I’m in a bookstore, Joseph Fox in Philadelphia, and there are people here in the cramped sometimes hallway-narrow store with me. Many of them. People I mean. Some smell like rain. That’s how close they are. It’s raining outside and they’re coming into the store and I can smell the rain on them.
You have to look behind you and on both sides before kneeling or unkneeling or turning one way or another. And me personally I get the sense literally everyone else in the store is there to find a specific book and they’re all searching the stacks carefully, assiduously even. And here I am awkward and targetless and perusing aimlessly the myriad paper- and hardbacks.
That sweaty I-don’t-belong-here feeling creeps in slowly at first and then a major decision crashes into my field of vision: get it the hell together and be hunted by these books with a little goddamn dignity or get out go home leave now. As many who experience similar moments can no doubt relate to, my outward demeanor doesn’t change while this storm is raging behind my eyes. The capital v Visible me is cool as a cucumber as they say. The capital i Invisible me processes this all in a few blinks and when I open my eyes again I’ve decided to stay.
These days books are most easily purchased online. However, visiting a bookstore is a special and enviable thing. When I step into a bookstore I am aware only that there is a book looking for me. I almost never have one in mind but am dogged from the moment I cross the threshold with a sense that there is one, somewhere in there, which has me in mind.
It wasn’t Rilke, it never has been. I have read him, and I love him, but none of his books have ever shopped for me in a bookstore. I have often thought it was David Foster Wallace, and once even gave up early and bought The Broom of the System, lying to myself that it was the book I had been in the store to purchase. But it wasn’t, I had just grown a bit impatient and lazy and bought it and left.
The covers are part of it, the titles more so, but the randomly turned-to page most of all. No other indicator is as accurate in determining which tome hunts me. If the writing doesn’t stick in your heart like a grappling hook breaching the top of a prison wall, the book isn’t looking for you.
Today it may be George Musser’s Spooky Action at a Distance, about nonlocality in quantum mechanics. The title, the cover, and every passage I randomly turned and read all suggested a strong attraction between book and reader. Like a word on the tip of the tongue I was almost certain. But no, it isn’t the one. I want to read it, sure, but it’s not the one hunting me today.
In fact, today nothing was looking for me at all and so I leave with nothing new. Don’t for a moment think I wasted my time though. It’s nothing to be upset about. This visit was eventful and quietly explosive. There are sections and authors and books I must absolutely return to, whether here, physically, or online, digitally. Today was like an expedition into an unexplored region: though I return with no artifacts or specimens I have mapped whole tracts unknown to me until today.
Electronic books are convenient as hell, but I’ve never ended an Amazon or iBooks shopping session feeling like I’ve had a capital E Experience. It’s more efficient, simpler, faster and less anxious to look for books on a computer. But it just isn’t much fun.