Next week I'll be busy setting up the big now-you-see-it, now-you-don't Secondhand Bookstore otherwise known as the Friends of the Princeton Public Library book sale, something I've been doing since 1990. Though I've had excellent help from other volunteers, when it comes to plowing through one year's multitude of donated volumes, day in, day out, I'm the designated hitter who sifts and disposes, sorts and prices. Every week I put fresh donations on the sale shelves located near the windows opposite the reference librarian's ground-floor outpost. At the same time, I try to save special books for the blockbuster that begins with a preview at noon on Friday, October 20. By "special" I don't just mean the art books, coffee table volumes, or limited editions, or even the moderately collectible items that show up every year. I mean the truly unusual stuff, books that have been lived in, books with a past, books that have seen the world and that stand out like exotic interlopers among the newer, more crisply presentable volumes. Even book hawks looking merely to resell the bargains they hope to find would probably admit to being susceptible to the atmosphere and mystery evoked by the crusty old vagabonds that turn up in any reasonably large assortment of used books.
For instance, here's a battered 76-year-old copy of Little House on the Prairie published by E.M. Hale and Company in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When I put it out for sale, I won't ask more than $2 for it. The back cover is stamped Howbert School, which the Google genies tell me is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Also on the back cover is one of those relics of the past, an envelope with a Date Due card still in it, no surprise since the publisher's Cadmus Books were apparently intended for school libraries. Chances are someone at the sale will snap it up in response to the same impulse that moved me to take it home. When you pick up a book like this, it's like reclaiming a piece of your past. Look through the well-turned, time-textured pages and back you go to a two-room country schoolhouse in southern Indiana on a snowy winter afternoon listening to your teacher read about the adventures of Laura, Mary, Charles, and Ma and Pa, and Jack the dog. Open it at random and the wind's howling and Laura's worried about Pa, who's out in the dark where "the terrible howling was" and all of a sudden you remember how hard the wind was howling around the little schoolhouse in the country when the teacher read that passage and how you and your classmates smiled at each other with the shared awareness that life and fiction were coinciding. Another item of no particular monetary value that found its way here (this one from a school library in Lynchburg, Virginia) was Highroad to Adventure by Howard Pease, a book I would unblushingly place on my list if I were ever asked for a full and honest inventory of the "books that changed your life." I'd also have to list Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks and certain volumes in the Hardy Boys series, especially A Figure in Hiding, the finding of which at the age of 10 was part of my first secondhand bookstore adventure in the days when the stretch of Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street was Book Heaven. At that age, the identity of the author was of no special importance. I wasn't interested in Howard Pease or Walter R. Brooks and it didn't matter a bit when I found out that the "Franklin W. Dixon" who wrote the Hardy Boys was a made-up name for a stable of writers. Nor did I yet have any real understanding of the message ranged imposingly over the entrance of the university library, Milton's "A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit." In those days it was the life-blood of the reading experience that warmed me, that and the touch of life implicit in a material object that had been passed from reader to reader.
Littering the Margins
Books that have been scribbled in are usually not the sort I put out on the Community Room tables. Our book sale's online advertising promises a "gently used" stock, after all. Every now and then there are exceptions if the book itself is unusual enough or, if it had belonged, say, to John Berryman or Murray Kempton, or if the marginalia seemed of equal or greater interest than the text. The fact that I still own most of the "great books" I eventually graduated to from the works of Howard Pease has less to do with their sentimental value than with the embarrassingly callow and often simply idiotic comments that I littered the margins with. My handwriting being what it was and is, that alone would be enough to destroy the resale value of any book. My Modern Library Giant editions of Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov teem with sophomoronic rhapsodies: page after page of "Yes! Yes! Great! God! Amazing! Fantastic! Wow!" along with a veritable fireworks display of exclamation points on paper already disintegrating under the weight of my passionate underlinings. On the rare occasions when I lost patience with the writing (Melville does go over the top), I'd scribble: "Oh come on, Herman!" In the chapters entitled "A Squeeze of the Hand" and "The Cassock" I lost it completely, filling every inch of the margin, top, bottom, and both sides, with unprintable celebrations of the author's outrageousness. And Melville is nothing if not outrageous. The so-called reviewers of the time thought he'd gone out of his mind.
It wouldn't be fair to blame it all on Mr. D. Hudson Bowman, I suppose, but whenever I look at the mercilessly abused copies of the great books I read (in over my head in the lifeblood of the master spirits), I remember our 9th-grade government teacher at Manhattan's McBurney School standing before us on the first day of class, holding by one ear, in effect, a devastated copy of the textbook we would be using the spine bent, the covers hanging, every page a plague of underlinings and bellowing: "If your book doesn't look like this at the end of the term, it's an automatic F!"
Who Needs Extra Texture?
I gave up underlinings and exclamation points after college. At some point my reverence for the book as an object probably helped calm me down. As I became aware of such things as first editions and collectibility, I began to wonder about the part the actual book-object played in the reading experience. The extra texture of a Stephen Crane first edition definitely enriched the pleasure of reading him but my first exposure to his greatness was in a boring Rinehart paperback of The Red Badge of Courage. I once owned an American first edition of Moby Dick that was a joy to open and read around in but I never got into it the way I did in my savagely annotated Modern Library edition. When I made a list of the reading highlights of my life from adolescence on, it soon became obvious that the material essence of the volumes themselves had little to do with the quality of the experience. Crime and Punishment? Another dull Rinehart College Edition.
Lost Illusions, Cousin Pons, and half a dozen other great Balzacs were in the sterile Penguin Classics series, where the quality of both print and paper was cheap and deadly dull.
The Sound and the Fury? Another dilapidated Modern Library edition. Same with The Great Gatsby. I read both The Catcher in the Rye and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Signet paperbacks. King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet: all Signets. Almost without exception, the most unforgettable reading experiences took place in shabby, forgettable surroundings. Even if you subtracted the underlinings, none of those books would be worthy of a place at our sale. They'd go for 50 cents to a buck, at best.
The Ultimate Read
I still have the last page of an Indian edition of The Sound and the Fury, the shabbiest, yellowest, dingiest, humblest setting imaginable for the ultimate read. Admittedly, the associations played a part: bedridden in a Katmandu fleabag called the Himalaya Hotel ("so filthy and rat-infested," according to Gary Snyder's Now India, "that we moved to a hotel a cut better"), with a dirt floor and rats, indeed, eating the walls; one light-bulb overhead; the street dead quiet at night; me in and out of fever; no food beyond digestive biscuits and tea, nothing to read but this sleazy paperback with its laughably lurid cover. My three previous readings of the novel had been in the aforementioned Modern Library paperback. This one had nothing going for it but its wretchedness. It radiated a squalid but heady Indian charisma, the stuff of the streets; it looked so close to its earthy roots you could imagine putting it in a chillum and smoking it. But between the paper and print, Faulkner, the fever, and Katmandu, the closing chapter of a great book was finally revealed to me. In previous readings the preceding sections had seemed superior because they were the most fascinating and difficult. Not until the last chapter did Faulkner take up the conventional third-person narrative, and not until that reading in the deep after-midnight silence did I appreciate what he'd accomplished or realize that the concluding scene was possibly the most moving moment in all of his work. (In interviews through the years, he always named The Sound and the Fury as his "most splendid failure.") It was as if each word were glowing with meaning, as if the murky paper were giving off warmth and light, as if I were comprehending exactly the balance, depth, and weight the author had intended for each sentence, every nuance, every measured movement on the way to the last words "as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place."
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