I love a good used bookstore as much as the next Rioter, but I don’t know what comes over me when I walk into one. Rather than making a beeline for the science fiction paperbacks or a good teen romance beach read like Sarah Dessen, I seem to always get really…cool. Not like, popular-kid-cool, but deep, thoughtful, interesting kind of cool.
I go over to the poetry section and try to find a collection of Mary Oliver or Khalil Gibran. I surf the philosophy section for some critical thought tome that I’ve heard of but never savored. Usually, I read a ton of pop psychology, but my bookstore habits take me into the weeds of economic theory, or mystic religions, or some amazing astronomy text.
I wish I knew what makes me feel like I’m going to automatically want to read really dense, old-fashioned, and genuinely tough-to-read books. It feels like it has to do with being in the bookstore, hoping that I look as thoughtful as I feel. Maybe it has to do with the fact that an old book of philosophy is a treasure, while an old sci-fi novel is usually just dog-eared and ragged.
Wanting to be cool doesn’t extend to when I get the new philosophy or poetry book home, however. I will read a few pages, then I’ll get distracted. The book will go on the shelf beside other abandoned “cool books.” When friends come over and comment on how many books I’ve amassed, I have to feel like a poser because I haven’t read them all. As often as not, I’m at the library picking out my favorite easier reads to make my weekends delectable or a pile of audiobooks for my commute: I am not a person who spends every evening puzzling through Jacques Derrida, no matter how cool I’d think that would make me.
Getting better at reading…and buying books
I’m trying to rethink my strategies in two directions. The first? Look for the books I actually read the most when I walk into a used bookstore. I support the bookstore just as much if I buy my beach reads there. If someone else comes in who reads tons of philosophy, they are more likely to find the book they were looking for. There is no shame in loving a book that doesn’t take much effort to read. Those authors provide an incredibly valuable service by helping many of us learn how to love reading through their excellent storytelling.
I’m also working in the opposite direction: I’m trying to settle into an armchair with some of my past bookstore choices and really delve in. I’ve written before about why I think it’s important to read difficult books. This is one of the ways I’m trying to practice what I’m preaching. If I thought that I’d like to be the kind of person who reads books about the lifecycles of stars, I ought to put in the time to become that person. Once I’m knee-deep in a book, I usually really love what I learn.
buying (gasp) new books
Lastly, I’m trying to visit bookstores that sell used and new books, especially if they sell new books from small or off-beat presses. Writing for Book Riot informed this choice. Both my reading interests and my reading identity are growing to converge on contemporary authors who are dealing with the issues of our time. These books help me make sense of life. Because they get less press than the latest from a big publisher, it’s harder to find them. Local new-and-used bookstores provide a great chance to basically pick the brain of someone who keeps track of the indie publishing world way better than I do. I’m realizing that I cannot just wait for books to get cool after a few decades; I want to be a part of keeping the literary scene going now. I may not buy a lot of new books. However, the ones I’m buying these days are from presses that are doing interesting, innovative things.
So yes, I’m always going to be someone who wants to look cool in bookstores, but more and more I want to be the kind of person who can honestly talk about the books I have actually read, possibly even losing my cool in the process. I want to be able to recommend independently-published books by underrepresented authors whose work is a hidden treasure as much as I recommend dusty tomes of poetry. With these aspirations, in addition to a lot of visits to the library, I can walk the cool-book-reader walk.