For Sale for Free

It’s one of the signs of spring.  Although it may be more appropriate for winter when we’re holed up inside for much of the time, the library book sale often takes place when it’s a bit more conducive to being outdoors.  When we travel, which isn’t frequently these days, we often spontaneously stop into an advertised library book sale.  Most of the fare is fairly pedestrian, but sometimes you find something you simply didn’t expect.  On one such recent outing, that’s just exactly what happened.  Back when we lived in New Jersey the Friends of the Hunterdon County Library book sale was a much-anticipated event.  It remains, in my experience, one of the largest of such sales.  (Believe it or not, there are websites dedicated to pointing inveterate readers to book sales and that’s how I found this one.)  That’s not the surprising part, however.

One year when I went, one of the library friends was working the pre-entry crowd, proclaiming some of the treasures inside.  One of them, he announced, was a Bible from the nineteenth century.  They were asking more than the usual one or two dollars for that one.  If I recall, it was $100.  No, I didn’t buy it.  I have dozens of Bibles right behind me at this moment and if I had a Franklin to spend I’d load up on books I don’t already own.  Many of the books mentioned on this blog came from just such sales as these.  That big Bible’s not the surprising thing either.  Here it is: on a recent library book sale day, I saw a shelf with Bibles.  They were free.  Library book sales are intended to raise money, but Bibles for free?  Unexpected, no?

America is the land of free Bibles.  They are printed in vast quantities and sold cheaply, without a thought to what this says in a capitalist world.  Some Christian rock groups were famous for throwing free Bibles from the stage—you’ve got to think those in attendance already had one—and any county fair will usually have at least free New Testaments for the taking.  Ironically, most of those who distribute free Good Books are also the staunchest supporters of capitalism, one of the most exploitative economies ever invented.  Attending library book sales entails more than just finding books that you perhaps didn’t know about.  It’s more than being tempted by something for which you’d rather not pay full-price.  It is, perhaps surprisingly, a learning experience in and of itself.

Bug Eyes

Science fiction and horror are close kin.  Once relegated to the cheap rack of “genre fiction,” both have now developed considerable literary sophistication, perhaps in the wake of their ability to bring in money.  I used to attend used book sales.  Two of the big ones in central Jersey were the Bryn Mawr sale, held just outside Princeton, and the even larger Hunterdon County Friends of the Library sale.  Both were springtime events and highlights on my calendar.  I always had a list with me when I went, but there were also so many books I’d never heard of and that looked fascinating.  One such book was the science fiction anthology, Bug-Eyed Monsters, edited by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg.  The garish cover was half the appeal, and, well, monsters go without saying.

Although I’ve mostly moved to the horror end of the spectrum, there were some good stories here.  Bug-eyed monsters were a staple of 1950’s sci-fi, gracing the covers of pulps, often menacing women with their tentacles.  Some of the tales here share that kind of wide-eyed wonder at the sheer power of imagination, while others are much more subtle.  Monsters, of course, lurk between genres, bursting into consciousness when something unexpected is discovered.  They also have strains of religious awe associated with them.  That’s obvious in a couple of the stories as well.  Since I’m trying to read through my own books while stores are closed, I decided to spend some time with my monsters.  The problem with story collections, however, is you can’t discuss them all in the short format to which I limit myself here.  Besides, some of them I didn’t like.

Monsters deserve to be treated with respect.  In the “golden age” of sci-fi they were often played for titillation.  Most of the monsters in this collection are from outer space.  Some are homegrown, generally in the scarier tales.  We are afraid of those who are different.  Monsters, as more than one of these stories indicate, can be more humane than humans often are.  It’s no surprise that they tend to represent the foreigner, the person whose culture and appearance are different than our own.  Titillation apart, these narratives often ask us to stop and consider what might happen if we really did listen.  Would we not improve ourselves if we could learn from those we fear?  In these days of government-approved xenophobia, perhaps we should dust off our copies of the old genre fiction.  Even in those days we were encouraged to be open minded like our monsters.


