What Is Your Vision of a Library?

How Do You Imagine Libraries?


Krysta and I write a lot about libraries on the blog, and Krysta specifically makes a point of mentioning all the resources that libraries can offer in addition to actual books—movies, video games, online resources, computer access, classes, baking pans or even bikes. (Disclaimer: We discuss primarily US libraries since both of us live in the US, and of course resources vary from library to library within the US.)  Most of our readers seem to be aware that today’s public libraries are often more about being general community spaces than being specifically/only about books, but I wonder sometimes if our internal vision/imagination about libraries doesn’t match that reality.

Libraries: Fantasy vs. Reality

I read a lot of fantasy, and libraries in fantasy books tend to be vast halls of obscure knowledge where the very learned hang out, study arcane topics, and routinely discover knowledge that has been overlooked or forgotten for decades or even centuries. Basically, people (in fantasy books, at least) seem to have the idea that a library is a place that preserves knowledge and where people can go to learn anything.

We think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings going to the records room of Minas Tirith and finding a scroll about the One Ring that even the lore masters of the city had been unaware of. Or Lazlo in Strange the Dreamer putting together his research on half-forgotten topics as he roams the halls of the world’s biggest library. Or Jasnah from The Stormlight Archives combing through half-forgotten texts and publishing her shocking findings.

Exceptions to the image of a scholar going to a large library (often THE library in the fantasy) world generally include fantasy school books where there is a school library (such as Harry Potter or Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books). I can’t think of an example of a fantasy book off-hand that features a general interest library that the public frequents. In general, fantasy imagines libraries as spaces where the learned go to do PhD level research on specialized topics, often in half-forgotten languages. In these books, libraries house the entire knowledge and history of the world, and anything can be found by someone who looks hard enough.

In reality, that often isn’t a good reflection of what libraries offer.

A More Accurate Image of a Public Library

The stated mission of my current public library is to provide “high interest” materials to the community. So you can go to find The Hunger Games or Hillary Clinton’s book or something about Neptune or a book on the latest fad diet.  But if you want a book on an extremely specialized or obscure topic, it likely isn’t there. And forget old books. Public libraries tend to have limited room. If a book hasn’t been checked out by a patron in a few years, that indicates “lack of interest,” and it gets weeded (maybe recycled, maybe donated, maybe sold off at the library book sale—it depends).

University/academic libraries are much more likely to have obscure books and old ones that are no longer readily available, and you should be able to find just about anything you want in the Library of Congress (barring actual original manuscripts from, say, Ancient Greece)—but most people haven’t been in an academic library since graduating college (You can often pay for a library membership at universities, though, if you are interested).  So I find it a bit funny that our shared imagination of what a library is often is based on the type of library that few of us even visit.  (And note that our image of a library focuses heavily on nonfiction!)


Libraries have different missions, and I’m not saying that one is more valuable than another here. However, I want to know: When you hear the word “library,” what do you envision? A huge old hall holding miles of half-forgotten knowledge? Or do you actually think of something that more closely resembles your own local library?


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I Like Children’s Books with Morals–and So Do You

Sometimes when we discuss books, readers will say that they do not enjoy older texts because they “moralize.”  Certainly the tone or manner of moralizing can affect how readers perceive the messages being imparted.  For instance, The Lord of the Rings might be said to promote the message that friendship, mercy, and self-sacrifice are positive forces for good in the world.  But accusations of moralizing are not typically leveled at J. R. R. Tolkien’s most famous work.  In contrast, readers might object to Pollyanna because of its overt message that hardship should be confronted with optimism.  (“Pollyanna” has even entered the dictionary as a typically derogatory term describing overly optimistic people.)

However, moral messages are not relegated to books of the past.  Indeed, moralizing remains alive and well in children’s stories.  It’s simply that many of our moral messages have changed.  While books of the past may have emphasized virtues like honesty, cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic, books today often focus on themes of confidence, individuality, and inclusion.  Perhaps some readers do not see these books as moralizing because they agree so whole-heartedly with these themes that they see them as self-evident and not as lessons to be inculcated.  However, a good many readers actively expect such messages–and are disappointed or offended by stories that do not include them.

