It has been said that a person reaches middle age on the day they realize they will never read Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” a book I have owned for several years and begun on several occasions but never managed to finish, and so I must be safe from middle age for the present.
For my part, I would say that my childhood ended on the day that I realized I could not read every book in the world, that such a task was impossible under any circumstances short of my being radioactively altered, superhero-style, and bequeathed with an inhuman capacity for comprehension.
I remember this moment. It happened in a Waldenbooks, in the mall: the young adult section. I was not so very old, maybe 14, when it suddenly occurred to me that all of these books -- each of which was packed chock-full of potential friends, escapes, safe havens, dreams, dangers, hopes, fears, romances, broken hearts, happy endings -- were beyond my reach. Some of them would go unread. It was inevitable.
The realization was shattering, a mortal wound to the lingering childlike optimism to which I was persistently clinging. All optimism henceforth would be hard fought and hard won.
As is true for so many of us, books saved my life. Changed my life. Made me feel less alone. All of the above concurrently or sequentially, at various points. I went to bookstores to cure my sadness and solitude. Sometimes I hit on people I met in bookstores, and sometimes I got hit on in turn.
Bookstores are wonderful places to meet people, romantically and otherwise. You can tell things about a person by watching them shop for books, if they beeline for a specific section, if they browse aimlessly, if they have a mapped process for navigating the space.
The Trident on Newbury Street in Boston: I go directly to women’s studies. Then to biography. Then to spirituality, photography, art, film, fiction. Rodney’s, in Central Square in Cambridge: I work down each aisle in turn from left to right; then upstairs, right to left. Any Barnes and Noble: methodical assessment of each of the tables stacked with books being actively promoted, followed by in-depth coverage of bargain books. Harrison’s Comics in Salem, MA: a clockwise meditative spiral working from the entrance gradually winding inward to the center of the store.
I love a bookstore because a bookstore is a labyrinth of possibilities. When I enter a bookstore, I am faced with a vast unconsumable banquet; there are more opportunities here than I can ever hope to access, and having the option of choosing from such an exhibition of diversity is the greatest luxury I am ever likely to know.
Buying a book is an expression of hope: It contains the expectation that we will read said book, finish it, and enjoy it -- and that it will be good. We don’t buy books we think will be terrible; we buy books with faith and trust that they will provide meaning, that they will tell us a story, or make us think, or improve our lives or improve our selves. This is all the optimism many of us can manage, these days.
I’ve tried e-readers; being an early adopter under most circumstances, it seemed like technology I would take to. A whole library in one device! But I could not sacrifice the tactile experience; my favorite books are used, books with other people’ notes in the margins, with library date stamps inside the back cover and occasional creases on pages once folded down to mark someone else’s place.
A physical book is an intimate object: we hold it close to our faces to read, we keep it on our bedside table as we sleep. An old book is a piece of someone else’s experience, or many people’s experiences -- they spent some measure of their lives with that book, and it made them feel things. Now it will do the same for me.
This process of selection, this touching of a tangible object, is as important to my experience of reading as the words themselves; you may feel differently, and that’s OK. You do what you like. I will keep buying books, paper ones, and reading them, and carrying them around like little relics valiantly protecting me from boredom or melancholy. I will do this because my doing so and other peoples’ doing so will allow real-life bookstores, those magical realms of imagination and hope, to continue to exist.
While I am old enough now to know I can’t read all the books, I am certainly going to try.