Paula Cocozza, writing for The Guardian, describes “How E-books Lost Their Shine.” Like most inveterate readers, she says she has stacks of books growing like mushrooms after a summer rain, in her bedroom. I was working in the publishing industry (I still am, so please take no alarm at my rhetoric) when e-book sales plateaued. Then declined. “Industry analysts” were baffled. I wasn’t. The reasoning goes like this: e-books are light and cheap and amazingly convenient—why would anyone want something different? Those of us who love books know. If you know what I mean when I write “library smell” I’m preaching to the converted. More beguiling than new car scent, that first deep breath when you step into a library takes you places your physical body may never go. All those bodies of books gathered together let off a bouquet that insists you follow your nose to an earthly paradise. I just tried sniffing my iPhone. Nothing. No synapses fired. I’ve read books on it, but have I really?

Studies tend to show we have trouble remembering books read electronically. It’s just too fast. Wham-bam-thank you whoever you are. Let’s get on to the next thing. But books, as Cocozza writes, are slow. Publishing’s a slow industry. You submit your proposal, and the editor reads it. The editorial board discusses it. The book is written and sent to a copyeditor. Then a compositor or typesetter. Then a proofreader. Then it’s off to the presses. Printed, bound, and shipped. It can take a year or more. And when you curl up in bed with a book, furtively sniffing it, gently rubbing your fingers along its pages, drawn into a world not your own, plastic’s the last thing on your mind.

A few Saturdays ago I attended the Hunterdon County Library book sale. I go every year. It’s a big deal. People line up in advance. You step into the barn-like sales floor and it hits you—the smell of all those books. The aroma of knowledge. You can’t repurpose an e-book. You can’t sell it back because nothing was ever really produced. You purchased electrons, you’re stuck with electrons. Hit “delete” when the storage is full. All these books in this room are valuable. All for pocket-change. Many of them were wildly overprinted in the exuberance that naturally comes from being over-stimulated. Like kids about to enter Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Industry analysts are puzzled. If they’d get their fingers dirty by thumbing through a used book once in a while they wouldn’t be. Yes, its dusty, grungy, and probably laced with germs, but I wouldn’t trade it in right now for a Kindle, even if it costs me nothing.

Used Knowledge

One of the unadulterated pleasures of life—or maybe adulterated is the better adjective—is the used book sale. The year I missed the Hunterdon County Friends of the Library sale felt like a year without a summer. There are other book sales around, but this one’s my favorite. Books are my heroin. You see, I became an academic because it was too difficult to make a living as a writer. Besides, I never formally studied writing and what are you without credentials? Just a poser making some claim of talent. Like most academics I learned to write in staid, measured prose, never exaggerating or showing any emotion. Research for that kind of writing requires a university library since who can afford those kinds of books and you need a JSTOR account to keep on top of all the journals. You read and read on the same topic for months at a time until you have something new to say. Thus knowledge, they tell us, progresses by baby-steps, into a safe and conservative future.

Nietzsche, meet Evangelicals

Nietzsche, meet Evangelicals

The reading that I do is of a different species. I’ve had academics ask me “why don’t you do research on the bus?” Have you ever tried to do research on a bus? Some stranger sleeping next to you with his/her body relaxing and melting into your side of the seat, their arm falling off their rotund belly onto you before being retracted to start the cycle all over again? And staid, measured prose before the sun comes up hardly makes the trip any faster. Of course editing pays much, much less than the professorate. So I buy cheap books. Nothing like a buck a book to bring out the reasonable side of any economically minded obscure private intellectual. You never know what you’ll find at a book sale. Some of my best reading experiences on public transit have been at the behest of orphaned books others turned out into the streets. Books I would never have read otherwise. Books that I feel would understand me.

The once and future academic in my brain tries to reconcile this with what I paid thousands and thousands of dollars to learn how to do (research). Isn’t this in some way pushing knowledge forward? After all, maybe a dozen people will read this post and that’s kind of like publishing, isn’t it? Don’t mind me, I’m just book drunk. It’s the used books talking. While my academic friends prepare themselves for a summer off, some going to vacation houses they justly deserve, I’ll be filling my commute with adulterated books. And hopefully by the time I reach the bottom of this stack another sale will come along so that I don’t have to go through withdrawal. Methadone for books hasn’t been invented yet, and besides, I take no substitutes.

