Thursday, September 23, 2004


Used book stores

"Likewise we ought to read simple and devout books as willingly as learned and profound ones. We ought not to be swayed by the authority of the writer, whether he be a great literary light or an insignificant person, but by the love of simple truth. We ought not to ask who is speaking, but mark what is said." Thomas a Kempis

In a recent post, I somewhat enigmatically said that "I hope to regain and then to retain, until late in life, the spirit I had as an undergraduate in a used book store." Have a look at Paul Musgrave's reflections on undergraduates in bookstores, and be sure to follow the link to the Orwell essay.

Paul wonders about this "spirit" of which I speak. Part of what I'm referring to is a certain nostalgia for that time in my life when everything was education--education in the Henry-Adams sense, not just in the classroom-sense. It is also a nostalgia for place, akin to the nostalgia one feels for college hangouts and favorite coffee shops. There simply are not very many good used book stores in Baltimore, and I miss them. Unlike Orwell, apparently, I also have a tangible nostalgia for the smell of dusty books, for the labyrinthine shelves with books precariously piled on the tops, for the surprise of turning a corner and finding the store's resident cat sitting on top of a discount table.

But the "spirit" I mentioned in my post had to do more with the way I looked at books as an undergraduate, before I acquired the book-buying tics of a graduate student. When I was an undergrad, I really and truly browsed at used book stores. I picked up books just because they looked interesting. I bought and read books by authors I had never heard of, and never will hear of again. I read books because I was looking, with a mixture of trepidation and urgency, for answers to profound problems. I guess I did think of myself, as Paul puts it, as being on an "intellectual adventure."

I'm not saying I don't still have that sense now about books. But academic training can sometimes compete with this sense of "adventure" by giving you detailed maps to the treasure, complete with complex keys and dotted lines. I find books now by following footnotes more often than I do by browsing shelves. (Although I should say that even in this age of digital libraries, I often have great success in finding new books by locating a book I was looking for and then scanning the surrounding volumes. But even then, I have ended up at that set of call numbers for very specific reasons. I've followed some kind of map.)

These maps do not by themselves rob reading of its adventure. But when I pick up a volume in a used shop now, I often judge the book, almost against my will, by its cover. "Who published it?" I hate that I notice immediately whether it is published by a university press. This is the kind of thing that would have seemed incidental to me as an undergraduate, but that matters to me now. "Who wrote it?" As an undergraduate, if I hadn't heard of the author, I would assume--as one should--that this pointed to a deficiency in my knowledge, rather than suggesting some immediate deficiency in the author. But when you're a graduate student, not having heard of the author sends up red flags, again against your will. (If you don't recognize the markings on the ship, maybe it's a pirate--or, gasp, a popular historian.) My undergrad reaction to a new author was the proper one--unabashed curiosity and reserved judgment. My graduate reaction, sad to say, is often automatic suspicion or hasty condemnation. Another symptom of the disease I'm describing is that I often flip quickly to the acknowledgements of a new book--the acknowledgements! When I see myself as an undergraduate in a used book store, I see someone genuinely searching for knowledge from books, not someone looking for acknowledgement(s).

Of course, I have caricatured both my undergraduate and graduate selves. I do retain the "spirit" I had then--to say that I need to "regain" it might have been too strong a word. And I'm sure even as an undergraduate the "spirit" I've been alluding to was sometimes weak. But I do feel that I must actively continue to tear down many of the gate-keeping devices that my graduate student brain has erected. I have to unlearn some things if I want to really learn.

I sometimes hear people describing graduate school as "soul-crushing," either because of the amount of work, or because of the sense of inferority and anxiety it can breed. But if there is anything potentially "soul-crushing" about graduate education, it is that it can potentially destroy the sense of curiosity and fair-mindedness that genuine readers have about books. I don't intend to let graduate school do that.

P.S. A somewhat related post at Giornale Nuovo, via Cliopatria. Also, there's a wonderful reflection on reading and books at Hoarded Ordinaries, via wood s lot (be sure to scroll down for the picture of "The Bookworm").

Collective Improvisation:
Since you are talking about used bookstores, this is a good time for some shameless self promotion. You can browse for used books at

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/23/2004 09:59:00 PM : Permalink  

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