I recently had the opportunity to travel to a new town and spend the night there. This is a rarity in the days of pandemic and I’d forgotten the magic of waking early in a new place and looking out the windows at the deserted, artificially lit streets. It’s so peaceful and full of wonder. The place we were staying was next to a public library and I noticed that there was a light on in the cupola in the pre-dawn hours. I like the idea of books watching over us in the night. Often when I’ve traveled to conferences I’ll arise early and look out on that orangey, artificial light while most other people are still asleep. Even the city in pre-dawn can be a peaceful place. This is a pleasant displacement since it’s only temporary.
One of the things about the pandemic is that it has accustomed us to life just so. The controlled environment of home. There’s a comfort to routine, but there’s wonder in breaking it as well. When it’s not a conference and still a new city, I begin to look for a bookstore. One of the common misconceptions—perhaps bolstered by the cookie-cutter experience that has been Barnes and Noble—is that bookstores are all the same. They aren’t. Each reflects the minds of the owners. They reflect their knowledge of their public. New ways of looking at things. I suppose this fascination with books has been enhanced by my starting to read some Jorge Luis Borges again. Those of us who read for pleasure are in the minority and we find the open book to be open arms welcoming us in. Welcoming us home.
I always travel with books. My travel bag carries my laptop and my reading. New technology having to learn to adjust to the old. I’m not a particular fan of technocracy. I’ve always preferred paper to plastic. In a new town I look for authenticity. We lived for many years in Somerville, New Jersey and one of my concerns was that it couldn’t seem able to support a bookstore in the shadow of that equalizing Barnes and Noble. The new owner, James Daunt, believes that bookstores should reflect local interests. His own stores in Britain are cathedrals to books. Unlike other industries, bookselling isn’t all about the business. Much of it is about the place. We travel to see new places, and we read to visit them as well. And perhaps to reflect in the artificial orange glow before the city awakes.