Because what I experience when I read Gravity’s Rainbow, or Beloved, or The Moviegoer, is not at all a “copy” of what you experience when you read the same novel. Now that the books are in our hands, in our homes, in our heads, the copies have become something much more idiosyncratic and alive. They’ve become individual experiences. They’ve become memories.
Last year I bought Daniyal Mueenuddin’s story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders at Annie Bloom’s Books in Portland. I read two-thirds of it, wrote all over it, flew to Boise, drove home, and realized I’d left the book on the airplane.
“It’s okay,” my wife said, when she saw my disappointment. “You can buy another copy.” But I couldn’t, not really. That was my copy. My experience of the book. And once I finished it, I planned to stow it on a shelf in a particular spot in my office and there it would sit, with my notes scribbled in it, waiting to be called back up, in the way I imagine individual memories wait to be called back up inside our brains.
It is the weather in which one reads a book that interpenetrates the paper. It is the mood one is in, the mindset one carries, the hunger in one’s gut, the quality of the sunlight falling across the page. It is the little coffee stain on page 29, the twelve bright stars scratched ecstatically across page 302.
Maybe, rather than copies, a more precise way to think about books on the shelves of a bookshop is to think of them as something closer to recipes. The execution of a recipe, after all, depends on a thousand variables: elevation, humidity, the freshness of the vegetables, the temperature of the oven, the kind of metal in the pan, how much wine the cook has been drinking.
What one cheese souffle is a copy of the next? What cook hasn’t tried preparing the same dish five years apart, only to produce significantly different results?
To contemplate the intense, complicated latticework of memory and experience summoned by a single book on my shelves boggles my mind. I bought this little orange-spined paperback—Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People—at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho. While I was reading it, I found myself in a tense and terrifying version of South Africa. I was also, literally, in a hotel room in London.
Or this book, Death in Venice. I bought it earlier this year at the newly-relocated Rediscovered Books in downtown Boise. While I read it, I was an aging, world-famous German writer in a decadent, damp Venice. I was also—simultaneously!—in McCall, Idaho, in a dark cabin, surrounded by falling snow, while my little sons slept twenty feet away.
Indeed, every book on my shelves is a key to a little vault of memories. Here a boy in an egg-blue suit handed me an ornate invitation to a party at Jay Gatsby’s; here I met the harpooner Queequeg at the Spouter Inn; here I floated a stretch of the Mississippi with a slave named Jim.
We live through life, but we live through art, too. And in art, as in life, nothing is generalized. No one thing is a copy of the next. Everything is individual.
Look, Earth is four and a half billion years old. The rocks in your backyard are moving, if only you could stand still enough to watch. How are we supposed to measure the brief, warm, intensely complicated fingersnap of our lives against the absolutely incomprehensible vastness of the universe?
How? We stare into the fire. We turn to friends, bartenders, lovers, priests, drug-dealers, painters. And we turn to books.
All around us right now, tucked into the valleys and along the coasts, bookshops glow in the winter light. Think of them like singular, magical, and multi-dimensional recipe boxes. They wait for us to pluck out a card, to stand over the stove, to start cooking.
I, for one, am deeply grateful for their existence.