Today I went to the bookstore. I went knowing I wanted a book, but not which book. I was willing to be surprised.
I wanted a book because all of the books on my shelves at home seemed dull and stale, even the ones I hadn’t read. Especially the ones I hadn’t read.
I went to Brookline Booksmith because it was within walking distance. I was about to write “the only bookstore” within walking distance, but then I realized that this was relative. A real walker, for instance, might easily have chosen to go a little further and browse the used books at the Boston Book Annex, or a little further still to peruse the remainders at Symposium Books in Kendall Square, whereas a very elderly person or just someone even lazier than I am would have to make do with the rack of commercial paperbacks in the CVS across the street. I was somewhere in the middle, and so I walked to the Brookline Booksmith.
I went downstairs to the used section but was unable to find anything that didn’t seem dull and stale, like the books on my shelves at home, especially the ones I hadn’t read. I went back upstairs and paced back and forth along the wall devoted to paperback fiction. I picked up this book, that book, scanned a few pages, put them all back.
Then this one caught my eye:
Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. It is edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich, who is also the founder and director of Ugly Duckling Presse (although this book was published by Overlook) and a poet in his own right.
The book caught my eye because it sat so strangely on the shelf. There between Marian Keyes’s Rachel’s Holiday (“Irresistibly funny,” Seattle Times) and Chip Kidd’s The Learners (which both Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly acclaim for its similarity to the cable-TV show Mad Men), it somehow looked like it didn’t quite belong.
A trade paperback, but slightly wider and just a hair taller than the average trade paperback – perhaps it had to be that size in order to accommodate Kharms’s extra-large head on the front cover. On the back cover, in very small print, winked the price, $15.95, also just slightly more expensive than the average fiction trade paperback. Add to this the nature of the contents themselves – “Selected Writings.” It wasn’t exactly a novel or a collection of short stories, a “classic” or a work of contemporary “literary fiction” like its fellows – if indeed they were its fellows – on the shelves. It gave off the vibe of having an editorial apparatus, which put it distinctly at odds with the volumes on either side of it. And yet it also seemed to promise – if I would only pick it up – to wear this apparatus lightly. I flipped through the pages. It featured a mix of poetry and prose, but it didn’t look like it would have fit any better in the Brookline Booksmith poetry section, either.
I continued stalking back and forth along the fiction wall. After a while I noticed that I still had the book in my hand, so I took it up the checkout counter for the salesclerk to ring up.
While I got my wallet out the salesclerk scanned the barcode with the scanner and the computerized register made several beeps. The salesclerk frowned, looked at the book, looked at something on his screen, re-scanned the book, frowned again. He punched a number of keys very quickly – he certainly knew his way around that register – while looking back and forth from the book to screen. Finally he squinted over my head into the recesses of the store. He didn’t have to stand on tip-toes because in the Brookline Booksmith there is a raised platform behind the counter.
“Where did you get this?” he said.
I said the fiction section and pointed to the proper wall.
“Well, it’s not in our computer.” He opened the cover to see if by chance there was a price penciled at the top corner of the title page, indicating a used book.
“So in a sense,” I ventured, “you don’t have this book.”
“Hmm,” he said. The corner was blank.
“I mean, in contemporary terms, if you think about it,” I went on, “if it's not in the computer, it doesn’t really exist.”
He manipulated the book several ways in his hands as if trying to get it into some kind of focus and then settled for scrutinizing the back cover again. Behind me a customer cleared her throat.
“It’s off the grid,” I said.
For the first time we made eye contact.
“Yeah,” he said finally, considering. “It’s off the grid.”