My friend Lawrence Blank-Cook liked Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves so much that she couldn’t even bear to start another book once she’d finished it. She found herself in a terrible funk – an avid reader, no book by her side. It was a dark place. After she had spent two weeks reading The New Yorker from cover to cover, a friend recommended The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. With great relief Lawrence put down her magazine for this “entertaining, poignant” novel.
We all have our usual sources for our next read. Barbara Keith Payne often starts with her mom: “My mother is an avid reader – a former English teacher – and has a book club that has been going for 30-some odd years. She has a record of everything they have read! I always have a stack of her recommendations waiting. Also, I love my friend Virginia Hume Onufer’s site, greatbeachbooks.com – she curates a new list every year and has great reviews and suggestions.” Louise Bryan, reporting back from the Grand Canyon, finds her next book in The New York Times Book Review or from one of her 10 sisters (!) or friends in other book clubs. She also mentions Virginia’s website! Neil Krugman says, “I’m mainly but not exclusively a reader of nonfiction – history, biography, geography, sociology. I read the book reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal daily or weekly, as the case may be, and browse through Parnassus Books every few weeks – which has a really well-curated nonfiction section. I generally have an excuse to be in Washington, D.C. every few months, which for me is just a pretext to hit Kramerbooks on Connecticut Avenue – nonfiction nirvana. My next read came from one of those sources and is somewhere in the stacks of books on the night table or in the various piles on the coffee table.”
My own latest top-secret source for terrific books is Chapter 16, a publication founded in 2009 by Humanities Tennessee to provide comprehensive coverage of literary news and events in Tennessee. Humanities Tennessee is the same organization that brings us the wonderful Southern Festival of Books each year in October. Chapter 16 shouldn’t be a secret to anyone! At Chapter 16, you can find reviews of novels, works of nonfiction, young adult and children’s books, poetry collections, cookbooks, biographies, memoirs, and the occasional genre-bender. Podcasts, book excerpts, original poems, and author interviews also keep the site lively.
Each weekday, Chapter 16 posts fresh content that focuses on new releases from Tennessee authors and author events across the state. If you choose to follow Chapter 16 by subscribing to its e-newsletter, you get a link to the site and new articles delivered to your email inbox once a week. Receiving that email once a week has felt just about perfect to me. Chapter 16 also maintains partnerships with newspapers in each major media market statewide, and their content appears in print each week through the Nashville Scene, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Knoxville News Sentinel.
How long have you been at Chapter 16, and what brought you there?
I’ve been with Chapter 16 from the beginning, and though I wish I could claim to have thought of it on my own, in fact it’s the brainchild of the folks at Humanities Tennessee. Over the course of several years, the staff had a number of conversations about possible ways to keep the spirit of the annual Southern Festival of Books alive during the months between festivals. Then the economy tanked, and newspapers around the state begin shuttering their book-review sections to save money, and everyone at Humanities Tennessee realized that a publication about books and literary events would be a perfect way to continue the mission of the festival and help to keep local book coverage alive at the same time. They hired me to edit it.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Absolutely my favorite part is the chance to work with writers whose work I love – veteran authors, debut writers, and the talented freelancers who write the articles that run daily at Chapter 16.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Saying no. Chapter 16 covers the entire state of Tennessee, and our articles are written by professionals who are paid for their work. We just don’t have the resources to cover every book by every author in the state, much as we’d like to, and it’s hard to explain all that to a brand-new author who’s hoping we’ll review her debut novel. It always feels like a cruel rejection.
Do other states have publications like Chapter 16, or is it unique?
It’s unique. The other state humanities councils certainly work to celebrate their writers, but Tennessee is the only state with a daily publication about books and authors, and it’s the only one to develop a partnership with local newspapers to carry locally-specific book reviews and interviews.
Please tell us a little bit about how those newspaper partnerships work.
As I mentioned earlier, Chapter 16 was founded in part as a response to the loss of book-review sections in newspapers around the state. But one of the things we realized early on, even before Chapter 16 officially launched, was that most newspaper editors still care about local authors; they just don’t have the staff to assign and edit book reviews any more. So we provide our reviews and interviews to any newspaper in the state, free of charge, in exchange for byline credit and a mention of our web address. It’s a cost-free way for newspapers to keep covering local books and author events, and it’s a way for our reviews and interviews to reach a much wider audience. (The poems and essays and podcasts and book excerpts at Chapter 16 are copyright-protected; we allow reprints only of reviews and Q&As.) These partnerships are a win for the newspapers, a win for us, and – most importantly – a win for local authors.
As editor of Chapter 16, you read a lot of book reviews! What kinds of books do you read in your free time – or do you get enough reading on the job?
I try to read as many books by Tennessee authors as I can, but there’s no way I can read them all. I lean toward literary fiction, poetry, and narrative nonfiction, so I read more books in those genres than in others. But I like to revisit childhood with a good children’s book, too, and I’m not immune to the pleasures of a beach read or cozy mystery. Pretty much the only books I steer clear of, really, are thrillers and crime novels: I’m an irredeemable scaredy-cat.
Charlotte’s Web, hands down. I read it over and over again in childhood, and I read it aloud to all three of my children. It’s as close to perfect as any book I’ve read.
Do you have an all-time favorite book?
I truly don’t, and I’m not saying that just because it would be undiplomatic of me to pick a favorite. (Let’s just say I know a great many writers.) I guess my mind doesn’t tend to think in superlatives because I don’t ever find myself ranking much of anything. I’m not entirely indiscriminate in my love, but I do love a whole lot of books.
I’ve always found myself paralyzed by the question of an all-time favorite book. You’ve made me feel better that I am not alone! In fact, I think I’ll adopt your answer going forward. Thanks, Margaret!