Friday, April 06, 2007

Who Says Librarians Lead Boring Lives?

The online diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA), is a moving daily account of Saad's life as a librarian struggling to replenish the library's looted collection in the middle of an unstable war zone. I was particularly struck by this succinct but very telling entry:

Saturday, 10 March: Three bombs exploded in my neighborhood. Two bombs went off at 7.30. They violently shook my flat, as I was watching some TV programme. At 13.20, another bomb exploded in my neighborhood. It shook my flat. I spent the whole day writing and reading in my room.

On March 5, Saad offers this heartbreaking entry on the bombing that took place last month in Bagdhad's outdoor book market:

As we were talking, a huge explosion shook the INLA's building around 11.35. We, the three of us, ran to the nearest window, and we saw a big and thick grey smoke rising from the direction of al-Mutanabi Street, which is less than 500 meter away from the INLA. I learnt later that the explosion was a result of a car bomb attack. Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood. The view was surreal. Some of the papers were burning in the sky. Many burning pieces of papers fell on the INLA's building. Al-Mutanabi Street is named after one of the greatest Arab poets, who lived in Iraq in the middle ages. The Street is one of well-known areas of Baghdad and where many publishing houses, printing companies and bookstores have their main offices and storages. Its old cafes are the most favorite place for the impoverished intellectuals, who get their inspirations and ideas form this very old quarter of Baghdad. The Street is also famous for its Friday's book market, where secondhand, new and rear books are sold and purchased.... It was extremely sad to learn that a number of the publishers and book sellers, whom we knew very well, were among the dead...This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism.

What Does Make a Bookstore?

A very old post on bookstores, "What Makes a Bookstore?", at The Millions (A Blog About Books) got me to thinking about my own experience at the bookstore a few days ago.

When it comes to hanging out, it's hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon...likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don't expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don't plan for a literary discovery.

I’m a very frequent shopper at Borders. There are at least three on my way home and, as a Borders preferred member, I enjoy saving 10 and 20 percent when I can. In addition to that, I can usually find what I’m looking for in less than five minutes, even in the smallest Borders and I like making an afternoon of it, lounging in the “plush chairs” and the “wide open spaces.” Theoretically, I could do this at the library but the libraries in D.C. are so unesthetically depressing that I try to grab what I need and get out as soon as possible. A few days ago though, I went into Borders with no particular book in mind, looking to be pleasantly surprised I suppose, and found only...more of the same. All of the prominently displayed titles were books I’d seen on bestseller list after bestseller list for last two years and I thought, “Is this all the book world has to offer right now?”

I left soon after, empty-handed and disappointed, which is my own fault really. I should have known better than to expect to be pleasantly surprised at Borders. Needless to say, my recent experience and The Millions old post have reminded me as to the error of my ways. It’s not on my way home, but I don’t care; I’m going out of my way tonight to make a beeline to the nearest indie bookstore, the amazing Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. I can hardly wait. And I'm pledging here and now that from here on out I will do all of my one-stop book shopping at independent bookstores, whenever and wherever possible. It's time I started doing my part in keeping the dying breed of independent bookstores alive.