I’ve seen the pictures on Pinterest: books wrapped in brown paper to hide their covers, encouraging readers to “go on a blind date with a book.”
Sometimes the books carry descriptions; sometimes they don’t. Many libraries had featured these displays for Valentine’s Day; some do it year-round. A few bookstores even get in on the action.
I’d never seen a display like this in real life—until last week, when I walked into my local bookstore and there they were: books wrapped in brown paper, bearing handwritten descriptions in black Sharpie. They didn’t give away much about the plot:
• Lonely man, mysterious woman, cold, early 20th century, romantic, family series
• thrilling page-turner, true adventure, success, jungles, ex-presidents, his bride, insects
• a rebel band of outsiders on a comic quest. Adventure, danger, storytelling, friendship. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it will become a part of you!
I couldn’t resist this contender: a masterpiece you probably haven’t read yet. Rich, intense, beautiful.
While I was paying, I asked the clerk about the brown paper packages. She said they’d only started the week before, and customers and employees were both loving it. Plus, those books were selling.
The joy of bookselling is putting great books in the hands of readers, but it’s too easy for readers to be dissuaded from buying a great book because of a lackluster cover, or weak flap copy. Some wonderful books are impossible to describe in any way that doesn’t make them sound terribly boring. (Case in point: after I bought my book, the clerk described it as “a quiet novel about female relationships.” Blah.)
The blind date concept lets the store’s employees (they all get to play) choose exceptional books to put in their readers’ hands. You have to be confident about a book to let a customer buy it sight unseen.
The biggest motivator for most blind date purchases—and this is certainly true for mine—is the fun factor.
So what book was underneath that brown paper? Drumroll please …
I purchased My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, whom The Economist called “the best contemporary novelist you’ve never heard of.” I hadn’t read it, but I recognized it immediately: it’s been pinned several times to the 2015 Reading Challenge board as a book in translation.
My Brilliant Friend is the first installment (published in 2011) of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet: the final novel is due out this September. The quartet revolves around the friendship between Elena and Lila; My Brilliant Friend begins when the girls are in first grade and carries them through adolescence.
About my date: I had high hopes based on the description, but knew I could check the most difficult box on the reading challenge regardless. I had a hard time getting acclimated to the story: the book begins with a lengthy list of characters, as in a play, and I found myself constantly flipping back and forth to try and figure out who was who. Like many books in translation, I was slow to catch the rhythm of the language.
It took me a little over a hundred pages (out of just over 300) to get my bearings and sink into the setting: the girls’ violent slum in 1950s Naples. Ferrante paints a deeply realistic picture of their small world of cruel poverty, domestic abuse, and the rule of the Camorra mafia. The girls dream of something more, but it’s clear to the reader that only one of them can break free.
Ferrante’s realism—and the impending sense of doom—made this an emotionally challenging read. I found it beautiful and sad, wistful and heartbreaking. When I began the final chapter, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue the series, but the book’s closing image was perfection. I need to know what happens next.
I’m calling my first literary blind date with a book a success. I’ll do it again, as long as my bookstore is ready with more enticing novels wrapped in brown paper.
Have you gone on a blind date with a book? Have you let someone set you up with a novel you were skeptical of? Would you try it? I’d love to hear about your experiences in comments.