By Stuart Mitchner
Once upon a time I was a regular gambler in the Bryn Mawr Book Sale casino. That was before Wellesley had a stake in the annual event at which book dealers come to play and pay, but not to deal.
In those days early birds would start lining up at the crack of dawn, primed for a shot at the most desirable items as soon as the doors opened. It’s all about getting there first when you know a volume marked $10 might be worth $100 to $500 or beyond. Or so it seemed until various digital devices took most of the guesswork out of the game. By that time I’d moved on, covering the sales as a member of the press, which allowed me a view of the virgin stock before it was ravaged by invading hordes of collectors and book hawks.
Imagining the Castle
Every now and then I miss the adrenaline rush of those charged early morning waits outside the entrance, caught up in the mystique of the book quest, a wayfarer at the gate of a vast imaginary encampment divided into covered markets of literature, art, history, science, mystery, fantasy, and volumes rare, old, and unusual.
At this moment in my reading life, the image of the wayfarer at the gate is derived from the opening chapter of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, where K., the Land Surveyor, first sees the Castle hill “veiled in mist and darkness.” A clearer view shows “a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two stories; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town.” As K. moves closer, “thinking of nothing else at all,” he’s “disappointed in the Castle,” which is, “after all, only a wretched-looking town, a huddle of village houses.”
Recalling images of his far-off home town, K. has an uneasy fascination with the Castle tower, which is “pierced by small windows that glittered in the sun — with a somewhat maniacal glitter — and topped by what looked like an attic, with battlements that were irregular, broken, fumbling, as if designed by the trembling or careless hand of a child, clearly outlined against the blue. It was as if a melancholy-mad tenant who ought to have been kept locked in the topmost chamber of his house had burst through the roof and lifted himself up to the gaze of the world.”
I penciled three exclamation points in the margin next to that passage in my copy of the novel. Rereading it, I think what impressed me was how “maniacal glitter” mocks the mystique of the quest, the wildness of the writing jumping out at you after a relatively restrained approach. more