I've always been a reader. When I was a little girl, I didn't read books so much as immerse myself in them. It was an effortless, unselfconscious way to enter other worlds that immediately became my own, as if I were just another character, looking over the shoulders of the other characters or sitting quietly in a corner. The books I read up until the age of 12 or 13 live for me in a way that few books have since then. At some point I became a more critical reader, which sounds like a good thing but in reality meant that stories lost some of their immediacy for me. It became harder to get lost in them as I became more aware of things like style, literary value, etc. The Nancy Drew books I loved at age 8 then became "formulaic," and I was no longer enchanted by the "silliness" of Dr. Seuss.
I had crossed an invisible border, leaving a magic world and stepping into a more pedestrian reality in which books still called to me, but more softly. My imagination still craved the luminous realm of fairy tales, of King Arthur and Robin Hood and the Little Golden Books, but I could no longer get there. I don't know if this happens to other people or not. Once in a while, a book would still sweep me into its world, a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Hobbit or some of the novels of Mary Stewart. On the whole, though, as reading became a more intellectual exercise, my capacity to feel its magic became less.
I actually remember telling a friend years ago that I was tired of reading about life and wanted to experience it directly instead of just in books. Be careful, oh, be careful, what you wish for! The god of libraries (Sesat? Thoth?) might have had a hand in what followed, possibly intending a corrective measure to curb my attempts to flee the library (which turns out to be bad form for a librarian). Let's just say I learned my lesson and am perfectly content now to spend the entire winter curled up with a good book, sipping hot chocolate and eating plates of cookies.
One thing that has somehow never waned is the irresistible lure of a bookstore. I remember sadly the days when all we had were chain stores at the mall, which carried bestsellers and paperback classics but not a lot else. Since then I've developed a pretty high bar for what a bookstore should be, and there are actually some stores that meet it. One criterion is that it should be possible to just walk in and feel yourself attracted to titles at every hand, without having to scour the shelves. (I know some people enjoy rummaging around to uncover gems, but I don't want bookfinding to be like work -- it should be like play).
This is a true story: I was in Northern California six years ago, touring the wine country of Sonoma County and environs. I found myself passing through a small town, no more than an eyeblink, which somehow appealed to me, even though I was on my way to somewhere else. I drove for another 45 minutes or so through an idyllic landscape but kept thinking about the little town I had seen. For some reason, I turned around and drove back, stopping to get chai at a little cafe, and then moving down the street to visit the town's little bookstore.
There was a table in the middle of the store loaded with books on a variety of topics, in no particular order. I picked up a book with an interesting title and opened it at random. The first word my eye fell on was the word "maze." Not surprising that I would notice this, since I'd been interested in mazes for a while. I picked up another book, on a different topic than the first one; again I opened it at random, and again, the first word I saw was "maze." A third book; again, at random, again, the word "maze."
I wasn't even thinking about myth studies at that point, but I knew enough about Jung to recognize synchronicity. I had always bemoaned the fact that that type of thing never happened to me, and now, shazam!, here it was. Of course, three is a magic number in fairy tales, and looking back, I see this incident as the opening by which I fell into the rabbit hole of a whole series of adventures, good and bad. At the time, I wasn't sure how to interpret this bookstore experience, but I kept wondering about it, until six months later, I was in graduate school, the last place I thought I'd be. I wrote about mazes and labyrinths several times, but resisted choosing it for my dissertation, not really accepting that the topic had already chosen me.
I now know a word I didn't know before, which is numinous, the quality of divinity or magic that shines through certain events, places, and things, revealing a pulsating significance where something very ordinary appeared only a moment ago. A good bookstore deals in the numinous, as does a good library. That's why it's important to be within reach of one or the other, and preferably both, if you are, say, thinking about relocating. I spent an afternoon and two frustrating evenings in Los Angeles looking for the one (there are several good used bookstores, but you also need one that deals in new books). I approached the last bookstore on my list feeling nervous, since I hadn't yet seen anything at all like what I had in mind. Would I end up having to move to Northern California (or Portland? or Seattle?) just to be near a good bookstore?
Fortunately, this bookshop turned out to be just the right size. Browsing yielded a good number of interesting titles. In one corner was a little boy surrounded by a pile of books, whose mother was threatening to leave without him (when last seen, he was still reading). There were thoughtful staff picks. I chose a book to buy, then changed my mind, picking up the one next to it, and thought to myself, this store could be the difference between my moving here or not moving here.
I didn't get to start the book until last night. I was finishing another book I had become engrossed in, a book about, of all things, a bookstore and a writer. (I had found it at Powell's, the Paradiso of bookstores, in Portland.) I picked up the new book last night, intending to read a little before going to bed. I liked the way it started, with a musing on the power of scent to hold memories; its setting in Provence; the romance combined with a touch of Gothic; the lyricism of the writing. Then, at the bottom of page 11, at the beginning of chapter 3, I came across the words: "Dom and I met in a maze." You're kidding me.
It was Bilbo who said, "the Road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead, the Road has gone, and I must follow, if I can . . ."