A Bookstore Education

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Riverby Books on Capitol Hill

John Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, once wrote: “Life is one long lesson in humility.” And that about captures it. It’s one of my favorite quotes, because it seems to get confirmed almost every day. Of course I’ve learned (and re-learned) a lot of other lessons along the way. And so while humility is one of the core lessons of life, I recently got to thinking about where (and by what means) I learned all the other stuff that’s served to confirm just how important humility plays in the scheme of one’s life.

If I had to list the main sources of my education, I would put them as follows: 1) bookstores, 2) periodicals, & 3) schools. (Note: Libraries are the archives of civilization and very important, but for me, my primary experience with them was at school.)

Starting from the end of the list, let me be candid and say I was a lousy student growing up. After getting the basics in reading, writing, and math in primary school (God has a special place for Elementary school teachers), I pretty much checked out mentally during my secondary school years. Socialization is an important part of any education, and I feel confident my scores were rather high in that area, but unfortunately that proficiency wasn’t part of my grade point average. So, after a less than stellar showing, pathetic really, in High School, I decided my best option was to enlist in the military move on to college. Even if I wasn’t exactly college material at the time, it just seemed the best alternative over getting a full time job.

It was a community college luckily, so they pretty much had to take me. I can’t say I made the honor roll, but I was in the running—a close, razor thin 50 point margin—so at least I was improving. Sloooowly but surely, however, I was discovering what truly interested me (Now, if only I could making a living with it!). The history, literature, and philosophy classes confirmed my intrinsic interest in the humanities (Okay, Great. So poverty would be my lot!). I actually did fairly well in those classes. In others words, I liked the subjects that caused the typical tuition paying parent to say, “And what are you going to do with a degree in…”.

More importantly at community college I adopted strategic patience, which entailed taking my sweet ass time getting through community college…i.e. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and was drifting between an extension of my teenage years, rotating between part-time and full-time school attendance, and searching for a career while working on-and-off at my dad’s company. It goes almost without saying, but I will, my community college years went well beyond the typical 2 year period. It was truly a time of drifting, hoping for something to come along.

But there was a bright ray of sunshine that pierced those cloudy, horizonless, years. My professional community college years would lead to the chance meeting of my future wife, Melissa, in Doctor Jones’s history class. Of course I ended up doing lousy in that class—odd for a guy who loves history I realize—because I spent most of the class time passing notes (we didn’t have cellphones) with Melissa. For this reason alone, I wouldn’t change anything from my community college years. Nothing. I’ve failed at many things in life, but meeting my future wife as a result of my foolishness turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Well eventually I took a job (before completing college) and got married to my soulmate. Of course, like so many people who don’t complete their degree and enter the work force, I told myself I would like to finish what I’d started and so I spent years looking into various programs hoping to complete my BS degree. No one in my immediate family had gotten their college degree, so there was the added desire of being the first—it was also about pleasing my wonderful parents who’d done so much for me. Eventually, about 9 years (yeah, it took me awhile) into my career, I went back to college. It’s amazing how much more focused you are when you’re married and already have a career—I think it’s called the maturing process actually. I completed my BS degree (with honors) and ultimately went on to get a graduate degree (MS) from Johns Hopkins University. Considering how my college career had begun, it was a real high point in my life to walk in a commencement for my graduate degree from such a prestigious institution.

With all this said, while I enjoyed my later college years, and enjoyed learning “how to think,” and loved the colleges I attended, if I’d had to rely on just my formal schooling I’d be in poor shape educationally speaking. In large part, my education has come from the writers of essays, quality magazines, and books. My love for reading is mostly responsible for the expansion of my mental world—and continues to be.

This brings me to the importance of periodicals (newspapers & magazines) in my educational ramble. It’s in periodicals that one learns about the important issues and concerns of the day, and also finds some of the best writing and thinking. After leaving college and settling down in the Washington D.C. area for my new job, I got subscriptions to The Economist, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Weekly Standard, just to name some, and I had access to about a dozen major national newspapers at my work—which I read only at lunchtime of course.

So I had more print than I had time. Periodicals, unlike books that required a lot more time, gave the added satisfaction of making you feel like you’d completed something. I could finish an article or essay after, say, 5 to 10 minutes, not days or weeks (or months sometimes in my case) like a book. The writer has to keep their prose succinct and move along quickly. The good journalists or essayist had to be more economical, while at the same time being graceful in the telling to keep you engaged. All this consumption of prose confirmed my standing as an autodidact, the ancient Greek word for someone who’s self-taught. Yes, I ended up with a great formal education, but being truly educated is a lifetime commitment, not something awarded to you and then you’re done. No one can actually give you an education, you have to dig for it. Colleges just teach us where we might want to look and how best to use the shovel (our mind). They provide a learning environment. Unless you’re studying something highly specialized—engineering, medicine, law, physics, chemistry, etc, etc,—most of us are really autodidacts. We’re all, for the most part, self-taught. We read and we know things.

