Amazon be damned—I’m a lifelong browser of bookstores and CD/ record stores(Amoeba Records is still alive and well in San Francisco and yes, the vinyl records are coming back!). It’s a pleasure akin to fishing, with the same sensation (he says as someone who has never fished) of having a sense of which kinds of fish lurk below the waters in this particular bookstore aisle, but never knowing which will nibble on the hook. The element of not-knowing, of surprise, of serendipity that this fish chose you, gives a distinct pleasure to the enterprise.
At the same time, sometimes I’m overwhelmed and feel that there are simply too many to choose from and how does one actually decide? It’s a practice of checking in to some part of yourself to see what you need at the moment. Some of it is time— Medieval times? The Future? 1969? (like the one I just finished—always a winner.) Some is place—China? Norway? Ghana? San Francisco? And of course, some is genre—mystery? Romance? Sweeping family saga?
But truth be told, if you took all the back cover synopses and mixed them together in a salad bowl or in a blender, they all come out pretty much the same.
“The story of a terrible tragedy, the secrets that get revealed, the hard-won redemption that shows the intrepid human spirit.”
Nobody ever seems to write a book about the reasonably well-adjusted family that have a pretty good time and make good decisions. Who would want to read that? Likewise, no one would ever go to an opera about a couple who falls in love, receives the blessings of their parents and the community, learn to be honest and forthright with each other and content with what each has to offer. Even in music, the classical music listener wants some serious straying from the home theme, some sense of exile before returning to the triumphant closing chords. The jazz listener wants that horn or the singer’s voice to scrape down deep into the marrow of the soul far beyond where polite conversation ever goes. There was a short period of New-Age music where no note was ever in any kind of tension with another, a smooth Jazz station with all the dissonant notes removed, and I imagine that still is played in the yoga class or the dentist office, but it doesn’t satisfy our deep yearning to get down into the muck of it all so the rising up has some value.
Every wise teacher I’m listening to these days (and always have) agrees that the only genuine path to the spirit is through the wounds of sorrow, suffering and trauma. Don’t wallow in the wound but don’t kid yourself that you can simply walk around it and find the yellow-brick road to Oz. So art is a replay of this in miniature in the safety and comfort of your armchair, with the luxury of imagining that all of this is happening to someone else and at the same time instructing you that there is no someone else—they’re all you. As many yous (and more) as there are books in the bookstores with their back covers acting as if this story is unique. And yes, the time, place, artistry of the writer, idiosyncracies of the characters and details of the story are unique, but the overall narrative is universal.
In fiction and in life. On one level, everywhere we go is a browsing through a bookstore to discover which story is singing out to us and figuring out how to claim it as our own. Without the damn Prime truck delivering it!