The Hobart blog has been quiet lately in part because I've been busy in my day job helping try an environmental case in federal district court in Kansas City. Those of you who have tried a case in federal court (and you know who you are!) know that it's a stressful, exhausting, and alienating experience. Some people -- those born to do it, I guess -- also find it exhilarating, and it's true it has its moments. I haven't thought of a truly useful analogy, but the cliche comparisons to combat ring true, especially the part about there being long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, in this case the terror of a public scolding from the court or of giving the case away because you didn't think fast enough on your feet. One of my colleagues marveled at how something could simultaneously be so stressful and so tedious.
You would think that in a three-week stretch of 17-hour days one could catch an hour to do a little reading, or write a short essay for a blog, but no. I've read 50 pages of The Trial (an odd choice, I know), kept up with Emily Magazine and an on-line Scrabble game and, really, that's about it. (For the record, I disagree with Emily Gould that Anthony Lane is being catty about Tina Fey, although I would like Hobart's own Elizabeth Ellen to weigh in on this).
Thankfully, court ended a little early on Friday, giving me a couple of hours to kill before dinner, and enough time to run an errand: driving to a Radio Shack to replace my cell phone charger.
On the way, though, something funny happened. I started hoping I would run into a used book store. There can't be many used book stores in Kansas City, so there was no reason to think I would find one on the way to Radio Shack, but I couldn't let the thought go. It just arrived and overtook me. It was what I most wanted to do: Spend a free hour browsing in a book store.
The Radio Shack was on Westport, the road through what used to be the jazz district but is now a haven of brick pubs and pizza joints near the Plaza shopping district. I couldn't remember the address, and had decided I must have missed it or turned the wrong way, so I was in that little moment of stopped time, the wayward limbo between the realization you are lost and the act of turning the car around.
It was just then I saw it: On the right, set back behind a parking lot, a glass storefront with a big sign on top that said "Half-Price Books."
There's a Half-Price Books in Seattle's U District, and it must be a chain because this one looked so familiar inside. The same dull but homey industrial carpeting, the same stressed wooden shelves and worn paperbacks, the same paper signs hanging from the drop ceiling ("Mystery/Romance" and "Thrillers"). What I noticed about wandering the fiction section, though, was how the books themselves were also so welcoming. I was looking for a Harry Crews novel, because Maud Newton is always raving about him and he's the favorite writer of my good friend Dave, and really it's about time I introduced myself to him. No luck, but they had a number of Gunter Grass novels on the shelves, which made me think of reading "The Tin Drum" in college. I still remember Oskar hiding under his mother's skirts, and the "onion cellar" scene and how amazing it was, and how quickly I tore through that novel. And those memories are bound up with the memory of my brother's discovery of philosophy as a lifetime pursuit (something else that happened in college), and the Philosophy in Literature class I took from his college mentor Richard Howey. All of it can still seem like yesterday, if I think about it long enough. And then I thought of Professor Howey's shaggy beard and rag sweaters, which are also tied up in my mind with Oskar, my brother, the onion cellar, and my youth, and it was as if Gunter Grass had been a thread that, if you tugged on it, could unravel a lifetime.
It might be too much to rhapsodize about such a small pleasure -- a quick browse through a used book store in a city that's not your own -- but I was struck by how familiar and welcoming the experience was. Even in a store you've never visited, in a city you don't really know, seeing so many familiar titles on the shelves can feel like a kind of homecoming. I picked up the novels "Too Far Afield" and "Frankenstein" and brought them back to the hotel. Who knows when I'll find time to read them, but they are sitting on the desk in the corner of my rented room, two acquaintances waiting patiently to become new friends.