Monday, February 22, 2010

The Secret Pleasures of Browsing in a Bookstore.

Humans are wanderers. For centuries we, as a people, have enjoyed setting out into the world without a specific destination in mind. (How else to explain teen road trip movies?) Hundreds or maybe thousands of books have been written extolling the virtues of the wandering with a lineage stretching from Cabeza de Vaca's account of the unknown American wilderness in the early sixteenth century to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian published in 1985 (and beyond I am sure). With the staggering statistic coming from the UN that half of the world's population now lives in a city, wandering (or being a flaneur or whatever) alone "with no direction home" (sorry, I couldn't help myself) is becoming harder and harder to do. There are too many people; we are all crowded together in urban areas in greater and greater concentrations. The last refuge for wandering? It could just be your local, independent bookstore. Browsing a bookstore's shelves without any idea of what you are looking for or, more importantly, what you hope to find is one of the last remaining acts of unfettered "wandering" we as urbanites can do in a city.

So it was with real joy that I found this piece in the Guardian (UK) newspaper today. Sam Jordison has found himself a real treasure while browsing in his local bookstore and couldn't help sharing it with everyone.

The shelves and tables, meanwhile, are mines of serendipitous treasures.

Recently I've picked up a book of excellent writing about Berlin and Len Deighton's hilarious Action Cookbook, but the book that really proves my point about the benefits of browsing is Robert Graves's Lars Porsena – On the Future of Swearing.

Although I've read a few other Graves books, I'd never heard of this odd sidenote in his prolific career. I would never have read it had its elegant cream cover not caught my eye in The Book Hive, but I'm very glad I did.

I know that exact emotion. I suspect that the regular readers of this blog do too. Everyone I know who loves books has a handful of titles they keep locked in their head in case they happen to find themselves in a store they've never been before and-by miracle or luck-the store has one of the titles you've been looking for for what seems like a lifetime. For me, strangely, it was the book The Double Bass by Patrick Suskind. Mr. Suskind is most famous for his novel Perfume which came out in the early eighties and has justly made him a steamer trunk full of money. The Double Bass is a play he wrote before Perfume and I wanted a copy. Badly. However, I wasn't even sure if it was a book. I just had a vague notion to spin by the drama section one more time just in case. Why? I am not really sure. I am not a huge drama guy nor do I read plays for enjoyment but I have always wanted to score a copy. Finally, one day that the Harvard Book Store, there it was. I almost missed it because it turns out to me a short little thing. I was overjoyed...but I still haven't read it. I guess it was just a fascination with have an author's complete literary output. Interestingly, I have never, ever seen another copy of the book and he has stopped listing it in his ad cards.

I have other books I have always wanted to find and the search goes on.

It is, in short, a fine piece of writing – and a useful historical document – smartly contained in less than 100 pages. If I hadn't popped into The Book Hive one morning I'd have missed it entirely.

Finally, I'm aware that I'm trying to have my cake and eat it by writing a blog that both recommends browsing as the best way to find a book – while also pressing a book on you. But I'm hoping I can redress the balance slightly by asking about the best books you've found by browsing alone. And if you can go and find a good one in your local independent in real time, so much the better.

Go. Visit your local store in the next few days and do so without one single idea of what you are looking for. Look at sections you've always ignored. Pick up the heavy art books and look at an artist you've only vaguely heard of. These are all acts of wandering in our time and you will feel better for it. Trust us.

Sam received 18 comments about books his readers have found. I think we can do better here at Survival of the Book. Please add your voice in the comments section of this post to let us know just what treasures you've found while wandering the shelves of distant and not-so-distant stores. Maybe there is something you found that you want-no, need-to share...and we need to read?


Christopher said...

Oh, and this one time I found a copy of a James Kelman novel I didn't know existed.

Brian said...

I recently found Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye - hardly a difficult find, but one that was not on my immediate radar. I read her bio not that long ago, which gave me a sense of how quickly she wrote it. I'm starting it today. My favorite find is still Kenneth Davis' book on paperback publishing, Two Bit Culture, at Isiah Thomas Books, a fantastic used bookstore in Cotuit, out on the Cape (MA not NJ).