What to Read and Why: Tips for Discerning Readers (Part IV)

This post is the fourth part in a series aimed at helping readers to more effectively identify books they will enjoy—that is, to invest their reading time wisely, and to reap all of the dividends accruing therefrom.

The life of an MFA student goes something like this:

“Here, read this.”

“No, read that.”

“No, wait—read this and that.”

“Oh my God, I can’t believe you haven’t read that already.”

How do you even begin to evaluate the conflicting floodtide of recommendations? Whom can you trust before you just start roundly damming them all?

The answer, friends, is Mr. Paul Ingram.

Paul is the lead book buyer for Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa (a store that is itself a national treasure). He is also the single most well-read human being I have ever met in my entire life.

You’ve heard of Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul? Well, if you’re ever in need of a book recommendation, then you’d Better Call Paul.

Paul was introduced to me some four years ago now as the world’s great book recommender, maybe not the Eighth Wonder, but certainly the Ninth or Tenth, something on par with the Library at Alexandria—a place that Paul would have felt right at home. “Just tell him the name of the last book you loved,” my friend said, “and he’ll tell you the name of the next book you’ll love.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Really. It’s like the world’s greatest magic trick. The first time I met him, I told him I really liked Charles Portis and he gave me a bear hug. I was like, Yeah, okay, we’re going to be friends.”

With that conversation in mind, I went in with high expectations. I was greeted by a short, bespectacled man proudly wearing a T-shirt that broadcast, in all capital letters, “REAL MEN READ.” “Yeah,” I thought to myself, “we’re going to be friends.”

Over the course of the next 45 minutes, Paul’s gruff voice soared into the heights of a shrill falsetto and then dove precipitously into the depths of a gravelly basso profondo as he flung himself about the store, sprawling against shelves and display tables and sweeping his arms majestically in frenetic caricatured reenactments of his favorite scenes from at least a dozen different books. His eyes sparkled and danced. His smile never wavered. His sheer unvarnished enthusiasm attracted a small crowd of spectators, and probably sold a few books along the way. But Paul took no notice. He was in his element.

When Paul starts talking about books, the rest of the world stops, because nothing else matters.

Paul is the kind of reader every writer dreams about having. He loves books. He lives for books. I think he even lives in books. I once asked one of his coworkers how he managed to finish a reading list that is, even by MFA standards, downright staggering. “I don’t think he sleeps much,” the coworker confided.

I don’t really know how he does it, but I do know that Paul has never let me down. On my first visit, he introduced me to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. On my second, he pressed into my hands a copy of James Galvin’s The Meadow. Both books now rank among my ten favorites of all time. I’ve read each of them many times, and I hope to read them many times more. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you how they’re related. I wouldn’t have ever thought to recommend one on the basis of the other. But I do know that I have Paul to thank for all of the enjoyment I’ve gotten from both. (With minor contributions from Marilynne and James, of course.)

Not in Iowa? No problem. Prairie Lights ships, so you don’t even have to go into the store for Paul to work his magic. I called him on the phone once and told him I wanted something similar to Alice Munro. He thought for a second—the sound of the gears turning almost audible—and then recommended Edith Pearlman, yet another writer I’d never heard of.

If you haven’t heard of Pearlman but you do like Munro, then you should get to a bookstore or library right away. Paul’s sterling reputation remains unblemished.

I’ve even emailed Paul. He once emailed back to follow up on his recommendations, writing:

“How are you liking the books? I feel a heavy responsibility, having sent you out of here with books I more or less guaranteed were among the best in the world. I generally think of books as things I enjoy and tend not to go out of my way to compare them.”

Suffice it to say that has never happened to me with any other bookseller. (I’m looking at you, Jeff Bezos.) Paul’s not just out to make a sale. He loves books, and he loves sharing that love with other people. He wants to point you to books that you’ll like—and, quite simply, he’s better at doing that than anyone I’ve ever met.

Part of his superpower is no doubt the product of his superhuman reading. He’s read all of the classics, all of the books you’d expect him to have read. (Though he once told me that he can’t read 1,000-page Dostoevsky novels anymore because “I’ve reached the age where any book I read could be my last.”) But he decides what to stock in the store by reading everything the publishers have on offer. He reads it all, and then he picks what he likes. If you ask him what he’s read and enjoyed lately, I guarantee you’ll learn some new names—and if they come with Paul’s stamp of approval, then they’re all worth knowing.

Paul’s literary expertise has recently achieved sufficient renown to warrant an appearance on NPR. I present here his list of “Best Summer Reads” to show you what I’m talking about:

  • A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip by Kevin Brockmeier
  • Euphoria by Lily King
  • The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert
  • Benediction by Kent Haruf
  • Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
  • The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford
  • During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
  • In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen
  • The Red Road by Denise Mina

If you’ve already read all ten of those titles, then send your address to BMR and I will personally mail you a gold star. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can keep up with Paul—but that’s precisely why he’s such an invaluable resource. If you love to read, then Paul is nothing short of a godsend.

I promised at the outset of this series to make suggestions for discerning readers pressed for time. My first suggestion is this: Better Call Paul. He’s never steered me wrong, and I have perfect faith that he will offer the same service to you.

In order to dispel even the appearance of conflict of interest, I hereby declare that I have not been compensated in any way for writing this article. I talked with the store about this post only to ask Paul’s permission to include his name. He therefore doesn’t know that I planned of my own volition to include the following plug: Paul is now a published author in his own right. The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram, a humorous and highbrow collection of short poetry, was published just two weeks ago. Buy it, don’t buy it. Do with that information what you will.

But if you ever find yourself wondering what to read next, then I hereby offer my highest possible recommendation to Paul’s Corner on the Prairie Lights website, which sometimes features videos of the man himself doing what he does best.

Check back next week for a complementary suggestion to help discerning readers make the most of their precious reading time. When in doubt, though, just remember: Better Call Paul.

Michael Noltemeyer is a third-year MFA candidate at the University of New Mexico. He is the Nonfiction Editor for Blue Mesa Review.