Washington D-C-

Kindle a book, light my fire

I was in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, and I went into Bridge Street Books, located nowhere near Bridge Street, from what I could tell. It was on Pennsylvania Ave., off M Street, the main thoroughfare of Georgetown. The proprietor, who sat to the left, immediately upon the entrance, sitting between a two-sided counter, a wall of books, and the front window facing the street, was not particularly friendly (that seems to be a species of booksellers, deeply in love with books but not much for customers—it seems a unique form of vocational torture). When I asked him what was upstairs, for I had noticed a staircase, he said, "More books." When I asked him what particular sections were kept upstairs, he impatiently ran off a list for me ("fiction, psychology, sports" — something like that), but clearly wasn't keen to do it. I had hoped he might enjoy telling me about the vast selection in his store; he clearly hoped I'd have the decency to leave him be and go look for myself. When I did go look, I discovered that his was one of the best-curated selections of any bookstore I'd ever seen. Put another way: he's a splendid buyer. There were a dozen books I'd seen reviewed over the past six months but had never seen in a store; there were even more books, including some by famous or prestigious authors, that I had not seen reviewed, but which he had ordered from publishers' catalogues. He (or his buyer) quite simply had a terrific eye. The store was very, very well stocked, with reasonable quantity but unmatched quality.

It wasn't just that he had good taste, but also variegated and eccentric taste. This clearly was not a scholarly bookstore, although there were many fine books from scholarly presses. Nor did it suffer from the book-clubby quality of so many independent bookstores, the proprietors of which seem to buy books, primarily "literary fiction," with the predictable tastes of local book-clubbers in mind. (This tic results in shelf after shelf of Barbara Kingsolver.) And he was not a snob: there was no shortage of beach reads or what in Washington might be called Metro reads.

I ended up buying from his Architecture section a book I had never seen before, even as my current interests mean that I always look in a store's Architecture section. It's called Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness, and it's by an Australian critic named Elizabeth Farrelly. I'm nearly done with the book now, and while in some ways it is familiar—her impatience with suburban sprawl will be familiar to readers of Philip Langdon, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Bill McKibben, David Owen, and many others—she has a deeply philosophical bent; her references range from Milan Kundera (on kitsch) to Richard Sennett (on the modern tension between our interior and exterior selves) to Aristotle, happiness psychologist Martin Seligman, and weirdo supremo Alvin Toffler. She misspells Nietzsche, but we all do sometimes; less forgivable is her misspelling of Lemony Snicket. The book is spellbinding, and I am grateful that I went browsing in a store that had it.

In other news, my friend Jonathan now has a Kindle; he is the first of my friends whose literary flame has been Kindled. He loves it, so far. From the public domain he has downloaded Hume and Freud; from the private domain, Gladwell and Michael Lewis. Jonathan said it even came with a little beach tent to keep sand out. Party on, my dear friend, party on.