August 18, 2019

Entering a Bookstore at Age Forty and Age Twenty

“In my twenties the question was never “What do I want to read?” but rather “Who do I want to be?”—and bookstores were shrines I pilgrimaged to for answers. I didn’t have much money and had to be intentional in my selections. I’d pull a book from the shelf and study its cover, smell its pages, wander into the weather of its first lines and imagine the storms to come—imagine a wiser, wilder me for having been swept away by them. It’s something I still feel in my forties. I’m still dazzled by possibilities when I walk into a bookstore.

But it’s not the same.

Now when I wander the aisles, it’s not just some future self I imagine but a past one. There aren’t just books to read but books I’ve already read. Lives I’ve lived. Hopes abandoned. Dreams deferred. The bookstore is still a shrine but more and more what I find aren’t answers to questions but my own unwritten histories.

I’d started coming to bookstores because I wanted to learn how to write and the only consistent advice I got from established writers was to read everything. It was good advice. It’s still good advice. It’s also impossible. No one reads everything, nor even all the books they’d like to. You make your choices, come what may. John Muir’s famous quote about ecology might as well have been about choosing what books to buy: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The bookstore is a liminal space. Even if like me you don’t have the cash to buy a box of new titles and reinvent yourself week to week, you have the moment of the choosing and everything it tugs upon.”

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