We can see how strong our desire for moral stories is if we try to imagine narratives that do not adhere to our current standards of positive messaging.  What would happen, for example, if there were a children’s story that featured a nerdy girl with no friends.  However, instead of finding friends who value her as she is, she either has to change (maybe by pretending to be more into reality TV and less into comics) to have a social life or she simply ends the book still in middle school without friends (a hopeful end message suggesting high school might be different).  Would parents, educators, and librarians want to hand this book to children?  What about a book that featured a bully who does not come to empathize with others but continues to be mean without ever having a comeuppance?  What would the reviews for that book look like?  More likely than not, these books would not be published in the first place and, if they were, the reviews from adults would probably be negative.

Yes, it is true that sometimes books without positive messages get published or even become popular–but this not the normDiary of a Wimpy Kid, for instance, features an unlikable protagonist who continually lies and hurts his friend to get what he wants–and the series it spawned is a runaway success.  Perhaps it’s notable, however, that Jeff Kinney initially wrote the book for adults.  In a 2011 Guardian article he admits: “It really shocked and unsettled me to hear kids were buying the books. If I’d known I was writing for kids I might actually have spelt things out a bit more and that would probably have killed the appeal.”  While he goes on to suggest that children appreciate the lack of preaching in the Wimpy Kid books, his attitude is generally in line with what most adults–the ones who write, publish, and purchase the bulk of children’s books–think.  Children’s stories should reinforce positive messages.  You can find plenty of parent reviews online recoiling in shock from Kinney’s books to see just how unusual this series is for the children’s market.

You can randomly choose an assortment of children’s books and probably find a moral in most of them.  For example, picture book Natsumi! by Susan Lendroth and Priscillal Burris is about a young girl who is “too loud” for her family, but finds a place she can use her loudness to her advantage.  Dino Duckling by Alison Murray is about a family of ducks who accepts a dino as one of their own without question.  In the middle grade category, you can find books like Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, which shows the protagonist overcoming stage fright and her community coming together to show support for each other.  Or  you can find subtle messages in books like The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner, which shows how a “troubled” character is simply misunderstood because he is struggling with the effects of homelessness.  Positive messages, often shown through character arcs where the protagonist struggles with self-acceptance but then finds their place in the world, are simply the norm in children’s stories.

I’ll be the first to admit that I like positive messages in my children’s stories.  I like to see characters evolve and learn something.  I like to see stories where things wrap up on a positive note–where the bullied child is accepted, the mean child converted, the overlooked child praised.   These stories feels satisfying and conclusive.  However, like a good many people, I also rather expect children’s stories to be teaching children something.  For better or for worse, I assume that the stories children hear will affect their perception of themselves and their place in the world.  I want them to affected in such a way that they become kinder, more empathetic, more honest.  A children’s story that suggests that immorality is acceptable is a book I will never be able to enjoy fully.

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Children’s Books I Didn’t Enjoy Because I Didn’t Support the Message

Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

This is a picture book about two “friends.”  Triangle begins the book by playing a mean trick on Square.  Square retaliates by playing a mean prank in revenge (or so he says).  The end.  There is no message here except that it is funny to be mean to others and to use their fears against them.  A strange choice for a children’s book indeed!

Tidy by Emily Gravett

This picture book follows Pete the badger who would like everyone to clean up their messes in the forest, please!  But then he gets too tidy and razes all the trees and covers the land with concrete to ensure no leaves or anything will litter his space.  I’m confused.  When you read this to children are they supposed to get the message that being clean leads to deforestation?  When you ask them to clean their room, will they reply, “No, mom!  We mustn’t be too tidy!”  Maybe the message is about obsession, but that seems a little abstract for the younger crowd.

Diary of Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Protagonist Greg says no one at school likes him because of the way he looks.  Probably no one likes him because he is selfish, greedy, and dishonest.  He has one “friend” whom he uses and abuses to get what he wants–until he can ditch said friend for someone “better.”  Why is this series so popular with children?  I have no idea.  I think I would have hated it as a child simply because I would not have liked or respected the main character.

Slider by Pete Hautman

The protagonist cheats in this story.  And the other characters justify it.  No, that’s not the message I want to teach children!

