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Jason Guriel | On Browsing | November 2022 | 4,361 words (15 minutes)
Let’s browse a bookstore—a Platonic one, a composite. Let’s wander an aisle, running our fingertips across a wall of spines. One spine, thick and black, juts out: the recent NYRB Classics reissue of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions. It’s a block of a book, though you’d never know that, scrolling online. The back cover even features a blurb by Don DeLillo. Let’s linger on it.
I remember the bookstore, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street. I stood in the narrow aisle reading the first paragraph of The Recognitions. It was a revelation, a piece of writing with the beauty and texture of a Shakespearean monologue—or, maybe more apt, a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words. And they were the words of a contemporary American. This, to me, was the wonder of it.
There’s a lot to like about this blurb. There’s the spectacle of one great novelist plumping for the work of another. There’s the real-time search for the right words (“or, maybe more apt”) and the wonderful ones arrived at (“a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words”). There’s the subtext of a green writer, a budding DeLillo, stumbling on the kind of writing he hadn’t thought was native to his American soil, something he didn’t even realize he was searching for. “And they were the words of a contemporary American,” he tells us, in awe. “This, to me, was the wonder of it.” There’s a bildungsroman buried in DeLillo’s blurb.
But then there’s that opening bit, which the blurb could reasonably live without. “I remember the bookstore, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street,” writes DeLillo, eating up precious back-cover real estate.
Why recall the bookstore where he first read the opening paragraph of The Recognitions? Perhaps the paragraph was so brilliant it imprinted the moment on DeLillo’s memory as if on film. Perhaps it was a Proustian madeleine, a prod to memory. Or maybe the bookstore itself played a part in DeLillo’s first encounter with The Recognitions. Maybe something in the very plaster pulled him to Gaddis’s book. Whatever the case, the bookstore had stuck with him. Stuck to him. Paragraph and place had fused in the novelist’s mind.
I can certainly remember where I was when I first encountered a great many of my favourite books. I never meant to keep these memories; I seem to have had no say in the matter. The bookstores, my mind decided, were important: the setting for a bildungsroman.
For instance, I remember standing in Toronto’s World’s Biggest Bookstore—“long gone now,” to lift DeLillo’s line. It was around 1996, and I was considering a paperback copy of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. The cover, you see, had cried out to my teenage self. A ninja type, sword raised, stands before an arch of ancient brickwork, bulging with duelling bulls in relief. But beyond the arch, across a plain of circuitry, a futuristic skyline awaits. Above the title, a header declares the book to be “THE #1 SCIENCE FICTION BESTSELLER,” the definite article doing some work. Below the title, a blurb from something called Los Angeles Reader (also “long gone now”) is blunt: “Stephenson has not stepped, he has vaulted onto the literary stage with this novel.”
On the back cover, there’s a vote of confidence from William Gibson no less, maybe my favourite writer, plus other appealing endorsements. “A cross between Neuromancer and Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland,” says one blurb. A “gigathriller” sporting a “cool, hip cybersensibility,” says the publisher’s copy. Hey, it was the 1990s.
I stood there, holding the paperback. The World’s Biggest Bookstore was low-ceilinged and harshly lit, with many rows of orange shelves. The building itself had two floors, one entrance, and a long approach, and there was usually a homeless person right by the doors, so you had time to root for change or steel yourself, especially if you were a shy, naive kid from the suburbs. It wasn’t as obviously welcoming as the tony megastores of today, like Indigo, which dedicate a lot of space to pillows, candles, and Starbucks (though I seem to recall the World’s Biggest, late in its life, grudgingly attempting a café—a counter with a few tables).
Still, you could linger there for hours because of the sheer volume of books. Tongue in cheek, the store marketed itself as an admirably shabby foil to its competitors: “We occasionally have soft mood lighting. But then we replaced the burnt out fluorescent tubes.” World’s Biggest was about the books, shelves and shelves of them. When my father and I were downtown, we’d often arrange to split up for an hour or so, then meet at the bookstore. If one of us was late, the other would have more than enough to occupy himself with. This was before smartphones, when killing time took creativity.
Anyway, perhaps I looked like I was on the fence, because a passing employee paused long enough to inform me that the book I was holding was excellent. I remember a thin, middle-aged woman with jet-black hair, bearing a stack of books. I want to say she was wearing the sort of apron bookstores foist on their staff, and black shoes, maybe even Doc Martens. She gave off the vibe of a mostly reformed Goth, someone who’d dabbled in dark arts or, at least, Neil Gaiman comics. I immediately decided she was childless, a serious reader, trustworthy, and very cool. I bought the book.
