As I write this sentence, I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. I see yellowed paperbacks of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Donald Barthelme’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. All purchased at the Northwestern University bookstore in 1970 by a disoriented, overwhelmed freshman from Dubuque, Iowa. From Ethan Frome to metaficton in a matter of months. It was like a non-swimmer being tossed into arctic waters.
Or the green, stained hardcover edition of Marion French’s Myths and Legends of the Ages (1956), with its (to me at least) iconic illustrations by, I swear, Bette Davis. I had left it in my classroom on my last day at Bryant Elementary School, but it had my name in it and a kind teacher sent word to me at junior high to stop by and pick it up. I must have. I just looked up its market price for the first time. I could only find one copy for sale: $156.00.
Oh, I go on periodic weanings, but a lot remains. Take the row of Ace paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, purchased for 40 cents each at the Book Nook on Main Street when I was 11 and 12. These were being reissued contemporaneously with fantastic Frank Frazetta covers: a barely clothed woman with sculpted hair, a six-foot spear, flanked by snarling, but clearly domesticated, saber-toothed tigers. I can pick one up today and still feel a touch of that old excitement, the delicious anticipation of going on yet another adventure to Pellucidar, the stone-age world under the north pole, populated by a fantastic race of dimorphic humanoids whose males look like Neanderthals, while the women are clones of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Who could resist? My well-used copies would be lucky to fetch $10.00 today.
I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part-time booksellers on Amazon.com, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.
My idea is to whittle the shelves down. Who else would want the burden? Some 15 years ago, the last time we relocated, the burly, but middle-aged mover looked me up and down suspiciously as he climbed down from his van.
“You’re not a professor?” he asked. I shook my head, guiltily, wondering if I actually smelled like a library. Over half of the household weight was in books back then, and I’ve bought more shelves since.
I imagine the groan in the room as my will is read when they come to the sentence “And I leave my books to…”
My idea when I opened an online bookstore at biblio.com was to not only reduce the burden on my heirs, but to monetize my impeccable selections, most bought at used book sales for pittances. For instance, I was happy last year to pack off to Canada my copy of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Yale, 1961) by Sir Charles Sherrington for $39. I’d bought it at an Iowa State University library sale for 25 cents in 1978. I’d studied his work in a graduate-level neurophysiology course at the University of Iowa and thought it might be worth something. No real emotional attachment there.
But what about the five books that Arthur Ashe took off my desk at the U.S. Tennis Association back in 1988 with a sly smile, saying he had to think a bit about the inscriptions? He hadn’t yet revealed his AIDS diagnosis, but would be dead of complications from it within five years. Included in the books he signed were his just-published, three-volume history of the Black American athlete, which he had written with the fury of the condemned, often in hotel rooms, carting a computer with him everywhere, long before the days of laptops.
One of the joys of scanning my library is spying the discoveries, the first or early books of authors acquired when they were far from subsequent fame. Each was like discovering an amazing new restaurant before the reviews start hitting and the crowds ruin the fun. I recall the wall of rejection letters T.C. Boyle used to decorate his office when a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I read his MFA thesis one afternoon in the library and recognized many of these darkly comic stories when his first, thin-selling collection, Descent of Man appeared. Years later, when I asked him to sign it at a Barnes & Noble in Kansas City, he looked at me leerily and said, “You know, these are getting to be worth a lot of money.” I told him I didn’t intend to sell it, and so far that’s been true.
I’m not sure how I was tipped to Carl Hiaasen, who remains one of my great reading pleasures to this day. But I bought a copy of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, back in 1986 and told everyone I knew to read it too. Or the pristine copy of Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, purchased and read long before it was turned into Field of Dreams. Or knowing John Irving for his pre-Garp, hilarious Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man and his Esquire profile of wrestling great Dan Gable, in which he bravely took to the mat with him.
But I must come clean. As fun as it is to get a sale, my currently listed volumes are moving at a pace which would take some 70 years to empty my e-store. Of course, that’s assuming people will continue to prize certain books: great out-of-print novels, first editions, volumes signed by the author. As e-books continue to take market share, paper books may be destined to become decorative objects, like cupboards built to hold commodes or vinyl album covers. I’ve seen a number of designer rooms in magazines where the books are shelved with titles to the wall (what?) or sorted by color. Maybe the next generation will fill shelves with books the way Gatsby did — real ones, but uncut (i.e. unread). Perhaps our progeny will shop for books the way the latecomers to the book sale do: $2 per shopping bag, or carrying a tape measure.
In any case, my shelves are already packed with wonderful books of no particular cash value. What will become of these? Who would want a battered paperback of Joyce’s Ulysses, even if it was used in classes taught by both the critic Alfred Kazin and the novelist Anthony Burgess, filled (perhaps ruined further) with my annotations? Who could possible care about my complete collection of paperback Best American Essays, starting with the inaugural 1986 edition? How could I find anyone else who would take equal delight in the first sequential tennis stroke photos ever published, in my battered Volume Two of the American Lawn Tennis Library, Mechanics of the Game (1926)?
And to tell the truth, I’m still acquiring about 10 books for every one I sell. But, honestly, each is indispensible. True, the shelves are already full, but it’s always possible to cram a few more in. And when the neighborhood library has its next book sale (hardcovers $2), can I really leave those possible gems to the illiterates with scanners? Even if I don’t find another autographed copy of Tim O’Brien’s first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone (sold for $120 to an English professor at the Naval Academy), how can I possibly lose?
