I was in high school when I discovered Anaïs Nin, while wandering the shelves of my favorite bookstore in Taipei. It is a huge space with floors and shelves of blond wood and bright fluorescent lights; young students sit on the steps or lean against the walls and flip through books for hours. The English-language selection is arranged by genre like any other bookstore, but the literature section is divided by country; I found Nin among the French writers, a slender volume almost lost between its neighbors. Little Birds. If I had looked closer I would have noticed that it was erotica, but one doesn't expect erotica to be shelved amongst the classics and Existentialists and I was some pages in before I realized what I was reading. I think I read the entire book sitting cross-legged on that polished blond wood floor, but could not bring myself to buy it.
Later, I would go on to read Henry Miller. I would forget those words that slipped through my fingers like the beating wings of little birds. A decade has passed. I have found my way back to Henry Miller (through Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose title for A Coney Island of the Mind comes from a phrase in Miller's Into the Night Life), but I had not come back to Nin yet, until this afternoon when I walked by a used bookstore in my old neighborhood. It was closing time, and the woman in the store locked the door after me when I walked in. Chain bookstores smell of new paper and expensive coffee drinks and freshly-baked cookies and the air outside that blows in whenever the doors open and close. Used bookstores smell of old paper and dust and wood. It is impossible for me to say which I prefer, if I love new books with their tight bindings and smooth covers and white pages, or old ones with vintage covers and creased bindings and notes from friends to other friends, or grandmothers to grandchildren, or vice versa. I think I love them both.
So I was wandering through the aisles, and at the books crammed in together, old and new, different sizes nestling together to created a jagged landscape of colored spines. Nin caught my eye. You know how I cannot resist a book that has the word LOVE in the title, and A Spy in the House of Love finds itself in my hands. I pay at the desk up front, this one and several other books, make small talk about Anita Brookner and the neighborhood where I used to live. On the drive home my gaze keeps straying over to the pile of books on the passenger seat next to me. At home, slip the new books among all the others in the bookcases that line the walls of my room. Open this one. It begins, The lie detector was asleep when he heard the telephone ringing. I cannot imagine where this will all lead.