Weekend reads: The wandering mind
On boredom, books and browsing
When I was a child, I looked forward to that long, lazy stretch of time between Christmas and New Years. Indeed, I pined for it all year.
This was, of course, an era before smartphones. Before the Internet. Before, even, computers at home. I was less restless then. More able to concentrate. Less averse to boredom. More able to access that magical state just beyond boredom, in which your mind, having gone blank, begins to wander.
Back then, before screens, life would slow down in late December. Distractions would fall away. The streets of my hometown would be cold and misty and quiet. The house phone would stop ringing, as everyone recovered from the holidays. And I would have hours on end, uninterrupted, to hole up in my bedroom and devour the books I’d been given for Christmas, which usually included the latest outing from Madeleine L'Engle.
There is no single writer who’s shaped my worldview more than the late Madeleine L'Engle, that prolific young adult fiction author who was a fixture on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for decades. In life, she was a volunteer librarian at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In the literary realm, she sent her characters on heroic quests to better understand humanity, aided by pastors and scientists and professors, who explained the meaning of life, and writers and painters and pianists, who filled her protagonists’ days with beauty.
L’Engle’s storytelling did not, however, run from the grief of being human. From life’s gutting complications and disappointments. From the moments in which we all inevitably find ourselves alone, bereft, unsure how to proceed.
In facing all of this on the page, L’Engle’s work guided me through some difficult times in my youth, and provided me with a roadmap for the kind of life that I wanted to lead as an adult. Both out in the world, as a professional writer, and in private, as a person who aspires to kindness and compassion, as well as toughness and resilience.
Although I have now read pretty much all of L’Engle’s books, every time I step into a used bookstore to browse, it is with the unconscious hope that I will stumble upon an unheard-of L’Engle title. Or something akin to it. Something that evokes that same sense of discovery. Of wonder.
Browsing — aimless, slightly bored, without an agenda, wide open to the world — transports me back to the enchantment of my childhood. To the wandering mind.
I thought about all of this in late December, as I took a stretch of time to go offline.
It was in that frame of mind that I picked up Toronto writer Jason Guriel’s On Browsing. (You can read the popular essay that inspired it at The Walrus, but I really, really encourage you to purchase the book and read it in its entirety.)
We were snowed in in Toronto when I began reading. My phone fell silent. The wind howled outside the window. And, suddenly, all that existed was Guriel’s exquisite elegy for all we’ve lost with the rise of digital culture — including the experience of passing hours at your local bricks-and-mortar bookshop, browsing.
Consider this passage from Leon Wieseltier of the Liberties Journal, writing in The New Republic, which Guriel quotes at length:
Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active idleness — an exploring capacity, a kind of questioning non-instrumental behaviour. Browsing is the opposite of “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations. On Amazon, by contrast, there are no accidents … But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.
An institution of spiritual renewal; it’s a bold claim. But, for me at least, not an implausible one. I once described the great song as a form of church, and us music obsessives a kind of congregation, made up of “those who still look to records for uplift, for comfort, for a soundtrack to our joy and sorrow and fumbling growth, for a way to make sense of the human experience.” I certainly meant it.
How many times have records saved me? And, for that matter, how many times have books saved me? More times than I could possibly count.
Bookstores are a fertile site of awakening — but, as Guriel laments in On Browsing, our ability to discover them is being eroded by digital culture.
In this era of convenience, of one-click instant gratification, our outlook is now shaped by the hidden hands of algorithms, erasing serendipity from the equation. And often, along with it, the mysteries of the living, breathing world.
I could not relate more to this passage from On Browsing:
… It’s hard not to miss the specific stores that once offered my young self sanctuary and succor. They weren’t just stores after all; they were hothouses that helped me grow into a reader and writer. How often the aisles, back then, steered my aimless mind. How often I simply stood around, still, as if I were potted, thumbing through a book I knew nothing about. Sometimes I was waiting for someone, sometimes I was on my own. But there was no way for anyone to reach me. How wonderfully subversive it was to feel like I was alone in a city. No alerts, no pop-ups. Just the press of books all around, the world distilled to words on a page.
Inspired by Guriel’s words, I went browsing myself. There’s currently nothing in Toronto akin to the great bookstores that I’ve fallen for throughout the years — the Strand in New York City, Powell’s Books in Portland, the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Galiano Island Books in the Gulf Islands, off the West Coast of Canada, the now long-gone Duthie Books in Vancouver.
But even in one of Toronto’s cold, sanitary corporate bookstores, the universe still delivered Zabar’s: A Family Story, With Recipes by Lori Zabar, and Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop by Danyel Smith.
No algorithm could have recommended these titles to me. Because no algorithm could know that I spent formative time in my twenties on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, eating bagels and writing about hip-hop.
No code exists to divine that, in the early years of my journalism career, I rented a room from a retired professor in a sprawling, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive, with dusty bookshelves, a wraparound deck that overlooked the Hudson, and plenty of cockroaches.
Nobody could know, if I didn’t tell them, that on the days that I felt lonely I would walk the fifteen or so blocks to the Zabar’s Cafe, buy a coffee and a bagel with lox, pull up a stool at the window, watch the crowds walk by, and eavesdrop. (As Lori Zabar puts it in Zabar’s: “If you get a perch, chances are you will be privy two or three opinionated conversations, often among total strangers.”)
Nobody could know, either, that I passed whole afternoons listening to Hot 97 on the radio, and reading whatever I could get my hands on by Danyel Smith.
Or that the former Vibe editor wrote the most important novel of my twenties, Bliss, which I reviewed seventeen years ago, at the end of December no less. Or that Danyel Smith gave me early encouragement on my own writing. Or that I would go on to work for her husband, to whom Shine Bright is dedicated, as an online columnist at the New York rap magazine he edited.
Or that I considered Danyel Smith, and still consider her, one of the best music writers in America. One of the best writers in America, period. Or that her journey to the top — without college degree or connections, armed only with a steely work ethic, spirit, and plenty of pluck — reminds me of family members I admire.
Certainly no algorithm could know that reading Danyel Smith back then — absorbing her tenacity, her fearless emotionality — showed me how to let the world in without letting it destroy you. How to be both tough and vulnerable at the same time.
This was not something that I knew I needed to learn when I picked up Danyel Smith’s work. And that, of course, was part of the wonder of it.
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Thanks for this reminder of what it was like to have our minds to ourselves. What was natural then is now something we need a whole new level of discipline to achieve. I also look back fondly at many hours just browsing and then having a coffee skimming the pages of a new discovery.
I once described the great song as a form of church, and us music obsessives a kind of congregation, made up of “those who still look to records for uplift, for comfort, for a soundtrack to our joy and sorrow and fumbling growth, for a way to make sense of the human experience.”
Thanks for this. There is something about music and song that cuts through to some of us humans in a visceral way. A familiar song is an emotional remembering.