Friday, February 20, 2009

The Culture of Books

As much as I love reading books, I love buying books. And browsing for books. And looking at them, and, yes, smelling them. New books, anyway. Used books have their appeal as well. My father's a used book dealer. Summers, he would come home late Saturday mornings after hitting yard sales and book sales to go through his boxes of new used books. If any were musty, he would set them outside, fanned, so that they could air out in the Cape Cod afternoon.

I often went with him on his hunts for good used books. To church basements and strangers' driveways. I poked through the flats of paperbacks and hardcovers, editions both first and book club. I looked for comic books and movie tie-in books early on, then later, novels and books on filmmaking and photography. Accompanying my father on these mornings made me realize that he lived and worked in a milieu that he loved. And whether he meant to do it or not, he passed down his love of books to me.

All this brings me to last weekend when Liz and I drove up to Portland, ME to look around. It was a quiet Sunday, but I found two bookstores open. While Liz was off to neighboring yarn shops, I browsed around in Longfellow Books, a progressive independent store that sold mostly new books, but also carried a selection of used books. There I bought a book I've had my eye on for a few months, Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country, which is a revision and re-imagining of three of his earlier connected novels, Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone, that take place "...on the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century." The book won the National Book Award last year. I've already got a big book in my queue (2666), but I'm a sucker for epic books and lost (or found) classics.

After Longfellow's, I found a book store called Yes Books, selling used and rare books. The store was all narrow, tall stacks of used paperbacks and hardcovers. I immediately found the fiction section and poured over half the hardcovers and all of the paperbacks.

During my book searches I release internal radar which branches outward from somewhere behind my eyes, parsing all spines in view for that perfect combination of longing, condition, history, and edition. Some used bookstores and book sales give off the spent karma of the picked-through, the deserted, the Oprah-certified bestsellered. Then there are those that exude a promise of editions long out of print, of classics ready to be found, of barely used books for over half the original cover price. As I scanned the Yes Books' stacks, I felt I was getting close to finding at least one book to buy. I kept seeing interesting books that I would have bought if I hadn't already owned them. Plus some close calls and runners up. I finally found two titles worthy of my interest, both monetary and literary.

First, something I had recently just heard of called Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox. Published originally in 1970, this was the reprint from '99, with a back cover pull-quote from David Foster Wallace, and a new introduction by Jonathan Franzen. A lost classic, introduced by one of my favorite still my heart. The description heralds it as, " of the most dazzling examples of the storyteller's craft in postwar American literature..." Which war? Doesn't matter. I'm there, first in line, tickets bought online months ago.

The second book I had eyed when it came out in 2008, a paperback original called Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski. Graphic novel-worthy cover illustration, promising a silly premise done up in serious blood-red splatterpunk. "A hot shot of adrenaline straight to the neural plexus," shouts a blurb on the back cover. Okay, I'll bite. I always like a spot of fictional blood lust. Modern-day noir riffs in the corporate workplace. I can relate.

I'm sated. For now. I doubt I'll finish this new round of books before another round makes it through the door. But so what? Reading's not always the point.


Liz (made in lowell) said...

Fripping brilliant

Robin said...

I second Liz's response. How well I remember going to yard sales with Mom & Dad or waiting for them to come home to look over the pickings. When we lived at the Incredible Barn, I loved to spend my Saturday mornings looking over the books in our antique/book shop. I'd find a promising title, grab a juicy apple and settle down for the afternoon. Heaven!

Liz's Mom said...

This is magnificent. There is something so touching about how you explain the way you feel about books.

I love this post.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading, Liz and Liz's mom.
Hi Robin. Yes, our house was like having our own lending library, updated with new stuff every week.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Who doesn't love books? :)

Yes, we were lucky growing up surrounded by a multitude of books! Some of my earliest memories include using Dad's books to build houses for my dolls and stuffed animals.