Librarians’ Best Book Picks: Gregg Winsor, Johnson County Library, Johnson County, Kansas
Few people are better equipped to offer book recommendations and suggestions than a librarian. In this series, learn what the nation’s best librarians are suggesting to their patrons–and which books have made the biggest impact on their lives.
By Alexis Neuville
In this installment, Johnson County Library Information Specialist Gregg Winsor lets us in on what books are flying off the shelves near him, what the world gets wrong about librarians, and who his ‘book twin’ is.
How does your library compare to others? What’s its character?
I work for the Johnson County Library in Johnson County, Kansas. We’re right next door to Kansas City, Missouri, with 13 – soon to be 14! – branches. Our patrons range from the suburban to the rural, so we cover a lot of ground. Our patron base is fairly well-read – new releases almost always have a lengthy hold list on them, and most of our branches have an active book group. Some even have two!
What book do you recommend most, and why?
There’s a difference between a recommendation, which is a title that I personally love and push toward patrons, and a suggestion, which is a title that I think a patron would like based on titles they’ve read and liked previously. It can be a difficult concept for new staff to embrace. But to get back to your question, I love recommending an author like Michael Connelly – he writes in an accessible, matter-of-fact way that’s easy for a new reader to ease into, and his novels cover several genres: a bit of mystery, a bit of investigative procedural, a bit of legal thriller.
If a patron shows in any way an interest in fantasy, I’ll tell them about S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, a book I’ve been a frothing maniac for ever since I read it last year. It’s an intoxicating mix of fantasy, Middle Eastern folk tales, romance, adventure, and political thriller that you seriously need to read if you haven’t already.
What’s the most unique/memorable book request you’ve gotten, and why?
Recently, I got every librarian’s nightmare: “I can’t remember the title, but it had a woman with a green dress on the cover with gold lettering.” After some furious Googling and going through a ton of historical romance covers, we discovered it was The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Being a librarian means being okay with delivering a wrong answer, as long as you keep searching, keep questioning, and keep having faith that the correct answer IS out there to be found.
What book has made the greatest impact on you in your life?
There are several. As a kid, I was hooked on Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse – very mannered, very British, very structured novels – until looking for something new to read, my mom brought home a box of mysteries from a paperback swap and I picked out Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. I immediately fell in love. The mystery within wasn’t even much of a mystery, but the story was written in this loose, romantic, elegant way that was completely different from anything I had ever read before. It was magic, and to this day my taste still runs to that elegant and hardboiled feel – authors like George Pelecanos, Megan Abbott, Joe Ide, and Don Winslow always top my to-be-read pile.
Also, I’m going to have to mention Fantastic Four #209, written by Marv Wolfman and penciled by Sal Buscema, where the FF have to go into deep space in a race against time to enlist the aid of the world-devourer Galactus to save Earth against the power of the nearly omnipotent Sphinx, all the while being under the effects of a Skrull Aging Ray. Nine-year-old me was completely enchanted.
What’s the biggest trend or pattern you’ve noticed in past 3-6 months, in terms of what folks are reading?
Reading beyond our personal interests can feel like a homework assignment at the beginning, but once you do it, you get exposed to so much rich life experience that deepens our understanding of the world around us. A librarian with a dynamic and broad range of titles under their belt can better serve the community. I try to read novels in different genres, written by authors from cultures other than mine. I’ve noticed that more and more librarians are challenging themselves similarly, cheering and encouraging each other online and sharing titles. Titles like Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao and Exit West by Mohin Hamid were books I heard about on librarian Twitter before they were released and I absolutely loved them.
What does the world get wrong about librarians?
I’ll go with the stereotype that librarians read books all day. I wish we could! We’re too busy staffing desks, helping people with their resumes, facilitating book groups, troubleshooting eBook devices, applying for grants, fixing the paper jams in the copier, and a hundred other things.
What’s the difference between a good librarian and a great librarian?
Good librarians are like ninjas – we come in every day expecting the unexpected, and must be prepared for anything that the day can throw at us. Great librarians do all that, make it look easy, AND look fabulous while doing so.
What makes a great library?
A great library isn’t just the stuff it contains or the people within the building, although that’s a huge part of it – it’s the connection between the library and the community it serves. A great library listens to what the community wants and – more importantly – what it needs, and hustles to make that connection. A great library will also have advocates within their community that will defend and support their library.
Physical or ebook?
I’ll read both, but prefer physical. A physical book is also easier to keep an eye on – one book among many on an e-reader can easily be forgotten or drowned out by all the other books on it, while a physical book sits there, glaring at me, demanding my attention.
Last great book you’ve read?
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read recently, and will likely go on my top 10 of the year. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Araminta Hall’s Some Kind of Cruelty, which is one of the darkest, sharpest, fantastically twisted novels I’ve come across.
Favorite thing in or about your town?
Kansas City is underrated as a national city, and I prefer it stay that way, honestly. It’s big and expansive yet still has a small-town feel. It’s an arts hub, contains world-class museums (some with giant shuttlecocks on the lawn), has multiple vibrant library systems, and yes, the barbeque is as amazing as you’ve likely heard.
That bookstore with a box of paperbacks my mom brought me? That came from Rainy Day Books, which is still kicking and one of the best places in the city to settle into a corner and browse a book.
Favorite type of book to read?
Every time I find a favorite type of book, I stumble across another unexplored subgenre that becomes my new favorite. So I guess I haven’t found it yet, but I’ll keep reading books until I do.
Who’s another librarian our readers might love to hear from in this series?
Stephanie Chase from the Hillsboro Public Library, in Hillsboro, Oregon, is my book twin, even though she has better taste in books than I do.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.*