Thursday, May 20, 2010

First Love and Other Finds.

I have to admit, I recently fell in love. My girlfriend will have to forgive me. It's just the way it is. It was a German woman who teaches schoolboys English in a small seaside town. Her name was Stella.

It was a tragic, mad, ill-advised affair, the type that changes you forever and leaves a name always on your tongue.

And what's so amazing is that it all happened by chance. If I had not looked at that particular book at that particular time, I might never have found her.

The affair lasted about a day, but perhaps that's because I couldn't stop reading.

Of course, I'm talking about a book: Stella by Siegfried Lenz, which is due to come out in August. I highly recommend it. It's a small, simple book about a boy falling in love with his teacher. It is haunting and beautifully written, and is as strong a rendering of first love and the sorrows of growing up as any I've encountered.

But it got me thinking about how we find the books we love. For me it is a haphazard process. Sometimes I get recommendations, from other booksellers or customers, from book reviews or authors I enjoy. Other times they just seem to fall into my hands. I see an intriguing cover or title, perhaps a name that looks interesting (I must admit to profiling here. If I see a foreign name, be it German or Czech or Japanese or Spanish, I become intrigued.) Or maybe it is just sitting next to a book I already love, or it's out on a table.

I read the back first, look for blurbs from authors and reviews on the front. And then I give it the first line test. I thrill over first lines. A good one can sell me on a book instantly (Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie caught me this way). This becomes the first page test, which becomes the first chapter test, and then I buy the book because there's no chance of stopping after that.

I would like to pretend I have an organized system. As a bookseller with college degrees in both writing and English literature, I should have a system. I mean, I know books as well anyone my age can be expected to, so how can I explain such disorder? If I were a mechanic, my garage would be a pile of random tools and a ouija board used to locate them. The engines I built would become ineffectual pieces of modern art. But somehow, with books, it works.

My point, and you've probably already gleaned it, is that random encounters are, with books as with love, one of life's great joys. The things you don't expect to find are often the most meaningful, the most affecting.

And you can't find such treasures everywhere. On a website, you might get suggestions by an equation (You searched for Raymond Carver's "Cathedral": Perhaps you would like "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"). But would I find a small German novel from a small imprint about first love by an author I had never encountered through an algorithm? Perhaps. I am not saying math never works. Sometimes it does (although as a former English major, I am forever skeptical on this point).

This is why I love physical bookstores, physical libraries. Because the book you are looking for is surrounded by thousands of other books you've never heard of. And they're just sitting there, waiting.

P.S. Mark the date: Stella comes out August 3rd.

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