book sales, reading, writing technique

’Tis the Season!

(For the big annual library book sales.) Treasures, absolute treasures, for cheap.

imgres-2.jpg

My house looks like this, only not so neat.

Here in Connecticut we have huge discard sales, town by town, over the course of the summer. I look forward to them all year. The biggies near me are Newtown over the Fourth of July, and Redding, over Labor Day weekend, with smaller ones scattered in between.

First day, you pay double the marked price (usually one-two-three dollars.) Second day, you pay full price. Third day, half price. Fourth day, all you can pack into a carton for five dollars.

You walk into (generally) a school gymnasium and find tables set up by category. General fiction, biography, history, science, mystery, cooking. Fiction is broken up: current (the last decade or two) vintage (popular titles from farther back) and Literature, work that has been deemed for the ages. That’s where I head first.

In literature you’ll find the odd stuff, things you may never see again. In the past I’ve snagged lectures by a president of Harvard on ethics and philosophy, full of ideas for Sly to obsess over. And, a marvelous series, chatty passing-scene, part story/part social commentary, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Not the judge.) That’s where I glommed onto Charles Reade, he of the mush plots and to-die-for description. The tattered volumes are a treasure trove of beautifully put comments on the human condition, such as used to be considered a worthy side-line to the plot, learned, often comically high-minded treatments that stuff perfectly into a mouth that I am always looking to furnish with know-it-all material. My guy is a scholarly sort, curious about every corner of life, beguiled, and infuriated, by the strange ways of the humankind.

I find goodies on many a table, but my heart belongs to classics. That’s where the sale organizers put anything of a certain age that they don’t know what else to do with. The sad thing is, over the four decades that I’ve been hitting these events, the selection of classics has shrunk and shrunk. The donated old-holdings have diminished in depth and variety. As the old-time book lovers decease and their musty shelves are donated by unappreciative heirs, the percentage of treacle best-sellers has grown and grown. Get the oddments now, before the glorious caches of vetted greats and screwball-sublime are no more. That tap won’t gush forever, a shame and a pity. I rummage through the oldie-moldies salivating, I swear to God. Any book with an unreadable spine, the odds are good it’s something tremendous.

Forget the writing manuals, those dreadful how-to’s, how to construct a story that will meet the expectations of the popular-fiction readers of today, demanding, according to those write-like-a-pro quick-tips, action-reaction. My library finds are the only school of writing I’ve ever had, and I am confident that the myriad and idiosyncratic voices from years untold have taught me well. I swear by characterization, and description, much despised these days, if you go by the on-line advice.

All this, of course, is not marketing. But a superb product (ideally) precedes a sales pitch. A dose of what has been done a century back opens your eyes to non-current approaches. You could do worse than to shoehorn some of that reflective-style into your thriller, or sci-fi, or whatever. No one of us on here needs to hear this, but to the less sophisticated, I say, take your blinders off. Read widely, outside your genre/comfort zone. The rich pickings at the library sales are the best (and least) money you’ll ever spend, and as fine an education than that from the esteemed Iowa Workshop. Get beyond another (usually tiresome) iteration of the sword-in-the-stone theme. How many civilizations needing to be saved from dark-lord baddies can we take, honestly, before we puke? No, the addition of a third-gender elf does not make it a must-read.

Vampires? I wear a necklace of garlic to the sales to protect me from vampire fiction. On Book Country a few years ago, the vampire-aficionados were wetting their pants over a new twist: a vampire enjoying the immoveable feast of a nursing home. More than a few thought this a stunningly new idea in a genre that’s been pretty well explored. I don’t have a high opinion of the quality of thought on many of the writer sites. That’s why I love this one.

Standard