And where does this self-teaching mostly come from?…well, for me, it was at the bookstore. George Orwell’s bookshop memories weren’t the most inspiring, but mine have been some of the great pleasures of my life. I don’t recall exactly when, but after moving into the Washington D.C. area, I started visiting bookstores on my days off. How many people can remember the first time they visited, say, a Borders Bookstore? Well, I can. It was the one in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, in the early 1990s. My wife and I were shopping and happened to see the Borders Bookstore in a shopping center. At the time, I’d never heard of Borders. I was use to the small bookstores I’d visited growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Border’s, however, was a large bookstore where you could find just about anything and browse (for hours if you wanted) through the new books and even thumb through them while sipping a drink at their in-store coffee shop. It was a book lovers paradise! The large bookstores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, didn’t just offer books, but a bookish cultural atmosphere. One goes to a bookstore not only to look at books, but to be reverenced by being among the works of so many great minds. “Everyone worships” as David Foster Wallace said, and for the book lover bookstores are the temple biblos. Yes, rather pathetic I realize. But for me and many others there’s a tinge of emotional truth in this. I guess I also keep going back to bookstores partially hoping some of the genius and masterly craftsmanship, wrapped in those bindings, will rub off on me. But alas, decades into the therapy, no such luck. But oh well, one must have faith—some free time and money too—so I’ll just keep trying until the gig is up. I can (as my wife happily agrees) think of a far more costlier passion.

New bookstores give one a chance to see (or order) all that’s in print, but used bookstores bring the added thrill of discovery. It’s there that I’ve found some real treasures that have been out of print for decades. I think of finding such minor but personally gratifying treasures like a first edition of John Buchan’s Memory Hold the Door, or an 1865 four volume set edition of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or entire collection of Aldous Huxley’s essays, or a special edition of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And then there’s just the large number of deals I’ve gotten on good contemporary books I have on my to-buy list. I wander amongst the rows of shelves, either seeing books I recognize or picking out books on various topics I find interesting (I mostly read non-fiction now), and quietly thumbing through them, reading a few sentences or paragraphs, sampling, dipping into, the author’s prose to see if their writing pulls me in. I know, it seems facile…and it is. But that’s just what I do. That’s the intuitive process that works for me. There are usually so many other bookshelves to scan. I don’t usually have time to read half a chapter to see if I like what I’m reading. Most of the people I’ve seen browsing in bookstores seem to do the same thing while standing in the bookstore isles. It’s a reminder to professional writers just how important each sentence and paragraph can be.

We all remember towns for various reasons: the architecture, the restaurants, the bars, the people, etc, etc, but I remember towns mostly for their bookstores. Take Hagerstown, Maryland, a nice midsize northern Maryland town about an hour and a half from my home. I use to take my family there to a nearby campground. The camping was fun, but one of the best parts of the trip was visiting Wonder Book. Some others that stand out are McKay Used Books in Manassas, Virginia. There is Second Looks Books in Prince Frederick, Maryland. There’s AFK Books & Records in Virginia, Beach, Virginia. There’s Riverby Books on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., which is absolutely charming. There’s the famous Capitol Hill Books, which you will enjoy if you don’t get buried in falling books (It almost happen to me on a visit). On trips to Manhattan, in New York City, my wife and I have a tradition of visiting the Strand Bookstore—definitely a must see if you’re in the Big Apple. The Strand brags of having 18 miles of books! It’s one of the great shrines of the book aficionado.

The question I get pretty regularly is: Where do you find time to read all these books? Well, being a slow reader I’ll admit it’s a challenge. First, I can’t say I’ve read every book I’ve bought or have in my personal library. I haven’t. Most collectors haven’t. I might be lucky if I’ve read (in entirety) maybe 30 percent of my books (Realize, I do have a lot of books though). Second, I read every chance I get and, this is important, I take a book with me almost everywhere I go. A lot of us have down time that goes to waste: like waiting in line somewhere—for an oil change, or for someone to meet you at a restaurant, etc, etc. Instead of watching cable news—which only elevates the blood pressure—during my lunch time at work I prefer to read. And instead of watching TV at home, I prefer to read, and when I have time, to write. I also listen to audio books in my car, which is a nice way to get through a book while commuting back and forth to work. There are a lot of free audio books out there by the way. So for me it’s about grabbing all available time to fill the mind with prose. It’s just a part of who I am now and I can’t imagine not being able to enjoy a book or a fine essay. As for the value of all this reading, well, I cannot say that my readings have made me a better person, though I hope it has, but I can say it’s certainly helped provide me with a standard of excellence to aspire to even if I never seem to get there. If anything, the more I read, the more I learn, the more I realize just how little I really know. Life truly is one long lesson in humility. Live and learn as the saying goes. That’s the great game…and I plan on staying in the game until it’s over.

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