When I was an undergraduate, there were two kinds of texts that we were assigned in university classes: readers, which were compilations of academic (and sometimes other) articles that we bought at the copy shop, and books that we bought at the bookstore.
There was no Amazon at the time, nor really any way to buy textbooks but to go to the bookstore. There were three around campus, two private and one that was owned by the university. There was also the weird academic bookstore, where professors and grad students shopped (and still do) but I still had no context for what that was.
At the campus bookstores, you went early and tried to get the used books with the fewest markings in them, as these were the best value. Book rental hadn’t really come in yet, so the deal was that you would buy your books and then try to sell them back at the end of the term for a decent price.
But my real pleasure, at the start of each term, was walking the aisles of the course texts, imagining classes I wouldn’t take. I would pick up and skim through books on topics foreign to me: Chinese history, contemporary ethics, vertebrate biology. Occasionally I would even choose a book from one of these courses and take it up front and place it on the pile of books for my classes, and keep it.
Today, on my 27th first day of school, I found myself once again lost in between the shelves in the campus bookstore.
The situation is quite different: for one, I’m a professor. I can only fantasize about taking classes, and I likely won’t take any of the kind undergraduates get to take anytime soon. There is an internet now, from which my students order most of their books, or simply read (or don’t read) online. This basement feels bleak and small compared to the main floor of the store where profitable things are sold: sweatshirts, hats, pens. But there is a joy I still take in the wandering among the steel bookcases that will stand naked and empty in a few weeks, until the start of the next term. Here, in the basement of the store, the university is a university again – and I am happy to see old friends on these shelves. Machiavelli and bell hooks and Marcell Mauss and whomever wrote that engineering textbook and deCerteau and Paolo Freire and Fritjof Capra and Alan Lightman and Hannah Arendt. A family tree. An ancestry. A matrix of the many ways to understand the world, down aisles and across shelves.
Many pixels have been shed on the sadness of losing print culture, on the kids today who think that everything important is on the internet, and I am loathe to add to that long scroll of sadness. Yet the books on the shelves, the students each of the 35 copies or so represent, the possibility that one of those copies may end up in the wrong hands — the hands of the young woman who just stumbles on a book and is compelled to bring it up to the front — these are irreplaceable, even among our vast digital storehouses of knowledge.