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The Last Seven Books You Bought

I wrote a post in January about how long it took me to decide to purchase the memoir, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (It was 70 seconds.) I think it’s important to consider book-buying habits from time to time because what we all want to do is write books that readers will actually read. What this means is that, in addition to learning how to write better books, we also need to consider how readers decide to read the books they read– and why they make those decisions.
I have been thinking about this lately for a variety of reasons. One of the primary ones is that I bought a book that is an outlier in terms of my typical book-buying habit. It’s calledSeven Brief Lessons on Physics by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. When Breath Becomes Air was right in my wheelhouse – a memoir about death. I probably have more than twenty such books on my bookshelves. I love memoirs and I love books about death. But a book about physics? I have A Brief History of Time, which was published in 1988, but that’s about it. So why did I buy the book on physics?
The short answer is that I was drawn in by a review in The Wall Street Journal, and in particular by the well-crafted headline:
Carlo Rovelli’s Poetic Contemplation of Physics
A poetic contemplation of physics? What does that even mean? The subhead of the WSJ piece gave me a clue and piqued my curiosity even more:
How ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,’ an Italian professor’s short primer on seven key ideas in modern physics, became a best-seller
Here's what I then thought:  a.) how can a primer on key ideas in modern physics be SHORT and b.) how can a book on physics be a best seller and c.) why have I never heard of it? I was drawn into the article to answer those questions, and I knew I would buy the book the moment I read these lines:
His professional life, like his book, is closely linked to philosophy. “Science is about writing the fundamental equation, finding the big picture and being aware of what you’re doing,” says Mr. Rovelli, who teaches courses on the philosophy of science. “For all that, philosophy is essential.”
That intrigued me, because doesn’t that sound like what WE are doing in writing? Looking for the fundamental equation of a story, for the big picture, for the awareness of what any of us are doing? A scientist who thinks like that is a scientist who can speak to me.
When I read these lines of the article, I knew I would love this book:
Publishers attribute the book’s success in part to Mr. Rovelli’s knack for putting complicated things simply. Asked to describe gravitational waves in the space of a tweet, he pauses for a minute, looks out the window, then answers: “Space wiggles like the surface of a lake. Actually, it’s true!”
I actually purchased the book after my husband mentioned the same WSJ article to me, which he had stumbled upon the same day I did.
So I read about the book from a trusted source and I got confirmation from someone else I trust. It took two “events” for me to take action to buy the book (the WSJ piece and my husband’s mentioning it) and I also needed a strong personal connection to it. That’s what tipped me over the edge – the two events plus the personal connection. (A quick aside -- I have loved this book. I am only on Lesson #5 but it is changing the way I look at the world and increasing what I know and making me smarter. If you want a clue about what I mean, I urge you to go look at Rovelli’s website. It’s elegant and poetic and artful and fabulous in every way. )
Okay so what about other books?  Does it always take two events + a personal connection? I decided to do an analysis of the last seven book purchases I made to see if that equation holds. Here is a thumbnail of my grid.

You can download it here:
>>>> Download Jennie’s grid

What Did I Learn From Doing This? 

  • The personal motivation always has to be high for me. That is a given.
  • 5 out of the 7 books were purchased because of a recommendation from someone I know. I was surprised, because I would have thought that I buy most books based on reviews in the newspapers I read or on NPR. But people turn out to be a larger influence than I thought.
  • I bought 3 books based on the author’s reputation.
  • I bought two books based on their physical manifestation – one was a beautifully made gift book, one was just pretty.
  • I bought 3 books based on only one “event” but they seem to be books I did not feel as compelled to read, or did not enjoy as much, as the ones that had two.


  • Readers buy books when people they trust recommend them. So it's up to writers to do something to inspire people to talk about the books we write.
  • Readers usually need to hear about a book at least twice before they buy it. So it's up to writers to talk about our own books, or write about them, in places where our ideal readers are likely to hear about them.
  • An author’s reputation matters. So it's up to us to write and keep writing and to nurture how our readers feel about our work.
  • Sometimes the physical reality of the book matters. So we need to support our bookstores.

Do the Same Things Hold for You?

If you want to use my template to do this little exercise, you can!
>>>> Download the grid template HERE and SAVE AS your own

  1. Write down the last seven books you bought. (If you can’t remember – i.e. if it’s been many, many months -- think about that. If you’re not buying other writers’ books, how can you expect people to materialize to buy yours?)
  2. Next to each title, write down how you became aware of the book. How did you go from having no clue to wanting to buy it?
  3. Write down what motivated your purchase. Why did you buy it?
  4. Determine how many “events” it took you to decide to make the purchase.
  5. Can you see any patterns? Draw any conclusions?
  6. Share them below!



Giving Thanks for Books

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful holiday!

I’m writing today to urge everyone to give books this holiday season (who doesn’t love a good book?) and to tell you about a fun way to do it.

As you know, this Saturday, the 30th, is “small business Saturday,” a day when we are encouraged to shop local and support independent businesses. This year, indie booksellers are staging an amazing nationwide event called Indies First, where they have invited authors to spend the day hand-selling books in the stores. Check out the Facebook page to find your local independent bookstore and see who’s going to be around. More than 1,000 authors are participating and there are some big names out there — James Patterson, Cheryl Strayed. It should be really fun.

I will be in the mix in the middle of the day. I will be at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in Redondo Beach from 1 to 4 on Saturday.  I’ll be signing my own books and recommending many others.  If you happen to be out and about in the South Bay, please stop by and say hi.

Here are some of the books on my to-read list:


I love reading business books, and learn so much from them about how to be a writer in a world of commerce. I think all authors should get in the same habit. I plan on reading The $100 Start Up because I’m so tired of hearing everyone else talk about it and having no clue what they are saying. (Peer pressure! It’s the reason I read a surprising number of books…) I am also very eager to read Start With Why because the author’s Ted talk, which some of you have seen in my classes, has reinforced a lot of my beliefs about telling good stories.

For non-fiction, I am looking at The Telling Room, the epic tale about a legendary cheese. I heard the author on NPR and was totally smitten. I want to read The Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, and Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt, because no one writes better about grief. There is a book called My Life in Middle March about one woman’s relationship with a great novel, and I so deeply love that idea that I think I have to read it, even though I have never been able to get through Middle March itself.

For fiction, I am eager to read the new Norman Rush novel, Subtle Bodies. It’s been ten years since his last one, but it has stuck with me all this time. I also want to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tart and  of course, the latest Alice Munro collection. She is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I was so thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize a few months ago.

For poetry, I am going to get the latest book from Richard Wilbur. I heard him read in person this fall, by complete accident, and the poem he read about mourning his wife brought tears to my eyes. He is 93 years old and the room was completely riveted by his performance. It is not the first time Richard Wilbur’s words have made me cry. I have had a poem of his on my bulletin board by my computer for many years. (I will share it with yo, below, because it’s spectacular, and because it’s called “The Writer" which means that it's speaking to you.) The president of my daughter’s college read this to the parents right after we left our kids freshman year. I almost fell over when he began to read. I mean, the poem is on my bulletin board! I cried so hard that I had to leave the room.

That same child is home this week, about to head into the home stretch of her senior year. I have so much to be thankful for.


The Writer by Richard Wilbur


In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.


I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.


Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.


But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which


The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.


I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash


And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark


And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,


And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,


It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.


It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.