When my eldest two kids, my girls, were teenagers, one of their favorite things to do was to go to the used book store. The one downtown.
It is nothing much to look at, on its face. As you walk in, sometimes past a homeless person who is taking a break from the library nearby, there are a number of humble tables in a narrow line against the windows facing the street. If you follow them to your left, you come to the coffee bar, where you can get a sandwich or hot mug of your choice. If, instead, you walk straight ahead, you enter the realm of words gone by.
There are a few recent books on the front table, near the register. You can pick up something on the county’s public school reading list, or a popular piece of fiction, if you want to. But that is not the reason to go to this particular bookstore, or to its cousin on the other side of town. The purpose of your journey is to trace your way through the maze of shelves, upstairs and downstairs, arranged somewhat haphazardly, but with a strange logic. And in that maze to find yourself.
Finding Your Shelf
My daughter the gardener was especially fond of one section of the bookstore. In the horticultural section, huge coffee table books, cataloging the intricacies of the care and keeping of plants, sat neglected and dusty on a lower shelf. She would spread herself out there, surrounded by volumes, consulting one and then another, and then finally descend down the stairs with five or six inches worth of the choicest ones.
My second-born daughter was into all things Japan, at the time. She would run to her favorite bookcase, the one filled top to bottom with short, colorful volumes, designed to be read backwards. And she would eagerly snap up a whole series of her current favorite manga, after wolfing down a number of volumes while just standing there.
I always seemed to be lugging a baby or herding a toddler during these trips, so I didn’t get much chance to properly browse the stacks. And in the course of homeschooling the boys, a few years later, I have now accumulated so many books, that it seems almost blasphemous to buy any more.
Though of course I do, occasionally. With a very guilty conscience.
Part of the beauty of going to bookstores is that you are planning a future indulgence. Much like buying a tablet of chocolate, or a fancy layer cake, you are treating yourself. You are giving yourself permission, for whatever fraction of an hour, or rare lazy weekend, you might have, to do what you want to do. Uninterrupted. And alone.
In a house of four kids, time alone is rare. One nearly always has an audience. For a good part of your children’s upbringing, you have an audience with very different tastes from your own, with very different concepts of what a good use of time is, with very different understandings of the nature and purpose of quiet.
Not that I’m complaining.
Needless to say, my book reading is not what it once was. That’s probably why I enjoy reading other people’s book blogs. They are either introducing recent publications, of which I am usually unaware, or taking classics and showing how they still, somehow, have modern relevance.
I have always thought of books as meals to be consumed. A book can be like a gourmet meal of many courses, with nuances of flavor and texture, temperature and color, so that, by the end, between the sumptuous food and the fine wine that is paired with it, you experience a kind of heady satisfaction.
Other books are quick and bursting with energy, pushing you, anxious and full of anticipation, chugging uphill, and then plunging you down and around curves, leaving you at the end panting and catching your breath. To mix the metaphor further: these seem more like candy, to me, like delicious but decadent food: a greasy cheeseburger, an ice cream sundae. Tantalizing, delicious, and alluring, yet somehow dangerous. Bad for you. A sin. Leaving you wanting more.
Of course, that is oversimplifying things. All good books—or, let’s say, all well-written books, books which are written with the pleasure of the reader in mind– leave you wanting more. Which is why, so often, when I do read, I basically binge-read. One author, everything I can get my hands on.
But it can be difficult, if you are unused to an author’s style, to get through even one volume. My teen daughters struggled with Jane Austen’s Emma. I found Dickens awful in college, but hilarious as a young mom. I still find some spy novels unreadable: over-masculinized, obsessed with technology or weaponry, choked with doomsday disaster. Romances, on the other hand can be cloying and embarrassingly graphic. Well, these days, most everything tends to be embarrassingly graphic.
So, I often find myself heading back to the old standards. The classics, the ones that seem to vary with each reading, morphing with each decade I add to my life. This means, I’m sorry to say, that I won’t be caught up with the most recent novels, unless one miraculously captures my attention.
I have learned, while reading classics, to ignore or let slide a lot of things that seem anachronistic, even insulting, to the modern reader, but that were commonly accepted at the time of writing. In my mind, it will never do, to allow a book of a certain vintage to insult you. You are not the one the book was written for. You are merely eavesdropping on the murmurs of another time. Walking among gravestones. And how can that be offensive?
Book Club for Poor Readers
I do belong to a book club, which allows me to talk about books, even when I (more often than not) fail to read anything. We have broad categories, into which almost any work of fiction could fall, and extremely lax rules on how many categories can be counted for any given book. I know this may sound like a poor excuse for a book club, but it is perfect for my current situation, in which I am eager and enthusiastic, but a little weak on the follow-through.
I imagine I will read more when my house is quieter, and less full. But I’m not in any hurry for that to happen.
Happy reading to those who made it to the bottom of this post. You have proved yourself better readers than I.