My finger drifts along the books’ spines. I insist on being casual, skimming through hundreds of alphabetized names and titles as though they were one relentless, underwhelming sentence. I don’t want to buy a book. The thought seizes me; I love reading, pine for books, thrill at running alongside story after story, my relay race of the mind, so why can’t I find the energy to heft one of these 200, 300, 400 word wedges from the shelf, kiss and hug it all the way home, and then comfortably devour it?
I’m in Powell’s Books, Portland, OR, a mecca of words, literal blocks of books, a reader’s haven. People are abuzz with their personal treasures, their eyes flitting between tables of contents, synopses, quoted praise, and their friends’ reactions. The future owners sure that once they’ve been revolutionized by the read, their peers will be clamoring to borrow it next. I can feel myself becoming a snob, my hulkish alter ego: back and glasses straightening, squint intensifying, and my disdain for horror mysteries becoming unbearable. I feel my face push through too many books, breezing all the way to fiction’s “L”, my discerning eye recognizing the praised, the canon. I glimpse their Penguin Classics sensibility, the font so regal, so spare. I’m disgusted with myself. The hulk fades, shoulders slump. I don’t want to be here, nor does my English Literature degree. We’re embarrassed enough to spend our days confined to the secrecy of some used, Amazon bought texts that fly to us from some remote Texas hoarder.
I’ll just plainly admit it…I am out of touch with the literary culture. Ever since I graduated university and hauled off to the northwest I feel like I haven’t had a clue. The university system was a support network of name droppers, distancing techniques that let you bullshit till you were waist high in self-aggrandizing, and maybe worst of all, beaming professors who oozed when you stated the right reference, the right connection, the right quote or polemics. Toying with material they’d been teaching over and over again for years. Now I’m unhinged, floating through a liberal public that wants reading to be a fashionable accessory without betraying its substance.
Yet, while I am full up with uncertainty, I know that it is ultimately up to me to account for what I witness in this elaborate coupling literature and culture have been up to in the northwest. So here’s what I, your plaid engulfed oracles, sees. I see a silent sustained happy hour, people firmly holding both book and beer like unwitting victims of a Bud Light commercial. They try to keep their eyes on the page but are too distracted wondering how other eyes find their own effort to keep said eyes on the page. Welcome to twenty-first century hipster courtship. I see charming small businesses: a Russian bookstore complete with lone old Russian clerk, egalitarian comic stores nodding at Gaiman, DnD, Magic the Gathering, Spiderman-Superman crossovers, R. Crumb, and Pekar all at once with that unparalleled nerdy fervor. I see shelf makers, copy masters, binders, and librarians all muttering, “Well I’m still here, aren’t I? See, they still need me”. I see book metropolises. That is, I see Barnes and Noble. Bookstores rife with everything they think words have to offer. I see their legions of nametag-necklace wearing personnel remarking on the wonder of being around books all day. Their bestseller, book club, hot list shelves shifting like Wall Street’s ticker. Their E-reader’s like digital omens whose sleekly rectangular screens proclaim the inevitability of a future where page flipping is just another special effect. Egad, enough of me already!
But I’ll tell you, what I see the most is a person and a book. A knowing smirk on the reader’s face as the book whispers in their ear. Maybe an intimate turn of the page. Someone savoring their own mental movement through the pages. I see literature, or simply, reading overall, as an exchange and a collaboration. Reader and work are realizing their cultural relevance simultaneously. The marketplaces, the reviews and analysis, the water cooler chats, and even the classrooms cannot come close to duplicating those moments when a reader is pouring all their energy into what they are reading. Although I often find the rituals and formalities, or better put, the money and the social status that lean on our stacks of books to be elaborately annoying distractions, no matter how you dress it up, the task is still to read and learn and then to read and learn some more. If that’s what you’re doing, then thinking past the frills will just happen.