For five glorious months during my year and a half stint in Manhattan, I worked at the largest Barnes and Noble in the world – four floors, millions of books, people, pages, questions, stories – on the top of Union Square, and I adored it. Everyday I looked forward to going to work because everyday brought new adventures. (I know that may sound a little cheesy, and it is, but “adventure” isn’t so romanticized…. With so many types of people to help and kinds of questions to answer, that job really did feel like a quest of sorts at times.) I was lucky to have even been interviewed and infinitely more so to actually have been hired, and beyond that, I was placed on First Floor rotation, which was the second most coveted position in the store (trumped only by Fiction on the Fourth Floor).
And the First Floor alone was a wonder, architecturally beautiful and literately sprawling. As time progressed, I became a genius at giving recommendations in contemporary and classic literature. I had my ear perpetually bent for reviews and criticisms, discussions and news. I attended signings and speeches, visiting Barnes & Nobles all over the city. I figured out impossible riddles of books people had seen on the subway or in a news articles found “red books with gold writing” and “anything on Tibet.”
The people I worked with and the people I served made the job fascinating, but the thing I loved most was just being surrounded by so many words, by so much work, so much literature, so much history, so much time. At closing, when there were few people left in the store and my only task was to straighten the books from the use of the day… I could have lived my life in those moments.
I am reminded of a passage from Chapter 1 of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read.
If The Man Without Qualities brings up the problem of how cultural literacy intersects with the infinite, it also presents a possible solution, one adopted by the librarian helping General Stumm. This librarian has found a way to orient himself among the millions of volumes in his library, if not among all the books in the world. His technique is extraordinary in its simplicity:
“When I didn’t let go of him he suddenly pulled himself up, rearing up in those wobbly pants of his, and said in a slow, very emphatic way, as though the time had come to give away the ultimate secret: ‘General,’ he said, ‘if you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.'”
The general is astonished by this unusual librarian, who vigilantly avoids reading not for any want of culture, but, on the contrary, in order to better know his books:
“It was almost too much, I tell you! But when he saw how stunned I was, he explained himself. ‘The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the table of contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.’ ‘So,’ I said, trying to catch my breath, ‘you never read a single book?’ ‘Never. Only the catalogs.’ ‘But aren’t you a Ph.D.?’ ‘Certainly I am. I teach at the university, as a special lecturer in Library Science. Library Science is a special field leading to a degree, you know,” he explained. “How many systems do you suppose there are, General, for the arrangement and preservation of books, cataloging of titles, correcting misprints and misinformation on title pages, and the like?'”
Musil’s librarian thus keeps himself from entering into the books under his care, but he is far from indifferent or hostile toward them, as one might suppose. On the contrary, it is his love of books — of all books — that incites him to remain prudently on their periphery, for fear that too pronounced an interest in one of them might cause him to neglect the others.
There are many days that I miss working at the Barnes and Noble on Union Square very much. It often feels like homesickness.
All photos were borrowed from the Books in New York blog, which is well worth a lengthy visit.
And I will close with the quote I had copied onto one side of my name tag, and the story of my life:
“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”
– Henry Ward Beecher