You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the old adage goes.  However, as the first thing potential buyers see, covers are marketing tools.  It would be ridiculous to suggest that the marketing teams at publishing houses do not create covers in a bid to attempt certain customers.  And, indeed, simply looking at the cover of a book can often tell readers certain information about a book.

To start, let’s consider age range.  YA books currently tend to feature models while MG books are more likely to have painted covers.  If someone entered a bookstore that was not arranged by age, they could make a reasonable guess that these books are YA:

A few things might clue a consumer into the age range here.  For one thing, the models do not appear to be children but teens (or maybe older models passing as teens).  But the shopper could also use prior knowledge to make their deductions.  They might recall the trend of “pretty dress” covers in YA:

If someone spends enough time in a bookshop or library, it becomes easier to identify covers marketed towards the YA market.  Sometimes trends occur.  Sometimes the covers simply appear more modern or edgier.  Indeed, sometimes YA covers get makeovers so they look more modern or edgier.

Covers will often also indicate genre to potential buyers.  Even without the titles, many readers could guess that these covers belong to paranormal books:

And, of course, most people recognize a romance when they see one:

The cover of a romance might even suggest to readers how steamy it is.

Even YA books with symbols or objects tend to look different from MG books.  For instance, here are a few YA covers:

These covers tends to be darker than MG covers and less quirky.  Again, they appear edgier.  Here are a few MG covers for comparison:

The bright, illustrated covers instantly signal to consumers that these are MG books.  And MG covers with people often look rather similar:

There are also subgenres of MG covers. For instance, here are some covers that I think of as the “quirky story covers”:

And there are the covers that obviously belong to humorous MG books:

Sometimes, of course, a cover may be misleading.  I initially assumed that We Are Okay was a graphic novel and that The Shadow Cipher was YA.  I saw Wrath of the Storm at the library and had to search for its marketing designation online because I had thought that the series was being marketed as MG, but the cover looked like it could be YA.

However, a few covers that break the norm do not indicate to me that we can no longer use covers to determine some general information about books from their covers.  For instance, if someone saw a child walking down the street in a uniform, they could be: playing a student in a theatrical production, going to a costume party dressed as a student, or just wearing an outfit that looks remarkably like a school uniform.  But it would hardly be outrageous for an onlooker to deduce simply that the child is a student (maybe even a student from a private school, depending on whether the public schools in the area have uniforms).  In the same way, I do not think it is outrageous for someone to look at a cover and deduce age range or genre from it.

Personally, I judge books by their covers all the time.  I would not buy Perfect Chemistry or an Abbi Glines book because I do not like to read explicit scenes and I would assume that those books include them.  I would avoid Bloodlines because I do not enjoy paranormal romances.  However, I would buy The Problim Children because I love quirky MG books.  When browsing through a bookstore or the library, the cover of a book is the first thing that catches my eye, the only thing that will encourage me to take a moment to read the jacket flap.  Marketing departments know this.  And they are designing their covers to be judged.

Why the “Slow” Opening of The Lord of the Rings Is So Valuable

lotr paperbacks


Several months ago I convinced my friend to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for the first time. He had seen the movies, but this would be his first time tackling the book (after a failed attempt several years back where, he insisted, the names of the characters all jumbled together). After getting through the unexpected prologue about the ways of hobbits and pipe weed, he started on the main body of the text, which he consistently grumbled about until Frodo and company finally made it to Bree.  The opening of the book, in his opinion, was slow and episodic, and it was clear why the films had chosen to streamline it (by, for instance, cutting out Tom Bombadil, the barrow wights, and some other scenes).

From a purely pacing perspective, I can see this point.  Tom Bombadil is fascinating as a part of Middle Earth, an unexplained being who seems to have been there basically since creation and who has so little interest in the One Ring that wearing it does not even make him invisible. However, is he necessary for the general plot line of getting Frodo from Point A (the Shire) to Point B (Mount Doom)? Likewise, the scenes at Frodo’s “new house” in Crickhollow and at the Barrow-downs are interesting, but one could make a compelling argument that the story “really” begins at Bree, or even at Rivendell.

