There’s a new Barnes and Noble open near me. I’ve been walking there nearly every day to read, although I carry my own books. Always the dissertation text and one other book – the recent one has been Heidegger’s “Introduction to Metaphysics,” for obvious reasons.
It’s comfortable there: well-lighted, nice furniture, fitting temperature. But the books are terrible, especially for my field. I wonder if this is a consequence of nearing completion of a doctorate? Have I just turned into a book snob?
It can’t be – I look at all the books and I realize something. I could have read everything in that bookstore and not know what I know now. What puzzles me is how all the books are dumped together and people are supposed to magically make sense of it all. Homer lies next to Rimbaud who lies next to Jackie Collins. I couldn’t put any of it together before I started graduate school, how is everyone supposed to get something out of what they read now?
I mean, I remember how I used to read. I’d enjoy the story or vignette or poem, and jot down memorable lines or facts. But all that does is create a scrapbook – it takes fragments of things and leaves them fragments. Ultimately, my own memory is what connects the fragments. Ultimately, all I would do is read and see myself.
I don’t know if I’ve progressed beyond that, whether it is possible to get beyond the entirely subjective. But at least now I can say “so-and-so said such-and-such, and another so-and-so responded to that thought like such.” It’s a narrative about narratives, and still a product of my own mind in a key way. The trick is, it does not receive its entire shape from me. I don’t cut out the fragments I like always; I cut out the ones that others responded to and move towards understanding truly what I like.
There’s something strange about a bookstore being comfortable, when every good book – from Homer to the Bible to Faulkner and Philip Roth – is usually very discomforting. There’s a whole conversation that everyday life only touches on, and to enter it is to enter a world almost alien from that of customer service and slick marketing.