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How long has it been for you?
For me, it’ll be a year next month. A year since I’ve stepped foot in a bookstore.
For a long time, being in a bookstore was my second-favourite place to be, next to being in bed reading what I’d bought at the bookstore.
That pleasure had been diminishing steadily for a long time. Being in bookstores is less and less fun.
The ultimate bookstore experience is the meandering, directionless browse in a chaotically shelved used bookstore.
Fiction on one side, non-fiction the other. That’s it. Everything kinda, sorta alphabetized, but not really. The best of them took in more books than they sold, so that the volumes were scattered in piles on the floor. Eventually, you’re down on all fours.
What were you looking for? You had no idea. Something good. What qualified as “good”? Something a New York Review of Books reviewer compared to something else you liked on the back. A cool author photo. Hieroglyphic margin notes from the previous owner. The right cover (Vintage Contemporaries were a particular marker of excellence). Something that stood up to a cold read – two facing pages picked randomly in the middle.
Back before the ubiquity of the Internet, before you depended on someone else to tell you which books you should like, this might take hours. Used paperbacks are cheap. You’d buy in bulk. You’d come out of there with 10 or 12 books. You’d end up starting maybe six or eight of them. You’d finish three or four. One of them might turn out to be really good.
This is how I found books such as Life: A User’s Manual, Titus Groan and In Pharaoh’s Army. Each one of them plays a small role in the whatever sort of person I’ve turned out to be – in the way every great book shapes its reader.
The chain store ruined this experience. First, by helping put the used bookstore out of business. Then, by being tidy.
Order is the enemy of discovery. You know why you never accidentally find new sorts of food at the grocery store? Because you already know where everything you want is. You’re not searching for anything. You’re assembling stuff.
In the same way, you’re not going to randomly dive into anything at Chapters. These are nice, new books. Nobody wants to buy something you’ve been fondling with your grubby chicken fingers. As soon as you take one off a shelf, an alarm goes off and someone in a vest pops out from behind you: “Can I help you find something?”
This question – particular to the modern chain bookstore – delights me. This isn’t a Home Depot (where you would kill for someone to help you find something).
Everything in here is arranged by subject and author. It’s all in order. If you’re looking for something, a bookstore is the best sort of store for that.
“Can I help you find something?” in the bookstore context presumes you cannot read. Which would make visiting the bookstore a masochistic experience.
They can’t help you find anything and you can’t grope the stock. You’re left relying on the author blurbs, and you know that’s all back-scratching between literary pals.
If blurbs were run through a polygraph: ‘The woman who wrote this is my agent’s next-door-neighbour at the cottage. He asked me for a solid. I said I would. Then I forgot to read it. So I’m trying to make this endorsement as vague as possible.’
I would read that book.
There were still some meagre pleasures to be had standing in a three-storey super-bookstore. At least you were there with your people. The book people.
The pandemic ruined that, and then it ruined reading.
One assumes that in the run-up to the apocalypse – three days before the meteor hits or what have you – you’ll have some time on your hands. Time you could spend reading. But you’ll spend it staring a hole in your phone.
That’s how many of us spent last March. And April. And into May. And started again in November.
Phone staring is not reading. It’s worse for you than processed sugar.
On that tip, my two great pandemic discoveries are New York Times’ Cooking and Libby.
Libby’s an app that connects you to your local library and all the material contained within. Its apparent virtue is that it lets you read books for free. Its actual virtue is that it de-weaponizes your phone. If CNN is heroin, Libby is methadone.
Currently, I have a half-dozen books “borrowed.” Christopher Plummer’s autography because he died; a Mary McCarthy novel because I went looking for a quote and discovered she’d said it; a Daniel Silva thriller because I Googled “books like John le Carré”; Little Big Man by Thomas Berger because his name was mentioned offhandedly in something else I read; and Homage to Catalonia because I wasn’t able to sleep one night and needed something to pass a couple of hours that I know I like. Also, there are a couple of more books you don’t need to know about.
Libby can’t replicate a great browse. You don’t get that same “what’s this?” thrill when you spot a treasure. But Libby allows you to read something for the heck of it, without expectation. If you drop it 10 pages in, you haven’t blown $25.
The low risk allows you to read more widely, be less choosy, and pick up things you’d never be interested in otherwise.
Which makes you wonder – do we read less because we’ve lost interest?
Or is it because the books we tend to read – the ones driven at us by the algorithm, the bestseller lists, the “recommended” section, our like-minded friends – are pizza. Everyone loves pizza. But if you eat the same thing again and again, eventually you’ll want to try something, anything, else.
Editor’s note: (Feb. 12) An earlier version of this article named the wrong author for Little Big Man, which was written by Thomas Berger. This version has been updated.