Once upon a few lifetimes ago, we owned many, many books. Our library spilled from bookshelves to boxes, nightstands to nooks. Then we moved one too many times, finally traveling across a vast ocean, and we let go of our library. We gave away, donated or sold thousands of words, images, tales and dreams. The millions of commas, periods, exclamation points and the letter “e” that used to belong to us now live in other libraries and other homes, hopefully opening windows on the same worlds of wonder as they did for us.
But of course, we never really owned any of these words that were spun together to create stories, poems, and plays. We just rented their ink and paper.
I’ve lost that lust for owning bound pages. I have a fear of collecting more than I have space for and clutter makes me shudder. I’m also insufferably picky about what I spend my time reading; so many of the books I pick up from the library’s “Holds” shelf I snap shut after the first twenty pages and return them to fill some other reader’s queue.
So, I rarely buy a new book unless it’s a favorite author or a classic I know I will reread (Jane and I have a once-yearly date: “Emma” is on tap for 2011) or it’s on the bargain table for $6.99. Every so often we cull our bookshelves and take a stack to Ophelia’s in Fremont or Third Place Books in Ravenna, trade them in for store credit and replenish with used books from the stacks or bargains on display. But mostly I just wait for the hot titles to filter their way down from the library wait list.
But bookstores, God help me, I love them. I’m blessed to live in a city that still celebrates and supports independent bookstores, so I never need set foot in big box chain store to find exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for. And what could be more soulless than browsing the mind-numbing pages of Amazon.com? I need to hold a book in my hands, caress its cover, feel its weight and the cut of its pages, inhale its ink, view the swirl of its font, read the author’s bio and skim the first chapters to know if it’s worth my time and maybe, just maybe my cash.
I have explored the wonders in Queen Anne Bookstore; Elliott Bay Book Company; World Wide Books and Maps; Secret Garden Bookshop; Fremont Place Books Ravenna Third Place; Edmonds Bookshop; Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island; University Bookstore; Santoro’s on Greenwood; Pegasus in West Seattle; Ophelia’s…and I have left them all with a piece of my heart and, often, pieces from my wallet.
But mostly I just snoop. I linger in the cookbooks section, flipping through Nigella, Jamie, Marcella, Alice, Claudia, Thomas, Rick, dreaming of the time and money to cook my way through the recipes of the River Café and The French Laundry, of exploring culinary Provence, Mexico, and Italy from tip to toe. I pore over the “Staff Picks” cards, trying not to make gagging sounds at rapturous praise for The Lacuna or Room. I squeeze past the ubiquitous “The Girl Who Pays for the Lease on Our Building” display; I too think Lisbeth Sanders kicks some brutal ass but I wouldn’t pay for the pleasure. I check to see if there is a travel guide to the Languedoc we don’t yet own. I look through the fiction stacks, overwhelmed by all that I have not read, knowing the forty-five or so years left to me on this planet aren’t enough to get through them. I console myself with the knowledge that most wouldn’t be worth my while. But there could be that hidden gem, that Shadow of the Wind, that Unbearable Lightness of Being, Crossing to Safety, The Suitable Boy, The Catcher in the Rye, The Secret Garden or Persuasion that turns my world around, that enchants me with the beauty of its language and images, that makes me crave to live inside its words. So I peruse, I jot down titles, I leave clutching the store’s newsletter to update my library request list.
A couple of rainy Saturdays ago I stopped in at the Elliott Bay Book Company – perhaps the Queen of Seattle’s indie bookstore empire – and enjoyed a bowl of Pumpkin Soup in the café. Belly full, I wandered onto the sales floor. I scanned the fiction aisles, but I was uninspired and bored by the titles therein. Nothing spoke to me. It seemed I’d either read the novels I espied or had no interest in what waited beyond the front cover.
Heading for the door, I knocked against one of the low stacks containing poetry. I was surrounded suddenly by the ghosts and glimmers of Neruda, Rumi, Codrescu, Ryokan and Rilke; of Nietzsche, Frost, Dickinson, Sappho, Eliot, Plath, and Poe; of Ginsberg, Goethe, Whitman, Harrison, Milosz, and Millay. I could go no farther. I pulled out volume after volume, scanned their stanzas, whispered their meters, stumbled into enjambments, crashed into caesuras. I felt like a tourist wandering through a souk in Marrakech; my senses were overwhelmed by colors and visions, and by voices calling to me in a Babel of languages I did not understand.
Then images began to take shape as I let go of the literal, of paragraph, of theme, and of conclusion. Words coalesced into shapes of beauty, sorrow, anger, sensual passion, of longing, of Ireland, Argentina, Montana, of Death, of war, of every emotion and physical sensation felt by man and some that defy conventional expression.
The velvet cadence of a Shakespeare sonnet, the whimsy of e.e. cummings, the beloved clarity of Frost, the baroque melancholy of Apollinaire, the elation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning- I was intoxicated by so many words strung together in astonishing and devastating ways.
I didn’t know where to start or where to stop. I walked to the counter with loaded arms, my face flushed and heart pounding. I felt as if I had discovered a new world and was bursting with my secret- undecided whether to share my news or to keep the treasure to myself.
As my purchases were being rung up, another bookseller looked through my selections. He paused at The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin and patted the volume lovingly. “Ah, the bible.” He sighed. “I read a poem every morning; I’ve memorized seventy-five of her poems so far.” Hard to think of a more beautiful and fulfilling way to begin one’s day. Maybe there’s an Emily podcast I can listen to while I run…
And my bookcase is full to bursting again.