Why, then, does Tolkien dedicate eight chapters (168 pages in my mass market paperback edition) just to get the hobbits to Bree?  And a full 242 pages to get them to Rivendell? (This is all of Book I, or about one sixth of the whole story, since FotR, TTT, and RotK are each divided into two Books.)  Personally, I think these chapters are integral to the character development of the hobbits and in preparing them for the “real test” of getting Frodo from Rivendell to Mordor.

From Hobbiton to Rivendell


Though the road from the Shire to Rivendell is fraught with dangers, and Frodo comes incredibly close to death after being wounded by a Morgul-blade on Weathertop, in many way this is a “mini adventure” somewhat on par with the adventure Bilbo took getting to the Lonely Mountain.  It is not as dangerous as the road to come will be, and it gives the hobbits a nice end goal.  After all, at the start of the story, their only stated purpose is to get the Ring to Rivendell, where hopefully wiser, braver, stronger people will decide what to do with it.

When Gandalf tells Frodo at Rivendell that “the Ring is not at rest yet,” Frodo replies, “I suppose not. But so far my only thought has been to get here; and I hope I shan’t have to go any further. It is very pleasant just to rest. I have had a month of exile and adventures, and I find that has been as much as I want.”

Earlier in Bree, Aragorn suggests the hobbits have made it so far partially because they didn’t truly understand what dangers they faced: “Perhaps I know more about these pursuers [the Black Riders] than you do.  You fear them, but you do not fear them enough, yet.” That lack of fear may have made them less cautious than they could have been, but it may also have enabled them to leave their own front doors.  After Frodo learns from Gandalf just how close he’d come to being a wraith from his Morgul-knife wound, he shudders: “Thank goodness I did not realize the horrible danger!  I was mortally afraid, of course; but if I had known more, I should not have dared even to move.”

Journeying from the Shire to Bree and then from Bree to Rivendell gives the hobbits small doses of danger and adventure where they can imagine a safe haven at the end. It helps them see what lies outside the protected borders of the Shire and shows them they have the strength and courage to meet it.  It also shows them there is great good in the world, to challenge and temper what is evil.  Seeing heroes ranging from Farmer Maggot telling off Black Riders to Fatty Bolger staying to meet the Riders in Crickhollow to Bombadil mastering Old Man Willow, the barrow wights, and the Ring itself must give the hobbits hope they otherwise never would have had. Likewise, stumbling across Bilbo’s defeated stone trolls in the wilderness must remind the hobbits they are part of a history greater than themselves and that hobbits have braved adventure before.


If the hobbits had set off straight from Hobbiton to Mordor, the journey surely would have been far more challenging for them. They may not even have agreed to it.  At the start of the story, they see themselves as taking on some necessary task that is unavoidable; with Gandalf failing to meet Frodo to make for Bree, there is no one to take the Ring out of the Shire if they do not.  It is only after they make this initial journey, followed by a time of rest at Rivendell, that they can truly volunteer to take the Ring to its final destination, to Mordor.


How Can Barnes and Noble Save Themselves?

Why Bother Saving Barnes and Noble?

This month we have been discussing how Amazon’s unethical business practices harm the publishing industry and the strong likelihood that Barnes and Noble will close.  I expected that readers would rejoin with arguments that they enjoy the low prices and customer service aspects of Amazon, while they do not always enjoy the experience of shopping in a Barnes and Noble.  Fewer available titles and unpleasant interactions with employees are obvious critiques of the U.S.’s largest brick-and-mortar book retailer.  And, indeed, plenty of comments reflected similar views.

So why save Barnes and Noble if many customers believe the chain does not deserve to be saved, based on how the company has been run?  The short answer is two-fold.  First of all, Barnes and Noble is one of the last physical bookstores around for many people.  Decreased access to books is a problem because it makes equal access to knowledge and learning materials more difficult.  Secondly, if Amazon gains a monopoly on the bookselling business, publishers will have even more difficulty negotiating prices with them.  Amazon already has a history of offering to pay prices so low that publishers would lose money selling to the company.  But, with Barnes and Noble gone, what other choice would they have?  Although publishers do typically sell directly from their websites, few consumers seem to use this option.  And why should they if Amazon is selling books below cost and thus offering a greater deal to readers?

So what can Barnes and Noble do to turn their company around and encourage people to shop there?  Below I offer some ideas.

