Friday, August 29, 2008

Five Great Ways to Stare at Books

I love to stare at books. I don't know if anyone out there shares this obsession, but I want to come clean about it. I stare at books, not to judge them by their covers (although I am quite guilty of and good at that), but to soak them in and relish them. Below are the five most common ways I stare at books. If you stare at books in other ways, please comment below so I may learn some new techniques.

1. Gazing at Books on Home Bookshelves
This style of staring at books stems from my own prehistory. I believe that I began this activity before I started crawling. I love to spend time gazing at books on the shelves where I live. I look for patterns in color and texture and size and type and title. I like to get an overall gestalt of what the collection means and also I like to focus in on single books. If someone asks where a book is, I can search my memory and picture the book and find it with ease. Whether the book belongs to me, family or roommates matters not. If the book is kept in a bookshelf in a common area, I know where it is.

2. Judging Covers by their Books
Whenever I am in a new house. I gravitate to the bookshelves. I can learn a lot about a person by the books they display. I can tell if they bought the books for college classes, and whether they have any real, continued interest in the subjects. I can tell if people are actual readers and whether it is for work or general knowledge or pleasure or guilty pleasure. I can tell if people like to go to yard sales [see below]. I can tell if a friend's new boyfriend or girlfriend is worth their time. I can usually guess the conversational depth that I am going to reach with somebody. I can also usually discern whether a person has a lot to teach me. I like to ask people questions about their books.

3. Eyeing my own Books
Up until recently, a lot of my books were in storage. The minute I got them on the shelf, I felt more complete. I felt like my own learning accumulation continuum could start again. I love to take my books down and start reading them. I will stare at books on the shelf and then take some down and leave them in different rooms and in bags where I might discover them at the appropriate times. I like to see books that I want to read stacked up on a table while I do other work. There is a sense of possibilities that build in me and gain momentum. There is also a sense of identification with the knowledge and stories and authors that makes me feel like I am on to something good - - attached to auctoritas of here and now and the whole body of human wisdom.

4. Ogling Books at the Bookstore
I love bookstores, notably Powells in Portland, OR, Blackwell in Oxford, UK , MacIntyre & Moore in Cambridge (although I really miss their Davis Sq., Somerville, MA, store) and the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA (especially the basement). Really any bookstore will do, but especially those with used books. Used books are free of current marketing and release buzz and help me focus on the content and the look and the smell and the feel of the book itself, the words themselves, the ideas alone. It's not the shopping that I enjoy so much as the staring. Staring at books in stores helps me envision where I would like my thinking to go and whom I would like to be. Whenever I travel, I often would rather go to local bookstores than see the sites. Book-seeing as opposed to site-seeing.

5. Scouting Books at Yard Sales
Call it what you will, the yard sale, jumble sale, rummage sale, tag sale, flea market experience is one of the most pure delights in book watching. Any true lover of books is a a treasure hunter at heart looking for the hidden jewels of culture, knowledge, wisdom and narrative. A yard sale puts a performative spin on this activity of the mind. At a yard sale - I can look for and find books I never knew I was seeking. Then I can buy them without worrying about the price. It's brilliant.

The one semi-infallible truth of looking at books at yard sales in the USA is that you are bound to see a copy of Trinity by Leon Uris. That is why there are currently 147 copies available from Amazon starting at $.01. It sounds silly, but it is a thread that can tie together all your yard sale book-watching and show a greater pattern at work in the universe. Someday I might actually buy that book and read it. For now, it is just an elementally important part of the science and sport of staring at books.

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