I would never in a million years ask a mega-bookstore clerk for an opinion of which book to buy between a selection of two. Suffice it to say, once I wanted to purchase a recent Man Booker Prize winner but couldn’t remember the title. The Barnes & Noble clerk didn’t know what I was talking about, and by that I mean the prize. But at an independent bookseller’s shop, the language of books is understood beyond simply punching the cash register, which is why I asked a Three Lives & Company clerk during my New York City visit which of two books she would recommend I read next. I held them up before her: The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford or The Outward Room by Millen Brand. She had not read them and suggested I read page 69 to find my answer.
This sounds ridiculous now, but I thought she was referring to a literary publication called page 69 that I should recognize, some Manhattan alternative broadsheet I’d find stacked in a wire bin in local cafés or could search online. To admit my ignorance would shine the idiot light on me, so I agreed in my perplexity to follow her advice and figured I’d check it out online back at the hotel. Of course, my first indication weirdness was at hand was why someone would select that number with its sexual history for a literary publication, especially if it had an online presence. And then, a few minutes later, this delightful clerk helped me research the books of Georges Simenon, and she referred to the Internet on the store computer. So why wouldn’t she have done that for my first question and simply logged onto the website of this page 69 literary publication? And why did she ask me if it had helped?
Like the moment a kid realizes there’s a Santa Claus in every department store and the fat guy in a red suit isn’t real, I realized she meant for me to literally read page 69 in both books. I slunked over to a corner and did just that. Immediately, I knew I was in the mood to read The Mountain Lion. At the check-out counter, I admitted to my misunderstanding. The clerk said, “I’ve been working in bookstores for more than 20 years, and it was just last year that a customer told me to do that. It seems to work.”
There’s no great wisdom here. The point is to read the same interior page from top to bottom in both books, versus scanning a few sentences here and there. It works when deciding on a next book to read based on the mood you’re in, not to tell you if it’s a good book or not. And yes, one could go to any interior page, but the magic may reside in choosing the same page number and sticking with it during a lifetime of book buying. So, choose your page number. At Three Lives & Company, it’s page 69, and now it’s mine.
BTW, The Outward Room and The Mountain Lion reside within the Rediscovered American Writers Collection in the New York Review of Books Classics series. Others include After Claude by Iris Owens, Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter and A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davis.