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What Can Barnes and Noble Do to Improve Their Bookselling Experience?

Reduce the Gift Items

I recognize that gift items sell well and that they are often the reason book stores stay afloat.  (We can even look at Amazon, who sells books at a loss because non-book items help make up the deficit.)  However since the gift section was expanded, shelf room for books has been lost.  Barnes and Noble seems to specialize now in trendy items and bestsellers, meaning people looking for more obscure books often end up online.  I think Barnes and Noble should keep their book- and fandom-related merchandise, but they can downsize the candles, soaps, and random electronics to start.  The company already announced it plans to downsize this section, so that seems promising.

Expand the Children’s Section

People love buying books for children, whether this is teachers buying for their classroom, parents buying for school projects, or relatives hoping to send an educational present.  If the store makes room for more books, I think the children’s section makes the most sense for expansion.  I would also like to see some reorganization for a more pleasant browsing experience.  The current organization never makes complete sense to me and I feel like I walk around a lot trying to get an idea of what each section is meant to be.  It’s sort of by age, sort of by genre/type of book, and sort of by hardcover/softcover?  Presumably the layout makes things easy for employees to locate itemse, but the layout should really be focused on how easy it is for customers to browse.

Increase Programming

More programs could get more people in the door to make impulse purchases.  Barnes and Noble’s new book club is a step in the right direction as it encourages people to both buy a book from the store and to show up again to maybe buy some more books.  I would like to see more programs like this, especially for children, where the program is tied directly back into merchandise the attendees will find relevant and helpful.  I’m thinking writing workshops where writing books are highlighted, children’s storytimes with thematic books on a special display, etc.  But the key is to impress customers with the idea that the books being suggested for them are ones that they will actually find useful and not just books that are being pushed on them.

Change Locations

Edward Helmore for The Guardian notes that Barnes and Noble stores tend to be located in malls.  This means consumers have to make a conscious effort to get in their cars and drive there.  Moving locations to areas where stores would get spontaneous foot traffic could help the company increase revenue.

Hire Knowledgeable, Friendly Employees

Like plenty of other commenters I have seen, my experiences with the staff at Barnes and Noble have often been unpleasant.  Barnes and Noble may have to rethink their hiring practices or their training practices.  But their recent layoffs, many of full-time employees, do not bode well for the company.  Part-time employees often have less of an incentive to invest in their job if there are no full-time positions they can aim for.  And part-time employees who leave for full-time jobs at other companies means Barnes and Noble will have to spend more time hiring and retraining employees.  Fewer stable employees means fewer experienced employees.  Plus the recent layoffs mean that the employees left will likely be struggling to do the same amount of work with fewer people–at least in the short term.  Stressed employees are unlikely to give customers a shopping experience they will enjoy.

Go Local

Indie bookstores are treasures because they typically stock local-interest books and local authors.  Chain stores, meanwhile, tend to give the same planograms to all their stores, regardless of what their customers actually want or buy.  Barnes and Noble could sell more if they stocked their stores with regional differences in mind.

Serve Alcohol?

In 2016, Barnes and Noble announced that some locations would serve alcohol.  While my own anecdotal observations lead me to believe that serving alcohol does attract more people to a place or an event, I have to question whether the alcohol drinkers intend to buy books when they leave. Probably not, so I’m going to have to give this idea a pass, creative as it is.

Discourage People from Using the Store as a Library

This idea will probably be controversial.  And I have no idea how to implement it without making customers feel unwelcome.  However, isn’t it odd that people go to Barnes and Noble to read an entire book or magazine while they sip on their coffee–and then they do not buy it?  People typically don’t go to other stores and use their products for hours without purchasing them.  Would you go to the home goods store, use their tools on your DIY project, and leave without paying?  Would you go to an ice cream shop, eat a sundae, proclaim it mediocre, and then announce you don’t want to pay after having consumed it?  Probably not, so why do people do this with books?  Do we not value them enough to pay for our consumption of them?  I think Barnes and Noble needs to remind people that they sell things and that they are not a library.

