The “Off Da Shelf” Book Nerd

This is how book friendships start: Two people meet in line at the bookstore or at some author’s appearance or on-line a book-friendly website and within twenty minutes they are best friends, comparing notes about favorite stories and characters like they’ve known each other for ages.  Paperbacks and contact info are traded and they walk off together like the last scene in Casablanca, saying “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Last December I met Mandy Shunnarah, storyteller, book-nut and bloggster extraordinaire ( and we’ve been friends ever since.  Mandy’s devotion to the printed word embraces all forms.  Her website and social media group (Off Da Beaten Shelf) gives a contemporary update to the old-school book discussion group while she’s works for her Masters in Library Science with a specialization in Archivist work.  The gal is in love with words.   I thought I’d introduce Mandy and get some background of this past and future “Book-Nerd.”

Me: How did your reader’s journey start? 

MS: Until I came along, my grandmother was really the only reader in the family. She loves Maeve Binchy with an undying passion and reads at least a book a week, yet somehow the reading gene didn’t get passed to my mom. When I was born, my grandmother decided she was going to make me a reader come hell or high water. She started reading to me so early that actually I don’t remember learning how to read. From my earliest memories I’ve just always been able to read. I wish I could remember more about that process of letters becoming words and words becoming sentences, but I’m also thankful that I can’t remember those dark days before I was able to practice my favorite hobby.

Me: What were your favorite books as a child? Do you still re-read any of them now?

MS: I remember being a big fan of the children’s book The Napping House by Audrey Wood and thinking it was the most hilarious story. I remember trying to recreate the tower of napping people and pets with my family, but this resulted in waking them up in the middle of the night, so they weren’t too pleased. Because I picked up reading so quickly and loved it so much, my grandmother kind of skipped from young children’s books to the young adult classics. For example, I remember reading Black Beauty a couple of times when I was 7 and 8. I don’t think I read an actual modern YA book until I was 11. I haven’t re-read any of the books I liked as a kid other than Harry Potter and I’m not sure I want to. I’m afraid I won’t like them as much as an adult and it’ll make the memory of reading them as a kid less dear to me.

Me: I think you may have coined the phrase “book-nerd.” For you, is reading closer to an addiction or a religion?

MS: I wish I’d coined book nerd! I borrowed it from some anonymous, enterprising young book lover before me.

Me: So, is reading closer to an addiction or a religion for you?

MS: For me, reading is an addiction, a religion, and the love of my life all paradoxically rolled into one. Reading is the one thing I’ve loved wholeheartedly throughout my entire life. You grow up, interests change, people change, the types of boys you fall for change, your taste in clothes changes–but through all the changes I’ve gone through in 25 years, reading has remained consistent and my love of books has only grown. Reading is the one thing I can’t NOT do. Like, if I was told reading was going to be outlawed tomorrow and all the books would be burned, I don’t think I’d live for much longer after that because I’d die of grief. To people who don’t understand what that’s like, they’d probably think I must live this horribly lonely life or the people in my life are insufficient, but that’s not it at all. You can have a wonderful, fulfilling life and still feel the call to worship a higher power, right? For me, that higher power is literature. When I’m reading beautiful sentences and all these complex emotions I’ve had for years have been beautifully articulated in a way that brings a tear to my eye, that’s a spiritual experience for me. That’s when I feel the closest to the universe and humanity. Being able to spin stories out of mere words and create entire worlds formed in the imagination is the triumph of human achievement in my book.

Mandy, The Story Girl

Me: The electronic format has turned the world of books upside down, from publishing to libraries and book clubs. How do you see this playing out? Any guesses about the future of libraries, etc.?

MS: I think the advent of electronic reading and digital audio-books has been the best thing for readers since we started binding books instead of reading scrolls. While I can sympathize with people who are staunchly anti e-reader to a degree, I think their fears about the downfall of society and literature at the hands of technology are misguided. The fact is that having additional choices of reading format doesn’t erase or negate the value of the pre- existing reading format. If you look at the numbers (which I do, intermittently), print books and eBooks are selling at about the same rate, so there are clearly people who still prefer print and the publishing market isn’t ignoring that. And as long as the people who love print keep buying books, the market won’t ever ignore them. If a reader is worried about the downfall of reading because of e-reading, tell them to speak with their dollars. I would be much more concerned if, 15 years ago when there were only print books, if publishers said, “Well, guys, it looks like the readers aren’t reading anymore, so let’s just call it quits.” But that’s not what happened. They said, “Hey, I bet people would read more if we give them more ways to do that,” and that’s what we’re seeing now. More books and audio-books are being published now than ever before in human history. All the reading materials that have come out in the last 10 years thanks to the capabilities the internet provides would eclipse every reading material that’s ever been made from all other eras combined. That doesn’t sound like the downfall of society to me. All that to say, if reading materials aren’t going anywhere, I don’t think publishing and libraries will either. They just may have to do things differently and try new things. For example, a lot of libraries are partnered with OverDrive, so their patrons can get eBooks and e-audio-books. Libraries are also renting out pre-filled e-readers and increasing their offerings via electronic database, so doing research is much easier. And libraries buy all these materials, so libraries are helping to keep the publishers in business. In short, the reading world isn’t ending and the kids are alright.

