Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.

Honest Doubt

Kurt Vonnegut was never required reading in my high school English classes. I read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was in seminary, and picked up a few of his other titles in the dearly departed Boston Book Annex. A couple of these used books have been waiting patiently over the decades, and so I selected Cat’s Cradle to be perhaps the last book I finish this year. As far as I can recollect, the Vonnegut books I purchased while in seminary had no particular order or reason. A friend had recommended The Sirens of Titan, but Cat’s Cradle was what would now be called an “impulse buy.” Reading it, I rediscovered why I like Vonnegut so much. I also found out the book revolves around religion.

Regular readers know that I tend to find religious themes in secular books. It’s partially human radar and partially an unfortunate occupational hazard. Occasionally I’m pretty certain the author had no intention of including or developing the themes I discover. Cat’s Cradle, however, places religion front and center. The story involves a journalist on the trail of one of the developers of the atomic bomb. He unintentionally coverts to Bokononism, a religion made up by a castaway on the island of San Lorenzo. The religion, based on the teachings of a still-living sage, revolves around the idea that all its sacred writings are lies. Think about that a moment.

Lies, in which we’ve all had a crash course since January, are among the most insidious of human accomplishments. We value and crave the truth. We all believe that we believe it, but there are differing opinions as to what it is. Some opinions are backed with evidence, and others with flimsy fabrications. To declare a religion based on lies is, of course, to undermine the whole enterprise. Vonnegut was a noted iconoclast, but there’s a brilliance in declaring a religion to be knowingly based on falsehood. In fact, we’re seeing it happen before our very eyes. The religion formerly known as Christianity, once upon a time, took into account the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the gospels. Modern Christianity—Evangelicalism—has completely thrown Jesus out of the equation in all but name. Branding, after all, is everything. This modern faux religion suggests hating your fellow creature, taking advantage of the poor, and believing falsehoods to be the most sincere of truths. It’s alive and released on the earth even now. And it is far more scary than even ice-nine.

Hiding Out

It’s seen better days. The spine is coming unglued and the pages are brittle, fracturing into tan snowflakes as I turn the pages. Still, this unusual little book is crowded with memories. I recall the used book store where I bought it—the Boston Book Annex, now sadly defunct. Unlike any other paperback I’d purchased, this one has gray-dyed page edges, adding an appropriate October gloom to the reading. Friedrich Duerrenmatt may not be properly among the existentialist novels, but that’s where he lives on my bookshelf. I picked up The Quarry three decades ago when “Der Besuch der alten Dame” was still relatively fresh in my mind. If I were a younger man I might’ve tried to find an edition in German, but the internet didn’t exist in those days and after a few years of no use, my Deutsch was dusty. It had been my gateway language.

As I read The Quarry I wondered why I had waited so long to do so. The story is brief but intense. And like novels of the period, it is philosophical and theological. (Like many translations it is sold under different titles; this one is also known as Suspicion, but The Quarry captures the duality nicely.) Hans Bärlach, a Swiss police commissioner, is on the trail of a Nazi war criminal. Suffering from cancer, Bärlach is bed-ridden but his quarry is a doctor and he finds a plausible excuse to become his patient. To help him set the trap, he enlists the aid of Gulliver, a Jewish concentration camp survivor. Their dialogue is what makes this brief story so theologically pregnant. Gulliver calls Bärlach “Christian” and reflects on how that feels to a Jew who was intended to be exterminated. I won’t spoil the ending here, but when Bärlach meets his quarry and realizes that he is also the quarry, the conversation once again turns to religion.

There’s an honesty to such novels as this. Writers were not yet afraid to invoke philosophical dialogue. A friend at the time I purchased the book once told me “nobody writes like that anymore.” Since his father-in-law was a novelist, I supposed he was right. I should have instead relied on my memories from high school German. We read “Der Besuch der alten Dame” and even went to see a stage adaption at the local community college. I’d shortly discover the existentialists. Their views on the absurdity of life mingled so readily with a theology becoming broken, tired, and top-heavy. Those ideas I’d met in class such as, if memory serves, Ilse Aichinger’s “Wo Ich Wohne,” became a part of my young psyche and, not surprisingly, many years later I’m finding myself their quarry.

