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Our Daily Correspondent

The Great Books

March 8, 2016 | by

Gunnar Asplund, View of Interior for Paris Exhibition 1925, Bookcase Wall Elevation.

There’s something profoundly sad about being surrounded by books and unable to find anything to read. It feels like a failure: yours, society’s, the universe’s. It can happen in a poorly stocked library branch, a failing bookstore, an airport newsstand. And it’s a horrible feeling. 

The other day, I wandered into a small used bookshop that looked like it would be filled with treasure. Instead I found two surly proprietors, about two hundred paperback mysteries and thrillers, a shelf of old high school Shakespeares, and a large selection of CliffsNotes. It smelled strange. It was sort of like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Somehow it felt worse than had there been no books at all. In a sense, I could understand the owners: if it were my place, I would have been surly, too.

I desperately wanted to find something—anything—to buy. In the tradition of the worst used bookstores, it was also quite expensive, but on that point I could hardly blame them. There was a small shelf marked CLASSICS, and I pored over the terrible assortment of crummy paperbacks with mounting desperation. It had become symbolic, somehow. There was a midnineties Don Quixote. The same edition of Absalom, Absalom! I’d been assigned in twelfth grade. A volume of Robert Frost.

When I was a kid, my brother had a bookish friend who could immerse himself in anything—a dictionary, a phone book, a take-out menu—and be fully absorbed. Why can’t we all be like that? Medieval people had zero books! And here I was, an avowed reader, absolutely repulsed by the dozens of volumes around me. What if you were on a desert island? I asked myself sternly. What if it were a game show? 

One of the owners kept following me around, saying, “You want a book? Here’s some mysteries! You like romance? We got a lot of those. We’ve got everything. Classics. Those are what we call the great books ... ” It was like a nightmare. 

Finally I grabbed a Zola novel with a third-rate threshing painting on the cover and went up to the register. I didn’t think for a moment I’d read it.

“Never heard of it,” said the woman behind the counter weirdly. “I’m around all these books, but I don’t have time to read anything. Ten dollars. That’s a good price, for a classic.” 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.