Every year my husband and I have the same discussion. Do we really need more books? The house is full of books. Books that, mostly, haven’t been read. That we mean to read. Or, rather, to get to. We’re reading all the time.
We bought them because they looked interesting. We sure didn’t buy them to decorate our space. (Some idiot, years ago, suggested to a friend of mine that this is a big reason for buying books!) They’re, mostly, tattered, covers long gone, spines often unreadable.
Books are a drug. Is the urge to acquire a disease or a character flaw? Why, no bookshelf footage left, books piled on tables, under tables, in corners, why do we return to the well? Here’s why: I might find something extraordinary. Period color. A bit of history that I’ve seen nowhere else. A stunning style.
The sales are exciting. It’s a treasure hunt. We pay the five-dollar first-day fee. I head left, to the fiction. I gravitate to ‘literature’, the amount of which, sadly, is less every year. The holders of troves of long out of print, odd and obscure are passing. Here’s my tip: do not ignore the books with crumbling, illegible spines. They are often little known authors telling out-of-style tales in prose that will turn you green with envy. Those moldie-oldies could write.
Another plus of the dollar buys: I highlight to my heart’s content, with no qualms about ruining something. I draw stars and arrows, even circle passages. I can flip through that book on Oliver Goldsmith and find what I need fairly easily. I don’t have to laboriously transcribe into a word doc. I mark useful info up but good, facts, dates, quotes, description. For data, I look to biographies. For artful description, to vintage fiction. Charles Reade is a favorite. Never heard of him? I’m not surprised.
From Wikipedia: Reade fell out of fashion by the turn of the century—”it is unusual to meet anyone who has voluntarily read him,” wrote George Orwell—but during the 19th century Reade was one of England’s most popular novelists. He was not highly regarded by critics. The following assessment is typical:
“Mr. Reade is unsurpassed in the second class of English novelists, but he does not belong to the front rank. His success has been great in its way, but it is for an age and not for time.”
Orwell summed up Reade’s attraction as “the charm of useless knowledge.” Reade possessed vast stocks of disconnected information which a lively narrative gift allowed him to cram into his novels. Can anyone who has read my work come away wondering why I am so enamored of him?
At those sales you find nearly anything you want except for the very latest best-sellers. Wait a year, you’ll find them by the dozens. Therefore, I see no compelling reason to buy anything but e-books. The exception for me is period research, when I’ve been sufficiently beguiled by a mention of a particular work. I have purchased a pricy work on Early Modern French Theater for a specific tidbit of information that I couldn’t find on the web. But, you never know what else you’ll stumble on. Also, I have that huge, eighteenth century work on Astrology. Dense, and then some. I’ll pull what I can out of it, then mangle the hell out of it. For Sly, of course.
I tell my stories again and again, have you heard this one? If so, I apologize for being tiresome. In a circa-fifties interview in Evergreen Review, Dorothy Parker said, “I am the only person you’ll meet who has read all of Charles Reade.” She had to have loved him for his style. His plots are atrocious Victorian treacle. I salivate over his way with words, and his impulse to cross every t and dot every i. The man is fun, damn it!
I share a curious literary enthusiasm with . . . whoa! Dorothy Parker! I call that a feather in my cap.
What will I be looking for tomorrow? Like I said, it’s a treasure hunt. All I know for sure is, anything by Charles Reade.
Book sale wrap-up:
I bought a dozen works of fiction, by Anthony Trollope, Rudyard Kipling, Samuel Johnson, George Meredith, and lesser lights. I found no Charles Reade, not even his most famous work, the one I’ve owned for twenty years, the only one I’ve ever seen for sale: The Cloister and The Hearth.
More importantly, I snagged a dozen compilations of essays and letters, explaining and commenting on life, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whatever I found of delightful pontificating, I grabbed for you-know-who. The cashier made a bit of a to-do over an unpriced three-book set of essays. She couldn’t let them go for the two dollars a pop that most of the others cost. These might be valuable, said she, I have to check with a higher-up. I told my husband as we awaited her return: Yeah, like anybody but me wants a set of ‘Select British Essayists’ (copyright 1878). They ought to give it to me just to be rid of it.
At these events I browse, looking for a flavor to the prose that puts a smile on my face, a personality that promises to mesh with, and enrich, my own entrenched (but elastic, I can work in almost anything) style, and for pronouncements that will stuff comfortably into the mouth of a know-it-all cat. Here’s a sample of what caught my eye today:
Homilies and Recreations (copyright 1906)
Representative Men by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Characters of Theophrastus (newly translated and edited, 1927)
Wanderings and Excursions by J. Ramsey MacDonald, 1925
C’mon, where ya gonna find this kind of stuff nowadays, but for the library sales? Something in this vein of recent origin, well, the voice of today is not the sensibility of yesteryear. I revel in a nice bit of vintage pomposity, generally, more preachy than what goes now, and I try to echo it in my screwball epic starring a full-of-himself, scholarly-inclined feline.