As I grew older and spent more time with friends, I tried to continue the practice of arranging to meet at large bookstores, where the early worm might browse for a bit. But World’s Biggest—which was owned by Coles, a chain eventually absorbed by Indigo—was torn down in 2014. You could buy a latte at the newer, upscale stores. You could retreat to a comfy chair or even listen to live music on an actual piano. But standing around under strong lighting— basically loitering as you waited for ex-Goth angels, clad in dark raiment, to descend and offer guidance—was off brand and off the table.
I’ve never thought about a book I own and then recalled where I was when I ordered it off a website. Perhaps I was sitting at the dining room table. Perhaps I had my laptop on the sofa. Screens absorb and disperse us. When we’re online, we’re everywhere—and nowhere.
It could’ve been otherwise. When William Gibson minted the term “cyberspace” in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome,” he imagined something like an internet, but in spatial terms. You “jacked in” using an Ono-Sendai VII deck and a pair of trodes, the trodes held in place by a “white terry sweatband.” Here is one of Gibson’s characters, a hacker, describing cyberspace.
A silver tide of phosphenes boiled across my field of vision as the matrix began to unfold in my head, a 3-D chessboard, infinite and perfectly transparent. . . . Legitimate programmers jack into their employers’ sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing the corporate data.
Gibson’s vision of linked computers was prescient, but quaint too. Cyberspace was still a “somewhere,” a grid populated with “bright geometries,” a terrain to navigate, to move through.
A decade later, in Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson refined Gibson’s idea and proposed the “Metaverse” (no relation to Mark Zuckerberg’s). Accessible via goggles, the Metaverse is organized around the so-called Street, a “grand boulevard going all the way around the equator of a black sphere with a radius of a bit more than ten thousand kilometers. That makes it 65,536 kilometers around, which is considerably bigger than the Earth.” You can customize your avatar, but be warned: “cheap public terminals” produce a “jerky, grainy black and white.” There are “vast hovering overhead light shows” and “free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.” You can “write car and motorcycle software” and take your “software out and race it in the black desert of the electronic night.” In the Metaverse, the code’s the limit.
We didn’t get these sci-fi internets, of course. We didn’t even get the internet as originally advertised. (The early, buzzy metaphors—“information superhighway,” “surfing”—promised dynamic motion.) Instead, we got an endlessly metastasizing stack of two-dimensional pages—and browsers to sort them. But then the language of “browser” is a feint as well. You don’t “browse” the internet. You don’t move through it. It’s a galaxy’s worth of content with none of the space. It’s infinite density. You either already know what you want to see (and duly type in the URL) or you try the search bar, which can bring up millions of possibilities. You can keep many different browsers open at once, fanned out like cards from decks of different provenance, a bespoke set specific to your needs. Miraculous, sure, but you’re never quite somewhere. There are no aisles, no vistas, no long views.
We’ve grown used to this atomized, blinkered arrangement, each of us in our carousel, fed by our feed. We’ve acclimated to online shopping, to typing in the title of a book and being hustled straight away to its unique page. We’ve given up the journey for the destination. We’ve achieved two-dimensional teleportation.
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There was something steadying, though, about standing in an actual, cavernous bookstore and taking it all in. Your fellow customers shared a room and a set of options. The scale was human, and the stock was present. Some of it disappeared from day to day as people purchased books. But you had to walk past the stuff you thought you didn’t want to reach the stuff you thought you did. Thus, you could stumble on something you hadn’t set out for. (I’d never heard of Snow Crash the day I picked it up.)
Or you could cozy up to a title slowly, over time, flirting with the idea of it. I remember visiting a copy of the novel Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, over and over. It resided at The Book Company in Sherway Gardens. I’d won a high school English prize, and my teachers had arranged a gift certificate for the store. Thirty dollars, if I recall. A fortune for a teenager in the 1990s.
There’s plenty of information about the World’s Biggest Bookstore online, but there are only two hits on the entire internet that remember, by name, The Book Company at Sherway Gardens. The store seems to fall within what writer Tom Scocca calls
the Internet Event Horizon, the gap between those things that were around to be incorporated in real time into the eternal present of the World Wide Web, and those pre-Web things that were old enough that the World Wide Web reached back and made note of them for their nostalgia value.
