With an hour to kill the other day I went in to a Barnes and Noble and just browsed through. I walked each row, waiting for something to jump out at me. While there were many books I would gladly take home, I left empty handed but satisfied.
New bookstores are great; with their targeted displays, bright lights, comfy chairs and coffee. But even better is libraries and second hand bookstores. The books there have more character; more gravitas. They have been read by hundreds of people and are worn with dogeared corners and marginalia that is often indecipherable. The people who work at these places are true lovers of books, more often than not found behind their desk nose deep in one. Ask for a recommendation and their eyes light up as they encounter a kindred spirit.
And it is in these musty old bookstores that the magical possibility remains, of finding a treasure; some forgotten tome yielding incredible powers. At least that is what I imagined as a kid…
My love of books and bookstores began very early, with my parents. I was read to as a child, as I read to my kids today. As I got older the library served as my internet and I would check out a big stack each week; a mix of science fiction and reference. Some days I would sit at the library and read a full book before taking the rest home on my bike.
My Grandfather was also a bigtime reader of spy and thriller novels, with a large collection housed in a beautiful built in bookshelf. I would spend Sunday afternoons with him; first mowing the lawn ($5.00!), then doing some woodworking. Next, we would have lunch and play a few rounds of solitaire. Finally, I would choose a book from his collection for the week. It was here that I discovered Trevanian and Ludlum, and had read the entire Bourne trilogy twice by the time I was fourteen.
Then there are found books; those books discovered in the back of an airplane seat, or on a chair at the bus stop. I have left books in these places myself and know that they are not forgotten items, but gifts left by fellow travelers for the next reader. I actually just found one at a heliport I flew out of – An Officers Duty by Jean Johnson – and it was excellent.
Working at sea also encourages a lot of reading, especially in the days before ready access to TV or internet that now provides “quality of life”. The readers would bring four to six books each trip – leaving them in the communal ships library when done. You read it, then pass it along and take a new one. The Seafarers Mission would also provide books to sailors free of charge, showing up at the gangway with a box brimming with the promise of adventure.
Stopping at bookstores in different countries was a magical experience. I’ve purchased books from all over the world; both from famous bookstores and from tiny hole in the wall shops. I began doing yoga as a result of a how-to book purchased in Bermuda. I purchased The Moviegoer in New Orleans at a store located at the former residence of William Faulkner. Everywhere you go, there will be something for you.
When the kindle arrived on the scene it was truly revolutionary. Now I could travel with as many books as I wanted, minus the added weight in my luggage. I read almost exclusively on my iPad for years to follow. But recently I began to take note of a change in reading culture. Ships no longer have well stocked libraries and the joy of discovering an excellent book totally by chance began to disappear; now you just dial up exactly what you want, when you want it. In January I began my 12 Months of Modernism reading program for the year and had decided to read hardcopies, which was the best decision I could have made. It has got me back into the bookstores and the dwindling culture of readers of the paperback novel.
There are still treasures to be found out there but you need to get out and look. Maybe there will be a resurgence and paperback books will become ironically cool again, much like kids listening to vinyl. But to me, a life spent with a nose in books is a life well lived, and there is nothing like walking into a store with books stacked to the ceiling, brimming with pages of promise.