Fat Books & Thin Women

America, bookstores, crying
July 8, 2011, 3:26 pm
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I’ve been in America over a week now, I’ve been in one library and three bookstores, so it seems time to make the promised “what it’s like going into a bookstore for the first time in two years” post.

It’s really confusing.

Actually, as far as culture shock goes, the grocery store is a better indicator than the bookstore. In the months leading up to my flight home I had countless dreams about visiting an American grocery store, about half ending with me weeping in an aisle while waiting for my mother to find me. My first trip to a store, made the same night I landed, ended with my mother pulling me around while I pointed down aisle after aisle, shouting variations on, “An aisle of SOUP! Who needs a whole AISLE of soup?! Half an aisle of TISSUES?!” and laughing so hard I started to cry. The second trip, to a WholeFoods, saw me picking up item after item, saying its name, saying its price, and replacing it on the shelf. The third visit, my mother told me to pick out a salad dressing and I started to cry because there were too many and I didn’t know which type would be best.

Now that I’ve been here a week, though, I’ve recovered enough that I can walk down the aisles exclaiming over all the new types of M&Ms and Keebler cookies without giving in to tears. I’m trying to get you ready for the experience of going into a bookstore, though, which isn’t shocking in the same way a visit to a grocery store is – somehow, I don’t get weepy when I see how many books there are – but is in terms of pricing, for someone who gets a $200 living allowance a month. I went to The Strand in Manhattan, a bookstore that I didn’t like before (too big, poorly organized, shelves are so high you can’t see the top two or three rows of books, little quality control [my favorite bookstores only sell “good” books, which may be why they aren’t around for long]) and don’t like now, then on to St. Mark’s bookstore, which I liked and still like. At St. Mark’s, though, I kept building and diminishing my pile, because I couldn’t imagine spending money on so many books. So, pick up McSweeney’s and The Believer, add Matterhorn, return McSweeney’s and The Believer, pick up Electric Literature, pick up Joe Sacco’s Notes from Gaza, return Matterhorn, pick up Bitch Magazine, stare at pile of books and magazines until friend reminds me that I can purchase the books instead of just looking at them. Or a few nights ago, when I got Goon Squad, Game of Thrones and The Blind Assassin, and got all weepy looking at the prices, even when my dad said he would pay for them. (And he, by the way, got Matterhorn. A copy for me to steal!…in a year.)

I never thought I would say this, but America has too many books, and every time I’ve been in a bookstore or a library so far, I’ve gone in with a clear idea of what I want. Goon Squad was the first book I thought of buying after booking my flight home, and because these books are “extra precious” to me in that they’ll be the only ones I buy for a year, and the ones that come back to Macedonia/Albania with me, I can’t even begin to entertain the thought of buying a book that is “unknown” to me. My hesitance to try a book by an author I don’t know much about is heightened by the cost of doing so; I can’t help but convert prices into Macedonian denars, and figuring that a paperback costs 750 denars (that’s probably more than I spend on my groceries in a week) is pretty good incentive to NOT buy.

Other books coming back to Macedonia with me, if you were wondering: DFW’s Pale King, John M. Thompson’s The Reservoir, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a new Albanian-English dictionary.

It may not sound like I am enjoying the wealth of books here, but I am. I’m also enjoying buying The New York Times every day.



My husband and I are currently arguing about whether this is an appropriate response. I’m totally on your side – I can imagine the stress, happiness, and confusion that my husband seems unreasonable after “only” two years. Hope you’re having a good time though, despite the stress!

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

Ha! Tell your husband to get back to me after he’s lived in a developing country for two years. I wouldn’t have expected to have any reverse culture shock, before i did peace corps, but two years in a place where you’re followed by small children every time you leave your door/are known by everyone in your town, can make a pretty big mental dent. It’s kind of nice to be reminded of some things, though, like how personable most people are in america.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I can’t imagine how overwhelming a grocery store would be after being gone for so long. I also get discouraged when buying books at full-price (a big reason I love used bookstores so much).

Comment by Brenna

Being overwhelmed is a normal (and, I would argue, healthy) response to America’s culture of consumerism when you’ve been living in a place where even the essentials can’t be taken for granted. I guess there are people who just sigh in relief at having so many choices and seeing so much money in circulation – but I can’t help thinking that those are people who didn’t get the real benefit of living overseas.

Comment by Jerri

The Pale King = woohoo! And great post – loved reading this. Hope you’re enjoying your time back in the good ‘ol US of A.

Comment by Greg Zimmerman

I think many who come to North America in general become overwhelmed. We live in a land of excess, really, in a land of choice. Even going from Canada to the US I find that, and it’s both exhilarating (whoa, look at all the choice!!) and overwhelming (OMG, choice!! GAH! I need to leave!)

And then there’s your experience, coming, as you say, from a developing country. When we learn to live simply and with less, coming back is pretty much shocking.

Comment by Steph

Really interesting post!

My son and I recently went to a talk given by a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She said that a few years after her return, she brought her host parents to visit her here in America. Her host mother, who was an upper class Uzbek woman who had been very proud of being able to give the Peace Corps volunteer all the best things, as she saw it, walked into an American grocery store and simply burst into tears.

And on the cost of books: I’ve never been to a developing country, so I don’t have your perspective, but I always feel amused and disgusted when (as periodically happens) some stupid politician announces that we no longer really need libraries because books are now so inexpensive. Ha! I’d like to see him live on the income of a lower-middle class family and see if he has room in his budget for books. Ugh.

Comment by Anita

I spent a year in australia which is certainly not third world but I still was overwhelmed when I returned to American grocery stores. And the parking lots! Wow, so big.

I’m glad you’re getting some books for your trip back. Enjoy the time you have with isles of tissues and soup!

Comment by rebeccareid

I’ve been in China for almost seven years. It’s funny – I go back to the US and go to the grocery store with friends and end up mindlessly drooling my way up the aisles, throwing ridiculous stuff like chilli seasoning, lunchables, and Certs into the cart. And don’t get me started on books – before I bought an e-reader, a full half of my airline weight allowance was used up on books. Great post, hope you’re enjoying your time back in the US!

Comment by petekarnas

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