As both a reader and a book collector, I’m a big fan of college library book sales. Held annually or bi-annually at colleges and universities across the country, these sales convert library discards and unwanted donations into desperately needed funds. Uncluttered by the kinds of books that glut public library sales, the college library book sale paints an interesting picture of town-gown reading habits.
When I had the opportunity to attend The Friends of the Library Used Book Sale at the State University of New York in New Paltz, I tried to get there as early as possible, knowing that ambitious local booksellers and scouts would arrive when the door opened at 8:00 a.m. Not that I was necessarily looking for an overlooked first edition (although applying my esoteric knowledge about books and collecting for profit would be fun). Lest you think that the tables were filled with the fifth edition of the MLA Handbook, I will declare up front that I did find one such diamond in the rough — a first edition of Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture in a Brodart-enclosed dust jacket (always a good sign). The book was not an ex-library copy — a red flag for collectors, but not readers — and because I had studied the book in graduate school, I knew not only its academic value, but also its scarcity on the market. I had purchased my own copy about ten years ago, settling for a yellowing, faded paperback, which still sits on my shelves. It’s not a find that will make me rich, but if I chose to sell it, I could buy five New York Times bestsellers in hardcover.
I found an uncanny number of books at this sale that I would have purchased had I not already owned a copy, such as Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness, a classic of the American counterculture movement; or, David Denby’s 1997 tirade about preserving the Western canon, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World; or David Lodge’s superb satire, The British Museum is Falling Down. I should have bought that last one anyway, my copy is badly worn. A hardcover of Johnny Tremain, the story of a young silversmith apprentice in Revolutionary America, caught my eye, but again, I had one in similar condition at home. I read this book in seventh grade and recall it now as one of the books that made me like reading and learning about history.
When I noticed a copy of Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, I felt a pang of sadness and wondered whether this amazing work — one I relied on heavily in graduate school — cast off in such a way means that Jane Tompkins is no longer a staple in English and history departments. Surely that can’t be the case; it was just being passed along to a new generation of scholars, and some young English major will adopt it. It’s hard to believe that Tompkins published that book twenty-five years ago.
There are always some textbooks mingled into the college library book sale, and at this one, I also spotted a book of literary terms quite like the one I bought when I was in high school. The fiction struck me as exquisitely cerebral. The Well of Loneliness, a 1928 novel by Radclyffe Hall, was the subject of censorship and banning when it was first published in the U.S. Though critics felt it beautifully written, its lesbian content was impossible to overlook. This novel is found on the syllabi of women’s studies and sociology courses; I wrote a paper on it in a class on the history of propaganda. In more modern (but literary) fiction, A. S. Byatt’s Babel Tower, a novel set in bookish 1960s England, and Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka, a surreal critique of nobility, almost came home with me. (Both authors are highly enjoyable, thought provoking, and, admittedly demanding.) When I spied the fine dust jacket of Joyce Carol Oates’ You Must Remember This, I thought I might have another treasure in my hands. Alas, it turned out to be a book club edition (red flag!).
Dare I call these selections highbrow? Is this what the intellectual elite reads? What would Macdonald say — that academics are still valiantly resisting “masscult”? (It would help explain the dearth of Da Vinci Codes at this sale.) Would he categorize them as “high art” or, more likely, “midcult” — i.e., watered-down “high art”? Three of the novelists cited above were, at some point, Book-of-the-Month Club picks, of which Macdonald writes, “Midcult is the Book-of-the-Month-Club, which since 1926 has been supplying its members with reading matter of which the best that can be said is that it could be worse.” (Byatt’s most popular novel, Possession, was a BOMC selection. It also won the Man Booker Prize. Having read it, I’d be hard-pressed to call it lite literature.)
What did I end up buying at the SUNY sale, aside from old Macdonald? Only one other book: a Modern Library edition of The Collected Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. I enjoy the handy format of older ML editions, and this one retained its jacket in good condition, which is always a plus. This slim volume will fit nicely on the shelves I’ve devoted to Parker and the Algonquin Round Table. Modern Library, a publisher known throughout the twentieth century for its reprints of so-called classics, is often spotted at college library sales, as are some of the other classic reprinters; I recognized several World’s Classics at the New Paltz sale.
My husband found two books to take home that day — one, a professional monograph on voice and diction (his area of expertise) and the other a book called The Winter Beach by Charlton Ogburn Jr., a blend of memoir and natural history strikingly similar to the Henry Beston classic, The Outermost House, that he admires.
I brooded over what it says about me as a reader that my tastes are so easily reflected here on the tables outside a college library. But then, who cares what it says about me — what’s more significant is what it reinforces about campus reading. First and foremost, it says that physical books aren’t dead! The sale was packed — with students. Secondly, it manifests our common academic purpose in a liberal arts education — to read and think broadly and seriously in areas like sociology, history, and modern literature. Finally, it shows wide (concentric) participation in the stimulating circle of readership. Books at college library sales generally are not rare, collectible, or even particularly well cared for, but they are read, studied, assigned, highlighted, underlined, bought, sold, and loved (or hated) by students, professors, and college-town locals, and that is encouraging indeed.
Image credit: UofSLibrary/Flickr
An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.
Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.
Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn’t about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be.
I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like.
For example, I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university.
I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still hope.
There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway’s White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.
I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.
Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.
Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you’ve read it, let me know.
Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can’t go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have.
Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. They’re just too good.
[Image credit: Kenny Louie]