One of the great—and least appreciated—pleasures of working on campus arrives in late August, a week or two before classes begin. You can experience it on the top floor of the Brown Bookstore, and, for me at least, it combines nostalgia with a pleasant sense of possibility and intellectual adventure.
For much of the summer, bookstore workers open cases of books and, armed with computer printouts, stock the shelves on the top floor with the required reading for the coming semester. By late August the shelves are nearly full, and the aisles are mostly empty of people. The only sound is the occasional ripping of packing tape and the satisfying plunk! of books being dropped onto shelves and stacked lengthwise.
Before me is a maze of ideas. These aisles differ profoundly from those in the conventional retail space downstairs. These books have been carefully chosen by the best minds on campus; they might form the reading list of a book club on steroids. Gazing down these aisles, I remember my own college days and the pleasure of picking up and leafing through the actual books listed on my course syllabi. I can still recall the smell and texture of their paper, and my hungry anticipation of all they might contain.
Although books were considerably cheaper back then, purchasing them was sometimes problematic for my budget. I once asked a professor if there might be an alternative to the unusually expensive hardcover volume of Wordsworth’s collected poems he was requiring us to own. A young woman in the seminar overheard the conversation, and at the next class she sat down in a chair beside me with two new copies of the book and handed me one. I knew her only vaguely, as someone associated with Campus Crusade for Christ, and I could plainly see that she was in no better economic shape than I was. I was contemptuous of openly religious people back then, but she insisted I accept the gift, and I was too stunned to refuse. The book has become creased and worn through the years. I still can’t open it without remembering her and delighting in this born-again woman’s act of charity: the giving of a book by a pantheistic poet to a lapsed Catholic she didn’t know.
Memories like that come to me when I wander the top floor of the bookstore in August. I marvel at students who will absorb volumes that I am drawn to pick up but will never understand: Mechanics of Materials, say, or An Introduction to the Creation of Electroacoustic Music. I become reacquainted with such old and forgotten friends as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Other Writings—works, I’m sad to say, I haven’t thought about in decades. Randomly, I pick up books I’d love to read but know I’ll never have the time: Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, Aristotle’s The Politics, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and Samantha Powers’s “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide.
In a few days these aisles will be crowded with students clutching their own syllabi. They will take these books away and read them for the first time. Maybe I’ll come back after that, and buy a few of the ones they’ve left behind.