October 3, 2019

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Time Spent in Bookshops

There’s something sacred in a bookshop - all those hushed tones and muffled coughs, the reverence for aged texts. Occasionally a cantankerous old person at the front, glaring at those who do not display sufficient respect for the agreed rules. There is a bookshop pace - a speed which cannot be exceeded. No one may march or strut in a bookshop. You may gently glide or humbly dodder, or even muse and nudge - but all movement must be self-contained. Anything bold or at all staccato is much too much too much.

But then - a bookshop is not a library. Murmured conversation allowed, casual perusal much more of a treat. There is no laminated flimsiness, no posters on the wall that screech at children in ghastly green fonts. Even the smell is different - not dusty like some distant relative’s front room, but warm and reassuring, like coffee with a favoured friend.

As some might spend an hour a day in a gymnasium or a casino, I deem an hour a week in a bookshop to be strictly necessary. For pleasure and relaxation, yes, but primarily as a reminder of all the books I will never read.

I could learn to speed read, and perhaps get myself into the Guinness Book of World Records if I displayed a real aptitude. Even then, I’d only be able to read a few lines in the great tome of humanity. On one floor of a humble village bookshop is more than I could ever hope to read even if I live to a hundred and two.

There have been times when this thought terrified me. Life’s finiteness rendered yet more evident - if you can ambitiously, read two books a week, you can do 104 a year. If you live 80 more years if you’re lucky (and not diabetic), then that’s an optimistic 8320 more books.

These are obviously fairly large numbers, certainly capable of filling a personal library or even a Kindle. But you have to be selective with your range. All of us are only capable of knowing and reading the tiniest fraction of all there is to know and read.

So to be in a bookshop is to be valuably humbled. You can browse and muse and delve among shelves. Choose what you’d like to read next - slide it right off and hold in your hands. See splendid spine soon to be cracked, uncrinkled pages soon inky-smudged. A crisp and proud front cover stands resplendent, decorated with a quote from a figure of note, soon dog-eared and weary, aged quick and read well.

Maybe there is something misleading about the physical fact of a book - that it is perfectly formed and finite, compact and self-contained. The History of This Place’ suggests it as the only and authoritative work on the subject - the only one you need to read to achieve a real expertise. Subjects, fictions, stories are rarely as simple, they will spill out from pages and continue years after you thought them finished or extinct. Something may change unexpectedly and fundamentally in the blink of an eye.

Perhaps our various News Feeds are more honest in this way. Always something new to process, to capture your attention. A book is instantly out of date - an ambling walk through the hills so you arrive late when you could’ve just taken the train. The platforms we spend our lives on are always refreshing, always more and more uptodate. This is honest, no, about knowledge itself - new knowledge to know and new thoughts to be thunk, every day, every moment, every Tweet.

But I feel our capacity to process information is rewarded more by the pages of a book. A collection of ideas, a tale of two lovers, an absurdly detailed autobiography of a septegenarian Australian who lives in a wood - these can be contained in a volume. If you think about the finite amount of time we have to read or do anything, would it be worthwhile reading Emma or The Goldfinch or One of Us or Great Expectations or 20,000 threads. That is a real choice that we can make on a weekly basis.

I’ve picked some classics to make a point - you don’t have to arbitrarily get through Shakespeare’s or Dickens’ back catalogue just so you can tell your friends. It could be the best book about a topic you’re fascinated by. It could be a collection by an amazing writer you’ve never heard of (e.g. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett). Or anything else that takes your interest.

And then you will have finished something worthwhile, even if you hated it. The End’ is just the start of your ignorance, and the beginning of the next chapter. It starts in the bookshop.

If you have a comment, send me an email at adam@donthaveablog.com.

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

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