Every so often, when the twitchy, tingly prickle at the tips of my fingers becomes overwhelming, I go hunting for books. For me, this is truly one of the great pleasures in life.
First I need a hunting ground. It might be an independent bookshop – ideally one I haven’t been in before. More usually it’ll be a local Oxfam bookshop. Occasionally it’ll be Waterstones because they live in beautiful buildings near where I am. If I’m in Oxford, it’ll be the Blackwell’s bookshop. If I’m feeling the pinch, or my husband has made me swear on the life of our (yet-to-be) first born that I’ll not bring another book into the house for at least a month, it’ll be the Library.
Once there, the most immediate experience is the smell. Paper, coffee, binding, people, imagination, carpet and potential.
After that, it’s the sounds. I love the respectful silence of places where books live. Even bookshops with cafes seem to muffle the noise of their clinking cups and scraping forks under a giant, invisible bell jar. I also feel immediately calmer in rooms full of books. I think paper absorbs stress.
Experiencing the books themselves is always about sight and touch. You stand in front of the shelf and relax your gaze, letting it fall where it will. Sometimes it’s colour, sometimes the absence of, it might be font that catches your eye or it might even be the words themselves; wherever you start, your eye will be inexorably drawn to one single spine. Then you pick it up.
The weight of a book is important, as is the separation between the pages. Do they easily flick or do they clump together like a sweaty handshake? I always run a hand over covers looking for that subtle difference in texture between the image and the text. It doesn’t tell me a thing about the book itself, it’s just enjoyable – a bit like running your hands through rice or pulling silk between your fingers. If the cover warrants further exploration, I’ll read some words inside. If not, it’ll go straight back on the shelf.
I’ve never stopped to really analyse what I’m reacting to in that initial impression; I just know it’s lightning quick. They say you should never judge a book by its cover but the hunt is all about fast, unthinking, gut-driven filtering. It’s the sort of snap judgement you’d be ill-advised to make when dealing with people but it’s so much fun.
Then I repeat the process of gazing and touching, ad infinitum, until I feel like that twitchy, tickly prickle has faded. Or until I’m dragged out by a wild-eyed, desperate friend/spouse/family member whose personal twitchy fingers were sated about four hours earlier.
Strangely, buying a book is not necessarily always a given. Coming home empty-handed after clothes shopping is always frustrating. Book hunting, on the other hand, can be just as fulfilling if it ends up being purchase free. I do mostly leave with a book, of course, but it’s not the point. The point is the discovery, the grazing, the total immersion, the feeling of being in a public space and being totally detached from it, zeroed in on a singularly personal experience.
While internet shopping is, at times, an absolute life saver, it’s no coincidence that I never hunt for books online. It’s an entirely visceral experience that needs the combined efforts of all the senses* to be truly sated.
*A disclaimer: I don’t ever taste books. I wish I could find some way of incorporating that into the whole experience. Licking books in bookshops is just plain weird. However eating cake in bookshops is not. So we’ll go with that. The perfect book hunt ends in cake. Taste covered.