A School for Browsers
In the Strand and other book emporia.
“We Need Your Help!” That was the subject line of an email I received on the afternoon of October 23. The body of the message was a letter from Nancy Bass Wyden, proprietor of the Strand bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street in Manhattan. She wrote to Strand customers—“with gratitude, determination and appreciation”—to ask for support of the fabled institution, whose business has been ravaged by the pandemic in the past eight months, its business dropping nearly 70%.
“I grew up in the Strand, or at least that’s the way it felt to me,” Nancy’s letter began, recalling the days of her childhood when her grandfather and father worked side by side; “never did I imagine that the store’s financial situation would become so dire that I would have to write friends and devoted customers for help.”
We’ve survived just about everything for 93 years—the Great Depression, two World Wars, big box bookstores, e-books and online behemoths. We are the last of the original 48 bookstores still standing from 4th Avenue’s famous Book Row. Because of the impact of Covid-19, we cannot survive the huge decline in foot-traffic, a near complete loss of tourism, and zero in-store events (compared to 400 events pre-pandemic).
Nancy’s plea struck several chords with me, and it clearly resonated with many others, as evidenced by reports of the response it generated in terms of foot traffic and online orders. (The picture above, showing a line of customers snaking around the outside of the store on the day after the email, was taken by my sister, Cathy Guy, who lives around the corner from the Strand.) Personally, I remain grateful to Nancy for the warm welcome she gave to 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, both in the run-up to publication, when she provided a startling and generous quote for the volume’s dust jacket, and in support of the book once it appeared in October 2018, when it was featured—and piled high—as a Strand staff pick well into 2019. She also hosted me for a packed event at the store that was broadcast on C-SPAN2 Book TV (you can watch it here). No other bookseller did quite so much to make me feel like a real author, just as few other bookstores have made me feel so purposeful as a reader over such an extended period of time: more than half of the Strand’s history, in fact.
Those of you who’ve been following my newsletter since I began it a couple of years ago may remember that in one of the earliest issues I announced a new project I was embarking upon, a collection of essays called Lost Learning:
I’ve begun sketching out a new book (read: I’ve been taking long walks and letting my thoughts wander) about our search for books and what we find in them, not just as individual readers but as citizens of culture—and on what might happen if we stop looking in the particular directions reading has mapped for our brains, neurologically speaking, and our collective fate, historically speaking.
That first episode of Lost Learning begins on the floor of the Strand during a visit on a rainy afternoon in December 2018:
The Strand was busy with the inspiriting buzz of a bookstore in the run-up to the holiday, and I was in my own favorite element, happily scanning the many tables of enticing volumes, hoping my eyes would alight — to invoke the words of the longtime majordomo of London’s Heywood Hill bookshop, John Saumarez Smith — upon something that, at the back of my mind, I knew I’d always wanted. Without too much time passing, alight they did, spying a pile of The Earth Dies Streaming, a collection of film criticism by A. S. Hamrah.
Flipping through Hamrah’s book, I discovered Orson Welles and T. S. Eliot, and my thoughts took a pleasingly unexpected turn, one that eventually would set me on the path toward a rewarding destination (if Lost Learning is any good, that is). I didn’t know that on that December afternoon, however; I was just filled with a browser’s pleasure:
Mostly, though, I was delighted to have discovered once again the pleasure of being taught by serendipity — of experiencing, in the words of Edmund Wilson that I had quoted again and again on my book tour, “the miscellaneous learning of the bookstore, unorganized by any larger purpose.” Any larger purpose, that is, than the passage of a browser’s attention through it.
I bought the book.
You can read that first episode here: Used Books (and also the second, which, following Hamrah from Welles to Eliot, leads, via Virgil and a translation by Seamus Heaney, into the land of the dead). In any case, two years and thirty-thousand-odd words later, I’m approaching the conclusion of that small book that began on the floor of the Strand on that rainy afternoon, the cultivation of its little plot having been seeded by countless volumes found in the same space over the course of several decades; being of a teleological bent, I wonder if it is inauspicious that the final pages of Lost Learning have come into focus in the same week I receive Nancy’s SOS.
