All the people you could have been had you chosen differently—they haunt the bookstore alongside the person you became and could still become.
It’s been ages since I was alone in a bookstore.
I’m not sure I remember the last time, actually, though to be perfectly accurate I’m not even alone now. But without my husband waiting patiently, and my older daughter waiting less than patiently, the sole company of my youngest, Eleanor, feels a bit like solitude. She’s half asleep in her stroller, and couldn’t be less bothered that I keep maneuvering her from Fiction to Local History and back again. I could stay here for a while, or at least until she wakes up.
I recently ran across an article called “On the Experience of Entering a Bookstore in Your Forties (vs. Your Twenties),” by Steve Edwards, detailing, as its unwieldy but informative title suggests, the writer’s evolving relationship with books as he ages. “In my twenties,” Edwards writes, “the question was never ‘What do I want to read?’ but rather ‘Who do I want to be?'”
I think about the latter question as I peruse the shelves of this local used bookstore, a gloriously messy den of letters at which I have a pile of store credit from a recent book purge (more on that later). For half of my twenties, who I wanted to be was a person who had a lot of books. At first it was because this seemed more interesting than being just a teacher, and later because a good teacher should be just that, a book person. A well-read English teacher should have a well-rounded personal library. I might live as simply as possible in other areas—drive an old car, never have cable and seldom eat out—but the rules of simple living didn’t apply to books. I wanted all the books.
And then I moved away, across an ocean, a life change that precipitated several book epiphanies. The first was that I didn’t need to keep all my books, that having once read them I was unlikely to revisit many of them, life being too short for many re-readings. I didn’t need to keep a copy to “have” a book that I truly enjoyed, while a book I didn’t love shouldn’t take up valuable shelf space, anyway. In fact, the books I loved were far better used in the hands of friends, while the ones I didn’t could actually earn me some money to buy books I did like. I kept my professional reference books and the poetry I loved, but the rest was negotiable. So my library began to shrink, slowly at first and then faster, dispersed into the homes of friends and the stacks of various used bookstores.
By the time I’d lived in Germany for a few years, I had almost stopped purchasing paper books altogether. I bought and read a few ebooks a year—and liked reading that way, despite the blasphemy this posed to my younger self—and traded in half a dozen paperbacks at our annual English book exchange, but I also read less. Now a busy missionary teacher—not to mention roommate, friend and girlfriend—I didn’t have as much time for reading beyond the American canon that I’d practically memorized after teaching the same books for seven years. Though no longer a physical book person, I exulted in my new mantel, the minimalist expat with just a few cherished titles to her name.
I might have stalled there, reading books on ever more high-tech devices and devoting the shelf space to pottery, except that I had children. And these little girls, they’re always watching. What do they think I’m doing with my phone or this Kindle, I began to wonder. I read articles about the dangers to children of too-early and too-pervasive exposure to screens, and at the same time the overwhelming benefits of reading and modeling reading. Which brought me back, again, to the books. Paper books, with pages that don’t light up, requiring bookmarks and sometimes two hands to hold them open. This reading is slower and often less convenient, but it’s the kind of book person I’ll be in this season. The kind who turns paper pages, slowly.
I’ve resolved to read a book a month this year, a laughably modest goal by the standards of my younger self. But that person didn’t have approximately thirty seconds of free time a day, so I give her a pat on the back and return to my browsing. I’ve settled on a loose plan to alternate old and new books, with a vague preference for the stories of women and people of color. Since my main source is going to be a used bookstore, soon to be on the other side of the city from me, any more solid choices seem frustrating. As Eleanor starts to open her eyes and look around, I select Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, my “old book” for February. I’ve never read it, and have always wanted to.
Though I’m not quite in my forties yet, today the question is very much “What do I want to read?” With a library neither grand nor ascetic, I’m reading because I want to, and because, in a world where everything has a thousand uses, I want my girls to learn the slow enjoyment of this single-purpose item, a stack of paper with a tale to tell.
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I loved Willa Cather. Read 3 of her novels one hot summer at the pool in AZ!
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