Let Your Fingers Do the Reading, Too

I am a book catalogue addict.

It started more than 20 years ago, back in high school, when I saw an inviting ad in the newspaper for the Quality Paperback Book Club: “Three books, three bucks.” I was hooked.

Now I find shopping for books by mail more enjoyable and more convenient than wandering the aisles of chain bookstores, which have become increasingly uniform in the titles and selections they offer, not to mention the annoying fact that many are now installing expresso bars.

There are several well-known book clubs, most notably the Book-of-the-Month Club and the History Book Club, as well as book clubs for mystery lovers and people who love to cook. But there are also a handful of specialty and literary book clubs and catalogues that cater to a growing number of discerning readers who are not slaves to the bestseller lists. These are run by people who actually read and often review the books they sell.


A Common Reader, which publishes a 1,000-title catalogue every month, is like browsing through a writer’s library. Books are offered under such topics as “Storytelling,” “Pastimes,” “Critics & Curmudgeons” as well as special sections featuring authors like Anthony Trollope, M.F.K. Fisher and Patrick O’Brian. “We don’t offer John Grisham novels or Kitty Kelly biographies,” laughs Jim Meagher, a former Boston lawyer who now edits and writes A Common Reader’s catalogue. “We try to find a common ground between our own enthusiams and what would interest other people.”

Daedalus offers high-quality remainders and specializes in contemporary fiction. The catalogue, published seven times a year, carries titles ranging Darryl Pinckney’s “High Cotton” ($4.98) to a 24-volume Chieftan goatskin-bound Wessex Edition of the work of Thomas Hardy (regularly $3,000, but only $1,000 through Daedalus). The Hardy sold out. “We decided there was a definite niche for literary remainders,” explains Daedalus vice president Helaine Harris, who says that the catalogue has had 350,000 customers. “People trust us because we buy books of lasting value.”

In a society where literature is becoming just another entertainment product the specialty book clubs and catalogues are a bridge to a place where serious reading still matters. They also can help curious readers, by virtue of the short but literate reviews often written by the catalogue’s editors, discover books that might be overlooked on a store’s crowded shelves.

Below is a list of book clubs and book catalogues with information on how to contact them to get on their mailing lists.

A Common Reader, 141 Tomkins Ave., Pleasantville, N.Y. 10570. Order toll free (800) 832-7323. Fax (914) 747-0778. Catalogue issued monthly, containing about 1,000 titles. Excellent selection over a wide range of categories, including fiction, belles lettres, biography. Not a discount service, but the discriminating selection is worth the price.

Daedalus Books, P.O. Box 9132, Hyattsville, Md. 20781-0932. Order toll free (800) 395-2665. Fax (800) 866-5578. Formerly heavy on academic titles, Daedalus is now the leading catalogue for high-quality contemporary fiction at a discount price. Also a good selection of children’s books and gardening books, biography and cultural history.

The Reader’s Subscription, Dept. MGM, Delran, N.J. 08370. Fax (609) 786-3439. TRS has been around for a long time and still offers one of the smartest selections in nonfiction books among the catalogue sellers. Buyers earn bonus points that provide for steep discounts on some orders. In addition, TRS sells all the titles currently published by the Library of America, reprints of classic American literature.

The Scholar’s Bookshelf, 110 Melrich Road, Cranbury, N.J., 08512. A thick catalogue of titles, mostly from the academic and university presses. Most of the titles are sold at a discount. There are some real finds--like the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary--but read the catalogue carefully. A wide selection of military and world history titles.


Laissez Faire Books, 938 Howard St., No. 202, San Francisco, Calif. 94103. Order toll-free (800) 326-0996. A book catalogue with a Libertarian bent, Laissez Faire Books nonetheless offers a good selection of classical texts in political philosophy and economics, from H. L. Mencken to Ayn Rand and Lord Acton.