The first hit, a blog post, features a digitized Polaroid snapped at a 1990 Douglas Adams book signing. The blog’s text describes the store as “a lavish, decadent shrine to literature, swathed in dark, classy forest green”—a shade purple, that, but it confirms my memories. The second hit, on Reddit, is about the exact same signing and references “a now-extinct bookstore in Sherway Gardens, The Book Company.” Worryingly, both blog and Reddit post are by the same author. Are we the only two who remember? (It turns out there were a few other Book Companies, including one in Ottawa which the Indigo Empire gobbled up and eventually shuttered.)
In any case, my teenage self had judged The Book Company in “dark, classy forest green” a serious store, and Gravity’s Rainbow a serious novel. I’d been eyeing it for some time, the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, with mint green spine, V2 rocket blueprints for a cover, and that iconic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt quote on the back, which might’ve invented the very idea of desert islands:
Fantastic! . . . Fantastically large, complex, funny, perplexing, daring, and weird . . . If I were banished to the moon tomorrow and could take only five books along, this would have to be one of them.
“Weird,” indeed; the plot summary described a book whose main character’s “sexual conquests” are correlated to “V-2 rocket bombs . . . falling on London . . .” Clearly, Gravity’s Rainbow was a classic of some kind, but kooky too. Contraband hiding in plain sight. Words for a high school student to get high on.
I’d been circling the book for some time. (I’d also been circling the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Ulysses, with the cover shot of James Joyce in Shakespeare and Company, the Paris bookstore that published the novel’s first edition.) The Gravity’s Rainbow was in mint condition—except for a small white crease in the upper right-hand corner of its cover. Sign of in-store manhandling? Minor mishap at the printer? I was fussy about my books, and the crease had been bothering me, which is why I’d been reluctant to close the deal. The crease was a barrier to cross.
Nearly twenty-five years later, the book is still with me. It’s yellowed some, and the corners have lost their crisp points. The spine stayed smooth (I never crack a spine if I can help it), but I worry about the cover, which is beginning to show signs of detaching. The crease is still there, of course, a little creek I’ve learned to live alongside. Surely every Gravity’s Rainbow should have one.
A few years later, I was browsing in Pages, an independent bookstore in downtown Toronto. By this time, my passion had passed from fiction to poetry. And yet I’d struggled to admire Canadian poetry or, rather, the attenuated version my profs had been pushing in university. A species of free verse bordering on plain speech, Canadian poetry waved o the metaphor and music—too florid. Instead, it counted itself direct and unshowy. It even seemed to take perverse pride in its lack of vision. “The animals / have the faces of / animals,” says one Margaret Atwood poem, coolly, as if avoiding description were a positive; as if conjuring a blank in the reader’s mind were an act of courage. Canadian poetry was as scrubbed of formal texture as a prairie.
But there seemed to be an embargo on saying as much. Canadian poetry was a duty read. A pity read. It demanded patriotism and kid gloves. Book stores gave the frail stuff its own shelf, isolated from the other poetry. Anthologies like Gary Geddes’s 15 Canadian Poets x 2 kept Canadian poetry on life-support. Homegrown garlands, like the Governor General’s Award, were gently placed.
All of this I understood half-consciously, somewhere in my gut, where the acidic feelings churn. But a military-educational complex had arisen around the work of Atwood, Al Purdy, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson, and so many other socially approved mediocrities. A campaign of bad opinions—reinforced by journalists, prize committees, and academics—can buffet one’s confidence. You can start to second-guess yourself. It’s not the poems, it’s you.
It was in this mental climate that I lifted Carmine Starnino’s book of essays A Lover’s Quarrel off the new releases table at Pages, leafed through it, and felt a crackle of kinship. Here are the first few sentences:
I want to do this right, and the best way to begin is to fess up to reservations. Luckily, I have a few. Chief among them is whether these previously published reviews, stacked a decade deep, are interesting enough to survive the second life I’ve forced upon them. Such resurrectionist strivings have always seemed suspect to me. Past its occasion, a review’s relevance isn’t likely to run very high, and it’s a rare opinion that, appearing imperishably robust on first print, doesn’t evaporate into vapidity when invited back for a permanent stay between covers. I can only hope that’s not the case here. I’ve also been put on notice by the fanaticism with which others have fattened similar collections.
It was the style that struck me—the image of “published reviews, stacked a decade deep,” the barely concealed rhyme in “evaporate into vapidity,” the wicked alliteration of “fanaticism” and “fattened.”
