“I can tell you that later one goes through these books again and again with the same astonishment and that they lose none of the wonderful power and surrender none of the fabulousness with which they overwhelm one at first reading.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
There are two ways by which I usually enter a bookshop: by a slow, leisurely meander through the doors, intent mainly on browsing, perhaps a purchase or two; or by a determined, purposeful stride, intent on seeking out and purchasing a specific book, or books. The former tends to have a bigger impact on my bank balance, as my vow to “just have a look” quickly morphs into “let’s see how many books I can lug home without dislocating my shoulders.” Not that the intention to buy a particular book necessarily acts as a deterrent to buying more; sometimes it’s the exact opposite. Books are like chocolates that way, you can’t just have one and be satisfied, you always have to have at least one more. Or six.
A few years ago, I walked into the Waterstones on Edinburgh’s Princes Street one day with my determined, purposeful stride. I was on the hunt for a specific book; Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. I headed up to the second floor and went straight to the poetry section. I was hopeful that I would find the book, but deep down I thought I would probably end up having to order it online. I almost missed it, tucked away as it was between much thicker volumes of Adrienne Rich poems, but it was there.
My copy of the book with some of my favourite passages marked.
There’s something so satisfying about finding a book you’ve been looking for in a bookshop; it’s like finding treasure. I get so much more joy out of it than I do by simply typing a book title into Amazon’s search bar. That’s not to say that I don’t buy books on Amazon. I do, quite frequently. The nearest Waterstones is a 90 minute bus ride away, and my local bookshops, though lovely little places to browse and purchase popular mainstream books, don’t tend to have very strong science fiction or poetry sections – my favourite genres. Sometimes Amazon is my best option but, when I can, I love hunting out a particular book from a good old bricks and mortar bookshop.
In this case, the experience was made even more enjoyable by the chat I had with the bookseller. It turned out she had read the book herself, and, since there weren’t any other customers waiting, she had a few minutes to chat to me about it. The way she spoke of Rilke’s words and how inspiring and moving she found them made me want to read it even more. It was an exchange between two complete strangers who found common ground in a mutual love of books. An added perk was that, after our conversation, she gave me an extra stamp on the rewards card Waterstones was offering at the time. Ten stamps equalled £10 off my next purchase, or something like that. I left the shop smiling and feeling even more eager to read the book than before.
The book is primarily a collection of letters written in the early 1900s to an aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, from Rainer Maria Rilke, himself a successful published poet. Instead of offering a critique of Kappus’s work and providing practical advice, Rilke takes him on a journey of self-discovery. He tells the young man that he should not look to others for approval, but rather look inwards to discover whether poetry is his real passion.
“Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must’, then build your life according to this necessity.”
Sister Mary Clarence (Whoopi Goldberg) gives Rita (Lauryn Hill) a copy of Letters to a Young Poet to encourage her to pursue her passion for singing in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit © Touchstone Pictures
I feel that this can be said of any passion that a person has. That it doesn’t matter if others don’t understand or support it. It doesn’t matter if it seems like something beyond your reach. If it is the thing that inspires you, if it makes you happy, if it is all you can think about when you’re lying awake at night – then you should pursue it, with all your heart.
Examples of similar advice can be found today, although the medium of delivery has changed a bit! Jon Winokur, author of the book Advice to Writers, runs a Twitter account from which he shares words of wisdom to aspiring writers. He gives advice from his own experiences and from the collected anecdotes of other authors and poets. It’s a great resource if you’re a writer looking for inspiration, or just fancy reading some interesting quotes.
I’m often inspired by the things I read, be it a single quote or a full length novel. What that experience in Waterstones taught me is that inspiration from reading can begin even before a single word is read. The fact that I went in search of the book rather than just ordering it sent to my door; the satisfaction I felt when I finally found it hiding in amongst other volumes; the animated conversation I had with a fellow book lover about the wonderful work of a long dead poet: all came before I had read the first page. It added so much more to the reading experience than I would have imagined, and I remember that day fondly whenever I pull Letters to a Young Poet from my bookshelf. E-books and Amazon may be cheaper and more convenient, but, every once in a while, I would urge you to visit your local bookshop instead. You might find more than you knew you were looking for.