Small Big World

Serendipity may have been over-used in the eighties, but the idea of finding something by chance that turns out to be really good is real enough.  My wife found The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto, by chance.  You see, used bookstores are places of serendipity.  This one happened to be in Trumansburg, New York.  Subtitled The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, this is the story of an early European incursion into North America.  These days it’s difficult to feel good about any of that, but overlooking the misery we’ve caused for a moment, the early Dutch settlement was, comparatively, not as detrimental to the American Indians as later colonies were.  The Dutch were mainly interested in trading, and unlike the Puritans who settled to the north, they were tolerant of difference, even religious difference.

Shorto chronicles how the settlement of Manhattan from the beginning was one of diverse peoples having to get along and accept one another.  The Dutch, like the Puritans, had been infected by Calvinism, but they took a more practical view.  People get along better if you don’t force them all to think the same way.  The book suggests that this was impressed on New Amsterdam from the beginning, and it remained when it became New York.  It’s a fascinating story partially because it begins the narrative before the point where we’re generally instructed in school.  Europe was warring, at the time, of course.  But it was a Dutch idea—that peace could be the default state, instead of war—that allowed for real civic progress.  Those scrambling for empires, however, continued to squabble, even as they still do today.

There are plenty of unexpected insights from this book.  The Dutch in many ways molded the die that would become European America.  Having built a successful trading colony in Manhattan, they had to surrender it when the English, after the Cromwell debacle, decided to take it by force.  The people of Manhattan did not want to fight a clearly superior army and lose all that they’d gained by their tolerant way of life.  And so New Amsterdam became New York.  The story is filled with colorful characters and incidents that, if you’re like me, you’ve never heard of.  I’m not one of those people who has to read everything published on New York City.  Working there for many years was sufficient for me.  But still, this is one of those books that I’m glad my wife serendipitously found while looking for nothing in particular in a used bookstore.


Collecting the Past

Some readers, probably, react with embarrassment when I go on about Dark Shadows.  The fact is, however, that our childhoods somehow define us and mine included frequent doses of Dark Shadows after school.  This was complemented by the series of potboiler novels by William Edward Daniel Ross, writing as Marilyn Ross.  We didn’t have much money when I was a child (some things never change) and the only means I had of procuring the books in our small town was Goodwill.  The novel series ran from 1966 to 1972, roughly concurrent with the television show.  Since I was buying them second-hand I could never tell which, if any, I would find in the book bins.  If I did find any, I’d buy them.  I got rid of them when I “grew up.”

Dark Shadows, however, has come back to me at various points in my life and about a decade-and-a-half ago I began, somewhat shamefacedly, trying to rebuild that earlier collection.  The individual volumes are considerably more than the nickels and dimes I’d originally paid for them.  In fact, the rate of change has been somewhat astronomical.  Some of the volumes are rare.  Given the prices, I suspect I’m not the only nostalgia-poisoned child of the sixties and seventies who’s buying them.  There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with having finally completed a task years in the making.  When the box containing the last volume arrived, it was a moment of private ecstasy.

All of this has me thinking about other influences Dark Shadows has had on me personally.  It is probably responsible for my lifelong love of Maine.  The television show was filmed mostly in Terrytown, New York, better known by the name given in Washington Irving’s tale, Sleepy Hollow.  I wasn’t aware of this on my visit to Terrytown—which was before the more recent television series based on, but not filmed in that location, aired.  My first publication regarding religion and horror was based on Sleepy Hollow.  There’s a sense of connectedness here.  To get the final volume, which is rare, I had to buy a collection of several of the books.  Like a man who found a pearl of great price went and sold all that he had so that he could buy the field in which the pearl was.  We’re never told what he did with the rest of the field.  If I had to venture a guess I’d say he used it to house his Dark Shadows collection.


Underestimated

Under-printing, ironically, can create great demand.  Books are generally under-printed because publishers don’t see much of a market for them.  Back before the days of inexpensive print-on-demand (POD, in the lingo) books may not have even existed as electronic files.  Often a publisher won’t print a book unless it anticipates that it can make back its costs.  If they think it won’t sell that well, they’ll print just enough.  And they might even melt down the typeset plates to reuse them for other books.  I’m not sure if that happened in the case of a book I’ve been looking to consult, but something has made this under-printed book extremely rare.  It’s not on Internet Archive.  WorldCat shows it in only two libraries world-wide, the nearest one over 3,000 miles away.  Its price used (and there seems to be only one copy) is $46,000. I can’t tell you what it is because you might buy it before I can.

For the purposes of my research, this is actually the only book on this particular topic.  (The subject isn’t even that obscure.)  The book is cited everywhere this topic is mentioned, and at least one person on Goodreads has actually seen a copy of it.  I have to conclude that all those who cite it must live within driving distance of one of two libraries worldwide.  For the rest of us the book is simply inaccessible.  As an author this is one of the worst fates imaginable.  Even if some price-gouger is selling a copy for $46,000 the author gains nothing from it.  Royalties are null and void for used book sales.  The only profiteer is the person who happens to have found a rare book (from the 1990s!) and is determined to ensure only the most wealthy will be able to purchase it.

