Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Zen and the art of browsing

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

Over the weekend, like an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force, two events in my life abruptly collided: 1.) I absolutely, unquestionably ran out of shelf space at home. 2.) The Newberry Library in Chicago held its annual book fair. For the uninitiated, the latter may not seem all that earthshaking, but as I’ve said here before, it’s the ultimate fulfillment of every library or church book sale I’ve ever attended, with six huge rooms packed with tables covered with beautiful books of every price, age, and description. As a confirmed book addict, it’s the closest thing to heaven on earth I’ve found, and I look forward to it every year like a kid waiting for Christmas. Yet after several years of collecting books in Chicago—and a few decades of obsessive book hoarding before that—I’ve reached a point where I can no longer unquestioningly grab every volume that catches my eye. I need to be selective. And although this may seem to go against the whole book fair experience, I found, instead, that it enriches it. Acquiring books is no longer the goal: the real attraction is that perfect hour or two of browsing itself.

First, an observation. When I was growing up, my attitude toward buying and accumulating books was very different. For reading material, I was effectively limited to the books I had at home, the stacks in my school and local library, and the inventory of my few neighborhood bookstores. This third category was a circle that slowly expanded, as I began to venture farther afield to bigger and more eclectic bookshops, but it was still far from a limitless selection. As a result, whenever I saw a book that I thought I might like to read one day, I’d pick it up, as long as it was reasonably priced. Nowadays, things have changed. I have access to the Oak Park and Chicago library systems, which have just about every book imaginable, and if I decide I want my own copy, thanks to the huge online inventories of Amazon, Better World Books, and elsewhere, I can usually get it within a week. This has led to an unexpected but inevitable shift in my thinking: I no longer need to own books that I can easily obtain elsewhere. The world is now one huge bookstore, and I’ve started to think of my own library less as a finite collection than as the conveniently available subset of every book on the planet.

The author's library

As a result, when I do buy books these days, they tend to be books I don’t think I’ll be able to easily find anywhere else, at least not at that particular price point. In practice, this means that I concentrate on the old, the musty, and the out of print. It leaves me with a personal library that grows more eccentric by the day, not because my tastes are all that far out of the mainstream, but because the books I tend to hoard are the ones that nobody else has heard of. I can always grab a copy of Lean In or The Signal and the Noise, but I may never find The Story Life of Napoleon—an enticing volume from 1914 that I unearthed at this year’s book fair—ever again, at least not for the two dollars I paid for it. If I come across a book while browsing, however interesting, that I think I might be able to find elsewhere without too much trouble, that’s actually a point against it. What I really want is either an amazing book that I didn’t know existed or one that I’ve wanted for a long time while holding out for the right price. In short, I’m looking for books that will make me say “Wow!” out loud.

And although those moments don’t come very often, when they do, they make everything else worth it. The upshot is that I spent five hours this weekend at the Newberry Library and emerged with a total of seven books, which works out to more than forty minutes of browsing for each purchase. (For the curious, the highlights were A Certain World by W.H. Auden and Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the latter of which I picked up for an unbelievable ten dollars.) That may seem like a lot of time, but really, the point isn’t the book itself—it’s the forty minutes. Once you commit to only picking up the rare, the exceptional, or the fabulous, you find that browsing turns into a kind of Zen state punctuated by rare but intense moments of enlightenment. You’re no longer there to acquire more books, except in a purely nominal way: you’re there because it’s good to be around books themselves, side by side with hundreds of other browsers who feel the same way. For a few hours, you’re in that perfect place. And if you do end up with a handful of treasures to take home, it’s less for the books themselves than for the memories of happiness they preserve.

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

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