Nothing will ever replace the experience of wandering haphazardly through a great bookstore, no matter how many algorithms are developed to find matches for our tastes. That's because not only is there no accounting for taste, there is no predicting it either. The best stores are stuffed with surprises--as is this one, Derby Square Bookstore in Salem, Massachusetts. Clearly I'm not the first visitor to have snapped the proprietor framed by the books piled on his desk.

One of my favorite bookstores is Book Culture in Manhattan; I like the branch off Broadway. I visited it recently to stock up on books about India. My son Alex had recommended that I read the novels of J.G. Farrell, a writer who was completely off my radar, but luckily the reliable NYRB series had snapped up the rights to his books. I bought three; I'm planning my reading for this week, when the boys and I are taking a train trip from NYC to San Francisco. (But more on that later.)

As I was paying up, a book about literary tattoos caught my eye, and I had to spend a few awestruck minutes browsing through its pages. I love words as much as anyone, I'm sure. Or at least I thought I did. Part of me desperately wants a tattoo, the part of me that still loves Janis Joplin and thinks it would be fun to live on a commune in the country, a nice, tastefully-appointed commune, with those chickens around, the ones lay blue eggs, and lots of vegetable gardens...If I ever could get a tattoo, I would want such a nerdy-wordy one, right? But how to commit? What if that sad line from Wharton doesn't seem so apt in ten years--or next year?  What if e.e. cummings makes you grind your teeth as you age? What if you decide you no longer like plums, William Carlos Williams notwithstanding?

And then, the pain. How do people stand it? I wish I could. Really. But I'm grateful that other people have been so bold; most bodies can stand a bit more of a decorative twist--it brings us closer to birdland.

Anyway, I thumbed through the pages, wondering at the marvelous range of poetry that people wed to their skin. I must say, the necklace from Joyce could be considered sweetly sexy, at least to an English major's sensibilities. Ghastly airbrushing, though. That last line from Ulysses is probably the only line of the book that I actually understood. As with Remembrance of Things Past, I have tried to read Joyce's masterpiece about ten times, and I have never gotten past the first few chapters. Yes, I skipped ahead to the ending, just to see what a literary orgasm looked like. In finding links, I am reminded that I probably first heard a close approximation of the soliloquy on a Firesign Theater LP, How Can You Be In Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All. I used to spend hours listening to my Firesign albums. Really, I could spend the rest of my life simply re-falling in love with everything I once was smart enough to fall in love with before I knew any better. Joyce loses me; Proust depresses me. Someday I will have the maturity to tackle both successfully. I hope.

However, I am quite sure that I would put T.S. Eliot on my short list for arm candy any day. Right behind Eliot's Four Quartets, The Waste Land is one of my favorite poems--that's the one that begins:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Can you get over how he managed those words at the end of each line, breeding, mixing, stirring?...How beautiful, visually. However, it being only January we do not yet have to think of heartache. That pain can remain frozen under a cover of dirty snow. I found a site that gives you hypertext of the poem, so that if you are new to it, you can begin to follow all the references. See? This is what happens in a bookstore. Now I've just reread "The Waste Land."

I am very impressed by these tattooed readers. They were beginning to make me feel like I was wandering through a bookstore of body parts.

The literary tattoo book reminded me of a correspondence I had had a while ago with one of my favorite artists, calligrapher Bernard Maisner. He had been commissioned to design a tattoo for a young woman who was a runner and loved the work of Italo Calvino. Bernard came up with a design for the word LIGHTNESS. Just as men who have MOM tattooed over their hearts will always have to love their mothers, so too will Megan the runner always have to be fleet of foot--and spirit.

I have a fleeting moment of understanding what I like best about the literary tattoo: the way it hovers over coursing blood and flexing muscle, the way it creases and wrinkles with the skin. The life in the words. The way someone has laid down her arm, or leg, or breast, or flank for a poem. There can never be an end to the meaning in a word. But then again, I feel that way about words tattooed on paper, too.


Anonymous said...

A Fine Balance is a must for someone going to India. This is one of my two most favorite books. The other Geek Love.

lmfny said...

I was sort of stunned to open up my RSS aggregator this morning, and read this response to a book in which my tattoo was one of many featured. I was contemplating my tattoo earlier today, while at the dentist: if I could sit through the hours it took to make that beautiful thing, surely I could get through the twenty minutes of drilling that was coming my way. In the years since I first acquired my tattoo, the meaning of the words has changed, yes. Words are flexible entities that expand and contract differently depending on how and where they're read. But even if the body in which I am living is the same, the experiences I've had have caused the re-reading of the tattoo on my arm to get richer and richer. I might, someday, fall out of love with the passage I chose. I don't know. But even if I do, it'll still contain many years of reading and interpretation--years of prompting my best critical analysis, both of the person I am and the person I hope I'm becoming.

