I briefly roomed with a guy in college who claimed he could choose the contents of his dreams in advance like dishes off a menu. All of his dreams, he assured me, were happy and fulfilling. This was surprising because his diurnal life was neither. He impressed me as one of the most maladjusted people I’d ever known, belonging to a species not quite native to the human habitat. I felt no envy for his claim. The best thing about dreams, even scary ones, is their arrival by way of unmediated serendipity. In my private lexicon, “dreamlike” means unexpected or unforeseeable rather than unreal or imaginary. My dreams tend to be assembled from existing parts, like found objects, then twisted slightly out of shape – no dragons or unicorns. Three times in the last week or so I’ve dreamed, shortly before waking, about the bookstore in Cleveland where I worked in 1975.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy or ideally suited for a job. Perhaps that’s why I go back there so often at night. I was twenty-two, freshly dropped out of college, and working six days a week for a double-digit salary. I enjoyed the company of my fellow clerks, including the comic artist Gary Dumm, who remains a friend, and Clark Unger, a slight, pale fellow with a wispy beard and two passions – the Beatles and Henry James. And I was on the top floor of three floors of books. The owner, Rachel Kowan, known always as “Mrs. Kay,” claimed to have the largest stock in the country, and a few years later she sold it to Powell’s Books of Portland, Ore. Like George Orwell, I was struck by “the rarity of really bookish people” who patronized the store, but that hardly mattered. All day I could lug, look for, sort, shelve, price and read books, and get paid a pittance to do so. In memory, embodied so often in my dreams, I carry a detailed map of the store’s layout, including the location of each publisher’s overstock.
Chris Arthur is an Irish essayist born in 1955. Collected in Irish Haiku (Davies Group, 2005) is a piece titled “Witness” about an overheard conversation with a terrorist in a bookshop in the town where Arthur lives, Lisburn in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The focus of his interest is not the bookshop. What concerns him is the nature of truth and the inadequacy of words to contain it. He is rightly skeptical of memory and what he calls the “adequacy of those bland co-ordinates by which we customarily situate things purely in the immediacy of the present.” He describes
“. . . the further disruptive influence of browsing in a second-hand bookshop when, given the direction in which my thoughts were already turning, I was particularly liable to fall through some of those many portals, disguised as books, that lead out of the common order of experience and into other modes of outlook altogether. It is these scattered portals that make second-hand bookshops such interesting, almost magical places.”
Clearly confident enough to be an enthusiast of serendipity, Arthur revels in the fecund chaos of good used bookshops. Those that sell only new books (that is, most of them), he says, “offer something of the same, but their organisation, the lack of unpredictability, the rigid arrangement by section, minimizes accidental discovery. It’s less likely there that you’ll pick up something unanticipated and suddenly find doors opening into other worlds.” The shop in Lisburn, he says, possesses “a pleasing undertow of chaos [that] could pull you down without warning.”
In daily life, I’m a tidy, orderly person. I like dishes washed, trousers pressed and taxes paid. In dreams and books I like serendipity.