Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reflections from the Well

 On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration


by Alexander Slagg

Cultivating a Love for Books

I have an eclectic library at home. It’s spread out over one towering floor-to-ceiling bookcase and a couple of built-in bookcases in my living room. My collection covers a wide swath of topics, from astronomy and mathematics to art history and Buddhism. And, of course, plenty of fiction (both high- and low-brow), poetry, and other literary works. Over the years, most of these books were acquired the old-fashioned way—from used bookstores and thrift shops, options that are slowly disappearing.

Buying books is different today, with Amazon and the Internet killing off much of the secondary market for books. I avoid buying books off the Internet or from big box stores. If I have a specific title I’m looking for, I try to go to the locally owned bookstore in my neighborhood. But for me, there’s no better feeling than coming across a unique find in some musty, out-of-the-way used bookstore. Those are the books that have the most interesting stories to tell.

The books that sit on your shelves are a reflection of who you are, a travelogue of your mind’s wandering. Not only the content, but the story behind how you got the book. I’ve built my collection to be quirky and wide ranging. Will I ever read that book on the use of hallucinogens in Native American religious services, a book I picked up years ago at a now-vanished bookstore in my hometown? Or that historical novel about the dinner party attended by John Keats, William Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb—a book I was inspired to purchase after reading a collection of Keats’ poetry? Someday I’ll get around to reading them. But it’s enlivening to know that those books and their stories await, that I have a nearly endless source of kindling to stoke the fires of my imagination.

My love for books really began with one of my first jobs out of college. I was living in San Francisco at the time, not making enough money as a waiter and needing a second job. So I found work at a used bookstore, shelving books and processing online orders. While the owners were skinflints, I did receive an employee discount and I never left work without picking up some new gem I’d stumbled upon there.

The only other perk to the job was that I accompanied the manager on book collection appraisals. Basically, we’d go out to the houses or apartments of people with significant libraries to do a quick inventory and tally of what books they had to determine if the collection was worth purchasing. Our travels took us all over the Bay Area, from the tech mansions of Silicon Valley to crowded tenements in Chinatown.

Each appointment was like walking into a new world. I had the privilege of entering someone’s home and thumbing through their most intimate things—their books. It was amazing to become acquainted with the breadth of subject matter that has been published. We’d often spend the entire afternoon reviewing a collection, sometimes learning the background and history of how it came into being. And the people always had interesting stories to tell about their books.

I didn’t last very long at that job, quitting after the owner made a comment about how he was paying me too much (not enough, really) for me to take as long as I was to shelve books. But my short time on the job had sparked my imagination. Someday, I decided, I would have my own vast library. And any time I wanted, I could pull down one of those books and be swept off someplace new and exciting.

Today, I often do that as a writing prompt. I will survey the spines of books lined up horizontally along the shelf. One in particular will call out to me and I will open it and find a section to read randomly, unsure of where I’m headed. It always does the trick and I’m quickly enthused to sit down and write some words of my own. Maybe someday a book of mine will be wedged between a Sherlock Holmes reader and a Sappho poetry collection, waiting to be pulled down for inspiration by a budding writer.