To ward off my suspicions, I chose some books as charms to order in response to it, including Don DeLillo’s slim new novel, The Silence, which I read in a sitting last night. It tells the story of what happens when the power goes out on Super Bowl Sunday a few years hence. Well, it’s not a story exactly, but a series of signs and warnings that baffle a small cast of characters thrown back on their metaphorical devices when the real ones on which they rely—television, internet, electric circuits—go blank, and they go blank with them. It’s like a fragmentary, oracular remnant of an ancient modern literature, a lost interlude of a tragedy too slippery to stage. “We have to remember to keep telling ourselves that we’re still alive,” says one voice in The Silence. That has always been what literature has meant to do, which is why Euripides and Don DeLillo are contemporaries.
The Silence is the kind of minor, mysterious work an acolyte like me was thrilled to come upon in the stacks of the Strand all those years ago, pre-internet, when there was no other way to find them. As Nancy Bass Wyden notes in her email, the Strand was once one among several dozen bookstores in the same neighborhood; all those companions are gone now, and have been for some time.
I’d first wandered the Strand’s miles of books when that course of discovery was but one of several—was it dozens?—in the neighborhood, at the tail end of its time as New York’s Book Row, of which the Strand is the solitary survivor, no doubt in part because of its knack for renewal. Making my youthful, eager way through the stacks of the Strand in my formative years, or wandering through the warrens of Biblo & Tannen on Fourth Avenue, or descending into the fathomless basement of Dauber & Pine on Fifth, I’d discover on each foray tracts of unexplored territory—terra incognita of the bookish life—as if the emporiums were expanding underground from one week to the next in a fairy tale of intellectual adventure, luring the hero (that would be me) deeper into labyrinths lined with piles of disorganized tomes to be pawed and pored over—mined—until they revealed some treasure to be toted home and pondered like a relic of a sacred quest.
That’s from another section of Lost Learning, in which I consider what I learned in the dusty school for browsers that Fourth Avenue then comprised, and on the gap lost bookstores leave behind.
Book hunting, of course, is not so dusty now. It is one of the ironies of the digital age, in fact, that the business of books led the way, via Amazon, into the robotic warehouses of frictionless e-commerce—everything available all the time and just a click away—and marked out the first paths toward the surveillance future we increasingly inhabit at the beck and call and beck again of occult algorithms predicting our longings with inscrutable orthodoxy. Yet for all the ease of search box convenience and cardboard carton delivery, there is something missing. For generations, inveterate browsers have known that books discover us as much as we discover them. Volumes crouch in corners, secrete themselves along the shelves, lie in wait in libraries public or personal until we’re ready for their wisdom, then spring their wits upon us. Worthy books have a way of coming to hand when we’re ripe for them. Such fortune is the browser’s faith, and solace, the first allure of the vocation. But it’s the first rule of e-commerce that discovery be made efficient (this was also, of course, the guiding principle of mass retailing and big-box stores, but those now quaint manifestations of directed shopping lacked the ruthless enforcement of algorithmic certitude). Not only dust but serendipity be damned!
But discovery made efficient is not discovery at all. The very qualities an old bookstore promoted were escapes from the affronts of the efficiency outside it, the pigeonholes of the projected futures society might have in store. (And if the future seemed projected then, it’s positively programmed now: “Make Google do it!”) Call it procrastination or creativity, browsing is always filled with promise, as, of course, is reading. The first indulges our instincts and the second informs our attention, shaping its quality and thereby describing our presence in the world.
And a little later on:
We live in an age of algorithms, in which all of human experience is subject to rules of engineering efficiency. That’s marvelous, and even liberating, in many ways. But the most important experiences in life are not efficient. Infancy isn’t efficient, nor is growing up. Education is not efficient, and is less and less education in its true sense the more it pretends to be efficient. Raising children isn’t efficient. Taking care of aging parents isn’t efficient. Falling in love isn’t efficient, and falling out of love is even less so. In fact, thinking is seldom efficient, nor are the revelations we come to about ourselves and the world by living, pondering, and worrying until we learn to be comfortable in our own skin.
Reading of any kind helps us with the living, pondering, and worrying that shapes us, not so much by delivering instructions as by allowing us the space to discover inspirations and develop our intuitions—space in which we can learn to talk to ourselves more thoughtfully than the press of events usually allows. “Becoming is a secret process,” Heraclitus wrote more than 2,500 years ago, as noted by Guy Davenport in his book of translations of that ancient philosopher. It is, in fact, the age of the book that made second nature the space in which our hearts and minds take shape; it was reading that created what we think of now as the inner life, the secret process of becoming ourselves.