Browsing Books: In the Big City Edition

Some time ago I spent a year that I wasn’t planning to alongside a large L48 metropolis, in one of the suburbs’ own cities. Because I was dirt poor and many, many were having a hard time finding a job, let alone an outsider, book purchases were a pipe dream and I developed a serious library addiction.

I was super excited about it, thinking this would be my chance to see a larger library’s awesome collection, what books and DVDs they had that my own didn’t. I expected a rich supply of literary fiction and non-fiction, foreign films and maybe even luscious cookbooks. What I found was a rundown library, many of whose books were in poor condition and a not-very-wide selection of materials, including DVDs that you had to pay $2.00 each to borrow–I think you got to keep it for two days at least.

This was really shocking to me because people in this area acted like Alaska was a backwoods hole populated by illiterates. In fact, because we do have a lot of far-flung bush communities, we’d been a bit ahead of many other regions in utilizing technology, and our library’s programs and acquisitions operated in similar manner. We’re a little out of the way, so we tend to keep ahead when we can to ensure we aren’t left behind what others are doing. Sure, the library had a ridiculous outdoor staircase completely unsuited to our climate, but the building housed our assembly chambers and a magnificent collection of books, audio and video, even a sizable section devoted to Alaskana. Patrons’ cards linked to the university library, the acquisitions department of which employed talented buyers with keen eyes for fantastic materials.

So what was the deal with this place? You have to pay to borrow video materials? Seriously? The staff were not all that friendly though, to be fair, times were rough and the entire region was dealing with the major emotional fallout of 9-11. Still, this treatment was the rule, not the exception, and I learned quickly to just figure things out for myself, which was OK because once more I came upon an opportunity: having to figure it all out for myself I would surely come across treasures I might not otherwise.

This is my favorite of all this book's various editions' covers.
This is my favorite of all the editions’ covers.

It was in these days I discovered Alexander McCall Smith, specifically The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, not realizing at the time there was a whole series to go with it. To this day I still gobble up his books, including other lineups, wonderful reads that are unsatisfying in the sense that you always want more–and he typically delivers, as he is an amazingly prolific writer. So I wasn’t terribly impressed with this library, but I’ll always remember it as the place that birthed my love for Mma Ramotswe. Even nowadays my son and I still say “Koko!” when looking to see if someone is home and talk about how much pula we might need to buy something. He says he’s not terribly interested in the DVD series, but when I watch it he comments about scenes, predicting events and displaying his keen detective eye!

I did occasionally make my way to the book shops, though until I had been in this city almost a full year I was never able to afford to purchase books. At that time I’d finally gotten some temporary work and though money was still tight, very tight, I decided I could make one celebratory purchase–and it had better be good. Before then I’d always purchased books like they were going out of style but now … I had to seriously justify this one.

The most widely read Persian novel, originally titled Savushun, by the first major Iranian women novelist

In the end I chose a book about Iran that I won’t specifically name, because I don’t have a lot good to say about it. Well, to be honest, I no longer remember much about it except my criticism, one major portion of which was that the author came off as incredibly condescending and pompous. He also wrote about an Iranian author, so graciously telling us plebes that he would go into more detail than he usually might (completely paraphrased; I forget his exact phrases), since the book he was discussing had not been translated into English.

As I read his words, the story seemed so very familiar, yet I couldn’t place it. It bothered me for weeks because though I tried to tell myself I’d probably read of it in another book, it still nagged at me. I no longer recall how I figured it out, but figure it I did and was even more appalled at the author’s patronizing attitude. The book he’d written about was A Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshvar; I recall grabbing it off the shelf at our local bookstore once I’d spotted the design. While I’m certainly no authority–not even close–I’d been reading books about Iran and Iranians since some time and frequently sought out new (and old) titles. So if a novice like me could figure this out, how did this author not know the book was published in English since about 1992? I was irritated by his snootiness, and disappointed because I felt I’d wasted my money, but even more so a sort of event. It was the first book I’d purchased in nearly a year. Bah.

Dakhmeh, by Naveed Noori. An outstanding book that I nevertheless am unsure I could read again. It is haunting in its brilliance--too haunting.
Dakhmeh, by Naveed Noori. An outstanding book that I nevertheless am unsure I could read again. It is haunting in its brilliance–too haunting.

Another novel I came across, though didn’t purchase until later was the haunting tale of an Iranian-born American who returns to his country only to find himself up against a system corrupted, and a society to which he cannot contribute in a positive manner. In desperation he commits an act of defiance that in the U.S. would attract no notice but in Iran sets the forces of the secret police upon him. I was so amazed that such expenditure of resources could be allowed to investigate the character, marveling in horror as the anxiety-provoking pursuit leapt up from the pages and into my own aura. When author Naveed Noori describes an illness Arash suffers, I felt oppressed by the heat of fever, as if I myself were sweating, my clothes layered with the weight of the humidity bearing down on me, the closeness of the air wrapping itself around, suffocating in its terrible embrace. It was an amazing read, but that power of words was quite overwhelming. The Zoroastrian tower of silence implicit in the title and manipulated by the current regime to deliver a slow living death to society and individual alike, with only silence as response, is devastating.

In the end I came back to Alaska, bringing with me some habits I’d picked up or utilized when in the big city, such as book browsing. It took me a long time to begin buying books again because even after I had money again, I’d been too deeply ingrained into that need to justify buying any. Our library system links with libraries all over Alaska and the interlibrary loan (ILL) program is fairly massive. So if a book isn’t owned by the Juneau library, for example, but is by Nome’s, you can still borrow it–and that’s just the ordinary checkout. ILL has gotten books for me from far-flung corners of the U.S., though I rarely have to use it.

Nowadays I do purchase, but also browse books a lot. For a bibliophile, no salary ever pays enough to be able to afford books (!), but my son and I have embraced the habit also for the slowness, the deliberate nature of it. Sometimes we make an afternoon jaunt of it, packing lunches and strolling through the new fiction and non-fiction, Teen Underground (him), DVDs (he’s a film aficionado) and other sections just to see what’s out there. So what developed out of necessity now is a way to share the love of books with my child, spending some cool time together.

Some “browsies” are longer or shorter than others, and somehow they always seem to have some theme, perhaps linked to what’s on my mind at the time. Because it’s also a fun way to share books, and memories of them, with people apart from doing book reviews, I’ve decided to keep this “Browsing Books” going, for the time being at least, as a series. As with all other entries, I would so love you to share–as I say to my little boy, it’s more fun that way.

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2 thoughts on “Browsing Books: In the Big City Edition

  1. My favorite browsing experiences date way back to when scholarly journals in college libraries were on paper, huge bound collections on the shelves. I often discovered fascinating research by getting lost in journals of interest. I remember a very old–early 20th C–article in a psychology journal that questioned the purpose and nature of consciousness, using the analogy of the squeak of a carriage wheel to say that consciousness might be an epiphenomenon, no more necessary to the function of the human mind than the squeak is to the turning of the wheel. This idea is still around, sometimes called zombie theory. I don’t agree with it, but I was intrigued to come across it.

    I most often browse now when I’m looking for audiobooks for a long trip. That’s how I discovered Mma Ramotswe. The audiobooks of the Number One Ladies series are read by a wonderful African actress, and when I read the books now I tend to hear them in her voice and accent.

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