I am a reading addict. My first books—by William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot—were handed down to me by my father and were my strong stuff. When my father wasn’t looking, I devoured Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Drew, and dozens of Archie and Veronica comics. Literary credentials? It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now. If a book transports me, I am content. I even grew up in a family of addicts. Once, when I claimed to be too sick to get out of bed and go to school, my father took a look at the bedcovers—and the outline of the book underneath them—and let me stay home. (The book was Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.)
I came of age as a reader and writer in independent bookstores, beginning with Henry Krinsky’s Books ’n’ Things in Ossining, N.Y., where we lived, and Gotham Book Mart and Brentano’s on trips to the city. But it was when I started publishing books in my 30s and we entered the golden age of independent bookstores that I crossed a line and my addiction took off. Suddenly every street in Manhattan and every town in New England seemed to have a storefront stacked with gleaming, colorful covers and delicious, meaty paperbacks. There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away, Emily Dickinson wrote, and in the friendly harbors of the independent bookstores I found many, many frigates.
I joke that I suffer from CRD: compulsive reading disorder. I don’t drink liquor or use drugs or eat sugar anymore, but books still have the power to enthrall and derail me. Often, I find myself eyeing a book in the late afternoon when I am tired of working. It might be a hardcover I have bought, or just something in my e-reader’s new-releases list. I have writing to do. I shouldn’t be reading. Someone is expecting a call from me. I will mindlessly pick up the book, just to have a look, and somehow, before I know it, hours have passed, it is three in the morning, I have been reading all night, and I haven’t made any calls, done any work, or had any sleep.
Wandering around bookstores is also how I discover what I want to write about. A few years ago, somewhere between the history stacks at a store in Boston and the health/addiction section of a store in Washington, D.C., I realized that drinking behavior has been left out of many accounts of American history. Many of our historians seem to be content to give American history a soothing, sleepy gravitas—to tell our story as a backlit series of images. The things that I find most interesting in our daily lives—sex, clothes, food, and drinking—are minimized or omitted.
I searched for exceptions to our reverential histories. I found Michael Pollan’s brilliant writing, Dan Okrent’s history of Prohibition, and Eric Burns’s history of American drinking.
How would America be different if our founding fathers and 20th-century leaders had not sometimes been a little drunk? Or how would it be different if our passionate temperance movement had not influenced so many events? I found many examples of crossroads where drinking dramatically changed American History. From the Pilgrims—who landed (illegally) at Cape Cod because they were running out of beer—to Alexander Hamilton, who hated drinking and tried to finance the government with liquor taxes, to Ulysses S. Grant, whose brilliant war tactics were fuelled by whiskey, to the Secret Service agents guarding J.F.K. on Nov. 22, 1963, who had been out all night the night before. It took me five years to write Drinking in America: Our Secret History. When it came to research, bookstores once again came to my rescue. I bought hundreds of books that somehow supported the story I was trying to tell.
But for all the usefulness of the network of independent bookstores I visit, I am still happiest wandering uselessly among the shelves looking for something I don’t even know I want. I love the smell of paper and ink, and the calming sounds of pages being turned. I fondle the hardcovers, reading a page or two. I pick up a dozen books, ogle their covers and front matter, and put them back. Finally I head home with a colorful stack of pure pleasure.
Susan Cheever is the author of the biographies My Name Is Bill, E.E. Cummings, and American Bloomsbury, as well as five novels and four memoirs. She has been nominated for a National Book Circle Award, and her work has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times, among other magazines and anthologies.