Books and What They Know

There’s a place in a bookstore, a spot where you can stand and hear the books. It’s the focal point of a multitude of lenses, the single point in the store where the projection of all their secret bookish knowledge is in perfect convergence, allowing you to receive everything. It’s hard to find this spot during the day, because all the people in the store throw off the geometry of the information flow, creating eddies around their perspectives and beliefs, futzing the reception. With all those people the bookstore becomes a strangely quieter place.

I’ve worked at various bookshops, in various countries, for a while now and what I’ve learned is that there is rarely a more beautiful thing than finding that secret spot (it forever changes as books migrate in and out of the store, altering ratios and alchemy) and sitting there. Smoking. And you just listen – listen to all the quiet tumult of books calling across the spaces to each other (because they’re not speaking to you, not yet). You can’t make anything out because it’s like those voices in your head that all go on and on at once, a susurrus of pitch and meaning that is almost impossible to decipher for more than a snatch of a second.

Maybe libraries have it, too. I don’t know. But bookstores do, the good ones. If you can find that space, that nomadic area, it will fix your head, it will cleanse your acne and it will pop that slipped disc back into your spine, afterwards bringing you cake. It will make everything okay again.

I recommend it strongly.

People claim reading as a process, a whole process, they condemn books like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code as being unworthy of being printed, or being destructive as a thing to read. It’s laying claim to brain function rather than taste. Shoot the shitty, mediocre books down as examples of whatever stylistic aesthetic you’re devoted to, colonised by or trying to get laid with, but don’t condemn the books. They’re just words on pages, doing whatever it is that words do on pages when we’re not paying attention. And don’t condemn those that enjoy reading these lesser tomes – mock them, if it appeals, draw disparaging conclusions about their taste and cerebral proclivities as much as you like, whatever intellectual eugenics bandwagon you want to jump on, but don’t condemn them. Because the books will hear you and they’re not a forgiving bunch. Remember when you read that book? That one that your friends were reading? And you were all talking about it? And there was that bit they were all talking about, the bit that they loved above all the other bits? And you thought, Sheesh, I wasn’t all up in that, I thought it was just a bit, y’know, a space, a thing that wasn’t that great. I thought that other bit was the real deal, the crux of the whole  shebang. Well it was that great, the book was punishing you for that thing you said about Don Delillo being a literary fraud whose books should be taken out of Contemporary Fiction courses all around the world. And for calling Dan Brown a cunt. The books don’t like that. So it hid that bit from you, it warped its narrative around itself so you wouldn’t understand. Then it sniggered.

I’ve spent many nights, after finishing some overflow of work, alone, wandering around bookstores. A couple of years ago I was the buyer for a particular store, beautiful Unity. A job that means I was the filter for all the books that made it through the door from the publishing houses monthly migrations, and, after I had been doing it for a while, I had a night. This night I was staying late, catching up on a thing that was running ahead of me, and I went for a wander, looking for the spot. As I was edging around the biography table, past a display on the central support column of the store, listening intently, I had a thought.

It was all me.

Everything in that store, all the books and all their surreptitious whisperings, were me. Because I chose them.

I’m aware that you never really own a book, you can never possess it beyond it’s papery body, though you sometimes think it. In that spot in a bookstore, where you stand and hear them talking, often they’re laughing at you. Laughing, in good humour, without rancour, because you think you understand. You don’t. You’re just a reader. You’re usually not even a writer (though I think they, writers, poets most of all, sometimes know; they have some conduit, some covert correspondence with the books that they can’t ever fully describe, though the trying must be part of the point, but they can’t hold it in their heads, because it’s the night sky, all full up with stars and expanse).

But I chose them, you see, all these books. All that knowledge stacked and pressed into the shelves and cupboards and displays. I was fucking Moses. I led them to this milk and honey. This whole pantheon of scholarship and erudition was an expression of me. Fucking me. That made me one of them.

I shone, for a moment, like a sun. Head back and arms held up, hard and straight.

The books were quiet, like they were allowing me that moment of incandescence, possibly feeding me a little of their energy. They were quiet, maybe drawing breath inaudibly. Then they chuckled at me, shaking their pages. Because I thought I knew. I didn’t.

But they gave me that moment. So I love them. All of them.

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16 responses to “Books and What They Know

  1. There is a certain sanctuary provided by bookstores that I haven’t felt anywhere else. I’ve always simply called it my “happy place” but you’ve expounded on that feeling perfectly. Thank you for sharing this…

  2. I have yet to find a bookstore that gives me such a wonderful warm feel as the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. I can understand why they have have won an award from Publishers Weekly as the best independent bookstore.

