18 Miles of Books

by Kiko Matsing

Strand Bookstore

1. Strand Bookstore (Broadway & 12th Street, Annex at Fulton Street)

“In 1927, Ben Bass opened Strand Book Store on Fourth Avenue, home of New York’s legendary Book Row. Named after the famous publishing street in London, the Strand was one of 48 bookstores on Book Row, which started in the 1890’s and ran from Union Square to Astor Place. Today, the Strand is the sole survivor.” (from www.strandbooks.com)

Finally, a real bookstore! I am flabbergasted to be living in a college town with only one good second hand bookstore, cheesily named Book Lover’s Café (along 13th St., also serving inedible New Age fare). Even then, its inventory is so grimy and yellow with age, that discovering Strand Bookstore in NY was like returning to civilization after crossing sea and desert. With only limited time and budget, I was, let’s just say, in a “panic browsing” mode.

The booty: Pieces of My Mind (Frank Kermode); The Uses of Literature, Why Read the Classics (Italo Calvino); The Poet’s Dante (Hawkins and Jacoff, eds.); A Manual for Manuel, Unreasonable Hours (Julio Cortazar); A Jacques Barzun Reader; Chronicles of Bustos Domecq (Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares); Eros and Civilization (Herbert Marcuse); K. (Roberto Calasso)…

I must say, though, that despite its “18 miles of books,” Strand is still dwarfed by Half-Price Books, the megachain of used-books stores in Texas. Yes, everything is bigger in Texas, and it’s not just waistlines and boondoggles. The branches near Rice University in Houston and University of Texas in Austin are particularly noteworthy, not just for their selection–catering to students and professors–but, also, for the neighborhood of independent coffee houses and restaurants. I have thus quite sprung back from the disaster of 2004–the complete loss of my library–and have built up, on a modest student stipend, a small, much edited version of the former.

2. Treatise on Emptiness

“You think it’s healthy to obsessively collect things? You can’t relate to other people, so you fill your life with stuff… I’m just like all these other collector losers.” −Seymour (played by Steve Buscemi) in Ghost World.

Quite unexpectedly, when the fire that gutted our house consumed all my books, that even those spared from the flames got flooded by ensuing water meant to save them, when I had stood there on the enormous charred pile they left behind, I felt, not grief for their loss, but a deep sense of release. It was as if the burden of all these possessions, keenly collected and catalogued, was lifted from me, and my life acquired a new clarity. It happened I was reading Voltaire at the time. Candide, after meeting a noble Venetian who has everything yet disdains it all, observed that, “[you] must admit… there is the happiest man alive, because he is superior to all he possesses,” and, thus, I faced my loss with the same detached stoicism.

What lightness of being! Shucked, even as I was being uprooted–shipped abroad to graduate school, with, literally, just the clothes on my back. For a while, I was lightweight as driftwood; I did not have the will to amass things. Until, that is, I strayed one day to the Half-Price Books at Rice Village, and chanced upon, of all things, Adam Zagajewski’s Without End, and opened to the “Treatise on Emptiness”:

In a bookstore I suddently ended up at the section on Tao, or
more precisely, by the Treatise on Emptiness.
I rejoiced, since that day I was perfectly empty.
What an unexpected meeting–the patient finds the doctor,
the doctor doesn’t speak.

There, in a most abnegating way, I discovered once again the worldly pleasure of possessing books.