Two months ago, I bought a bookstore. I did it, like most important things in life, for love.
Years ago, I fell in love with a man. When we moved in together, we merged our book collections, which felt like the ultimate commitment. The shelves were made of unfinished wood, and my Walker Percy sat beside his Donald Hall, and suddenly there was no sign of their origin except for our handwriting in the margins.
I mention Hall because one of the lasting gifts of our relationship was that writer’s beautiful essay “The Third Thing,” which is about the nature of love. Specifically, Hall’s love for his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and an essential truth he’d gleaned from their life. It was that love between two people isn’t best nurtured — or even felt — by looking directly at one another, but happens in its most essential form when two people are looking together at a third thing. A thing, for them, like poetry. A thing like books.
When this man and I eventually fell out of love, I spent a day picking apart our shared collection. Pulling what was mine, leaving what was his, feeling lost. The metaphor was, and is, aggressively neat. These books that had been mine, were then ours, and now were becoming mine again. Things had been shared and altered and lost, and the changed nature of the whole enterprise was sitting there in cheap boxes from the liquor store down the street.
We experience books in isolation, but they’re fundamentally communal. These inanimate objects invite us to retreat inward to expand our sense of self — alongside the mind of the writer, and then again and again through the days and years that follow in connection with all of the people we’ll meet along the way. It’s a beautiful paradox.
We don’t have a lot of time for paradox these days. Instead, so much of life in 2019 tells us to project outward a simplified version of who we are. We’re given all sorts of urgent reasons for it: money, status, efficiency. We live in a digital world that’s endlessly busy. We need to compete and optimize. We need to brand.
But to love is to look at something slowly, closely, honestly. To leap beyond the self and get lost, together, inside a third, unknowable, eternally imperfect thing. Love exists in a realm beyond brand.
Sometimes, it feels as though we’ve built a world that is trying to refine away that realm, to devalue its worth. As though we’re being encouraged to love — familial, platonic, romantic — with less sincerity.
And so, a bookstore. Because, bookstores are full of books. And therefore the people who come inside are always seeking something. Books, sure, but also an infinite array of art and distraction and laughter and catharsis and simple human connection.
Books are just the vehicle by which these seekers might find a fundamental thing they’re looking for. Because books contain everything. All of it. They’re our best gesture at a repository of the human experience. In any relationship, the right book can engender or guide love, or, yes, be the seed of its destruction, reflect its absence. It’s like Whitman sang: We all contain multitudes.
This recognition is such an endless and inspiring relief to me. That I can find in someone else’s thoughts recorded on a piece of cheap paper sometime in the last 2,000 years a reflection of my own complexity, and, even more, a gesture toward the bewildering complexity of that person I can barely see on the street corner across the road. If I run over and hand it to them, they might like it, too. Or hate it. But they’ll have thoughts and feelings toward it that are so different than mine.
In an essential way, the human condition is a constant state of asking: Is that person as real as me? Do they feel as much? And it’s books that tell me each time with such generosity, such firmness: Yes, they’re every bit as real. Yes, they feel every bit as much.
Emma Snyder is the owner of The Ivy Bookshop in Mount Washington.
Join Emma Snyder on Weekend Agenda on Facebook Live at facebook.com/jmoreliving March 8 at 12:30 p.m.