the lawyer writer

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Places of Worship

Since I don't really believe in organized religion, churches and temples aren't much used to me. There's only one place to go when I feel bad, and that's the bookstore.

It used to be the library, when I was young, but that's because we had a great community library within walking distance. Small but that was deceiving. I started like other kids--picture books and fairy tales, books on mythology, dinosaurs, astronomy, dogs, the sea. The biggest step was books without pictures--Dahl and Alcott and L'Engle. Some were quality (Agatha Christie, canon. Shakespeare. Fitzgerald. Poe). Some were contraband (Judith Krantz. Seventeen magazine. Period romance novels). Some were forgettable (Mass-market science fiction. Books on makeup and fashion. Silly teenage novels). Reading made me antisocial, and my parents put a cap on how many books I could get. This had the desired effect of turning me into a book thief. (I got caught and did my time). When I think of the books I read, I imagine the layout of the library, aisle by aisle. I knew where to find biographies of queens and travel guides and all the film books. I knew the mystery section by heart.

The biggest disappointment is that I haven't found a library like it since. People rave about the bloody New York Public Library system, but I couldn't find a single Wodehouse or Dickens in my local branch (it does, of course, have the collected works of Danielle Steel). Going to the big branch on 42nd street was equally disappointing--I liked the lions, but who wants to order a book like a sandwich at the deli? What ever happened to browsing? There's no magic in these libraries--you can't browse around and discover a new interest, a hidden treasure.

So now, it's bookstores. The ideal bookstore would be a forgotten, fusty old place somewhere on a side street, with a deceptively tiny entrance that lead to a labyrinth of well-organized aisles. (This automatically rules The Strand out--at least the one on 12th street). The old guy behind the counter would barely look up from his Lermontov, but if I asked him where I could find Steppenwolf, he would know that I was talking about Hesse, not "Born to Be Wild." Used books on esoteric subjects would be piled up in the front. It would be a place of worship.

Unfortunately, those little bookstores are never big enough to feed my appetite, and they never seem organized enough to find what I'm looking for. I try to buy books there, but twice a week I go to Barnes and Noble or Borders--crammed with tourists and books by hacks--just to wander around. Not a chapel, but possibly a sanctuary.

When I became a lawyer, I saw all those expensive, well-bound books, matching sets, lining even the most illiterate lawyers's bookshelves, I was excited. But opening them just lead to statute after statute, case after case, procedure after procedure. Good for law, terrible for reading. For a person who lived for books, it was brutally hard for me to do research in the library--they didn't even seem like books, but extended pamphlets or manuals. (Oh, hell, let's be dramatic (but accurate)--they were positively sacrilegious). I stuck with the computer; it seemed like that was where legal research belonged.

But you know what they say about old habits. When the job got bad, I always ran to the firm library to hide. The windows overlooked the Statue of Liberty, and when the sun hit the water, I was sure that there had to be better libraries than this one to spend my time in.

And there were.

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