Saturday, March 27, 2010

Because it promises so much, a trip to the bookstore can be irritating, even downright frustrating when it happens to not shelve a particular book one is looking for. I sometimes find myself cursing whoever is in charge for the oversights ("You don't have Slaughterhouse Five?! Really?!"). At moments like that one grumbles, but is reassured that the book can be found online, at least. Back home, it's only a matter of seconds for Amazon to dutifully ship it to you the next day.

Yet one is missing something if they cite this as reason for shutting down the physical stores. Sure, the stocks there are finite, and sure, it sometimes lets you down because of that. But where else are you confronted by a great mass of books, staring in you the face, leaving you in awe of both your ignorance but also instilling you with a yearning to read until time runs out? Standing in the middle of the store, all around you are nothing but pages and pages of other men's thoughts, confessions, lives. At a particular author's section - if you're lucky! - you get to see his works neatly laid out, all those years of work sitting quietly next to each other. Flipping through the pages of any book, for a second, one is half tempted to sit down then and there and read through the entire thing. Even if the book is only vaguely familiar, it can be cause for hope: the sound of the title, the direction implied by the dust jacket, and the style that jumps out from a few pages picked at random - the excitement it generates at the possibility of this being one's next ticket to bliss!

Of course, one can conjure a similar sensation online: browse through the Amazon archives of literature and find yourself weeping at how there simply is no time for all of it. But does it have the same visceral feeling as when one is overwhelmed in the physical world? Hardly. No doubt the online store has its place. But it's purely a commercial affair. At the bookstore, sure, I'd like to buy something, but I'm also there for the experience.

I don't mean to suggest that the death of the physical bookstore - not as imminent as that of the record store, but definitely somewhere on the horizon - signals the death of books themselves. Ultimately, if you have the thing in your hand, you spend your time going through the pages rather than thinking about where you purchased it. (The electronic reader, of course, now that is the death of the book ;-)) But like a book itself, the trip to the bookstore offers an escape from the world. When it's just you and a shelf of books, the possibilities seem limitless. Life seems not so bad. There is the promise of satisfaction till the end of all time. The ego yields, the mind warmly accepts the limits of its own knowledge, and is thirsty for answers.

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