Thursday, January 28, 2010


Call me weird, but every time I step into a bookstore and lose myself among the shelves, I have to fight the urge to scream. It's not out of genuine fear or despair, mind you — it just happens to be an odd impulse that has psychologically festered with time. I just wondered what would happen if I did that one day, and the curiosity hasn't abated in the last few years.

That's serious, by the way. It's amazing what you can conceive with a bookstore in mind.

Bookstores also seem to figure into a lot of my story ideas nowadays. I imagine that this is because there's something about having all those books clustered together in one tiny section of the mall, their pages shrink-wrapped and otherwise inaccessible to mortal eyes. I inevitably wonder what strange things could possibly lie within those covers (which can easily mislead us into assumptions about their books' content), or if there's any mystical law of the universe that gets violated by leaving so many ideas alone in one place.

I mean, what happens to the books in the middle of the night? Do they drag out the beer, put a DJ on the turntables, and have a party? Do they tend to leak words so much that a staff member has to reorganize the shelves early the next morning? Do they multiply like rabbits? (The last of these, mind you, would explain as to how so many standalone volumes of The Green Mile can suddenly appear out of nowhere.)

This, of course, assumes the presence of the books on the shelves. There are a lot more of the darn things, of course, most likely stacked or boxed somewhere in a storage room around back. These volumes, I imagine, probably seethe and bicker over their lack of face time on the shelves... or perhaps they act starry-eyed and optimistic, each waiting for their chance in the limelight. The "spoiled" books, of course — the sample copies whose pages have been crumpled and rent by hundreds of idle shoppers — most likely beg to differ.

It's like an ecosystem, mind you, and after a few years spent hanging around these places, they tend to be fertile grounds for literary imaginations. How do the audiobooks relate to the easy listening CDs, for instance? Do the bibles and religious tracts act all indignant at being placed at the shelf across from the new-age writings? Do the five-month-old magazine issues give dire warnings and grandfatherly advice to the new releases?

And the staff... just who are they, anyway? From a practical point of view, I've always considered them to be readers of one or more stripes, but for a bunch of people who hang around a bookstore, they never seem to read their own inventory, much less give recommendations once you've finished their entire stable of Terry Pratchett books. Maybe they're robots. Maybe they're cultists. Maybe they literally eat pages of Heidegger for lunch.

Just how do they manage to fit almost every single contemporary idea in there? I can imagine that any random row of false books with uninteresting titles can swing open to reveal a secret passage. I'm fairly convinced that the entire section on travel guides hides a space-time vortex that can immediately transport us from here to, say, Tahiti. And that's not counting the childrens' section, which is haunted by the laughter of invisible beings who can be heard even when the store has closed up for the night.

With all that crowding into one's head, I'm not surprised that I feel an urge to scream right in the middle of the bookshelves. Walking among them is like having this great weight pressing down on my shoulders, if only because there's this heavy potential for ideas in there... and most of the people around me are content only to read what's printed on bound paper.

Perhaps I'll do just that one day. You'll hear this swift, keening cry, a sound that practically commands the dead to crawl out of their graves, and a startling shrill voice that gets all the staff members converging onto a single unlikely location to restrain a single hysterical man.

But then again, maybe not. They might be robots, after all.

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