No matter how great the technological incursion into our lives, one prediction that has not proven true for me has been that books, as such, would begin to disappear and become obsolete as electronic text became universally available for all such "books." It has also been suggested that electronic media would become so pervasive that ultimately less and less paper would be needed. We would eventually emerge as a paperless society.
Well, not for me.
While I admit that most of my research and inquiry utilizes acquiring and reading text on the internet, and benefiting from the recent advances in instant translation of documents in foreign languages, I had almost forgotten the romance of the printed word and books as a physical presence. Then I wandered into the Mercer Street Bookstore, a place for second-hand books and old vinyl LP recordings.
There is a certain majesty in the variety of paper and bindings you encounter with books. There is a special smell of paper, and the tactile experience of leafing through pages of volumes of books you never knew even existed can be intoxicating. And the textures of paper are so rich and varied! I am always drawn to the poetry section of such stores. Poetry passes into the "second-hand" status more rapidly than most books. Calling them "used" books is often misleading, because most of the books have been rarely touched, although there are notable exceptions.
My imagination is ignited by such encounters. Titles are leaping out at me with such explosiveness. "Incredible," I think, "Why didn't I think of that!" There are authors I have never heard of, and books have such variety of sizes and styles! I think of my experience with electronic print media and suddenly realize that text is reduced to a certain monotonous sameness, with occasional deviation of fonts and backgrounds. And there is no equivalent tactile sense of how books feel as I sort randomly through a volume.
After poetry, I head for philosophy, then to arts and humanities, then to fiction, then history, and science. I replace Internet Explorer and Firefox with myself as browser with a certain built-in intelligence (I hope) as I search, although what actually alerts me is some sensibility not immediately understood, an awareness that grows as I leaf through pages... words and phrases grab me and awaken some dark mysterious recess of myself that was waiting for some such signal.
Mercer Street Bookstore... Not a bookstore at all but a place where ideas occupy three dimensional space, slumbering on shelves until some intelligence stumbles upon them and discovers new constellations, new galaxies of thoughts formed and flung to the wilderness waiting to be deciphered and filtered through the mind.
Walking into the bookstore I enter a universe that is dazzling, an underlying order that structures knowledge. Bookshelves line the walls to the ceiling around the perimeter, with smaller shelves and bins in the front. It is a cozy, comfortable space, with an open central area that contains recent arrivals, LPs, odd-sized art books, books of poetry, with little anarchic pockets here and there inviting scrutiny. At the back of this open space, the room narrows to the right and continues back, a literary gravity pulling you to the furthermost wall. There is just enough chaos, scattered blackholes that connect to the vortex of my imagination and drag me irresistibly into the increasing density of inspiration and human achievement.
Time is suspended. Books beckon me with silent and persuasive seductiveness as I discover that this realm of mental activity emerges as a kingdom, a landscape where I can wander among the volumes like an adventurer from another planet... exploring alien terrain with such abundant awareness that I abandon my routine digital domain for an idle Saturday afternoon among the ancient tomes and printed manuscripts of Mercer Street.