  3. 1) Great post for NZ book month

    2) How can we make collections of digital books make you feel like that? Yes, I’m thinking of http://www.nzetc.org/ My crazy idea of the morning is using http://www.teleread.org/2009/10/09/how-to-turn-wordle-into-an-ebook-cover-generator-by-piotr-kowalczyk/ for everything we don’t have images of

    • I’m not all that interested in the digitization of existing books – it may be a generational thing, a failure of imagination or whatnot, but I just can’t get past the pure form of a book, the smell, texture, etc. The ability to read it in the bath. It’s a big issue in the book world, currently, and will only become bigger, but still… I just can’t get interested beyond a point. That said, the idea of what writers will be able to do with digitization is a whole other realm of interest. I look at writers such as Mark Z Danielewski (House of Leaves being one of my all time favourite books) and I can’t help but get all fidgety and thrilled by what they may be able to do with it.
      I basically hope that it is a form of literature that will be made more interesting by the force of what is being written rather than the logistical, aesthetic or even moral state of play. They’re already doing some pretty cool stuff with various nonfiction titles.

      • I’ll grant that digitised books aren’t for everyone (don’t be so sure unless you’ve fallen asleep with a Kindle, but that’s another story), but if you look at a collection like our Nineteenth-Century Novels Collection (which like is says on the tin is a collection of every kiwi novel published in the nineteenth century that we know about), you’ll see that ~50 of ~56 books have been out of print for a hundred years.
        That’s fifty kiwi novels that have been out of print since before your public library or bookshop was founded, which makes your chances of getting your mitts on a physical copy virtually nil. Most of these are only available in the big university libraries + the ATL.

        The URL is http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-corpus-nineteenthCenturyNovels.html

      • Archival digitization – well that’s a different matter entirely. Though I do wonder sometimes whether we should just let books die – now that we can save everything in digiform we get obsessed with saving it all. Not that I want to set myself up as some sort of booky Kevorkian. Plus, if an old book does die, the smell of it remains, especially in NZ novels, in the body of work that follows.
        A kindle in bed, its soft glow doing away with the need of a bedside lamp. It’s just wrong.

  4. As a bookselling professional/all-singin’ all-dancin’ monkey, let the record show that I only sneer at people’s choice in books when they are rude or sneer at moi. Then it’s all on.

  5. Oh yeah, libraries definitely have that spot. University libraries, at least. I like to go in there on my way home, find that place, and sit and inhale book dust until I get dizzy. I walk out a better person for it, too, even if I didn’t open a single cover. I didn’t know until now that bookshops have those places too.

  6. To a point, my friend. These lovely things are the spawn of corporates and world publishing. Respect to you for weeding wheat from chaff. Long hours indeed. You loved ALL of them? Even the burgeoning Misery Memoirs aligned in their serial suffering turning Biography into The Table of Discomfiture? The thudding nonsense of 1000 Positive Things that Noodles Bring to Your Life When Cooked By Somebody With A Speech Impediment? All of my time surrounded by That Beauty, and the gift of “House of Leaves” meant the most. I believe the place you speak of was located in the triangular nodal vortex of non-fiction, staff picks and poetry. It also offered the positive view of Empire and Transient Entities, and harboured intense discussions between good people.

    • Can you love to a point? There are certainly gradations of love involved – I couldn’t claim to love them equally by any means: Jackie Collins is the red-headed stepchild of loved books and Dan Brown the yappy poodle, but there is still love there, when you see how happy they make other people.
      Misery Memoirs make me feel a little sick, but I’ll show up for at least 1 out of 4 of their school recitals, if only to show I have confidence they have potential to be something more. And as far as Thudding Nonsense goes… well, I love picking scabs as well.
      My love isn’t perfect – who knows who is going to end up in therapy over these relationships, me or Dave Pelzer? (Actually that’s probably a no-brainer). But the love is there. It is what brought on the bitter regret after I punted a copy of ‘The Secret’ across the store one night (even though I told myself at the time that it was really, really asking for it).
      And Jan, if you could discover a way to find and track that spot with your secret satellites, we could make a New Age mint, dude. A mint. Probably put Pinnacle out of business.

  7. Lynley Edmeades

    There is an echo of an old adage in here, with a slight variation: beauty is in the mind of the beholder. Sometimes, within the sway of the day (yes, a fellow bookseller), my hands feel dirty and the shelves start to groan, ache, like they are beginning to tilt slightly towards my head. But I always like them, mostly because I know that I don’t know what they do.

  8. On review of these comments, I have to ‘fess up: I totally sneer at someone’s purchase of House of Leaves.

    • NoOOO0OOOOOOOOOoo0o0ooo0o0o0o00oOoOOOoooOOOOooo…
      (on my knees, in the dark night of literary snobbishness, shaking my fists at the heavens – then, later, in my literary friends notebook, adjusting your name out of the top 30, into the doldrums, but not back alleys, of my personal rankings, a silent tear running down my cheek).

  9. Moving to a new house – unpacking boxes of books onto their shelves – listening t0 them telling me where they should rest next to whom on which shelf – the kids come in – “Who are you talking to, Mom?” – and I can only wave at the bindings surrounding me.

    LOVED this post.

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