Rejoicing in my Incognito

“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

– Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays

 

Chamblin’s Bookmine, to the public, lives in two incarnations: Uptown Jacksonville, and Roosevelt Ave. on the westside of Jacksonville, Florida. It is known, nationally, for its ubiquity of selection, reasonability of pricing, timeless atmosphere, etc. In fact, I remember once remarking how I wished that, if heaven exists, let it be here, in Chamblin’s. I am intimately familiar with the space and, yet, in an uncanny way, the very contents of its vast array of texts is functionally alien–background, beneath my perception–to me. This is to say that I, with my own biases and interests, don’t notice the majority of the bookstore; I go where my mind wanders.

In my recent haunts of Chamblin’s, with the Flaneur in mind, I have tried to forcibly alter my limited perception, in order to problematize and complicate my experience of what has been, for me, a heavenly, specifically-tailored-to-me, kind of space. I wanted to follow people around the store, taking inspiration from Vito Acconci’s following piece. I would track people’s movement throughout the bookstore, peer into the books that they perused, and see what I could find.

My bookstore wanderings began on a Monday morning. I arrived at 7:56AM, four minutes before they open, and I nervously checked through my phone, trying to distract myself from the anxiety of following others around a bookstore for (potentially) three hours at a time. Given my schedule between full-time work, full-time school, family, friends, and other personal complications, my anxiety metastasized under the pressure of the fact that I only had two shots to get this project right. Luckily, three other customers gathered around me, like a flock of bookish pigeons, to enter the glass door as the iron bars slid open for business.

***

I enter this hallowed space with a profane motive; to follow the first person who wanders off into an unfamiliar book aisle. A thirty-something in flannel paces by. I take a swig from my energy drink and begin surreptitiously trailing him. With a stiff posture, he paces up the stairs displaying an urgency of one who is rushing to beat a red light, only to stop abruptly atop the landing. He is in conquest of a specific manga, of which series I have no inkling, and I plop down beside him, in the Economics section of the endcap. He soon leaves. I pick up the book he had perused without purchase, flip to a random page, and it reads, “Law school, of course, required even more reading.” I am perplexed, but I write the phrase down.

Some twenty minutes later, the perfect specimen comes along: an indecisive twenty-something woman, who all but fondles one book per row. I follow her through no fewer than thirteen aisles which I haven’t heretofore explored: mathematics, music theory, aviation, sports, autobiography, islamic theology, romantic fiction, etc. I feel as though I am learning the story of this young woman better than I could have by my own conversational devices. Inevitably, romantic thoughts leak their way in, despite her lack of physical appeal; I am magnetized towards the mystery of this woman’s solitude. And, true to my vocational inspiror, Vito Acconci, I remain silent. She moves on, and I collect nearly a dozen of lines for my notes.

At this point, the people I follow begin to bear less individuality. One pepper-bearded man lingers in the opening section containing books about Florida. One old man wanders into books regarding Death and Dying. A little boy finds his way into the aisle of Literary Criticism, which, when I collect the book he had been perusing, I find–to my immense ignorance and astonishment–a secondary text on Derrida, and I lose my mind. (In retrospect, this one might be notable.) Many others pass, and my time ceases. I must leave for the day.

 

I return a week later, under the same pretense, but now under the direction to turn these fragmented collections of people (books) I’d been following into material for a poem. I, in other words, am looking for lines for a poem which I will orchestrate for my Flaneur presentation in April. Again, I arrive just a few ticks away from their opening time of 8:00AM. A beautiful–and I cannot stress just how beautiful–young woman is my companion, entering the doors as the staff does.

I follow my infatuating companion into the general fiction aisle, upstairs, where I find it increasingly hard not to stare. I catch eye-contact with her twice in one aisle–a new record for me–so I determine to not let my eyes waver from the copy of DJ MacHale’s Pendragon I am pretending to read. She leaves, and I get up, in my routine, to fetch the book she had just returned to the shelf. I wonder to myself, with earnest, what profundities she may have just ignored–what romantic profundity I may have just ignored–and she jolts back around the corner, nearly knocking into me.

“Sorry,” she says. And then her apologetic eyebrows sharpen into familiar, almost accusatory, ones. She notices my book: her book. Her eyes return to meet mine, and I feel my throat tense, like sore muscles after a workout. She doesn’t know what to say, and I can read into her face that she has recognized that I am following her–and from what I can tell, this isn’t the first time she’s been followed by a man–so I try to explain, in the most reasonable demeanor possible, “Sorry, I was waiting to pick up the book your were just looking at. I’m doing this project for my ‘Flaneur’ class at UNF, where I have to ‘wander’ and, in the case of my project, ‘follow’ people. I’m trying to let people lead me into unfamiliar corners of Chamblin’s and see what kind of books and instances of prose I find.” (This account of my reaction has been sterilized of the “umms,” “uhs,” “it’s kinda hard to explains” etc. of this encounter.) As I’m explaining, I can tell that she isn’t buying it, so I pull out my list of fragmented excerpts from the books I’d arrived at. She seems skeptical, but waves it off, and she is pretty cool about it. I apologize again and assure her that I will cease following her. Funnily enough, she walks in on me in the philosophy aisle not three minutes later.

***

In collecting these lines from unfamiliar books, I realized how they could be material for a poem. Upon this realization, I assembled a both a formal version, and an experimental version, of the poem. The formal version stripped these lines from context, separating individual lines from the larger books in which they were contained. The experimental version further alienates these out-of-context lines from context by individually cutting them out, shuffling them in a top hat, and passing them around the room to be picked out at random by my classmates. It was a one-time poem which would be inauthentic to reproduce here. However, the randomness of the experimental poem became compressed, so much so, that, by the end of the in-class live “poem,” the final line, “These claims should not be misunderstood,” is, in some ways, self-referential such that the incomprehensible contents of my project provides for, in some way, a comprehensible endeavor. Order is created amidst the chaos.

My project had a large potential to fall on its face–an empty bookshop, being noticed, not gaining any insight, having the poem-experiment in class fail, etc.–but it didn’t. I learned about how the Flaneur’s way of seeing is not always moderated by how the body wanders, but also how the mind wanders. The Flaneur is able to discern, not just where the mind wanders to, but, more importantly, what causes the mind to stop wandering. The kinds of books that jumped out at the people I was following jumped out at them, caused them to stop, to take it into consideration. But until my Flaneur project, they didn’t jump out at me. Until these visits to Chamblin’s, the aisles I didn’t wander into served as Sartre’s nothingness, as static noise in the background, as not-being-there. And, in a sense, this project transformed my own perception of Chamblin’s. I now wander through the aisles with stories to tell, I can recognize how being in the crowd of books is, in some ways, like being in the crowd of people.

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