The Falls

I can’t recall if I’ve been to Mexico City before. You see, back in the late 1980s I frequently read the novels of the existentialists, and although a copy of The Fall has been on my shelf since then, I don’t recall if I read this Camus classic. It’s sometimes that way with existentialists. In late 1980’s Back Bay, a used bookstore called the Boston Book Annex charmed my days. The Annex has sadly closed, but I do remember buying my Camus novels there. This one, however, I don’t remember reading.

So, unsure of my past, I decided to read it. Perhaps again. The existentialists make sense to me. I have to say that in today’s rushed and harried lifestyle it’s a little more difficult to find time to spend in Mexico City. Although the book is short, it’s not quick. There’s much to ponder as you wend your way through an evening bending elbows with Albert. Perhaps that’s an unwonted familiarity regarding a man who died before I was born, but existentialists know that kind of thing happens.

One of the more compelling aspects of this literature is that the existentialists often address religion. The Fall is a first person narrative throughout, and about four-fifths of the way through Jean-Baptiste Clamence begins to address Christianity explicitly. Since this is a retelling, in secular terms, of the biblical “fall,” this is not unexpected. Jean-Baptiste is a lawyer who is making his confession. He states that his clients “probably feared that heaven could not represent their interests as well as a lawyer invincible when it came to the code of law.” Genesis, of course, is attributed to Moses, himself a law-giver. From this point until the end of the chapter he reflects on the fact that although no one is innocent, all are glad to find the crime in others. He describes torture devices of the Middle Ages, exonerating God from their invention. He respects Jesus, but not what people have made of religion.

Reading, perhaps re-reading, this reminded me of why I found the existentialists so compelling as a seminarian. They force you to think. I read Kafka, Camus, and Duerrenmatt, pondering how much wisdom could be crammed into such brief books. Ironically, it takes time to read them. Our world is crowded with concerns about money over meaning. Matter over mind. Once in a while we need to step back, spend an evening or two in Mexico City, and consider how we’ve become a fallen race.

Used Bookends

There’s nothing like spending a Saturday in a bookstore. It is actually a rare treat these days with Borders gone and some of the smaller indies having trouble keeping up. I particularly like used bookstores. Unlike most durable goods, books—at least some of them—grow in character with renewed ownership. Like most academics, I have books that had previously been owned by big names in the field. Sometimes because I was a student of one of their students, at other times because their library went for sale and I found the tome in a second-hand shop. A few years back I had to go to Boston for work, and I stopped at the Boston Book Annex only to find it closed. It’s sad when even a used bookstore can’t keep up.

So when my wife told me she had to work on Saturday, and it was in Montclair, my thoughts turned to the Montclair Book Center. It isn’t the largest bookstore around, but it does have used books and it is a healthy walk from my wife’s office. I never go planning to spend much, but being in a bookstore, you see things you didn’t know existed. When the staff comes up to ask if they can help me find anything I just smile and say, “No thanks, I just want to browse.” Maybe it’s because I have no idea what I’m looking for. I’ll know it when I see it.

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I used to visit the Cranbury Bookworm. In a sprawling old house outside Princeton, I often found pleasant, used surprises there. Then the landlord evicted them. They sold off most of their stock and moved to a closet down the street. Even though it’s tiny, there are always others there. I’m never alone in a bookstore. Other patrons feel the draw. I wonder if everyone who reads doesn’t owe a debt of obligation to stop into their local bookstore and pitch in. I grew up in a town without any bookstores at all. The nearest one I knew of was thirty miles away. I know what it is to be book-deprived. It’s Saturday, and a little too cold to spend much time outdoors. It’s probably just an excuse, but you’ll find me in the bookstore nevertheless.