The heft of cathedral tunes

Powells City of Books

I had the pleasure of visiting one of my favorite bookstores, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, recently. At least, it was sort of a pleasure. It was also tinged with something that was almost but not quite pain. Bookstores, the good ones at least, the ones that clearly have souls, do that to me.

They oppress. They seem to sit on my chest, making it–not hard to breathe, precisely–but hard to do so without making a conscious effort of it. A deep inhale. A sigh.

I used to liken walking the musty aisles of good bookstores to meandering a peaceful graveyard: solemn, but welcome. Touched by mortality but also a bit of sun. But that’s not it. Not exactly. Entering a bookstore is like stepping into a cathedral. I stop. I look around me. I immediately give in to the hush, the weight, the stillness everywhere. I hear my own footsteps.

It’s something about all those words–beautiful words, ugly words, smart words, painful words–in all those volumes that makes me draw comparison to a place or worship. Human creativity. Human angst. Human insight. All of these voices on paper, speaking so quietly.

I love Emily Dickinson the most, I think, of the earlier American poets. Even more than Walt Whitman. Even more than Pound. So I sought out her aisle first. Then I visited fiction, and travel, and essays, and new releases. I didn’t stay long. I just couldn’t. I needed to get out into the winter air.

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