Author On the Bookcase: Alan Cheuse

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Author On the Bookcase
Alan Cheuse

Alan CheuseI'm so thrilled to welcome Alan Cheuse -- writer, professor, NPR book reviewer -- to On the Bookcase! I met Alan at the 2011 Virginia Festival of the Book, again at the 2011 Gaithersburg Book Festival and then at the St. John's College The Art of the Book. We keep bumping into each other!  

What does the word "browsing" mean to you? A computer term? Alan shares his idea of browsing -- "a form of dreaming."

The Pleasures and Necessity of Browsing 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a browser. But it didn’t begin for me with books. My maternal grandparents owned a series of cigar and cigarette shops, candy stores, we called them in the family and from an early age I’d find myself standing in front of the candy counter trying to decide among various bars of chocolate and commercial candy bars and malt balls and licorices, the decision especially difficult not because I could buy only one but because I could have any one that I choose without paying.

The same went for the comic books. My grandparents didn’t allow me more than one or two free comics a week, though when it came time for garnering an allowance by doing extra chores around the house or running errands for my parents, both of whom worked a forty hour week and in the case of my father eveb more, I’d save and purchase more and more comics.

Archie, The Heap, Superman--these were some of the books I chose. And when it came upon me, like a slow-mastering fever, that it was books, mainly fiction. that I really cared about, I increased my browsing to an exponential level. In junior high school I found my way to the only book store, little more a narrow hole in the wall, on our Jersey town’s main street, and discovered my true addiction.

My first? A paperback reprint of D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent, in the old Vintage paperback, one of the first trade paperback series. I treated this, and all subsequent purchases of these new trade reprints I made with cash from an after school job as a stock boy at a womens sportswear shop a few blocks west, as old wine in new bottles. First I held the pages up to my nose, to take in the bouquet of the paper. And then I lavished my attention on the covers, front and back, all this before I even attempted to read a word. And when I finally did begin to read such work as this, alone in my room or sprawled on the front stoop of our row house a block from the Raritan River where it flowed into Raritan Bay, I savored the sentences, even as I rushed forward into the story.

When I saved enough money I bought new fiction, too, particularly horror and science fiction. How did I know what I liked? I browsed the shelves of our local store, reading opening pages, and snippets here and there from the rest of these books. Richard Matheson became one of my favorites, along with Alfred Bester, and Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.

I worked harder and put in for longer hours so I could buy a book a week. I browsed the library shelves as well. That’s how I found, much too early in my life as an unsophisticated reader, a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that took me a number of false starts to catch up with, though I finally did, and have since reread it a few times for emphasis.

Thus I became a browser, and yes, browsing did it all. Remember the stacks of a university library, the row upon row of unanticipated pleasures you find there if you drift among them, dreamy and a little delirious with browsing? Imagine a world without bookstores, so that you could not find your attention pulled away from one cover by the enticing  design of another wholly unfamiliar work of fiction by a writer about whom you’ve
never heard.

Some of our greatest scientific discoveries occurred by accident. Think of Madame Curie!

A world of only on-line purchases is a world without serendipity, a world without accident, a world without spice and flavor. Think of all the good accidents we know in life, from our parents to our
siblings to our choices and how sorry we are that we can only be one traveler in certain circumstances of friends and lovers and spouses.

Browsing is a form of dreaming.

It’s the way of the old world that will make the world new.

I urge you, browse, browse!

Thanks so much, Alan! I know exactly how browsing is a exciting flight of discovery.

Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's longtime "voice of books," is the author of four novels, three collections of short fiction, and the memoir Fall Out of Heaven. As a book commentator, Cheuse is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, The Idaho Review, and The Southern Review, among other places. He teaches in the Writing Program at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Songs of Slaves in the DesertHis new book, Song of Slaves in the Desert, traces the thread of slavery from sixteenth-century Timbuktu to the plantations of South Carolina. Song of Slaves in the Desert explores one man's struggle to understand a world where honor is in short supply yet dignity cannot be sold.

Learn more about Alan.

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