Shelf: Here for It #209

Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?

Let me tell you about the special kind of monster that publishing a book turned me into. So, first: I’ve always loved books; I’ve always loved bookstores; my vision of Heaven is a Scholastic Book Fair where I had an unlimited budget. (OMG the utter magic of the Scholastic Book Fair, y’all! First there was the precursor—that impossibly thin newsprint with the impossibly small print that only the laser sharp eyes of a third grader can read. It’s got all the coming attractions; all the glittering worlds of print that are on a truck en route to your school. It’s got the bright colors and illustrated covers; sometimes the printing is a little off so the image is offset like you have to look at it through 3-D glasses to truly get the experience. I would have paid extra for the glasses if they’d offered. The Scholastic Book Fair flyer is my version of a midnight screening of Avatar. Then, like Christmas morning, the school library transforms overnight. Tables get carted in, carrels and chairs get put away. I would always sneak into the library early to just look at the tables covered in books like I’d been let into a sample sale at Barney’s. [Is this what sample sales are like? I have no idea. I am not too good for this; I’m just cheap.] I am obsessed with the “doing the most” nature of a library—by definition a room full of books—with added tables that have—wait for it—even more books. I’d burst into the Scholastic Book Fair doors with Black Friday at Walmart energy, screaming “We’re putting a hat on a hat in here, babeeeees!”)

Anyway. I like books. I like stacks of books. I didn’t realize that I was going to go on such a tangent about the book fair so early in this newsletter but the Spirit seized me and I felt like it was important for you to know. This newsletter is hats on hats and parentheticals inside of parentheticals. It’s an M.C. Escher painting of pop culture references from the 90s and present day schadenfreude. So, let’s move on to the second part of that sentence then.

One of the things that happens when you publish a book is that every stack of books, every bookshelf, every folding table bending under the weight of a bunch of crisp new Encyclopedia Brown mysteries transforms from that magic portal of untold wonders and into the place where you have randomly decided to invest all of your self worth. This is, on the balance, fine—I’ve invested my self worth in stranger places, I’ll tell you that. (Currently it is hovering somewhere in my inability to get this bolognese recipe right, so, you know, crisis all around.)

Soon after Here for It came out, I discovered the strange thrill of scrolling through Instagram and stumbling upon a stack of books on a Bookstagrammer’s account and seeing the bright pink spine of my own book. This was a surprise to me. I follow a lot of Bookstagrammers but it had, apparently, never occurred to me that I’d see my book pop up hither and yon. I guess it’s kind of like seeing a photo of yourself somewhere you didn’t expect to see a photo. Like if you go to the wedding of an acquaintance and they have a slide show and suddenly there you are and you’re like “Oh! I guess we are friends; this is very nice!”

Then, sometimes, people would take photos of the book in bookstores or Target or the airport and text them to me. And that was its own kind of thrill. And soon enough I’d trained myself to automatically scour every collection of books, looking for that pink spine.

This is a strange hobby. Because, realistically, you know that the probability of one random book being in a pile of books or a random bookshelf in a Zoom background is very low. But I have never been interested in reality in the least and so my eyes go searching every single time. It’s gotten to be such a habit that if my eyes fall on our bookshelves here at home, I’ll automatically scour for my books. MY BOOKS AREN’T EVEN ON OUR SHELVES HERE AT HOME. WHY AM I DOING THIS??

(Why aren’t my books on my own bookshelves? I don’t know! It’s like, if you’re over our house and you’re looking for a book to read, I’m not going to be like “Hey! Have you heard of Here for It?” But please don’t tell my very excellent team at Ballantine that. If you work at Ballantine please rest assured that every time someone drives by my house I toss a book on to their windshield. And an invoice.)

Anyway, one time my mother texted me late at night very excited because she’d been watching Phoebe Robinson on The Tonight Show and she was sure that my book was on Phoebe’s bookshelf. I was like “I don’t know about all that. I don’t even know Phoebe Robinson!” So my mother sent me this photo of her TV.

I laughed so hard I woke David up. I texted back “Honey what in the Rorschach test is this?” She was like “It’s clearer on my TV.” I was like “Sure, maybe!” But my mom was adamant that it was my book over Phoebe’s shoulder. A mother knows. So, then I had to find the video of the Tonight Show the next day because I don’t have cable (I’m not too good for it; I’m just cheap) and I had to admit, it did look like my book when you were looking at it right on screen and not on a photo of a screen. So, then I DM’d Phoebe Robinson out of the blue and was like “My mother thinks she saw my book behind you on The Tonight Show and maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t but we both really like you so. HI!” And Phoebe actually wrote back and sent a photo of her bookshelf!

