. The potential flavors and aromas were discussed, as was the region where the grape is grown…another indicator of possible quality and taste.
Jeffrey finally chose a bottle because the label’s name included the name of Ina’s favorite open market in Paris. So, to purchase wine, you narrow the field–American, French, Italian, Australian, etc.; do you want red or white, or, to be even more specific, a special grape or growing region? Do you want something that goes well with a certain type of food? Do you want something to savor, or something for fun? Do you want sweet, dry, bubbly, or smooth? Do you want something cheap, reasonably priced, or sinfully expensive? What’s the occasion? So many decision points! But when it comes down to it, buying wine is really just a gamble. When you uncork the wine (or unscrew the lid), it could be just what you had in mind…or it could taste like vinegar.
Then it struck me: buying a wine is like picking out a book to read.
Libraries (and the lamentably endangered bookstore) really offer browsers a chance to survey the offerings. You can search with deliberate intent for something specific or you can look serendipitously to find a book that calls to you. You can see and hold a book and compare it to all the other books around you. Do you want fiction, non-fiction, biography, or some familiar–or esoteric–subject? Is the print size easy on your eyes? Book jackets may set the tone. Are they plain words or stark images, colorful landscapes, line drawings, a still life, persons or objects? The jacket also may provide a blurb or summary of the text and maybe even an expert or celebrity endorsement.
If you are in a library you may have to settle for a plain binding with no jacket information at all, especially for older, well-read books. You may look for genres you like, favorite authors, and sources for great reviews. Among the things you might hope for: quality writing, logical progression, a sense of humor, rigorous research, or an ending that makes sense. You may seek out a book that will evoke an emotion: joy, pathos, humor, peace of mind, seriousness, social conscience, action, curiosity, speculation, or intrigue. A book can make you want to learn more about information, or characters, or places, both near to home, or far, far away (sometimes even beyond reality).
Library and bookstore websites try to emulate the in-person experience. You can browse booklists, find read-alikes, explore book resources and databases like NoveList, and read professional or personal reviews. An online bookstore can track what you have purchased and suggest other titles based on that. And it’s just like selecting the wine–you don’t know what you’ll get until you try it. But here is where the online experience will never beat a library: the personal interaction with a smart, knowledgeable librarian.
An excellent readers’ advisory librarian can have a conversation with you and discuss your tastes and interests. They will find out what you have really liked in the past, and they will help each reader to hone in on that perfect book for a quiet weeknight or beach vacation (or class/research project!). And maybe you don’t want print, but an audio or e-book will do. Librarians promote a culture of reading, for the very young to the seasoned adult, regardless of the book’s format. If librarians don’t read a particular genre or type of book themselves, they make it their business to read and learn about books of all kinds, from classics to best-sellers. They know the reading tastes and subject interests of their colleagues who can serve as a back-up resource when they are occasionally stumped. Librarians make no value judgments about what you want to read, whether it’s for serious purposes or just for fun. The most important thing is connecting the book to the reader.
So my advice, whether you’re buying wine or just looking for something to read, is to turn to the professionals, so you don’t waste your time or money. If you are in Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh looking for a book, just “Ask A Librarian.”