Take Twice Daily

Once in a way, when I feel a dusty archaism settling over me, and I realize my eyes don’t focus as well as they once did and that sedentary life in front of a computer screen is slowly killing me, I betake myself to a book sale. In this particular part of the country the big sales are in the spring. I’m told that the book business is dying, but if I can get out of a book sale with no bruises or scary brushes with over-eager buyers, I count myself lucky. I confess, I’m a bookaholic. I spend too many hours a week on public transit, and I consider it a moral obligation to read in public. Even in a city the size of New York, I’ve had people on the bus plop down next to me and say, “You’re that guy who reads.” Public displays of literacy. While some of the books I read are common enough, others are difficult to find in even university libraries. I know that’s an excuse, but my vice is buying books.

I once read a children’s story about a house actually constructed of books. I want that house. Although new books aren’t cheap, there are ways of making them fit into a modest budget. And although you really can’t build with them, they insulate the soul. Reading is more than fundamental—it is the very essence of learning. When I glance at Publisher’s Weekly and read that print sales aren’t what they used to be, I am buoyed by seeing the strong market in young adult literature. We have at least raised a generation that likes a good story. The earliest literature was religious, and many religions developed around written words. It’s a mistake to take religion for gullible belief. If there weren’t power in these words, why would anyone believe?

photo 2

Local book sales can be huge events. Each year Bryn Mawr and Wellesley have a combined book sale in Princeton. If you get there after opening, there will be no place to park. The libraries of Hunterdon County in New Jersey hold a sale that, until this year, required off-site parking and a full three days of hiring a shuttle bus service to get hundreds of buyers back to their cars. And these venues are packed. People do buy books. And many of them are half my age. It is a seed of hope. Some people are surely looking for a quick read, maybe to take on vacation, but you can also see the seasoned, selective literati carefully examining the offers, backs bent, brows furrowed. For twenty dollars you can even get in early, before the goods have been picked over. The man checking me out said the sale gets bigger every year. Looking out over the sea of cars, I feel strangely ebullient, as if I’m atop Nebo looking over the promised land. Although it’s quite a drive, I’m already home.

Shaman Shifting

Shapeshifting I confess that I haven’t read Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Being incurably drawn to the weird, however, I picked up a copy of John Perkins’ earlier book, Shape Shifting: Shamanic Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation at the recent Hunterdon County Library Book Sale. I also confess that I fear being classed as one of those irrational sorts who’ll believe anything. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been to college or university that a Ph.D. is no protection from the strange ideas that waft through human gray matter. Many years of teaching convinced, I hope, at least a few of my students that I approach the study of religion in a reasonable—dare I suggest?—rational, way. Despite appearances to the contrary on this blog, I weigh evidence carefully. Sometimes the evidence suggests we don’t yet have all the data. So it was with an open mind, but also a dose of skepticism, that I read through Perkins’ book. And yes, he does suggest that cellular-level transformation is possible.

Before breaking out your hooey-meters, however, consider that John Perkins is a successful businessman. Money speaks, n’est-ce pas? So I’m reminded every rational working day. The human mind, however, plumbs realms on which empirical method sheds little light, even to this day. Psychologists still debate whether there is a subconscious mind at all. And then there’s that troubling question of what exactly reality is. Historically, people have answered such questions with religion. And religion quite often permits entry where science declares “no gods allowed.” So did John Perkins really transform into a ball of energy and float across both time and space and see such disturbing sights as he describes? Did Richard Bach really astro-project with his partner, as recounted in The Bridge Across Forever? Are we really rooted to this mundane world where politicians and entrepreneurs make all the rules?

Perkins recounts his experiences with shamans of the Amazon, and like Jeremy Narby, his experiences with ayahuasca, a consciousness-altering plant. He even recounts transforming into an “inanimate object” so that his wife could not see him. Is it real? Can science measure such events? Does anything escape the penetrating stare of the electron microscope? We will have our Richard Dawkinses on one hand declaring an unequivocal “No!” The other hand, however, may be generating the sound of clapping for those who have ears to hear. Or at least for those who have eyes to read. At the end of this book, truth comes down to a matter of belief.