I hadn’t been looking for A Lover’s Quarrel that day—I hadn’t even known it existed. But Pages had armed me with an IED of a book. Here was a critic exploding pieties and expressing the very doubts I’d long kept contained in my mind. Here was a critic dragging Canada’s past for the worthy poets we’d cast off, the poets whose work hadn’t fit our narrow definition of Canadian poetry. Surely someone had erred in placing Starnino’s subversive book in plain view.
That was the joy of an indie like Pages; it stacked the Starninos on the sort of precious prominent real estate a larger chain reserves for the bestsellers that need no help finding readers’ hands. That is, Pages stacked the deck in favour of the quirky, the prickly, the heroically uncommercial. In favour of discovery. A Lover’s Quarrel never shifted that many units; it was never going to be a Heather’s Pick. But its dissident sensibilities riled and reshaped a generation of poets and critics.
Sadly, Pages vanished a few years later, in 2009, a victim of Toronto’s swelling rents. But Starnino’s book had left its blast crater.
Imagine a version of the contemporary web laid out before us, like Gibson’s cyberspace or Stephenson’s Metaverse. Picture an endless plateau, planed flat, with aloof skyscrapers: a gleaming city in draft, a Dubai dispersed. That giant #1 on the horizon is YouTube, that tower of shipping boxes, Amazon. Smaller structures suggest modest websites: businesses, blogs, and more. The buildings roll away, as regular as dominoes, around the horizon. Occasional fissures, venting steam, allude to the catacombs of the dark web.
In this vision, your browser is a pod. You punch in coordinates and zip around at light-speed, passing smoothly through other browsers, whose hulls turn transparent at your approach, as in the Metaverse. Hyperlinks are wormholes: tunnels of swirling light.
One wormhole wings your pod across a digital Atlantic and deposits you in front of a quaint green building on the banks of a pixelated river. Other quaint buildings surround it but are spaced apart to accommodate pods. (It’s as if someone clicked on the edge of a city and dragged it, distending space itself.) You are now at the online shop for Shakespeare and Company, on the banks of the Seine in Paris. It’s never closed, and the door is decoration: you float cleanly through it.
Inside, your pod hangs like a wasp, scanning spines. You move down the centre of aisles like a Steadicam shot in Kubrick. You alight on the roof of a stack of books, rising from the new releases table. The store senses that you’re squinting at something—the new Sally Rooney. The cover sharpens. Text boxes bloom in midair—blurbs, hot takes, a JPEG of the Irish author, a throbbing BUY NOW button. You look away, and the book dims, the boxes closing like tulips.
Time travel is an option here. You toggle to a 1922 version of the store, managed by the long-gone Sylvia Beach, and scrutinize a first edition of Ulysses, with blue cover, the one James Joyce’s first reviewers likened to a phonebook. In microseconds, Shakespeare and Company’s invisible AI, lurking on some server, has worked up a précis on the available copies, including prices and comps from recent auctions.
Perhaps this is what browsing bookstores will be like in the future. Still, I’d give up my vision of aerodynamic pods and virtual aisles for a few more afternoons among the grubby orange shelves of the World’s Biggest Bookstore.
I’ve bought plenty of books online, books that have come to mean something to me. But location matters to our minds. We all have personal associations—individual, inner text boxes—which float above certain objects. They can’t be swatted away. “I remember the bookstore,” begins Don DeLillo. He will never forget it.
Writing this essay, I was surprised to find myself growing emotional. Google’s supply of images of the World’s Biggest Bookstore conjured a lost civilization and its peoples, including memories of teachers I adored, my late father, and other ghosts. What had I been doing while the civilization crumbled? I’d been busy, I suppose—with grad school, a failed marriage, career, a new marriage, kids, poems, essays. By 2021, many of the bricks-and-mortar bookstores I’d browsed in my youth were gone.
But some, like Bakka-Phoenix Books (an indie specializing in sci-fi and fantasy) and Book City (an indie chain), survived. Plus, new shoots have sprung up: Ben McNally Books in 2007, Queen Books in 2017, a Type Books here and there. The stores tend to be in high-density, gentrified, and walkable neighbourhoods. (The suburb I grew up in will likely never draw a Type, with its trendy totes, to the local plaza.) And the new stores aren’t as desirably dingy as, say, Pages. I’m glad they exist, though. They’re offering sanctuary and succor to the next generation.
Consider Ben McNally Books, which started out in Toronto’s financial district, in the sort of high-ceilinged, chandeliered, and ornately columned space once reserved for banks. (It has since decamped east.) Ben McNally offers a thoroughly grownup browsing experience, with beautiful wooden shelves, excellent non-fiction and poetry sections, and book launches. (It has even launched yours truly.)
