Once in a way, when I feel a dusty archaism settling over me, and I realize my eyes don’t focus as well as they once did and that sedentary life in front of a computer screen is slowly killing me, I betake myself to a book sale. In this particular part of the country the big sales are in the spring. I’m told that the book business is dying, but if I can get out of a book sale with no bruises or scary brushes with over-eager buyers, I count myself lucky. I confess, I’m a bookaholic. I spend too many hours a week on public transit, and I consider it a moral obligation to read in public. Even in a city the size of New York, I’ve had people on the bus plop down next to me and say, “You’re that guy who reads.” Public displays of literacy. While some of the books I read are common enough, others are difficult to find in even university libraries. I know that’s an excuse, but my vice is buying books.
I once read a children’s story about a house actually constructed of books. I want that house. Although new books aren’t cheap, there are ways of making them fit into a modest budget. And although you really can’t build with them, they insulate the soul. Reading is more than fundamental—it is the very essence of learning. When I glance at Publisher’s Weekly and read that print sales aren’t what they used to be, I am buoyed by seeing the strong market in young adult literature. We have at least raised a generation that likes a good story. The earliest literature was religious, and many religions developed around written words. It’s a mistake to take religion for gullible belief. If there weren’t power in these words, why would anyone believe?
Local book sales can be huge events. Each year Bryn Mawr and Wellesley have a combined book sale in Princeton. If you get there after opening, there will be no place to park. The libraries of Hunterdon County in New Jersey hold a sale that, until this year, required off-site parking and a full three days of hiring a shuttle bus service to get hundreds of buyers back to their cars. And these venues are packed. People do buy books. And many of them are half my age. It is a seed of hope. Some people are surely looking for a quick read, maybe to take on vacation, but you can also see the seasoned, selective literati carefully examining the offers, backs bent, brows furrowed. For twenty dollars you can even get in early, before the goods have been picked over. The man checking me out said the sale gets bigger every year. Looking out over the sea of cars, I feel strangely ebullient, as if I’m atop Nebo looking over the promised land. Although it’s quite a drive, I’m already home.