Hay-on-Wye

Welcome to Wonderland

This is, more or less, the speech I gave to my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students on the first day of school.

Today I want to tell you a story about moments, moments the world looks wonderful and strange and different.

I was lucky enough to go to school in Wales for two years. Over those two years, I had roommates from England, South Korea, Kenya, Italy, and Germany. I had the chance to travel—choir tour through France and Switzerland, and a five-week epic after I graduated. The trip I want to tell you about, though, was just a day trip, only as far as the Welsh border with England.

There’s a little town there called Hay-on-Wye. It’s a very English town name—Hay, on the Wye River, so Hay-on-Wye to distinguish it from the other towns called ‘Hay.’ It’s a small English town: grey and green except on those rare sunny days, at which time it is a lighter grey and a brighter green. There’s not much to recommend Hay-on-Wye…except for one thing. Hay-on-Wye is a mecca for books.

Aside from the plane ticket, I had two big expenses getting home from school in Wales. One was the bag that I left for five weeks at Heathrow. The other was shipping my used books home. There was one used bookstore in Llantwit (near school), and I haunted several others in Cardiff (which was a bus ride away), but Hay-on-Wye had more. It was probably for the best that I only went there once.

The streets were dotted with shelves for the book fairs. And the bookstores…there were all sorts of used bookstores there: the kind that are only open for a few hours a few days each week, with bars on the windows and rare books inside; the kind that are nearly a garage sale with boxes of unsorted books; and the many in between—more or less organized, more or less ready for exploration. Those were the ones I spent most of my day with—after a walk to see the mansion and the castle.

There was one store in particular that I went into in the afternoon. It was two stories, and narrow—like a hallway. Shelves stretched to the ceiling, some with boxes on top of them. It was cluttered enough that I couldn’t see all the way to the back. I went upstairs and out stepped a man. He was short, with graying, curly hair and a van dyck. He said to me, with absolute seriousness, “Welcome to Wonderland.”

And for a moment, just a sliver of a sliver of a second, I wondered whether there was a back to the bookstore, whether it went on and on to some other place. It was a superbly Neil Gaiman moment, even though I’d never even heard of Neil Gaiman at the time. I was one of those kids who was always trying to figure out which door would open to Narnia, whether there was a secret knock or some other trick that would whisk me away to somewhere more interesting. For that moment, I was there again.

Alas, the bookstore did in fact end. The short man was just a short man, not a leprechaun. I didn’t find any magic there more than the usual magic of books. That’s not the point.

The point is that, in that moment, my world shifted. In the blink of a mind, I saw possibilities that were hidden. Anything could happen. I had to see.

We don’t get those moments often. I can’t promise that you’ll have those moments in my class. Honestly, I don’t think I ever had one in class. What I want to do, though, is to give you the tools to find those moments yourselves. There are times when you’re reading, times when you’re studying a text, when the world opens up like that. You can’t force those moments, but the more you know, the more you can be ready for them when they come…

…And that’s the story of how I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye. That’s the way the story goes and it’s truth if you don’t believe and a lie if it makes you happy and it’s a story if it blew from a far off place and you felt it.

Okay. I stole that last sentence from my poem, The Storyteller, which I still like even after all these years.

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.