I went to my favorite bookstore the other afternoon, a visit that I make at least once a week, usually when I’m bored, perhaps when I’ve had a bad day, or, often, when I can invent some reason to go, usually under the delusion that I “need” another book. I made this particular trip to replace Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows, which I’d given to a friend who was visiting from out of town. Not only did I feel compelled to replace this book, I also felt a strong desire to replace the exact edition, part of the Vintage Contemporaries mid-80s line, all featuring horrendous (and far-too literal) covers. And this is of course the first compulsion—the compulsion simply to go to the bookstore. Once in the bookstore I regularly experience a variety of other compulsions, which I’ll describe below.
But first, a little about this particular bookstore, which I will not name here because I am slightly ashamed of these compulsions, which are admittedly a little creepy. The store has two locations, one of which is a downtown café with a hip menu and the occasional art show. I rarely go to that one. The location I go to is a massive labyrinth, a twisty maze constructed out of books, sprawling out over a few connected buildings. To enter is to be immersed in that old book smell, that smell that makes me dizzy, that loads me with a strange anxiety. The staff seems to be in a constant state of reorganizing the flood of books that pours in each day. There are, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of books, from floor to ceiling. They take review copies off my hands for credit, so I haven’t had to pay cash for a book in years, which is, you know, nice. I also live 1.1 miles away. So, again, you can understand the repeated visits.
Anyway. Once compelled to the bookstore, I experience additional compulsions, such as
- Offering unsolicited help to confused-looking customers: Most of the time these are high school or college students, searching for assigned reading, usually in the wrong section (Contemporary Authors when they should be in Classics). Not only do I feel compelled to point them to the opposite side of the store, I’ve even gone so far as to walk them over there, and then suggest particular editions of the book. I try to avoid a route that would put me in the direct scope of the legitimate employees as I perform this unwanted service.
- Suggesting books to strangers: This compulsion is linked to another urge, the compulsion to look at what people are buying. If I see someone picking up a Philip K. Dick novel, I nosily ask about China Miéville, because I know that there’s a copy of Perdido Street Station that still hasn’t found a home. If some poor kid is in the Faulkner section to find As I Lay Dying for school, I become the creepy weirdo who suggests that she also read Go Down, Moses. On the “B” aisle once, my awareness of a used copy of 2666 became so distressing (why hadn’t someone already picked it up!) that I waited until someone else strolled down the aisle and tried to casually mention how awesome the book was, and that that person could not do wrong to buy it. Weird look ensues.
- Desiring books I already own: The copy of 2666 (which disappeared by the next week, thankfully) highlights another strange compulsion. If I find a copy of, say, Tree of Smoke, I feel compelled to pick it up and give it to someone. I have to remind myself that giving someone a 700 page book that got incredibly mixed reviews is not really a gift; it’s a dare or burden.
- Tracking books: So, yeah, I keep track of books. Why hasn’t anyone picked up Vollmann’s The Ice-Shirt in six months? Why is there still a used copy of Suttree? This is shamefully obsessive, but not as shamefully obsessive as—
- Hiding books: I don’t even know how to begin to start to try to explain this. Let’s move on.
- Buying books I’m pretty sure I’ll never read: I’m pretty sure that I’ll never get through all or even most of Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, but I had to buy the first edition. When will I have time to get through Malcolm Lowry’s Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place? Why do I feel the need to pick up British Penguin editions of Aldous Huxley books that I already own (and have not read all of yet)?
- Scouring for book marks: I don’t know why, but I like to find what people have used to mark their places in their books. I have, to my great shame, transferred, on occasion, a bookmark from a book that I’m not going to buy to one I am taking. This isn’t exactly theft, but it feels like a strange violation of sorts.
There are more compulsions of course, but this isn’t meant to be a case study of my illness, so I’ll spare you further details. So, did I get the Brodkey? No. They had about a dozen copies, but not that first Vintage Contemporaries edition with the ugly cover with sandcastles and butterflies that I wanted. So I picked up his later collection Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. I also picked up another book that I used to own but had given to a friend, James Weldon Johnson’s memoir Along This Way, and The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by, uh, Breece D’J Pancake. Of course I won’t have time to read these before next week’s trip.