My wife and I were knocking around New York City last week because we visited the excellent show of Picasso paintings and etchings at the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street. Afterward, we stopped into The Strand bookstore in Greenwich Village. They were selling the book that accompanies the Picasso show for a full twenty dollars less than the gallery. We decided to go next door to the store’s rare book department where they keep their very valuable and dusty old tomes for the serious collectors of New York. We went through the steel door and felt that we were entering the high-security wing. The smell of decaying literature was immediate and sort of relaxing as all rotten literature should be. We walked around quietly as the employees set up tables of wine glasses for a publisher’s party that would be starting shortly.
I soon found myself strolling down a narrow aisle toward a large window with a massive old air conditioner cranking away near the ceiling. I could feel the cold air flowing past me and after walking all over the Village it was a welcome respite. I came to the shelf near the window and noticed a wonderful illustrated volume full of Shakespeare’s history plays. I pulled it out and began to flip through and was amazed to find a picture on nearly every page. I wanted it. I was also enjoying the cold air and the nice fine spray of water droplets on and about my head and shoulders. ‘Ahh, misters,’ I thought to myself languidly. ‘They must think of everything here because of the serious collectors who come through each day. They must be kept comfortable in the heat or they will go elsewhere.’
So I continued to flip through Henry the Fifth and wondered if one hundred and twenty-five dollars was a lot to pay for the histories. But I didn’t want to leave the misters yet because they were cooling me very nicely… ‘Misters?,’ I thought. ‘Misters? Really? Water spraying about my head in the rare books department? What on earth kind of idea is this?’ I looked up at the air conditioner and was met with an increased volume of cold water against my face. Then I looked down at the shelf of rare books beneath the windowsill and saw a large puddle of water on the shelf and droplets of water spattered far and wide over an intimidating selection of fine rare books. ‘This just can’t be right,’ I thought as I backed away quietly. I had a bizarre impulse to gather my wife silently and flee. But I could find no apparent wrongdoing in my situation so I halted.
I turned and walked toward the nearest employee who was researching something at a desk. ‘Excuse me, but… um… there is water pouring out all over your old books back here,’ I said.
‘I’m sorry?’ the woman said, looking up from her work. ‘Water?’
‘Yes. There’s a big spray of water coming out of the air conditioner and a puddle and wet books,’ I said.
She stood up slowly and stared at me as if I were a lunatic. Then she turned away from me and called out to a man far up an aisle, ‘Hey, this guy says there’s some water pouring out all over the books.’
The man yelled, ‘What? Water? What?’ He ran toward the window and screamed, ‘Oh god! Oh no! Oh my god! Water! There’s water everywhere!’
Within seconds, six or seven people were milling about with towels, yelling at each other, blotting at puddles and spatters, and pulling books out of the shelves to remove them from harm’s way.
I walked up to the manager and said, ‘I guess I caused a shit-storm.’
He was not even remotely interested in my asinine humor and growled, ‘Well, we’re just taking care of the problem.’
Then my wife asked someone if perhaps they had any old copies of Don Quixote lying around. They did. They had this wonderful English translation by Charles Jarvis that was printed in 1809. It was cheap because of a replaced front cover on one of the volumes. So I bought it. It was from a dry section of the bookstore. It’s the one in the little video. If you want to know what literature is for, just read Don Quixote. It’s a book that’s filled with every bit of humankind’s love for books and stories. It’s about the obsession with literature that can turn one’s entire world into something that no one else understands or even sees. It’s about how imagination is life itself. It’s about how the misguided man at the complete mercy of his own imaginings and his total belief in the stories he reads actually lives a life of profound interest and deep connection to the world that most people miss by being trapped in a world of normalcy and the rational mundane.