Posted by: Bob Fisher | January 20, 2012

A Proustian Bookshop on Main Street

The scent of books

The minute you walk in the door you can smell the books.

It’s not an unpleasant odour, but there is definitely a vague mustiness in the air. The shop, at first glance, also seems haphazard and jumbled — even chaotic. But appearances (as they say) can be deceiving. Out of chaos can arise enlightenment.

And therein lies the essence of literature.

There is definitely a sense order to this small bookshop on the main street of the town in which I live; but it is not that of the conventional mind. This is a place in which the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things (as opposed to oppressive homogeneity) is clearly the rule and not the exception.

There is also an unconscious flow to the shop, as well as a variety of focal points. Although the window announces “used books” — gently used I would say — it is obvious to any bibliophile that these are not throwaways.

Au contraire mes chers!

And this shop is the antithesis of the big box bookstores found on the periphery of the town, which tend to be spacious, effective in a retail sense, and highly directional — for obvious commercial reasons. In themselves, they are lessons in media literacy. Such literary outlets, usually found in or adjacent to shopping malls, of course have their place as major retail outlets but their inherent economies of scale can hinder access to more idiosyncratic books — in unorthodox settings — and possibly even the ideas and concepts implicit in them.

And in this shop on Main Street, the senses are heightened even more because this is a shop that is tactile in so many other ways. The books invite you to pick them up, to take them down from the shelf, to gently re-arrange them.

These books are old friends.

À la recherche du temps perdu

Entering the shop is a Proustian moment; not unlike the gestalt feelings that Marcel Proust experienced when he dipped his madeleine in his tea.

And as Proust himself said, “A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.”

Or better yet, “Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”

And Proust’s madeleine evokes a similar kind of holistic sense for bibliophiles everywhere. These books are memory generators of many literary hues and shades of the past; but there is also in them a sense of something universal. Such books as these are moments out of time. They embody not only the love of reading but the freedom inherent in reading.

And Proust also hit the nail on the head when he said, “As long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost and science can never regress.”

No books are banned or burned in this shop.

A repository far from the madding crowd

As someone once said to me, “Books are our silent friends.”

But as our intimates, they also permit and encourage a kind of shared sense of privacy that in the 21st century is becoming more and more difficult to find.

And there are old friends here, especially Margaret Drabble, one of my favourites.

I also find other old friends and titles that I have not read; and I come home with three: Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince; Peter Mayle’s Toujours Provence; and cranky Paul Theroux‘s Sunrise With Seamonsters.

Books as travel companions

As Alain de Boton, demonstrates, you should never be without a book when travelling. In his book The Art of Travel, he defines travel as an art form — in a literary sense especially.

The Art of Travel also confirms what we have known for a very long time; that travel is the most experiential form of learning. It is also a multi-factored human behaviour that, since the beginning of human civilization, has been manifested in many ways and for many reasons. To Homo sapiens sapiens, travel has meant survival: a search for ideals; an escape from one reality to another; simple pleasure (some call it “fun”); a physical, psychological, and spiritual process — and much more.

But good books are also a form of travel — armchair travel for sure.

Books as true social media

Why do books matter? Why they are living entities? Why they are the sum total of the human condition. But most of all, why do books create dialogue and social interaction?

In my view, the answer is obvious.

To see another independent bookstore’s view of the land of literature, click on the link below:

The Joy of Books

For the love of books

In the new interconnected literary world, there are many ways to share books with friends. My wife, for example, is part of what in essence is a virtual book club; although I suspect she and her university friends might not define it as such.

Bloggers can also now recommend and comment on their favourite “reads.”

I recently found one called For the Love of Books.

However, I have to add that the above particular “book blogger” also raises the issue of gender differences. Do book clubs, virtual or otherwise, also reveal anthropological realities? Women as nurturers? Men as hunters?

I am reminded of Stephen Leacock’s The Sinking of the Mariposa Belle, in which the women all gather in the salon, close up the shutters “as if they had never left home”; whereas “the guys” all gather in the grungiest part of the ship. Oh … and the Mayor comes aboard with a large box of sandwiches — which, according to Leacock you can hear clinking.

Having said that (with some trepidation), my latest book is David Brooks’ The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement; which explores evolutionary biology and neuroscience in great detail.

His analysis of parent-child relationships, for example, may cause you to revisit the perennial nature/nurture debate.

But I especially relate to his emphasis on the unconscious mind:

“The inner realm is illuminated by science, but it is not a dry, mechanistic place. It is an emotional and enchanted place. If the study of the conscious mind highlights the importance of reason and analysis, study of the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception.”


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