I am in a bookshop. The biggest bookshop i have ever been in. Two city blocks, rambling over four floors. The bookshop has it’s own car park. The bookshop has a coffee shop. The bookshop has a rare bookshop inside the bookshop. The bookshop sells new books and second hand books. I think it’s possible that this bookshop sells every book that there ever was or could be.
The bookshop sells books on writing: shelf after shelf on words and what words mean and what words do and how to use words and what words not to use and what words to use where and when.
The bookshop sells books on books: books on collecting books, books on storing and repairing books, books on printing books, books on bookshops, books on bookshelves, books on book art and books on bookselling.
The bookshop sells books on love: on being in love and out of love and wanting love and regretting love and lustful love and teenage wistful love and old people in love and boys in love with girls and girls in love with boys and boys in love with boys and girls in love with girls and people who never love and people who love to love and people who love naughty things and people who love pretty things and people who love in ways that are frankly bemusing and there is even a locked cabinet with books about love so strong it needs to be locked away.
In general, i frown upon locking books up. Even books with words we distrust and mistrust and disbelieve and those that disgust and repulse us.
There are books on how the universe began and how it will end and how it works and what doesn’t work and how stars work, and how Star Wars works, and how work works and what things hurt and books by Bert and how to flirt and making skirts and cleaning dirt and living in yurts and Kurt Cobain clearing drains and novocaine and healing pain and walking in the rain. And Spain. And the brain. And web domains. And being vain.
Words: piled so high. How many? A million without a doubt. A billion? There are words in Dutch and French, German and English, Chinese and Spanish, Norwegian and Flemish. So many words: words with meaning.
There are books on philosophy, books on religion, books on science, each explaining how the worlds began, what it all means, what we mean within it.
There are books on photography, books on art, books on dance, books on how we represent the world, how we find the beauty within it, how we share our inner feelings, how we are creative, how we are expressive, how we are imaginative, how we are representative, how we are critical, how we are mythical, analytical, political, electable, there is even an encyclical. By the pope.
Imagine the millions of hours spend writing, spent thinking, spent dreaming, spent reflecting, spent proposing, spent supposing, spent buried in coffee shops and offices and train seats and plane seats and dictating and spellchecking and proofreading and finally when all hope is lost, publishing.
There is a printing press here: espresso books, where you can print your own book within this cathedral of books. Books printed within bookshops. Books upon books. Books without end.
There is a book here that is over five hundred years old, locked away in the crypt (on the top floor, next to a book about fashion photography). Written when Leonardo da Vinci was just thinking about picking up a pencil and doing some sketching.
There is a whole bookshelf on ‘Dangerous Ladies’, which should surely be essential reading for every young girl and boy. #RoleModels in the making.
There are books on feminism (I see Laurie Penny’s powerfully ‘Unspeakable Things’ in pride of place), and anti feminist books, and books on men who are feminists and men who hate feminists and women who hate men.
There is a books with titles too rude for me to write here: all in plain sight, all in easy reach. Imagine if people read them. For themselves. And had thoughts. Original thoughts. Dangerous thoughts. Subversive thoughts. Thought for themselves. Thoughts for us all.
There are books on living and book on dying: i see Oliver Sacks book, ‘Gratitude’, sat on the shelf. I can’t read it, not yet, not now. Not because it’s long, but because i have every book he has written and treasure them all. I love his writing and his deep affection for people. I love and admire his power of observation and compassion behind it. But i cannot bear to read his last book, his epitaph, his postscript. His gratitude for a life well lived, penned in his last year. I am not ready for that writing yet.
And three whole shelves for Terry Pratchett: again, i have every book, every article, each and every one lined up on my own shelves at home. I find myself hoping, wishing, that some child will walk past and discover one, their hand drawn to the cover, their eyes settling on the page and joining Rincewind on a journey, to discover their creativity and learn the joy of words.
I wonder how many of these books i could fit in my pocket: on a DVD, on a USB, on a laser disc, on my phone.
Project Gutenberg may give me every book in the world, but it doesn’t give me the smell of stale paper, the crisp feel of a new book, the heft and flex of a favourite tome or the emergent delight of a surprise new find as your fingers trail along the shelf. Romanticised remembrances of a time gone by? Hell yes, but what are we without romance: not everything in life is about utility. Experience and stories count too.
The labyrinth extends: once trapped between shelves you trudge mile after mile as contemporary fiction gives way to romance, to gift books, to musical scores and self help. Shelves reaching ten feet high, and perched here and there the butterflies of review, come to rest on the shelf edges, recommending a particular volume for it’s merits and imparted delights.
I could not read these books in a thousand lifetimes: what knowledge lies unknown, what stories untold, what journeys never taken, what discoveries lie buried, what secrets lie hidden among the shelves?
On one pillar, protected by clear plastic, the signatures and scrawls of feral authors, let lose to meet their audience, scratching their names and the date of their sentence into the plasterwork. Graffiti of their stories remains after the last copy of the new book has flown from the shelf.
We have everything we need at our fingertips: we are drowning in a glut of information, a matrix of connections, an endless stream of programming. We are gluttons of new media, slurping and licking at the trough of endless reality voyeurism and twenty four hour news cycles. Words free of pages, made cheap by their abundance.
And yet the book lives on: tales of it’s death greatly exaggerated.
We read for pleasure and out of need: we crave the end of the story and secretly dread the story ending. We collect and treasure these volumes, from the six year old with a cherished nursery tale, to the serial collector of folios and first editions. We collect not for convenience but to, in some small way, define ourselves through our collections. We fill bookshelves not for who we are but for the person we may be if we could but find the time to read.
We turn the pages, turn over new leaves, close out chapters and put down the book. Books have a start and an end, they are pleasantly contained in an age of plenty.
I have read books on salt, on tanks, on stars and science. I have read books on travel, on cooking, on music and bars. I’ve read books about every continent, about people famous and unknown. Poetry and painting, religion and philosophy, pandas and bears. It’s all there for the taking if we take the time to wander down he aisles, through the cloisters, down the nave of these cathedrals of knowledge.
My favourite bookshop may have been the crooked one in Dublin, where the staircase, carved out of several old houses, used to weave through walls, floors and rooms in random and disconnected ways, eventually depositing you in the attic, where you could drink tea on vinyl covered picnic tables whilst sat on garden chairs, wondering if you’d ever navigate your way out again.
It may be that i exaggerate the dimensional complexity of the stairwell, but if so it’s a crime of the imagination, let loose by books: the book we read, the books we write, the books we consume and are written into.
I am in a bookshop: after several hours, i slow, i walk back, like an animal who senses through instinct that someone is watching, senses that something is calling out. My hand reaches out, i make my choice. I pull the book from the shelf. The one i glimpsed, the one i moved on from, the one that called out to me, the one i buy.
I recently read several books by Patti Smith: i am fascinated by her punctuation, by her writing, by her choice of words and the pace and tempo of them as they fall from the page. They captivate me and leave me thinking of toast and olive oil, of airplanes and Japan, of love and loss. She transports me into her life, shared through simple pages, sold in a story.
I am in a bookshop.