Standing in downtown Chatham, N.Y., watching a freight train thunder by, I’m surprised by the variety and skill in this small town. The independent cinema is showing “A Walk in the Woods” (based on Bill Bryson’s comic trek along the Appalachian Trail). The brewery is making a name for itself — last winter, when I edited an issue of Berkshires Week focusing on local brews, my associate editor and I kept coming across its name. Two of my old restaurant reviewers used to praise the Blue Plate, I remember. Bimi’s cheese shop has just come up in conversation, and the idea of having enough kinds of local cheese to fill a whole shop on a main street fills me with glee.
The Chatham Bookstore catches me with bright displays, and the first book I open I’ll bring home — and read in one sitting. “Station Eleven” is a new novel by Emily St. John Mandel, set in a slightly future time when a flu-like pandemic has decimated the world’s population so quickly that civilization has collapsed. Imagine what would happen if this country lost power permenantly, over night. I’ve read columns from New Orleans after Katrina that sounded like this.
Standing in the book shop, I dip into this story and come out, blinking, to feel warmed and drawn in by the books the staff have chosen to display. I love independent bookstores because I love books — because they introduce me to writers I would never otherwise have known — and because they show the tastes and characters of the people who run them. This place feels bright, curious, open and broad-minded.
Exploring deeper, I find a book I have wanted to exist for years. Carla Power, a journalist who has lived in and written about the Middle East, wants to understand the Quran, and she asks a friend and colleague, Sheikh or Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, to spend a year working with her. He teaches at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and at mosques and madrasas and has written a growing “40-volume collection of biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars,” she writes, “a work that would reilluminate Islam’s lost history of women as religious authorities.” In this book, “If the Oceans Were Ink,” they will take time from different perspectives to understand passages from the Quran, their history and poetry. I have wanted for a long time to know more about a holy text so influential around the world, and like Power I don’t speak Arabic. I’m reading this book now in sips, savoring it. Chatham has given me a lot to think about.