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13.7: Cosmos And Culture
Wed January 16, 2013
Get Your Nerd On: Desire, Passion And The Scientific Bookstore
Originally published on Thu January 17, 2013 4:09 pm
It never seemed to be in the same place twice. After stumbling on to it by accident during my undergrad days, I seemed to lose its location time and time again. But it was easy to lose, just a door on 19th Street (or was it 17th?) between 5th and 6th Avenue. The door led to a cramped hallway and locked stairwells. Then came an ancient, cranky elevator that took you up to the 3rd floor (or was it the 4th?) and spilled out onto an empty, poorly lit hallway. It always felt creepy, like I was there for a drug deal. But in a way that is exactly why I, or anyone else, was there.
We all came to get our fix. We came to get some science books. And not just any kind of science book, mind you. We wanted the hardcore stuff and for that you needed a technical bookstore. Technical bookstores are the domain of the ultra-geek. They are places of such rapturous beauty, such all-encompassing delight that, today, I must to sing a pean to their glory.
I hope, perhaps, you will know what I mean. While I write specifically of the scientific bookstore, the same joy can be found in a cookbook store for the epicurean, the record store for the audiophile (vinyl!), the craftbook store for the knitting junkie and the comic bookstore for the hardcore fan. The word of the day is passion and it can be found in any place that stokes your inner fire.
You weren't going to find Cosmos, A Brief History of Time or The Elegant Universe on the shelves of my hidden Manhattan technical bookstore. Its cramped aisles held the kinds of volumes nobody reads unless they are a serious junky. Titles like Non-linear Differential Equations for Population Biology stood next to Vector and Tensor Analysis for Relativity which propped up Matrix Methods for Quantum Physics.
I was just beginning my training in math and physics when I found the store. As I ran my hand across the pages of those books they seemed to contain magic spells — the equations and the diagrams were a secret language I longed to read. The entire store seemed like a kind of forbidden library full of expensive, elusive and impossible knowledge (most books were over a hundred bucks, even back then). It was thrilling. Remarkably, it still is. As I learned to read those incantations, my sojourns to amongst the shelves in my favorite technical bookstores became even more intoxicating.
The pleasure of the technical/scientific bookstore is a rare and elusive thing. It's like spending your life in a foreign country, only to find a store full of books written in a native tongue that you never knew about. To find a new store can be the highlight of a trip. Over the years my friends and I have exchanged stories and the addresses of our favorite bookstore finds around the world.
There is Powell's Technical Books in Portland, Reiter's Books in D.C. and, back in the day, there was Stacey's in San Francisco. Every one of these places is (or was) magic if you are a nerd of a particular passion. The time spent camped out on the floor with an out of print version of Zel'dovich & Raizer's The Physics of Shock Waves was time spent freed from the weary concerns of the day to day. There was liberation on those bookshelves and that is where the technical bookstore has everything in common with all the other kinds of geekdom, nerdisms and obsession which can and should unite us all.
The brutal truth is we just find ourselves in this life and, worse, we find it full of sorrow and hardship. Taken on its own, that fact might crush us. But along with the love of others we can also find enthusiasm. We can find passion. That passion might be for science. It might be for 1920s Blues recordings, great detective novels or mastering the subtle art of woodworking. In all its diverse forms we can take the bounty of the world around us and make something of it for ourselves. We can throw our time and attention into some small corner of the Universe's infinite mansions. Once there, and with help of others who share our passion, we can enter the palace of the dorks and, without guile or shame or irony, we can become little kids again, delighting in the world and delighting in delight!
Last spring my son and daughter, both budding dorks themselves, introduced me to Ada's technical bookstore in Seattle. In an Amazon.com era, when the technical bookstore seems like an anachronism, here was the idea reborn. A comfortable, hipper version of the concept, mixing comics, sci-fi and computer-language manuals. Together we spent an hour in the store drooling over all the titles we wanted. When we finally left the store it was with a bag full of books and the anticipation of hours of delight ahead of us.