Campbell’s Swansong

InnerReachesofOuterSpace Joseph Campbell may not be the best reading for the bus. Despite the many signs and placards gently suggesting to passengers both in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and on the buses themselves, that keeping quiet is courteous, we are a people in love with noise. We are used to annoying electronic beeps, squawks, and farts. People find it difficult to sit more than 20 minutes without talking. I’m trying to read. At the Hunterdon County Library Book Sale I picked up Joseph Campbell’s last book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. It requires some concentration. Campbell was a brilliant comparative mythologer. I was reared in the scholarly hermeneutics of doubt, however, especially when it comes to comparing myths from different cultures. Campbell has a great appreciation for Jungian concepts, and soon minor details are blurred and the similarities stand out in stark relief. Still, as I always do with Campbell, I came away with plenty of rich concepts over which to mull.

Campbell, the great inspirer of Star Wars, the original series, was that rare breed of scholar who appreciated without participating. He is recorded as stating he was no mystic, and certainly not any kind of conventional religionist, but he couldn’t get enough of mysticism or mythology. Religion, he implies, is just mythology taken literally. He is, I believe, very close to the truth here. What we know of indigenous peoples today is that they don’t have that sharp and hard line between literal reality and story that marks much of western civilization. We tend to think fact and fiction cannot be of a kind. Looking around, we find no gods, so our choices are not to believe, or to believe too literally. And those who believe literally differently, we tend to want to kill. This is the history of religion in the western world, in a Campbellian nutshell.

Apart from the little gems I located scattered throughout The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, the main theme I found applicable was the driving force of chapter two, Metaphor as Myth and Religion. Metaphor is our way of interacting with a reality we just can’t experience directly. As human beings, we experience the physical world through the mediation of our senses, filtered by our brains. If there is something deeper, more profound than nature, we are even further removed. Our experience of meaning is metaphor. Joseph Campbell may have been a little too swift to spot congruities that are probably best left apart, but he clearly recognized the fact that our religions are not so different from our mythologies, and that both are narrated in the form of metaphor. This is not to devalue them, for metaphor is one of the most potent substances in our chemistry set. Now if only I could find the vial that has the stuff to make people want to keep quiet on the bus, we might all be able to get a bit more reading done.

Book Friends

Along highway 12 in Hunterdon County, New Jersey stands an armory with an obtrusive tank stolidly facing the road. Over the weekend the tank was draped with a banner proclaiming the Hunterdon County Library book sale. I wished I’d had a camera. It had been a few years since I’d been free on the book sale weekend (it often classes with robotics competitions), so I decided to visit on Saturday. No, they usually do not have much in the way of academic books, or even the books on my extensive wishlist. The books are not in pristine shape, not alphabetized, and sometimes miscategorized. But still I love to go and browse around. It is always crowded. I feel like a babe in its mother’s arms around so many people who want to be near books. Although the vast minority of the American population, book buyers are of a kind. We get along.

The event is so large that parking is off-site and a shuttle bus is hired to ferry people the extra mile down the highway to the armory. I emerged with a small bagful of guilty pleasures and waited for the shuttle behind three elderly gentlemen. On the bus they lovingly pulled out their special finds to share with one another, smiling and quietly praising the virtues of each one. When I was checking out a few minutes earlier the elderly lady counting the books asked me if I recycled them back into the system when I was finished. I had to confess that I keep most of them. There are books in every room of our apartment except the bathroom. You can read in bed, in the kitchen, or in front of the television. I couldn’t live any other way. “It’s a good problem to have,” she affirmed.

A few weeks back our refrigerator died. For the third time since Hurricane Sandy we had to throw out all our refrigerated goods. Our landlord magnanimously agreed to replace the derelict cooler. I worked from home that day to let the delivery guys in. Their faces fell. “We’ll never get it in past all those bookshelves,” they lamented. The doors on this older building are offset, and we do have bookshelves covering much of the wallspace. So I began pulling down books. The piles grew and eventually I freed a shelf enough to move it from the wall and to get the oversized appliance in place. On the way out, one of the movers stopped by an unraped bookshelf and stared for a moment. “You read interesting books,” he said. Perhaps he just pronounced my epitaph. He read interesting books. I can’t think of a better compliment in this world where reading for pleasure is an endangered species.

"Interesting reading"

“Interesting reading”