In my twenties the question was never “What do I want to read?” but rather “Who do I want to be?”—and bookstores were shrines I pilgrimaged to for answers … Now when I wander the aisles, it’s not just some future self I imagine but a past one. There aren’t just books to read but books I’ve already read. Lives I’ve lived. Hopes abandoned. Dreams deferred. The bookstore is still a shrine but more and more what I find aren’t answers to questions but my own unwritten histories.
Later on, he discovers folks in the bookstore who do not seem buffeted by these gales of self-interrogation:
They scan titles and pull books from the shelf and study dust-jackets in deep concentration: older folks in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and beyond. People with far more stories than my meager few. Lifelong readers. Book addicts. I watch them sometimes and wonder what drives their choices. How does reading evolve? Are books to us as leaves are to trees, feeding us while we hold them, then decomposing and feeding us again after we’ve let them go? I’m heartened by my elders. Humbled. I wonder if instead of asking “Who do I want to be?” they ask themselves, “What do I want to read?”
If I read PG Wodehouse to answer the question “Who do I want to be?” then I was definitely asking the wrong question. But I think I was still reading the right book — for me, on that day, at that time.
At 57, my advice to Steve would be to follow Randell Jarrell’s imperative: “Read at whim! read at whim!” And relax, for God’s sake.