Book­ish People

By – October 12, 2022

Hav­ing worked at the famous Pol­i­tics and Prose book­shop in Wash­ing­ton, DC, author Susan Coll is not unfa­mil­iar with the oft-try­ing life of a book­seller. Book­ish Peo­ple, Coll’s sixth nov­el, fol­lows Sophie Bern­stein, a recent wid­ow and the own­er of a small book­shop in the nation’s cap­i­tal. To fur­ther exac­er­bate her stress, she is deal­ing with staffing issues and can’t seem to get her vac­u­um clean­er to work. Although the nov­el is fair­ly light­heart­ed, there is the hint of a dark­er tone, giv­en that it takes place in the imme­di­ate after­math of the 2017 white nation­al­ist ral­ly in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia. Only a short dis­tance from DC, the ral­ly feels very close for Sophie, a Jew­ish woman with inher­it­ed trauma.

The threat of anti-Jew­ish vio­lence is also con­nect­ed to Sophie’s more per­son­al grief. At the time of her husband’s fatal heart attack, he had been speak­ing about Otto, Anne Frank’s father, which led her to reread The Diary of Anne Frank. Now, in the wake of his pass­ing, she is plan­ning to hole up in the lit­tle nook at the back of the book­shop and go into hid­ing” her­self. Her son has a more direct approach: Instead of read­ing about a fam­i­ly that went into hid­ing, Mom, you should read a book about pick­ing up a base­ball bat and crush­ing these racist, igno­rant a‑holes.” But with her hus­band-cum-con­fi­dante gone, Sophie focus­es all her inten­tions inward. That Sophie might be bet­ter served by get­ting out of her head and into the real world” is a notion built into the struc­ture of the nov­el, each chap­ter cul­mi­nat­ing with the bookshop’s end-of-day report.

Although Sophie is por­trayed as sym­pa­thet­ic, she can be an unre­li­able, and at times unlik­able, pro­tag­o­nist. The nov­el starts with her deny­ing the rumor that she threw a book at the employ­ee of a pub­lish­ing house, and we lat­er see her send­ing her employ­ees requests at all hours of the night. One of these employ­ees is twen­ty-three-year-old Cle­mi, a bud­ding nov­el­ist and our sec­ondary point of view char­ac­ter. While Cle­mi is more relat­able, she makes her own odd deci­sions, such as when she buys a pet tor­toise for her crush. Fit­ting­ly, these book­ish peo­ple” seem more com­fort­able with ani­mals and objects than with oth­er humans. In fact, one of Sophie’s pri­ma­ry rela­tion­ships is with the shop’s bro­ken vac­u­um — the apt­ly named Querk III — and this tumul­tuous romance,” as she some­what iron­i­cal­ly terms it, is con­trast­ed with the peace­ful liai­son she has with her Room­ba. At the end of the nov­el, Sophie fights so hard with Querk III that she ends up almost lit­er­al­ly shoot­ing her­self in the foot. It is a bizarre but per­haps fit­ting con­clu­sion to the nov­el. For Sophie, it is cer­tain­ly a wake-up call” that brings her back to life.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Harp­er Muse

  1. Sophie reflects that the world divides into two kinds of peo­ple: Those who think books are for read­ing when there is noth­ing bet­ter to do, and those who avoid oth­er things in order to read. Does this res­onate with you?

  2. What val­ue does com­e­dy bring to dif­fi­cult sub­jects, and can you think of oth­er come­dies that are set dur­ing dark times?

  3. Mrs. Bern­stein strug­gles with what to do about books that con­tain mate­r­i­al that may offend some read­ers. This is a com­pli­cat­ed sub­ject that even like­mind­ed peo­ple do not agree on. What do you think?

  4. Mrs. Bern­stein also strug­gles with the ques­tion of whether the pri­vate life of an author ought to impact the way he is received by read­ers. What do you think?

  5. Why are vac­u­um clean­ers inher­ent­ly fun­ny? (Or are they?) Do you have any home appli­ances that seem ripe for comedy?

  6. What is the role of inde­pen­dent book­stores in your life?

  7. Every­body in Sophie’s world wants to write a book. What kind of prob­lems does that create?

  8. Cle­mi observes that book­selling is a col­le­gial busi­ness, except when it’s not. Does this seem espe­cial­ly true right now?

  9. Cle­mi believes the tor­toise is talk­ing to her. Is he?

  10. Have you ever heard of an AGA?