Living in a bookstore is cozy and fun, but also challenging. At night, trolling for a good read, my fingers ripple across the shelves, seeking back cover blurbs that make sense, authors’ names I trust.
Because I know what I like. I know what I want to hear–and what I don’t, going off in my head, voices planted by print that will chase me down hallways, seek me out in quiet moments, and start in: “Yes, but” or even the dreaded “What if?”
These voices ask us to re-examine not so much what we believe as why we believe it, a far more intense scrutiny. What did we inherit, and what did we swallow without question, and what have we observed that supports or belies these things?
A wonderful book called Women’s Ways of Knowing says the continuum of human wisdom runs from a person who “stands in her shoes and looks out” to synthesizing pieces of knowledge to create new knowledge.
Do we only read the books that agree with us? No, probably not; most bibliophiles don’t. But do we only want from books we disagree with a sense of why their argument is wrong, invalid? Or do we listen to viewpoints we would never seek out in the greater world? Is that what bookstores are for, to let us experience–at somewhat lower risk than attending a rally or visiting a friend’s church–ideas that don’t rock our world, but could sink it?
I read certain books in certain moods. Some days I want challenge; bring on Simon Schama and Jonathan Safran Foer; yes, I will try the sushi today, thanks. Other days I want comfort; yesterday, seeking familiarity, I reread Clyde Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt. It’s as comforting as veggie lasagna, with an equal amount of thoughtful chewing.
Books make us think, and a healthy diet includes the ones that ask us to consider another’s viewpoint. I used to teach my students, back when I was teaching, that the job of the anthropologist was to help society live with ambiguity, to put two people who believe oppositional things into a room and help them shake hands and agree not to order their subjects to kill each other. Live and let live is the motto of the ethnographer.
And the bookshop owner.