Reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised

In preparation for vacating the Newbury Street space that has housed the estimable Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore, Vince McCaffrey has placed his 150,000-plus-volume inventory on sale. Yesterday was the first day of that event, and though I expected that it would be a tad busy, I was not prepared for the crowded aisles and bargain-basement ambiance that filled the store. I saw some familiar faces; former employees, a woman who is in my spinning class. It was a bittersweet experience leading naturally to question, where were these people when the store needed them? The answer, of course, straight from The Godfather is, "It’s just business." This concern about Vince and his bookstore will probably continue and perhaps blossom into an obsession at least until he closes his doors the last day of this year. Anyway, I did a little browsing (how could I not?) and found a few books that I just had to have at that moment: Amy Bloom’s first story collection, Come to Me, Thomas McGuane’s sports essay collection, An Outside Chance, a first edition of Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm and The American Mercury Reader circa 1946. Paging through the American Mercury (the magazine founded in the early ‘20s by H.L. Mencken and George Nathan) anthology triggered my recollection that there was at one time, in publishing, a category of magazines labeled ‘smart’ and the Mercury was one of them. I expect that I will have ample time to piss and moan about the sorry state of magazine publishing, but for the moment, while the sun shines and air and light are crisp and crystalline, I say at least there is The New Yorker. As I was paging through this week’s edition I noticed that in their slight Book Currents department they made note of Wislawa Szymborsk’s new book of essays, Nonrequired Reading. Ms. Szymborsk, whose name does not slip trippingly off the tongue, is the 1996 Nobel Laureate in Literature. I became a fast and eternal devotee when I read her author’s note to the above-mentioned volume: I am old fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised. Homo Ludens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikes poses, dresses up, revels and performs elaborate rituals. I don’t wish to diminish the significance of these attractions—without them human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and, possibly, dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities, above which drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collective gymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones, from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And finally, he’s free—and no other hobby can promise this—to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.

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