From MoMA, which is at 53rd street, to get to the Strand Bookstore, located between 12th and 13th street just south of Union Square, you take the E or M line downtown to 14th Street, and then switch to the L line which brings you to Union Square. Going underground at one place and emerging at another point in the maze seems to defy the laws of physics, like a wormhole in a science fiction novel that transports you instantly across galaxies. You lose the sense of time (perhaps one reason why people keep fiddling with their phones), and when you emerge back at street level a few moments pass before you gather your bearings, and regain a sense of where you are.
By the time I entered the Strand Bookstore, my head was spinning: impressions from the afternoon had left me saturated. In this land of excess New York was like a city of excess, overwhelming to the visitor. I wished to escape into a world of books. But Strand was another form of excess.
Wandering about tall shelves filled with titles familiar and obscure, I could not help wondering if this wasn’t an exemplar of literature as commodity. The choice was staggering. Who needs all these books? Does our culture demand it? Or does the publishing industry simply produce supply, in abundance, and try to find ways to sell its surplus?
On another day, in another mood, I may have responded differently, but on this day I was swamped. Leaving the store, I sent an SMS to the friend who had enthusiastically suggested the Strand Bookstore to me:
“It was obscene. The world has too many books, too many published writers. We should stop publishing books for five years. Give the readers some time to catch up!”
I then took the stairs underground to the Union Square station.