On Bookstores & Majors

My favorite bookstore in the world in the same city as my favorite sister in the world (side note: I have only one sister). It’s called Powell’s Books, which is an enormous warehouse of a building, yet somehow also feels cozy. In color-coded room after color-coded room, there are books on every possible subject and in every genre. Best of all, Powell’s shelves new and used books together, so If I’m traveling to Berlin, say, I can buy the latest guidebook… along with a 19th-century traveler’s diary.

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Nearly every Dec 26th, my family goes. And every time we enter, the same thing happens: we make beelines to different sections, roam the store following our varied interests, and don’t see each other again till we meet in the café with piles of books to choose from. Our tastes aren’t always what a stranger would guess: for instance, my brother, a composer, somehow finds himself in the international mysteries; I predictably dart for languages but somehow wind up in monographs about animal intelligence.

I’ve been thinking about Powell’s because it’s college essay writing season – and after my first question (“what do you plan to major in?”) I get to ask one of my favorites: if you were trapped in Powell’s Bookstore -- and had no phone -- where would you go? Which is another way of saying: what really makes you interested? What subjects actually bring you pleasure? And be specific, because Powell’s is huge! If you love “sports,” my next question will be: which sports? And then: the history of that sport? Stats? Memoirs of? Business management?

The larger question, of course, is what strange byways of knowledge would you like to explore? Because if I know which section of Powell’s you’d wind up in, I know something about you -– something better than what your major might be. I know what you truly find fascinating. And that is the beginning of really knowing someone.

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So choose your major wisely, but also: make sure at college – and in life – you make time to wander the bookshelves of Powell’s. Whether or not you actually find yourself in the real Powell’s or not.