By Lisabet Sarai

Although I’m an American citizen, I
live in Southeast Asia. Approximately once a year, my husband and I
travel back to the United States on a trip that combines business and
pleasure. We just returned from one of these odysseys yesterday (as
my current state of grogginess attests).

Our itinerary varies somewhat from one
year to the next. In 2011 (as those of you who follow my blog might
recall) we journeyed
from Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s California Zephyr
thus had the opportunity to visit friends and family on the west
coast, but usually our perambulations are restricted to the eastern
half of the U.S. We normally fly into New York City and branch out
from there – to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland,
South Carolina, or Florida. No matter where our travels take us,
however, we always spend at least twenty four hours in Manhattan, so
that we can visit what has become one of our personal shrines: the
Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway.

The Strand is deservedly one of the
most famous bookstores in the world. Established in 1927 and still
owned by the family of the founders, it occupies a good chunk of a
city block – about 55,000 square feet – every inch crammed with
books. On our most recent pilgrimage, just a few days ago, I noticed
that they’d done away with the bag check desk that previously
occupied a spot near the front door. Clearly they’d needed that space
for more volumes.

Entering the store, I experience awe
and delight similar to what I feel in Europe’s magnificent
cathedrals. Tables crowd the front area, piled not just with the
trendiest new releases but also with themed collections: staff picks,
seasonal titles, books purporting to be the favorites of various
authors. Memoir and biography, history, religion, politics,
psychology, fantasy – the idiosyncratic groupings mix famous
authors with those who are unknown (at least to me), new books with
classics. Further back, the shelves begin, rank after rank, more than
twice as tall as I am. Barnes and Noble shelves all its books within
easy reach of the customer. At the Strand, ladders are essential.

You can wander for hours among those
shelves, revisiting old literary friends and discovering new
treasures. The discounted prices are merely icing on the cake. If you
have the energy, you can climb two flights to the second story, where
you’ll find additional shelves packed with art, photography,
architecture, children’s books, and much more. There may even be a
third floor. I’m always so overwhelmed by what’s immediately at hand
that I haven’t investigated.

My husband and I come both to browse
and to buy. We know that every purchase will increase the weight of
our luggage, but we can’t resist. This time around we picked up
(among other finds) Umberto Eco’s latest novel The Prague
, Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, Elizabeth
Kostova’s The Swan Thieves,
and a posthumous collection of Philip K. Dick. Although we bring our
latest to-read lists, encountering the unexpected is one of the
Strand’s joys. We keep at it as long as our aging joints allow, until
our backs and knees ache, the books are spilling from our arms, and
we wake up to the reality that we have to lug all our purchases back
to our hotel.

some reason, this year I particularly noticed the people working at
the Strand. Almost everyone I saw was young (but then, compared to
me, almost everyone is). Given the vertical orientation of the
environment, I suspect the job requires considerable stamina. Rarely
have I seen more distinctive and quirky individuals. I found myself
imagining their interactions, roughing out a story set among the
stacks or in the stockrooms. The towering shelves, separated by
narrow aisles, seemed a natural setting for clandestine passion.

realized something else on this particular visit, too. In the past,
the pleasure I took in the Strand was always tempered by a trace of
bitterness. Why weren’t my books among those displayed for customers
to explore? Why was the erotica section restricted to two brief
shelves, hidden away near the bottom of one of the tables? Envy and
frustration used to leave a sour taste in my mouth, even as I was
enjoying the fruits of my literary foraging.

time, those corrosive emotions were absent. I’m really not sure why.
Perhaps I’ve reached a point where I don’t need that kind of external
validation to be proud of my own writing. Perhaps I recognize that I
make as much money on my ebooks as many of the obscure print-pubbed
authors whose volumes I leaf through but then put down. Maybe I’ve
simply accepted the fact that I’m a literary outlaw, that not only is
my work not viewed as art, it’s condemned as immoral trash. I’ve
always had a fondness for outlaws.

In any
case, I found this year’s pilgrimage even more fulfilling than usual.
The Buddha taught that attachment causes suffering. Maybe by
releasing my frustrated desire for literary fame, I’ve moved closer
to enlightenment.