Monday, September 3, 2007

Bookstores and Libraries

Yesterday, on a trip to Oxford, I spent two hours in Blackwell Bookshop. Which is a long time. I can’t remember the last time I was in a bookstore for that long, taking my time, browsing through subjects I normally wouldn’t (political philosophy, local history) as well as those I can’t resist (cookery, literary essays, biography). I’d never been to Oxford before and decided one of the best ways to get a sense of the place (to get a sense of one’s self in a new place) is to spend some time in its defining bookstore. By myself, of course. One doesn’t want to be in a bookstore with companions trying to see what you’re interested in, trying to distract you with their own observations, wondering if you’re ready to leave yet. Yesterday, I felt going into the bookstore was like entering a mini Walden: I went to the bookstore to live deliberately….
      In any case, I recommend it. Spend two hours in a bookstore by yourself, seeing what’s out there (what’s not already on your Amazon wish list or lists stuck in your wallet, what hasn’t already been recommended by reviews and blogs and friends). Think of the possibilities. I bought Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself and wondered if Shelley had any connection to Oxford. (He did. I read: “He had been schooled at . . . University College, Oxford, where after one term, in March 1811, he had been expelled with his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism.”) And then I had a cup of coffee in a cool September afternoon and remembered the thrill of a new year of knowledge about to begin.

Random shot of the Oxford University Press headquarters:

Also, last week, I signed up for a library card at my local library (the John Harvard Library; apparently he grew up in the neighborhood). I haven’t been to a library (other than the giant NYPL for work) in a long time. I’d forgotten what a little local library is like, where you don’t even need a card catalog because it takes only a few minutes to look over the entire selection in whatever section you’re interested in. (I took out Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon.) The library may not have much—a more limited selection than a giant bookstore, and books that aren’t as shiny and smooth to hold— but it always has something. A source of small treasure and just around the corner. And even better: you don’t need money.

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