But the shop’s most valuable contribution is its calm, authoritative curation. I recall the Ben McNally shelf dedicated to the NYRB Classics imprint—the very same imprint that revived The Recognitions. (NYRB Classics is to literature what the Criterion Collection is to film: a prestige label addressed to connoisseurs.) What a delight to discover a bookstore that had corralled the imprint’s individual titles in one section. (What an innovation: curation by publisher!) Different but brilliant books that demand discovery—like Arthur Schnitzler’s Late Fame and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts—always make more sense grouped together. A well-curated indie like Ben McNally helps you make those connections. It hyperlinks its wares the old-fashioned way.
Or consider the new bookstore in the east end of my city, the Scribe. Defiantly launched during the pandemic by Justin Daniel Wood, the Scribe is a vintage concern devoted to the exquisitely old: to first editions, signed books, and antiquarian delights. What I’ve most enjoyed, though, is turning up affordable books that have gotten harder to source in bricks-and-mortar shops, like, say, Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather, a 1994 sci-fi novel about tornado chasers (which I remember first spotting at World’s Biggest). The first edition I picked up at the Scribe happens to be signed, but I was happy just to have found a reading copy.
You can’t scroll through a formal catalogue, but the Scribe updates online photos of its shelves every week so that, in the words of its website, “you can browse from your living room couch.” But there’s no substitute for standing on the Scribe’s antique hardwood floor and hefting a beautifully preserved, out-of-print book in your hand. Plus, you can’t always believe your eyes when scrolling—someone might’ve already borne away the book you’re eyeballing—but you can believe them when browsing. The real world never struggles to load content. The real world never freezes.
Whether you choose to visit the Scribe in vintage flesh or shelter at home and squint at pixelated spines, Wood’s store is selling something special: a product we want precisely because it occupies space, because it came from a printing press and survived its early handlers. It’s a relief, really, to encounter something that doesn’t have a digital doppelgänger—a digital solution. The point is the paper, the poignantly musty smell of the past. E-books and NFTs have yet to figure out how to yellow handsomely with age.
Still, Toronto’s renaissance aside, it’s hard not to miss the specific stores that once offered my young self sanctuary and succor. They weren’t just stores, after all; they were hothouses that helped me grow into a reader and writer. How often the aisles, back then, steered my aimless mind. How often I simply stood around, still, as if I were potted, thumbing through a book I knew nothing about. Sometimes I was waiting for someone, sometimes I was on my own. But there was no way for anyone to reach me. How wonderfully subversive it was to feel like I was alone in a city. No alerts, no pop-ups. Just the press of books all around, the world distilled to words on a page.
There’s a postscript to the Snow Crash story. Not long after buying it, I loaned it to a high school classmate. The book came back a mess: cover scuffed, spine cracked, edges blunted. The classmate wasn’t a fetishist—just a reader. My (eternal) bad: handing the book over, I had failed to convey my fussiness.
The book stayed with me, but the state of it needled. So, a few years ago, I decided I’d try to source a new copy of the same nineties-era edition. A mint copy to supplement the mangled one. Snow Crash had since wriggled into and out of several cover designs, but I didn’t want any of them. I wanted the one commended to me by the ex-Goth angel.
I tried different websites. None was very promising. You could certainly find a copy, but I couldn’t seem to secure a mint specimen, and anyway, I didn’t trust these faceless sellers’ descriptions of the state of their stock. This was a mass-market paperback from over twenty years ago. How many decent copies had even made it into the twenty-first century?
Reader, after many months of searching, having abandoned the internet, while browsing She Said Boom! (exclamation point theirs), a used book and record store in Toronto, browsing in the flesh, alone, just before the pandemic—I found my out-of-print Snow Crash. Not only was it in pristine condition, but it also seemed to have been opened exactly once when its original owner had slipped the receipt in the inside cover. I know this because the receipt was still there; it had left a rectangle of white on the browned cardstock, indicating where it had turned back the slow creep of light and air.
The receipt was dated 1995. Printed at the top, in ink that had dried a quarter of a century ago, were the words “World’s Biggest Bookstore.”
This essay appears in Jason Guriel’s collection On Browsing, which will be published on November 15, 2022, by Biblioasis Publishing.
Jason Guriel is also the author of Forgotten Work (Biblioasis 2020) and other books. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Air Mail, Slate, ELLE, and elsewhere. He lives in Toronto.