First of all, many thanks to Stacey Harwood and David Lehman for this opportunity to share a few thoughts and for hosting this community. I enjoy reading the broad range of voices represented here and am happy to take part. (Recent guest posts that have stayed in my thoughts include Robert P. Baird's thoughts on how poetry "spends it all" and Amy Glynn Greacen's week of posts on Rome, language, chance, loss.)
Today is Sunday, day of looking out the window, day of strolls, day of meditational cleaning, day of loafing, day of reading. Sunday is the day I often find myself at the bookstore, so I thought I would start with a little ode. I started thinking about the importance of this space after reading an opinion piece by technology writer Farhad Manjoo called "Don't Support Your Local Bookseller" published on Slate in December, which was almost comically tone-deaf (possibly to generate maximum page views?) regarding the various roles a bookstore plays in a community or in the life of an individual. He argues that if you love books, you should embrace and prefer Amazon, as it allows people to buy even more books and generates "smart" recommendations of other books you would like based on its access to vast book-buying data, versus the limited tastes and knowledge of bookstore employees. He compares shopping at independent bookstores to shopping at the more expensive Whole Foods rather than your regular grocery store: a luxury experience. I don't think I need to bring up counter-arguments, as I have no doubt that Manjoo already got a lot of heat from book lovers, and I am no doubt preaching to the Bible-study group in defending the value of a bookstore here. I'm also setting aside the questions of economic models, the publishing industry, e-books vs. print, "what people buy", etc., as much has been eloquently written on these issues already. What the piece made me ponder is what psychic space the bookstore inhabits. What does it mean to love the book as an object? It's not simply about sentimentality, or possession, or the fact that used bookstores are required to have a fat cat in them in order to be fully respectable.
I'm not a rare book collector, but from my years of picking through stacks, I have collected, among other artifacts, a cheap 1959 paperback edition of Lolita (originally 50 cents, purchased for $5), which has only the book title, author, and the words "MOST TALKED ABOUT NOVEL OF OUR DAY" printed on the cover. The inside cover has the name ARTHUR CALLOWAY printed in blue pen. I found a faded red bookmark inside it with the seal of North Carolina and facts about the state printed in black ("Motto: 'To Be Rather Than To Seem"). The back cover has a blurb by "Dorothy Parker in Esquire": "A fine book, a distinguished book... a great book." "About the author" on page 2 begins with the following: "Vladimir Nabokov learned English at his English governess' knee." ...The insights this object offers about the U.S. in the 1950s, Lolita as a cultural touchstone, Nabokov as a living author couldn't be gleaned from a shiny new Vintage reissue with a new preface by a Leading Writer-Thinker of Our Own Time. The value of the object stands outside of commodification.
I also like to be able to handle poetry monographs of poets whose work, in a new bookstore, you could only find in either "Selected" or "Collected" editions. For example, I found a 1967 edition (2nd printing) of Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics, "new poems and prose" by Marianne Moore, again for $5. BETTY JANE POWELL is the name printed on the inside cover. The book contained a clipping from the L.A. Times about Miss Moore ("Rather than put as much distance as earth and attitude would allow between herself and her mother -- which has become the shameless custom now for so many of the young who think they are 'literary' -- the two Moore women shared an apartment for the next 29 years, until her mother's death"). The dust jacket is blue with the Brooklyn Bridge in gray, and the book is hardback and 49 pages long -- on the short side for poetry books being published nowadays.
As I mentioned, Sunday wandering often drives me to the used bookstores in my neighborhood, often unconsciously. They serve as one of the poles that make the place I live in make sense. Even if I just step in to browse for 10 minutes, I leave feeling energized, clearer about the task of writing, often full of ideas. If they should close, my feeling about the community would change, there would be a distance, a feeling of having been pushed out myself. This happened when I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. There used to be a little strip of used bookstores (on 7th Avenue, between Flatbush and Union, for those who are familiar) that were a weekend stop. They varied in degrees of messiness, in modes of classification, in the types of music playing inside. Some had more poetry, or better art books, or older books than the others. Stopping in the bookstores stripped wandering of its aimlessness. It focused my thoughts, crystallized my sense of myself in the world (paradoxically?) through exposure to the array of creation contained in a tiny, dusty space. All of the little used bookstores closed within a few years (after having been there for decades, I would guess) and I would find myself at the big Barnes & Noble further down the avenue, which was not the same, but did feel like a destination full of promise, more than any other business.
I'm lucky to live now near Spoonbill & Sugartown, which sells new and used books, and has been one of the markers of the Williamsburg inhabited by visual artists, designers, furniture-makers, etc. Art and philosophy are its strengths; there's always something you haven't seen before to be picked up and considered. Although the aim is not to be vastly literary, the fiction available feels intelligently curated; a taste and sensibility is reflected. Another used bookstore opened a few blocks away called (weirdly) Book Thug Nation, which surprised me by being defiantly literary. By this I mean that if you're looking for some Henry James, you won't only see Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady, there will be a dozen others, from The Americans to The Ambassadors, and volumes you didn't even know existed. Same with Nabokov. If you're looking for the diaries of Anais Nin, they won't jut have Henry and June (the one that was made into a movie, the compilation of just the juicy bits), they will have Volumes 1 through 6, possibly some unexpurgated editions. Amazing. It simply doesn't make any sense "in the marketplace," and that just makes me so happy.
Yes, I could probably find any of these books on Amazon or on eBay. But, I insist, I am not just a brain floating behind a computer screen, clicking for the satisfaction of its chemical needs. I want to live in a world of objects, with hands that can touch, the full five senses. Otherwise, why go to Rome if you can see the streets on Google maps, learn Italian from YouTube videos, order authentic Italian treats online to eat at home? Why bother going to the museum if the full catalogue is visible online? I want to see and touch things that have survived through time and that reflect something of the time they were made in.
Browsing books online creates a sense of overload, of endlessness. I find my concentration destroyed, my intentions muddled. When browsing books on shelves, there is a happy brush with the unexpected, the element of chance.
Manhattan was once a place of used bookstores, wasn't it? Can someone confirm this? I would feel differently about the place if it still were. On the entire island, I can only think of three (Abracadabra on Broadway, The Strand, which I always find to be too crowded and grouchy, and a fancier in the Upper East Side, maybe in the low sixties, which specializes in rarities).
Reading being the most cerebral of acts, it seems natural to some that books should be among the first things to disappear in an increasingly virtual world (along with checks, paper money, airline tickets, etc.). But standing inside of a bookstore, the sense of being surrounded by books, picking one up, wandering to another section, is to me, a bodily metaphor for the act of reading, or of thinking, that, because of its physicality, cannot be replaced by surfing the web. It changes the mind, it changes the body. The experience may not be long for the world, and yes, nostalgic tendencies should not be confused with the simple resistance to change, but it's an experience I would recommend living while you can.