Can you believe this?! It was such a kind gesture but also a very unhealthy development for the part of my brain that sees a stack of books and thinks “Should I mistake this for an employee evaluation from the world?”

It’s like this one tiny scene in the Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher movie No Strings Attached. Natalie plays a doctor or resident or something. And Ashton Kutcher plays some other kind of person. They are hooking up. Natalie lives with three roommates played by Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig, and Guy Brannum (what is the Craigslist ad that gets you that?). At one point the whole apartment is either sick or sad, I can’t remember. And Ashton brings Natalie a box of donuts. And Greta Gerwig comes into the room all pitiful and says to Ashton “Is there something in there for me?” That is exactly the way I feel every time I see books: a mumblecore actress wearing scrubs looking for free carbs that were intended for Natalie Portman.

Well, the mumbles came home to roost on New Year’s Day, folks.

It happened when I was watching When Harry Met Sally, which is a definitive New Year’s movie. There’s not enough New Year’s movies, if you ask me. I guess that’s because the main dramatic tension of a lot of New Year’s scenarios is “there will be some backwards counting and then… a kiss?!” Sort of hard to complicate that, plot-wise. I have to admit, I don’t really care much about the New Year’s kiss tradition but I do love to see it on screen. I worry sometimes that I’m not a romantic person in real life. Maybe I’m just a romcom person in real life; love to me is walking around giving small monologues about petty grievances and old movies and personal idiosyncrasies and occasionally running into my one friend who is A Real Character.

But I do think there’s a lot more than can be done with New Year’s. Why isn’t there a Mummers Parade movie? Like a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off set in Philly? I demand New Year’s content! Until then, there’s When Harry Met Sally, which is a fall in New York movie, and a WIGS! movie, and a New Year’s Eve movie.

So, I’m watching When Harry Met Sally and there’s the scene where they meet for the third time. Sally and Carrie Fisher are in a bookstore and Harry is staring at them from Personal Growth. And there’s a wide shot of Meg Ryan and Carrie Fisher next to a table full of books and, completely out of instinct, I paused the movie and looked for the pink cover with the confetti. I leaned forward like a reverse Joaquin Phoenix from Signs. I literally thought “Ooh! Maybe my book is here!”

I was curious if my book, Here for It, that was published in 2020 was included in set decoration from a movie that came out in 1989. I cannot stress to you enough how deranged I am.

Then I thought, “Well, if it was in this movie, someone would have texted me about it already.” Which is… like, true. But also, what’s the timeline I’m imagining here? Did I Marty McFly my book into When Harry Met Sally and then Eternal Sunshine the memory from my head? For what purpose? I’m going to go through all that metaphysical trouble but I won’t even put the dang book on my own bookshelf? Fix your own house, McFly!

I think this episode finally broke the spell on this weird little habit. I mean, I will absolutely look at photos of bookshelves if I’m tagged in them or if they are texted to me at 11:52pm Eastern. But I don’t need to be Quantum Leaping through history chasing down my book cover in DVD extras. There’s so many other books out there that bring such delight. Life is a one big Scholastic Book Fair and after a year where my attention was pretty heavily weighted to one book, I’ve been saving up.

Listen to me and Gretchen Rubin on NPR’s All Things Considered

Most years my NYE resolutions stay the same (remain “Hot for my age” and destroy the moon) but this year is different and calls for different resolutions. The wonderful Ari Shapiro invited me and Gretchen Rubin on to All Things Considered today to talk resolutions and answer listeners’ questions about making plans, the new year, and the moon’s defense systems.


Random Thing on the Internet

I have become obsessed with the podcast Dead Eyes which follows actor Connor Ratliff as he tries to figure out why Tom Hanks fired him from the film Band of Brothers 20 years ago. It’s a funny premise but series is so much deeper than just that. It’s about failure and celebrity and the changing nature of memory and, perhaps most beautifully, how to move on. It is chock full of delightful surprises. I listened to the whole first season in a day as I tried to forgive Nora Ephron for not including my book in her movie that came out when I was 8.

a mumblecore actress wearing scrubs ,