March 8, 2010

The Borders inside Borders

by Robert Laughlin

To visit the Balkans,
don’t fly to Athens or Sofia;
it’s a quicker trip to your new bookstore.

The sidewalk store that used to be
was cramped for space
and put its books in tall cabinets
covering the walls and defining shoulder-width aisles.
An occasional label,
with fading ink, on the edge of a shelf,
was the only thing to say
where one kind of reading bled into another.
That implied a book buyer’s state of mind
existing then:
a willingness to cross over into uncorrelated zones,
no less interesting for their surprise.
And, indeed, a customer often left the store
with reading he hadn’t known about when he walked in.

The big box store that stands now
has space enough inside
to give each type of reading interest
its own discrete section with a freestanding cabinet
and placard above,
whose lettering can be read from anywhere in the store.
Go see how few people
follow an urge to flit across the parsec-wide aisles
to visit other sections.
Most go straight to their planned purchase
and then to checkout,
shopping for one ingredient,
not the jumbleaya of the world’s knowledge.

In the Depression (not our current one),
a great man mourned
that he would read so few of the books he touched;
he hungered to read them all.
For his distant progeny,
a division
of a category
of a Dewey decimal
may be almost too filling.


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