Sunday, October 21, 2012
Although I'm an American citizen, I live in Southeast Asia. Approximately once a year, my husband and I travel back to the United States on a trip that combines business and pleasure. We just returned from one of these odysseys yesterday (as my current state of grogginess attests).
Our itinerary varies somewhat from one year to the next. In 2011 (as those of you who follow my blog might recall) we journeyed from Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak's California Zephyr and thus had the opportunity to visit friends and family on the west coast, but usually our perambulations are restricted to the eastern half of the U.S. We normally fly into New York City and branch out from there – to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, South Carolina, or Florida. No matter where our travels take us, however, we always spend at least twenty four hours in Manhattan, so that we can visit what has become one of our personal shrines: the Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway.
The Strand is deservedly one of the most famous bookstores in the world. Established in 1927 and still owned by the family of the founders, it occupies a good chunk of a city block – about 55,000 square feet – every inch crammed with books. On our most recent pilgrimage, just a few days ago, I noticed that they'd done away with the bag check desk that previously occupied a spot near the front door. Clearly they'd needed that space for more volumes.
Entering the store, I experience awe and delight similar to what I feel in Europe's magnificent cathedrals. Tables crowd the front area, piled not just with the trendiest new releases but also with themed collections: staff picks, seasonal titles, books purporting to be the favorites of various authors. Memoir and biography, history, religion, politics, psychology, fantasy – the idiosyncratic groupings mix famous authors with those who are unknown (at least to me), new books with classics. Further back, the shelves begin, rank after rank, more than twice as tall as I am. Barnes and Noble shelves all its books within easy reach of the customer. At the Strand, ladders are essential.
You can wander for hours among those shelves, revisiting old literary friends and discovering new treasures. The discounted prices are merely icing on the cake. If you have the energy, you can climb two flights to the second story, where you'll find additional shelves packed with art, photography, architecture, children's books, and much more. There may even be a third floor. I'm always so overwhelmed by what's immediately at hand that I haven't investigated.
My husband and I come both to browse and to buy. We know that every purchase will increase the weight of our luggage, but we can't resist. This time around we picked up (among other finds) Umberto Eco's latest novel The Prague Conspiracy, Haruki Murakami's After Dark, Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves, and a posthumous collection of Philip K. Dick. Although we bring our latest to-read lists, encountering the unexpected is one of the Strand's joys. We keep at it as long as our aging joints allow, until our backs and knees ache, the books are spilling from our arms, and we wake up to the reality that we have to lug all our purchases back to our hotel.
For some reason, this year I particularly noticed the people working at the Strand. Almost everyone I saw was young (but then, compared to me, almost everyone is). Given the vertical orientation of the environment, I suspect the job requires considerable stamina. Rarely have I seen more distinctive and quirky individuals. I found myself imagining their interactions, roughing out a story set among the stacks or in the stockrooms. The towering shelves, separated by narrow aisles, seemed a natural setting for clandestine passion.
I realized something else on this particular visit, too. In the past, the pleasure I took in the Strand was always tempered by a trace of bitterness. Why weren't my books among those displayed for customers to explore? Why was the erotica section restricted to two brief shelves, hidden away near the bottom of one of the tables? Envy and frustration used to leave a sour taste in my mouth, even as I was enjoying the fruits of my literary foraging.
This time, those corrosive emotions were absent. I'm really not sure why. Perhaps I've reached a point where I don't need that kind of external validation to be proud of my own writing. Perhaps I recognize that I make as much money on my ebooks as many of the obscure print-pubbed authors whose volumes I leaf through but then put down. Maybe I've simply accepted the fact that I'm a literary outlaw, that not only is my work not viewed as art, it's condemned as immoral trash. I've always had a fondness for outlaws.
In any case, I found this year's pilgrimage even more fulfilling than usual. The Buddha taught that attachment causes suffering. Maybe by releasing my frustrated desire for literary fame, I've moved closer to enlightenment.