I don’t think I’ve made it any kind of secret that I prefer to read ebooks. I remember reading ebooks eight years ago (or something like that) though the Baen Free Library, and they’ve only gotten easier and more convenient. Nowadays I can carry a hundred books around in my pocket and, on the Kindle Paperwhite screen, read them comfortably and in any lighting conditions. In fact, I like ebooks so much that I’ve all but liquidated my personal library: nowadays I only keep about a box or so of books in my apartment.
Because of this, I rarely go into a bookstore. Like, I think I’ll seriously browse through a bookstore maybe once or twice in a year. However, today I was happened to find myself at The Book Thing, which is a Baltimore institution: a place to drop off and pick up used books for free. And I did find myself somewhat nostalgic. Not for actual paper books themselves, mind you. Just like everybody else, I grew up reading paperbooks, but somehow the feel and smell and weight of them doesn’t carry strong positive associations with me.
But I did feel nostalgic for the act of browsing: for the sense of possibility that’s created by the sight of a massive, yet finite, selection of books. It’s not something you get on the internet, you have access to information about too many books: browsing on the internet isn’t fun; it’s a joyless compulsion that always carries with it the keen awareness of the massive ocean of things that I will never read.
And it’s not something you get while browsing your own library of books, because those books are such a known quantity. You selected each one of them yourself. Even if you like them and are interested in them, there’s something about their familiarity that renders them boring.
No. Browsing in a physical store is different because there are so many books there that you’re not interested in and would never be interested in, but the sheer quantity of all that chaff serves to highlight the other ones…the ones you didn’t know you could be interested in. Somehow, those unexpected finds seem to carry a different look to them. The paper feels different. They’re more alive than the books around them.
And there’s also the way that the shelves create interesting juxtapositions: they make your eyes run across books that you’d never otherwise consider.
(Actually, after going to the Book Thing, I went to Baltimore’s other premier literary institution: the anarchist bookstore, Red Emma’s. And there, even though the selection was quite limited, I found lots of interesting books, because they were all so odd and had all been so carefully selected. It would not have been hard for me to walk out of that bookstore with a dozen books. And, in fact, I even, for the first time in a long time, paid full price for a paper book, Thomas Ligotti’s My Work Is Not Yet Done, which is a book that I’d actually been meaning to read for quite some time.)
Anyway, I walked out of The Book Thing with a number of books, including a very bizarre one: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is a comic novel about what happens with the Queen of England discovers a passion for reading. In some ways, it was groa-inducing, because it was a typical defense of the pleasure and value of reading, but it was also fascinating for its portrait of the way that reading upsets the bourgeois mindset. And it was short. Which is to say that I came home and I read it and I enjoyed it and I doubt I’d ever have come across it if I hadn’t found it on a random bookshelf in a poorly-ventilated warehouse in Baltimore.