There are sixteen books waiting patiently for me at home, stacked on the shelf like a belletristic Jenga game. I have no business walking within one hundred feet of the bookstore, and yet, here I am. I should cross the street to make sure I don’t spy an interesting book through the window. I should at least avert my eyes.
My hand is on the door. The bell above is jangling! Oh, this is awkward. I can’t turn around now, while the patrons and employees are watching me enter. I can’t very well claim I entered the wrong store.
They know me here.
I smile at everyone and replay my stock mental lecture to myself, the one I chant silently every time I enter a bookstore. Full of stern warnings against purchasing a book, it ends with a reminder to be grateful for the books I have, including those I’ve borrowed from my book club, which are considered assets on my biblio-balance sheet. At this moment, I am book rich. Book wealthy. I’m a book Rockefeller, and I should realize this literary abundance is enough.
The staff picks taunt me from their elegant pyramid display. I try to select a focal point like I learned in Lamaze class and take a long cleansing breath. The air is scented with an intoxicating blend of book pages, ink and glue. One more quick, deep inhalation restores my equilibrium. Ahh, nirvana.
There are no traffic sounds. No hustle, no bustle, no hurry, no fuss. The world and its trivialities have receded to an acceptable, minuscule size. I have no desire to return to reality anytime soon.
A glance at the other shoppers reveals well-adjusted readerly types capable of maintaining a facade of dignity and control. Their countenances are brave and open and professorial. No one is breathless, no one is flushed, no one’s knees are buckling, even amidst these monolithic displays of bound potential.
That’s the draw, for me: the potential encapsulated within the covers of each book. All of the books. The potential and the energy, the drive, provided by the author at the moment of creative spark, and throughout the long months of composition. Someone believed in this book, and sat down to write it, to share it with the world. A book written by Plato can be read now, here,and his ideas can be absorbed as if the reader were his pupil, sitting before him, soaking up his wisdom firsthand across the millennia.
There’s a book in my hand. How did this happen? It opens before my eyes, all the better to peruse the first paragraph of Chapter One.
Am I so weak?
The cover is pretty, the title intriguing. I don’t recognize the author’s name, but Ann Patchett wrote a blurb on the cover. These things total up to three points in the book’s favor.
Richard Russo also wrote a blurb. This adds another point. The author is from Michigan, and is a female narrating as a male, telling an intergenerational story based on true events. Four more points.
In summary: Me, 0. Book, 8.
A silent argument with myself ensues.
I have to buy it.
I don’t need it.
It’s only 378 pages.
That’s not short!
It weighs less than three pounds.
It’s fifteen dollars.
So what? Lunch today was ten dollars. Stop eating and buy more books.
It’s maddening, arguing with myself, because I always win. And lose.
But in the end, how can I count it as a loss when I walk out of the store with a new book? Okay, three new books. I blindly snagged two of them from the Staff Pick pyramid with a desperate lunge, barely beating another reader to these last copies.
Oh, no. My addiction is showing.
This behavior only occurs in book stores—I usually practice basic shopping courtesies by letting the other shopper take the last avocado or cut in line at the checkout. Sometimes I even help another shopper carry bags to her car and commiserate about our shared shopping experience, the crowded store, the inclement weather, the human condition. But in a book store, it’s every reader for herself.
Now it’s time to insert these three new finds into my Jenga stack. I’ll carefully place them in the optimum reading order, knowing I’ll engage in a compulsive book-shuffling ritual several times before starting each new book (more about book shuffling later).