Departments

Bookstores

I wish I could preach bookstores. Everyone should read: reading is, for most people, both the best and the easiest form of thinking – an affordance which makes it one of life’s kindnesses, not to be scorned. But most readers do not need bookstores: a library card and the occasional purchase suffice those who read only a little.

But those of us who read much are drawn to bookstores. Theirs is a different attraction than a library; a different temptation than simply buying books (even secondhand). I go to bookstores to be surprised – which is not an indulgence. More books are worth reading than life has time to read. I could try to prioritize; but how to judge? My tastes, my needs, are unique; I cannot rely on others’ rankings. My solution is the simplest possible: I leave much of my reading to chance. Of books that appeal to me, some I go out of my way for; but more I resign myself to read only should I come across them in person. And of books I read, while most are books I chose in advance, many are books that took me by surprise. Lovers of music, of movies, of food, of any other art form or humane delight, are proud of this kind of openness, and love to recount their discoveries; but some perversity (a holdover from school?) drives readers to planning out reading lists and apologizing for their deviations.

Libraries and recommendation engines cannot be relied on for these surprises. They serve order; but a bookstore should be the paradigm of artful disorder. That is, if I want a particular book, I should be able to find it; but I should pick up a few books by mistake along the way. And if I do not, at least once, innocently pick up a book I would be embarrassed to be seen with, and have to glance shiftily before I slip it back onto the shelf; then I will never find the book that, not having known to look for, I would be embarrassed never to have heard of.

It would be extreme to consider 20 personal or 100 automatic recommendations in a day. But in an hour in a bookstore a thousand books may pass under my eyes – books judged not by their covers, but by the company they keep, as recognizing a friend among strangers makes the others less than strangers. Libraries sometimes afford such meetings, but that is not their purpose. I have been in large libraries so well organized that they made me restless: where, unable to wander with my eyes, I had to wander on foot. I cannot object to that in a library, but I encourage bookstores to avoid it. Large gardens need planning, lest they seem wilderness; but plants in small gardens must be allowed their wildness, or they seem decorations – to claim the space, they must overgrow and mix a little.

I implied at the start that I could not persuade anyone of the appeal of bookstores. That is not because I have no good reasons; it is because someone who does not love bookstores is likely to be so different from me that I do not see what we could have to say to each other.

Certainly, there are people who love bookstores more than I do. I have never made a bookstore my haunt (as I read that people do); I have never made a friend in or through a bookstore (which some seem to take for their purpose). But I remember, I think, every bookstore I have ever been in: little blond-wood, shiny-cover chain bookshops; carpeted, café-harboring shelf-mazes; a cement-floored, steel-rack paperback warehouse; an amphitheatrically rising by levels university bookstore; overstuffed, impossibly narrow bookstores in the French Quarter with wood floors creaking and squeaking like untuned instruments; a shadowy book-laden mansion in North Carolina; and others, and more. As an adult, my dreams are are always recombining old places remembered from childhood; but bookstores have a way to slip through that barrier, a shift to enter dreams. Willing or not, I return to them all.