Browse: The World in Bookshops


It is appropriate that I first saw a copy of Browse: The World in Bookshops in a brick-and-mortar bookshop as opposed to a retail dot com like Amazon. I have always loved bookshops. When I was old enough to leave the house on my own and possessed the means to locomote, I would pedal my bicycle to my local Bookstar and sit in the science fiction section, my saucer-wide eyes gazing up at names I would soon grow to love and respect: Bradbury, Gibson, Heinlein, Robinson. I was not yet old enough to have a job and thus did not have spending money so I just looked at these books and strategized which one I would buy first. I do not recall which one I had decided would be my first purchase and I doubt the one I had decided I wanted first ended up being the first book I bought with my own money. Those memories are inconsequential. The important memories are the ones of the bookshop itself. I ended up working at that bookshop during my university years and never tired of seeing kids walk into the shop, sit on the floor in the science fiction section for an hour, and then leave without buying anything. Those kids were me less than a decade earlier and I suspect a couple of those kids, or kids like them, replaced me when I stopped working at the bookshop.

Browse: The World in Bookshops is a collection of essays by sixteen different writers from around the world. I enjoyed all of the essays selected by editor Henry Hitchings with the exception of one piece that read like the script for a commercial. Some of the memories shared by the writers are happy, others are melancholy, and one is shocking and offensive (can you imagine the proprietor of a bookshop treating someone that way?), but all provide a wonderful view of the effect various international bookshops had on the writers who visited them. I am grateful to these writers for transporting me to their home bookshops of Egypt, Nairobi, and Colombia.

Each individual essay is short enough to be read in a single sitting if that is how you prefer to consume such content. As I have stated several times before, I am a slow reader but even I was able to complete this book in four sittings over the course of five days. I mention this only for those of you who, like me, are short on time and long on TBR.


To this day, when I visit a new city, I try to find a local bookshop. I am not always successful as the convenience of online shopping has had the same terrible effect on small bookshops all over the world, but my experiences in places like The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, California or Shakespeare and Company in Paris, France (pictured left) are treasured memories. Visiting physical bookshops is important, I think. Libraries, too, though I must shamefully admit that I have paid little attention to my city's library branch. These places are not just about stacks of bound paper with words printed on them. I feel pretentious saying bookshops and libraries conjure fantasies of scholarly discussions, heated but respectful exchanges of conflicting ideas--such events do not seem to happen in bookshops today like they used to, or at least like the books I read claim used to happen--but that is how I feel when I enter a bookshop. Hallowed halls and whatnot. As convenient as online shopping is, I will always prefer spending a couple of hours browsing in person, papercuts and all.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

I am my parents' only child so I had plenty of opportunities to develop an overactive imagination during my youth and overact it did. As a kid, I was afraid to swim in the deep end of the pool because I was certain that dark shadow hovering under the diving board was a shark lying in wait. If I had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I would sprint down the hall and fling myself from my bedroom's doorway through the air and into bed so the fanged beast underneath would not be able to snatch me. When the wind shook the tree outside my bedroom window causing the moonlight cast upon the wall to shift and shudder, I saw from beneath the blanket pulled to just under my eyes a spirit from beyond waiting in the corner for me to fall asleep so it could haunt my dreams. As I grew into adulthood, my imagination was tempered by logic and reason. The pool shadow was just the absence of light and the fiercest beast beneath my bed was a dust bunny. But I was not so sure about that moonlight spirit and even as an adult, I have had unexplained experiences that keep me on the fence regarding the existence of ghosts. 

In her 2005 book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, author Mary Roach takes a trip through bizarre historical and contemporary experimentation in search of an answer to the question of where we go when we die. Raised in a household of faith, Roach was exposed early to the concepts of an omnipotent higher power and a spiritual afterlife, but she was an inquisitive child and had questions. Science seemed to have more answers than faith did so she turned to the source that satisfied her curiosity more often than not. What she discovered during the writing of this book may have just led to more questions and in some cases, utterly failed to provide a satisfactory answer. Undeterred, Roach approaches each case with the same wit and humor we discovered in her previous book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I often barked a hearty guffaw at Roach's observations. She employs the same sarcasm I myself express but in an eloquent manner.

Mary Roach is not just a humor writer. She, with her Bachelor of Science in Psychology, does her homework as evidenced by the plethora of footnotes throughout the book and the twelve-page bibliography. As a scientist, she possesses a healthy desire to know the unknown. In addition to studying the experiments of long dead scientists, Roach takes a direct approach by participating in experiments herself. This willingness to get her hands dirty grants her more credibility than if she were just armchair quarterbacking the experiments of others. Plus, she seems to have had fun doing it which is exhibited in the tone of her writing. Her literary voice has helped her become one of my favorite science writers and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future. If you possess a healthy sense of humor and a curiosity about our world, you will find a friend in Mary Roach.

After reading Spook, the questions remain for author and reader alike, but I sure enjoyed the journey.  I continue to ask myself "what if" and on occasion, late at night when I am exhausted, I see that spirit from beyond hovering in the corner, waiting for me to fall asleep.