Me: A joyous part of literature comes from the joy of reading aloud. Do you have any favorites or memories of books being read out loud?

MS: Since I took to reading so quickly, I really only have one memory of being read aloud to after age 7. My family was headed to Gatlinburg for a long weekend during fall break one year when I was in high school. Over the break, we’d been instructed to read Of Mice and Men, and although it’s a short book, I didn’t particularly want to spend my vacation doing schoolwork. This had nothing to do with the fact that it was assigned reading because I tended to really like the books I was assigned, but rather because my family rarely went on vacation, so I wanted to savor it. The problem was that I get abysmally car sick and the only time I would’ve had to read without infringing upon my vacation was on the drive to and from Gatlinburg. So my grandmother, who does not get car sick, read Of Mice and Men to us the whole way there and back. It was so nice being read aloud to and just getting to relax. In truth, my grandmother reading me Of Mice and Men was my first audiobook!

Me: What are your favorite book related memories?

MS: I remember going to the library for the first time when I was 9 and being overcome with the sense of magic and endless possibilities on every shelf. I remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement by reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 because my suburban, predominantly white public middle and high school didn’t think that was an important topic to cover.

I remember reading Stargirl when I was 10 and realizing that it’s totally okay to be the weird kid.

I remember having my Harry Potter books confiscated by my fourth grade teacher and elementary school principal because I went to a private, fundamentalist Baptist school where they thought Harry Potter was of the devil. I also remember me AND my mother ripping into them for taking my books away, so I got them back within a few days.

I remember all the evenings and weekends I spent at home reading because my over-protective mother wouldn’t let me have a normal social life–one of the side effects of being the only child of a single mother.

I remember the time my grandmother gave me $200 for my 15th birthday with the directive “Go buy some books.”

I remember a high school teacher shouting at me for reading Twilight because I finished my work so fast that she didn’t actually believe I’d done the work. I gave her the finger behind her back because she called it trashy reading.

I remember reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower in high school and feeling like someone understood all the feral teenager feelings I was having.

I remember being inexorably depressed in college during the semesters when my English professors didn’t assign novels I ended up loving because it felt like I hadn’t really read at all. And when you’re taking 5 classes at 3 credit hours each and working 25 hours a week, you don’t have much time for pleasure reading, unfortunately.

But I also remember the semesters when my English professors assigned books I did end up loving and having that wonderful feeling of not being able to wait until I could do my homework.

I remember reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in the college library and crying until my mascara ran down my face in the library lobby. Someone nodded knowingly and passed me a box of tissues.

I remember turning down no less than 3 friends’ invitations to fun Friday night plans so I could read The Time Traveler’s Wife. I adore my friends, but I made the right decision.

I’ve lived a thousand lives through books and I’ve learned something from every one of them.

Me: Imagine your literary godmother has just granted you this wish: you can have supper with five of your favorite literary characters or their creators. Tell me, who’s coming to dinner?

MS: Ooooh, this is a tough one! I would say…

1) Gabriel Garcia Marquez because he’s my favorite author and I’ve read more books by him than anyone else.

2) Hermione Granger because she’s my fictional twin sister.

3) Lydia Netzer, the author of Shine Shine Shine and How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky,
because she’s just so quirky, funny, and smart all wrapped up in one. I think we’d be best friends.

4) Oscar Wilde. No explanation necessary.

5) Toni Morrison because she cuts open my heart and stuffs all sorts of emotions in just reading her work, so I can’t imagine what she’d do in person.

…and if any of those folks were otherwise occupied I’d add Harper Lee and Shakespeare as backups. You could say I’ve got a few questions for them that I need clarification on.!

Thank you Mandy for your contributions to readers everywhere!

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