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

How odd (to me, at least) to have read, for the second time in two days, that Proust "depresses" you. I would have assumed that you and he would have jogged along just fine.

I would have thought that you'd be the sort to respond (sympathetically, if not exactly drop-your-coffee-mug fervently) to lines such as:

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes"

OR " If a little dreaming is dangerous, then the cure is not to dream less, but to dream more, to dream all the time"

OR: "Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the mind"

or (and most in-line with your own, most recent book): "We do not succeed in changing things according to our desires, but gradually our desires may change" & "With a passion known to no other poet before him, he made his concern that faithfullness to things that have crossed our lives. Faithfullness to an afternoon, a tree, a spot of sun on the carpet, fathefulleness to robes, to furniture, perfumes, or landscapes" (that last having been written by Walter Benjamin in regard to Proust).

that said?....I should admit two things:

1. I have had, since I was very young, a horrible habit of remembering quite exactly everything I've read or have been told. This made me very unpopular, when I was young, with adults who told lies...and, later, with other gradstoodints who weren't, actually, adequately prepared for class-presentations. In any case, I can (with the greatest of ease) fling relevant quotations the way an aged cat can cough up hairballs. It's not necessarily a socially-attractive talent.....but I do think you'll at least appreciate those quotations from Proust. They're very "slow Love Life".

2. I can't stand reading Proust, either. I did it quite thoroughly (just once and under the bumptious/bossy tutelage of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick...google her), just&only because I was forced to do so and because I was pretty-sure that she would try to nail me on it during procession-orals. I thought she was a complete, self-congratulatory and self-promoting bitch, and I was already pretty sure that she thought the same of me (which isn't to say that both of us weren't right). Welcome to politically-correct, early 90's doctoral programs in literature at good skoolz. Anyway, that got me off Proust forever.

All in all (and let me emphasize that I lead what's generally regarded as an "active" life", everytime I think "Oh, I really SHOULD give Proust a good-go and try to read him again".....well?... I get about ten pages into the stuff and think "Good Lord...just go outside and actually GET a life, mister...."

bemusedly yours,

David Terry

bluemoon329 said...

Yeats, where is Yeats?

San Francisco seems second only to London for fabulous book stores. Last visit brought me Persuasion with perhaps the best epistle ever written.

Another superb poetry site is Bartleby, like www.bartleby.com/198/3.html for Eliot's Preludes. Regardless, there is nothing like choosing a poem and standing to read it, be it on one's arm, laptop or dog chewed, beloved ancient paperback.

Kat Gordon said...

Please, please, please allow me (and my fellow DB-groupie friend, Scot Wood) to take you to lunch when you are in SF. Or to coffee. Or you can politely tell us to scram.

Kimberly Merritt said...

When you travel back to Massachusetts, visit Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham. (It's where I purchased my copy of Slow Love.)

Anonymous said...

Here's an invitation to meet at the Tattered Cover in Denver. Discover the incredible story of Joyce, the owner, on your gooling days. Here's to the tattered covers I prefer over the slim electronic pages.

The Down East Dilettante said...

"That's because not only is there no accounting for taste, there is no predicting it either."

thank god.

a real boostore, one of life's great pleasures.

Discovery, another.

Warren said...

I find myself resisting e-readers for the very joy that comes from looking at piles of books (mostly unread that litter my rooms). And some of my strongest anger comes when I find myself needing to clean them out. Self-directed and inflicted, of course.
Let's see, papyrus is what - 5,000 years old? It beats clay tablets, still... I'm not sure if e-readers represent an advance in civilization or one of those archeological markers noting our impending decline.
As an ex-marketing guru I know that convenience and portability are two of the most important product drivers. But somehow thousands of unread titles on some plastic tablet just don't send me. Maybe when they come up with an alternative use, something useful like propping up a table, I'll bite. Meanwhile I'll be in the bookstores.

c said...

But Warren, having an e-reader does not preclude being in bookstores at all.

I love books, bookstores and libraries. But an e-reader is a very welcomed addition to my carry-on luggage.

Tattoos - hmmm, no. Not since I was asked, a long time ago when I was donating blood, if I had EVER had a tattoo. Not a recent tattoo, but ever.

I'll stick with words on paper, or e-ink; they are so much more appealing to me.

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