Matchmaker's dilemma

Douglas Dutton is the owner of Dutton's Brentwood Books and Dutton's Beverly Hills.

IT'S a risky business. They've never met, yet you know them both and think that, given the chance to cross paths, they just might hit it off.

She's been at loose ends since her last relationship. He's looking for someone to appreciate his unique qualities. If it works out, she'll always think of you with gratitude; if not, your judgment will always be suspect. And for him, this is the only relationship he has ever wanted: some adventure, stolen moments together, sustained interest -- if it works out, it may even lead to intimacy.

Selecting the right book for someone is a task fraught with just as much peril and turmoil as setting up two friends on a blind date. It is part science, part art, with a soupcon of intuition and informed guesswork.

I have often been part of this dynamic. There are bookstore patrons who have sought me out to thank me for suggestions; there are others, however, who may never give me another chance to make a recommendation. Like shoes, each reading experience must fit the person comfortably, and my recommendations evidently lacked toe room. I let them down.

The world of books is enormous: There are vast mountain ranges of fiction, oceans of nonfiction, a Great Lakes of biography (and a rapidly filling Caspian Sea of memoirs), dense forests of philosophy, politics and religion, deserts of business books, soaring stratocumulus clouds of New Age and spirituality, and a great melting ice sheet of history. Where to go? Where to stay? Whom to visit?

Asking a reader specifically what he or she has enjoyed reading does more than just buy you time to think. The answer offers a semiotician's forest of signifiers. The answer defines and classifies the reader's tastes better than if he or she just said, "I like mysteries." Besides, "mysteries" says little: The number of subgenres can be bewildering. Thrillers, hard-boiled detective stories and international espionage are only starter topics. People who like cozies don't usually gravitate toward police procedurals. Lovers of Ian Rankin or Lee Child novels aren't necessarily fans of Eric Ambler or Alan Furst, and noir is far from forensic investigation. But a savvy bookseller might make another connection: If one is shopping for a Rankin fan, Kate Atkinson's recent novels make interesting lateral sense. In Atkinson's "One Good Turn," the author has turned the corner from writing wonderfully rich literary novels with mysteries at their core to writing mysteries with rich literary style. And both use Scotland as a looming presence.

One of the best parts of bookselling is to introduce readers to something completely new. I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the recent titles that most often come up when Southern California booksellers run into one another: "Black Swan Green" by David Mitchell, "The Keep" by Jennifer Egan, "After This" by Alice McDermott, "Paint It Black" by Janet Fitch, "Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky, "Against the Day" by Thomas Pynchon, "Echo Park" by Michael Connelly, "The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama, "The Echo Maker" by Richard Powers, "The War of the World" by Niall Ferguson and "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright. All have been substantially reviewed and all are exemplary tomes.

I'd also mention three books that haven't received the attention they deserve, even though people in my field talk about them all the time. "An Alphabetical Life" by Wendy Werris is a perceptive and entertaining coming-of-age memoir of a sales rep for a publisher in Southern California. Debra Ginsberg's "Blind Submission" owes a debt to "The Devil Wears Prada," but her novel takes us into a little-known corner of the industry -- the literary agency -- in wonderfully entertaining ways. Dana Spiotta's novel "Eat the Document" was a finalist for this year's National Book Award and is masterfully written, intellectually provocative and can make you shed tears.

Next time you're browsing, keep these principles in mind:

* Giving books is also about sharing, so give something that you love and want others to appreciate.

* Don't be swayed by bestseller lists or a single positive or negative review: Check out the books for yourself and decide.

* Trust the store's clerks, who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about titles, listening to opinions about them and being exposed to innumerable reviews.

* Consider prizewinners (Pulitzer, Man Booker, Nobel, etc.) but also consider choosing runners-up to the actual winners; better yet, give a winner and an also-ran.

There is an abundance of riches awaiting you in the aisles of your neighborhood bookstore. Go explore. *

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