Image Credit: Flickr/Joe Shlabotnik
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester recommended by AndrewThe subtitle says it all: “A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary”. In this engaging slice of history (with a narrower focus than his later The Meaning of Everything), Winchester zooms in on the intersecting lives of two men: Professor James Murray, who oversaw the committee which collected the submitted definitions, and Dr. W. C. Minor, formerly a respected American doctor and medic in the Civil War, who then transplanted to England, and at the time of his 10,000-plus contributions to the dictionary was a psychotic murderer and inmate at a mental institution.The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary recommended by NoahIt sounds ridiculous, but I never travel without my O.S.P.D. Published by Merriam Webster, Inc. for Hasbro, it is the game of Scrabble’s one and only arbiter, from AA to ZYZZYVA (a tropical weevil and a damned hard word to make, given the fact that there is just one Z tile.) My Third Edition, with gold embossed lettering on a stately green hardcover, never sits on the shelf for very long since I became addicted to the Scrabulous application on Facebook. I may be a bit old for social networking, but opening a Scrabulous game with someone faraway by playing ZODIACS for 106 points? Priceless. And as long as I’m using my O.S.P.D., and not online references, it’s not cheating – at least that’s what I tell myself. Scrabulous may carry a price for its creators, who have been sued by Hasbro. If only life came with an O.S.P.D., such disputes would be so much easier to settle.The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron recommended by TimothyIn 1933, British author Robert Byron, a distant relative of Lord Byron, embarked on an 11-month journey with a friend across the Middle East, eventually ending up in India. Along the way he kept a journal – full of caustic wit and genuine discovery – later published as The Road to Oxiana. The book offers an historical look at the people and places of the Orient through the eyes of a privileged and opinionated traveler who makes his way by boat, bus and stolen horse. The journal can be enjoyed either in its entirety or by reading accounts of select cities, such as Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, Kabul and many others in between. The entries, each noting the date and city elevation, range from descriptions about the joys of bargaining to verbatim accounts of memorable conversations concerning local customs. To be sure, Byron occasionally makes sweeping generalizations about the ethnic groups he encounters. While in Baghdad he writes: “The hotel is run by Assyrians, pathetic, pugnacious little people with affectionate ways.” More favorable opinions are formed when Byron gets to know people beyond monetary transactions.At its best, travel writing offers a healthy balance of observation and attitude. And if you’re lucky, the author will not shy from the self-revelation inherent when encountering new cultures. Byron accomplishes both. In his final entry, upon returning home, Byron expresses the timeless sentiment of a world traveler: “I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between eleven months’ momentum and the immobility of a beloved home.”The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas recommended by EmreI am easily impressionable. And sometimes my tendencies are highly ephemeral. Yet, for some obscure reason, I have a constant longing for that of the old, which – absolutely – can no longer be had. That is why I venture to recommend The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas to you fellow readers. Granted, it is a classic so oft cast in movie renditions and referred to in modern language that you – just as with the author’s Three Musketeers – might think you know all its details, but Dumas’s Count is still likely to entrap you in the mysterious ways he moves. Born into the lower classes and securing for himself the promise of a decent lower middle-class status, Edmond Dantes, the protagonist, is cast off society’s script as it unfolds with Napoleon’s return to the throne and immediate downfall. But Dantes lives on in the depths of a dark prison cell, and once free, plots a magnificent return, beautifully articulated by his vengeance. If you thought anyone vengeful, peek into the Count of Monte Cristo’s schemes and you will quickly change your mind, not to mention that you will appreciate them for their brilliance and ability to make you fly through upwards of 1,200 pages. Hefty as it might be, and outdated as honor might seem in our age, The Count shines a romantic light on the magnificent Parisian society of the early- to mid-1800s, providing the modern reader with a gripping story, colorful characters and a reflection on times and thoughts that may seem far away but are very much a part of our lives today. See also: Max on The Count.Setting Free the Bears by John Irving recommended by MaxIt was John Irving who introduced me to contemporary fiction. As a young teenager, his novels were the first I digested with an adult mind. Though it pains me to note that his later novels have been sub-par at best, the novels of his most fertile period – Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hotel New Hampshire and of course The World According to Garp – are nearly unparalleled. But often given short shrift is the book that started it all: Setting Free the Bears. Where some of Irving’s novels can sometimes suffer from baroque plotting, Bears is refreshingly direct and light-hearted. Written when Irving was just 25, he submitted the book’s initial draft as his Masters thesis at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (where Kurt Vonnegut was a professor). The book offers a pair of free-spirited protagonists on a motorcycle adventure through Austria and a plan to liberate the animals in Vienna’s zoo. As is so often the case with Irving, things go awry. Though regarded as one of Irving’s lesser works, Bears is good fun that lays the groundwork for the books that made him famous.The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen recommended by PatrickPeppered with references to MFK Fisher, this beautiful, readable novel could be described as the seminal work of foodie fiction (although such an appellation would belittle it). Hugo Whittier has removed himself to his ancestral home on the Hudson River, where he’s dying from a disease that could be cured if only he’d stop smoking. Hugo is the quintessential antihero, a sardonic, narcissistic curmudgeon grown prematurely old. He struggles to stay out of the affairs of his brother, who is stumbling headlong into divorce, and his estranged wife, who has appeared suddenly seeking reconciliation. Hugo is perfectly rendered, in all his self-centered glory. As a bonus, the book contains a ripping recipe for Shrimp Newburg.