Books and the Magic of the Unknown

Sometimes the real is magical. A few days before I moved away from Minneapolis, I was walking to the grocery store and stopped at the elementary school playground for a few minutes. A hawk landed on the playground equipment about 12 meters from the bench where  I sat. Then it moved to the top of the swing set, less than 5 meters away. It perched there, preened, and flew off after five minutes or so. This was inner city Minneapolis, a quarter mile from I-35. The moment was an unexpected treasure.

Sometimes it feels like magic is about to be real: the moments you think you’re about to step into Narnia, or fall down a rabbit hole. And sometimes, incredibly, it’s not just a bit of borrowed imaginary scenery. When I was 18, I went to Hay-on-Wye, a town near the Welsh border with England. Hay-on-Wye is the National Book Town of Wales, a small town of about 2,000 with a disproportionate number of used book stores. There might not be as many as there used to be, but at the time it seemed like half the shops in town sold used books. I went into several, but one sticks in my memory. The shopkeep, with all the earnest theatricality of a circus ringmaster, greeted me with “Welcome to Wonderland.” It felt like Wonderland. Looking back rationally, it was just a big, untidy used book shop. The feeling, though…I felt like I had taken that step into Narnia or Wonderland. I didn’t know what I’d find on the shelves, or how far back they went, or if I’d ever need to leave. It felt like a Neil Gaiman story before I’d ever read any of his stories.

Books have that magic, especially when many of them are collected in one place, waiting to be discovered. Going through grad school in the humanities means spending long hours in libraries. It means having an opinion on Dewey versus Library of Congress. It means stumbling into interesting sources (whether or not they’re relevant). It meant, for me, getting to do research at the New York Public Library on 42nd with the lions out front…even if that research involved sitting at a microfilm reader for hurried hours. Libraries were as close as grad school got me to my high school essay about being a wizard when I grew up.

The magic comes from the unknown. That’s a hell of a lot harder to replicate on-line, where you can search for exactly what you need and not find anything else. Access to the digital archive of the New York Times was a godsend for my dissertation. I was able to pull just what I needed and not have to spend time with microfilm. Despite the extra work involved, though, I had a lot more fun looking through the entire 1970s run of the Village Voice on microform. I learned pretty quickly that music reviews were in the mid-50s of each issue. The stuff I found on the way was interesting, though, including coverage of the May 1977 theatrical release of this little movie called Star Wars:

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music.

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music. (I think this one is actually from the NYT on a day I was looking at microfilm. Microfilm scanning still leaves a lot to be desired.)

None of the magic kept my eyes from turning an exhausted red by the ends of my Saturdays in the library basement, but the potential of something cool, dissertation-related or not, helped keep me going. When we make up stories, we’re engaging in that same kind of quest. I’ve heard Steven Brust, for example, aver in varied fashion that he writes “to see what happens next.” We read books to see what happens next, too. When writers suck us in, the next page’s unknown can be as magical as a hawk on an inner city playground. Books do that individually or aggregated into a library.

There’s always the chance for magic. Theatrical booksellers aside, that’s what was magical about Hay-on-Wye. It was undiscovered country. It was full of undiscovered countries. They lurked behind every cover.

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One comment

  1. Love this post. I’ve always loved libraries and used book stores in a way that confused my peers and superiors. From spending hours and hours organizing and archiving as a volunteer in middle school at our Carnegie library in my tiny town because I hated seeing books and periodicals out of order, to being dragged from Powells, after hours of being there, because it was simply time to leave. I can’t shake the magic from the smell of old books. The juvenile determination to read them all, because why not. I really love this post.

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