I was walking along a downtown storefront last week when I felt an old, familiar urge. Through the window of a second-hand bookshop, I saw a lovely leatherbound edition of Plato's Republic, one of my old favorites. Against my will, I found my steps drifting from my intended path and through the creaky old front door of the shop.
In the soft light of floorlamps and one old chandelier, the shelves around me beckoned with the siren-song of good books to be had at a discounted price. My soul yearned to go through the store, to select baskets and bags full of books, to buy everything that looked even remotely enlightening, and then dive into that stack of musty old books, never to resurface. Even the smells of the place were seductive: catnip and cinnamon-scented candles and old paper all blended together and finished off with a hint of freshly baked pizza from next door.
It was too much for me; I was compelled to go to the nearest shelf and begin browsing through the well-worn treasures there.
A hard-bound copy of Isaac Asimov's Foudation Trilogy in a tattered dustjacket was the first volume to catch my eye. It reminded me of my twelfth summer, when I read every piece of short fiction Asimov had ever written. I traced the words on the spine with a tentative finger, and immediately, the cozy little bookshop faded into nothingness around me.
I am in a bright bedroom with nautically themed wallpaper and dust-motes dancing in the beams of summer sunlight that flow through the room's double windows.
"Son," my father's voice calls, far away.
"Yeah?" I look up, annoyed, from my book.
"We're about to go to the pool. Come on out to the van!"
Normally, I like going swimming with my dad and siblings. The cool embrace of the pool never fails to fill me with joy, and I love the feeling of lying on a beach towel on the concrete pool deck after exhausting myself with swimming.
But, at the moment, psychohistorian Hari Seldon is in the midst of a dilemma that threatens the future of the human race, and he really can't afford for me to stop paying attention to the story at this particular juncture. So, of course, I do what any red-blooded twelve-year-old American lad would do: I lie.
"I'm not feeling too good, Dad. I think I'll just stay here and rest."
"Are you sure?" He sounds a little concerned; I'd better reassure him.
"Yeah, I'm sure. I'll probably be OK by the time you guys get back."
"All right, son. Get some rest."
I don't, of course.
I blinked and looked around. The bookstore was the same as it had been when I had drifted into memories, but the winter sun was lower in the sky outside the front window, and I was about 30 pages into the old, familiar story I had devoured like candy during that summer thirteen years ago. I hadn't even realized I was reading, and at the memory of my deception, I felt my ears get warm and the bottom of my stomach sink. I put the book back and continued down the rows.
I found Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn on the very bottom row of the store's "American Authors" section. It was a well-thumbed paperback edition, but the binding was tight and all the pages seemed intact.
As I flipped through the book to my favorite scene, the one where Huck describes Emmeline Grangerford's morbid art and poetry, I felt the nostalgic tug once more at my elbow. The next moment, I was gone again from the bookshop.
The early evening is muggy, and mosquitoes buzz in whining paths around my head as I sit on the veranda of the rambling, three-story camp building. Overhead, a bug-zapper crackles every once in a while, enveloping over-curious insects in its electric embrace. I am engrossed in the story of the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons; I love the way Twain unfolds the saga through the eyes of his naive, morally excellent narrator, Huck Finn.
"Hey, Micah!" I look up to see Pete, one of my good friends. We were on the maintenance crew last week. He looks excited about something.
"Hey, Pete. What's up?"
"Some of the guys are going out back to play paintball in the Maple Woods. You wanna come?"
I hesitate for a moment. I do enjoy playing wargames with my friends, but Huck has just learned about Harney Shepherdson's elopement with Sophia Grangerford, and I'm right in the middle of the part where the feud bursts out into open warfare.
My sixteen-year-old brain weighs the benefits of paintball against those of reading: adrenaline versus art, struggle versus sensibility, interaction versus intellect. After a careful moment of consideration, I make my decision.
"I'm really kind of tired, Pete. I don't think I'd enjoy it as much tonight. Maybe next weekend."
He looks slightly dampened, but he nods. "OK. That's probably smartest; I don't know how late we'll be out. I guess you'll probably get to sleep before us tonight." He laughs as he turns to leave.
I laugh, too, but not for the same reason.
I came to myself in the bookstore, my finger in the middle of Huckleberry Finn and my eyes staring off into the distance outside the window. I found myself wishing I had gone with my friends that night; "next weekend" had never come.
The sun was almost down now, and I had to stop by the grocery store for a gallon of milk on my way home; I knew I really ought to leave. I sighed and carefully slid the book back into its gap on the bottom shelf.
As I made my way toward the door, I noticed that the book that had lured me inside had somehow been knocked over in its display. I had every intention of simply setting it back up and then leaving the store -- it was getting late -- but something compelled me to handle it a little more than necessary in the process. I flipped through it, smelled the old, worn leather, and felt the pages brush against my fingertips.
I felt myself being transported away again, but this time I knew what was happening. I could simply set the book down, open the door, and step out into the chill of the winter's night. I could be on my way to the grocery store, and then home to my wife.
I could have resisted the pull, but I didn't.
My eyes are bloodshot, my muscles ache from sitting in the same position for hours on end, and my brain is weary. I have a philosophy paper due in eleven hours, and it's nowhere near done yet. If I want any sleep, I need to complete this thing soon.
The good part is that the paper is about Plato's Republic, a work for which I have developed quite an affinity. I love his ideas about reality; they seem to fit well with my own observations of the world and the futility of human actions.
I am in the middle of typing a wonderful sentence about Plato's shadows on the wall of the cave when an instant message window pops up on my laptop's screen. It's from Mike, one of my old camp friends.
"hey," it says, "we're playign ultimate 2nite. u wanna play? :)"
I consider it. I really enjoy ultimate Frisbee, and I've been working for a long time, but I'm fascinated by Plato's conception of reality.
"No," I type back. "I'm sort of busy. I have a paper due tomorrow."
"weenie. i have a paper too, but u dont see me studying. just come out for like 30 min."
"Well... I don't know, Mike. I really feel nervous about it."
"it'll do you good to slack off, you never takea break. i guarentee my paper is longer than yours anyway."
Plato calls me from the dogeared book in my hands, but I do have a good start on my paper, and my brain is really tired. Amazingly, the call of Frisbee begins to drown out the call of the book. I do a mental double-take; I'm not sure I've ever experienced this feeling before in my twenty years of life.
"OK, Mike," I type. "Where are you guys playing?"
"on the quad like normal. its right behind the library, so i expect to see you out there by the time i get there from my dorm."
"You got it, buddy."
As I shut down my computer and pack my books, my body vibrates with tension. Part of me -- a really big part -- wants to reboot the computer, sign on to Messenger, and tell Mike that I can't play after all. But another part -- maybe the part that hasn't fully bought into Plato's idea of the Real, which can only be attained by philosophers -- tells me to keep packing my academic life away, to go out to the Quad and play Frisbee with my whole heart.
And I do.
On the drive through the wintry night toward the grocery store, I contemplated the memory of that evening when I first realized I could say no to the books. It was a refreshing revelation; it freed my mind and body from chains that I never realized I had been wearing. It was my first step in a journey toward a more balanced existence, one in which I recognized that socialization and physical activity were, in some ways, even more necessary than mental activity.
I smiled and patted the leatherbound Republic on the seat next to me. I would have to reread it sometime -- but not tonight.