When I try to explain to people outside the South that Mississippi has some of the best bookshops in America, if not the world, I usually hear a “huh” noise that reminds me of a puzzled dog tilting its head. As a bookhound who moved to Mississippi from New York City, and grew up in London, England, it was a surprise to me too.
Oxford was my gateway drug to the rest of Mississippi, and Oxford is unimaginable without Square Books at its geographical and cultural heart. I linger there for the atmosphere and conversation as much as anything, but the store also pries my wallet open with remarkable ease. Enthusiasm for books spreads like a gentle contagion among the staff and the customers, and I invariably buy more books than I was intending, and feel refreshed for doing so.
When I bought an old house in the Mississippi Delta, near the tiny farm settlement of Pluto, my cultural lifeline was Turnrow Books in Greenwood. I would make the 50-mile drive there at least twice a week. It’s a marvel that such a first-rate bookstore can exist in such a modest-sized town. Turnrow has become a hub for the community, a lunch spot and meeting place, a venue for musical and literary events, a bastion of civilization in the old crumbling cotton town.
Now I live in Jackson, within walking distance of the Lemuria Book Store, yet another Mississippi independent that rivals anything in London and New York, and outmatches it for charm, hospitality and comfort. Down on the Gulf Coast in Pass Christian, Pass Books is another state treasure, and chooses its coffee beans with the same care and good taste as its books. All these independent bookstores add so much to the pleasure of living here. They do what the big chain bookstores were never able to do, and that is to make you fall in love with them.
WHAT I’M READING NOW
The Transformation of the World, by Jurgen Ostenhammel. Lately I start my days at 5am and read this massive, dense, intellectually dazzling history of the 19th century for an hour. In this way, I strike a small blow against the internet, and the damage it’s doing to my powers of concentration. 9780691169804
The Bloody Shirt, by Stephen Budiansky. A blistering indictment of Southern racial violence and terrorism after the Civil War, and a necessary corrective to Southern mythology about Reconstruction. 9780452290167
Barkskins, by Annie Proulx. I’ve just finished this epic saga about the ransacking of the world’s forests. Exhaustively researched and brilliantly told, it requires Proulx to kill off dozens of characters over the centuries, which she does with perverse glee. At 80 years old, she seems at the height of her powers. 9780743288781
Life Is Meals, by James and Kay Salter. This delicious collection of bite-sized vignettes about food and drink is best enjoyed in bed at night, and preferably read out loud by your bedmate. 9780375711398