I’m No Longer Interested in Reading about Princesses (and I Hope It’s Temporary)

Princess Books

I’ve only read a few YA books with princess protagonists in the past couple months (Dark Breaks the Dawn and Ash Princess come to mind), but I’ve noticed a troubling personal reaction: I didn’t like them.  This came as a genuine surprise to me because, if asked, I probably would have said I loved princess books. I enjoyed reading them as a child, and I like all the things that come with princess stories—power, opulence, the chance for a character to have a real impact because they’re going to rule a country.  But reading princess books recently (particularly YA, as opposed to MG), I found myself frustrated and bored.

On one level, maybe a princess protagonist is too “obvious.”  Maybe in my mind I’m thinking that it’s just too convenient or too overdone that the author chose this character for the focus of a book, and that things would be a lot more interesting if they focused on someone else.  (The Rebel of the Sands books, for instance, work really well by featuring a protagonist who is supporting a prince leading a rebellion, rather than on the prince himself.)  Of course princesses have power, so maybe what I really want to hear about is the chief political advisor, or the general, or the woman who milks the royal cows!

However, I think I’m also pushing back against the idea that royalty have inherent powers that other people don’t.  In princess books, the royal family seem to be in power not because of politics or a rebellion or just a weird accident of fate; they’re in power because they hold [insert some wildly powerful magical ability the poor plebeians can never have], and that irritates me.

Perhaps my societal conditioning has me grating against this idea. Americans don’t like nobility, right? And there’s probably something to be said about millennial attitudes here.  Maybe it smacks too much of “divine right of kings,” implying that these people inherently should rule because their bloodline, in fact, does make them inherently better than other people.

However, I think my real problem is that I’m not convinced that this idea actually makes sense.  I like magic systems in books where magic is genetic but widely spread throughout the kingdom’s people, and I like magic systems where one can learn magic or acquire it through an external source. But the idea that only the royal family has magic (or a particularly powerful manifestation of the book’s form of magic) is weird to me.  If it’s genetic within the royal family, there should be someone besides the current rulers and their direct heirs who have it.  Cousins? Bastard children in the country? Someone?

Whatever my issue is, I hope I can resolve it soon, or otherwise find a YA book that does a princess character really well. Leave me your recommendations in the comments!


The Book World Is Debating the Value of Audiobooks–Again

Audiobook Discussion

Credit: Sai Kiran Anagani – Unsplash

If you’ve logged onto Book Twitter in the past couple days, you’ll have noticed the resurrection of a tired debate: Does reading an audiobook “count” as “real” reading?  To the credit of the people I actually follow on Twitter, I’ve only seen people saying that, yes, audiobooks are books and reading one/listening to one (whatever terminology you prefer to describe the activity) counts as reading a book.

To me, it’s blatantly obvious that listening to an audiobook isn’t fundamentally different from reading a physical book or an e-book (you know, directing your eyes at words on a page or a screen), but I’ve been pondering why some people are so adamant that audiobooks are basically fake books.  After some reflection, I can’t help but wonder if this is part of a different debate that Krysta and I sometimes raise on the blog: When people think of “reading,” are they thinking about “reading skills?”

Basically, Krysta and I have been positing for a while that the value of English classes (or, “reading things while you are in school”) is about learning content and about learning to analyze and interpret a text.  The primary point, then, is that you understand what the text is saying, you understand the context of the text in history or in some type of discourse/discussion, and you can make reasonable judgments or interpretations of the text based on what you know about it and about literature in general.

Without fail, however, some people disagree with us (which is cool; feel free to disagree in our comments!) and suggest that the point of reading in school is basically to build reading skills—to know what words mean when you see them on a page, to understand what certain sentence structures say when you see them on a page, to be able to gradually work your way up to being able to read more complex things on a page, etc.  It’s about having a “reading grade level” that is appropriate (or better than expected!) for your age because you can direct your eyes at a page and know what the words there say. But if reading is about “reading skills” and not really about understanding the content and argument of a text and being able to talk intelligently about it…then reading something on a page is actually different from having someone read something to you, whether it’s a person who is physically with you or an audiobook doing the reading.  It’s a different skill.

However, because I think reading is most importantly about content and discussion, the question of the manner in which someone came to be familiar with that content is irrelevant to me. No one is better because they read the word “themselves.” Whether you prefer paper books, e-books, or audiobooks, you are a reader (and therefore, obviously, awesome).