Skip to main content


December 24, 2015

Melanie Benjamin: An Uncommon Reader

Posted by emily

For our final Holiday Author Blog, we’re featuring Melanie Benjamin, the New York Times bestselling author of THE AVIATOR'S WIFE. On January 26th, she’ll return with THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE, a triumphant new novel about New York’s “Swans” of the 1950s --- and the scandalous, headline-making and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote and peerless socialite Babe Paley. Although she writes about glamorous big-city adventures, Melanie’s own childhood adventures were a bit more modest: books were usually borrowed, and buying for keeps required a trip to the mall, where the only books in stock were blockbusters in which she had no interest. Everything changed, though, when a little catalog serendipitously showed up in her mailbox one day.

While I had a childhood filled with books, those books were library books. There were no bookstores where I grew up, save the Waldenbooks at the mall. Visiting was a very rare occasion, and it was mainly stocked with blockbuster books I didn’t really want to read. So books as gifts weren’t really done in our family when I was small.

Then when I was married, wonder of wonders --- a Borders opened up on the north side of Indianapolis! Going there was a treat, a date night, really. It was a long way away, but once you got there, you knew you were going to spend some serious time, as well as money. So buying books, instead of checking them out, became more a part of my life. 

My mother, bless her departed heart, was always eager to give books for presents, but she had a little quirk. She wouldn’t ask us what we wanted, believing she knew better, and she’d always inscribe the book. So if you didn’t want to read it --- or if you already owned it --- you were stuck. You couldn’t exchange it. But really, in those days, it was hard for me to articulate what kind of books I did want to read; these were the days before sites like Bookreporter and Goodreads, and we didn’t have any independent bookstores. So I always knew there were books I wanted to read, different books, quieter books, not the bestsellers --- books I would have loved to have received as gifts, if only I knew what they were.   

And then, one day, a little catalog showed up in my mail. It was a catalog --- full of books! Wondrous books I’d never heard of, but it was as if whoever had written this catalog had peered into my heart and seen exactly what I desired. The entire catalog was filled with cozy British novels, lovely little literary books, books I really couldn’t find at Waldenbooks or would never have found on my own at Borders. But here they all were, all the books I wanted to read, all in this one catalog called A Common Reader.

And suddenly, Christmas was just like it was when I was little and got all the toys I could never even dream of. Now, in early November, I poured myself a cup of coffee, curled up in a blanket, and spent an hour reading this catalog and marking it up with all the books I would dearly love to read. And once marked, I passed it along to all my family members.

And on Christmas Day, my little literary heart’s desire was fulfilled. After gleefully opening up all my presents and dutifully expressing surprise (even though I told my family exactly what to buy me), I would spend the entire day in my pajamas, reading my new books, eating Christmas cookies while my children played with their toys, and it was bliss.

But A Common Reader is no more; it’s gone the way of many small catalog businesses in these internet days. I truly mourn it; whoever curated their selection definitely knew my heart. I discovered writers such as Barbara Pym and Angela Thirkell there. I first read THE ENCHANTED APRIL because of A Common Reader. And COLD COMFORT FARM.

Even now, when the weather turns cold and we get out the Christmas decorations, I find myself craving cozy British novels mainly written or set between the wars. I miss A Common Reader, but thanks to sites like Bookreporter, I can still find these books, and so can many others. 

And like my mother, I give book presents to people who have not asked for them; I believe I know what they want --- or what they should want, anyway.

But I don’t inscribe them, just in case.