I’ve known people who sell used books online.  Those who want to move books try to undersell the unfortunate under-printed title by pricing a bit lower than the competition.  There is no regulation, however.  You can charge whatever you like.  The funny thing is, if someone eventually forks over $46,000 for this book, and then has it appraised (it is a paperback from the 1990s), its actual worth is probably at most in the hundreds of dollars.  Back when we watched the Antiques Roadshow we always knew that the poor person who brought in a book would be disappointed in the appraisal.  Last time I was in Oxford I saw rare books from the 1400s for sale for far, far less than $46,000.  I only hope that my books, as obscure as they are, are never deemed that expensive.  And I would encourage publishers to print a bit more generously, for the sake of knowledge.


Getting Used

Unknowing is a blessing in disguise sometimes.  There is so much to learn and, regrettably, little time outside work to do it.  Books are my life.  I work in publishing, so I know a passable amount about the book business.  I have much still to learn.  To support my research, which doesn’t include a university library, I often have to purchase academic books.  I know quite a bit about academic book pricing (hint: what the market will bear), and I know that it’s assumed academics have university professor-level salaries.  The “independent scholar” is as much a ghost as the next revenant.  So I buy books used.  The best clearinghouse I know of is Bookfinder.com.  They list other sellers who have the book and facilitate your buying of it.  I strongly suspect they take a small cut.

While looking for an obscure book (it pains me to say, for I met the author), I wondered if Amazon’s used copy had the lowest price.  So I went to Bookfinder.  The Amazon copy was there, along with seven comparably, slightly lower, priced other copies.  Reading the descriptions, I realized these were different vendors hawking the exact same copy of the book.  Some of the description wording was oddly specific and that led to this epiphany.  Down at the bottom was a lone seller some $4 to $5 dollars cheaper, selling the book directly.  Navigating to this page I discovered it was the self-same book—the same physical book being marked up by the other vendors.  Each reseller along the way, with wider reach, stopping at Amazon with the widest reach, was charging a finder’s fee for this same object.  It was available directly from the seller.

Used books are a thriving business.  Many publishers these days are focusing on “the electronic future,” scratching their heads that people are still reading paper.  What will happen to walking into that impressive library?  Have you ever walked into someone’s impressive iPad or Kindle?  It looks the same no matter how many electrons you add.  The internet has been taken with the photo of the late Johns Hopkins humanities professor Richard Macksey’s library.  Would it be possible to have walked in there and not been impressed with the obvious love of books?  As a Hopkins professor I doubt he had to resort to used books much, but I kind of think he probably did anyway.  Bibliophiles are like that.  A first edition is a thing of beauty forever.  And so I find myself on Bookfinder and I’m willing to give them a cut just for the privilege of holding a coveted book.

Richard Macksey’s home library. Credit: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

Feeling Used

It may be perverse of me, but it makes me happy that used copies of all my books can be found on Bookfinder.com.  I discovered Bookfinder many years ago and it is a wonderful site for cash-strapped ex-academics, or anybody who loves books.  There is almost nothing you can’t find here.  Some of the books are very expensive (if they’re rare), but generally you choose the condition you’re willing to accept and how much you’re willing to spend.  The other day I was looking for a research book there and decided to type my own name in, just for fun.  I suppose some authors, having received next to no royalties, might be upset to find themselves on the used market.  For others it’s a kind of validation that their books are overpriced.

I’m a book keeper.  (Not, I hasten to add a bookkeeper.)  If I read a book I want to be able to refer to it again.  That’s one, but not the only, reason I don’t quite trust ebooks.  I’ve had electronics die on me and they can cost many books’ worth of dollars to replace.  Even then you can’t be sure some software upgrade hasn’t deleted the content you paid for.  At least sitting on a shelf you can find an actual book again.  I know some people prefer to read a book and then set it free—a kind of read and release method.  I suspect some folks buy used books just to sell them.  Still, to know that books are available is cause for celebration.  We may survive this after all.  At least our words will.

Bookfinder has been a lifesaver for us independent scholars who don’t have university library privileges or research expense accounts.  The collections of books individuals amass are as unique as the person her or himself.  A family friend was once won, I’m guessing, by visiting us years ago and saying, “You’ve got interesting books on your shelf.”  (In that apartment shelves covered all available wall space in every room except the bathroom.)  Having books around is kind of like having kids.  Some are new, some adopted.  A few you’ve even produced yourself.  They make you glad when they’re around.  Bookfinder occasionally has items that not even Amazon can find.  It doesn’t sell books directly, but puts you in touch with vendors who work with vendors who actually have the goods.  It’s all very complicated but it works.  It actually seems to showcase one of the things the internet does particularly well—puts people in touch with actual books, to be read offline.


Used or New?

A recent post on a used book got me to thinking.  Back when I was acting like a trained researcher my reading was very specialized and focused.  Even so, my personal reading was eclectic.  I think that’s the result of having been raised poor.  With no bookstore in our town, and no Amazon (or Bookshop.org), book purchasing was catch as catch can.  Since my fortunes haven’t dramatically increased in life (long story), my purchasing habits have remained pretty much the same.  I’ll buy used books or movies if I can.  Since these are about the only things I buy, they loom large in my mind.  And the thing about buying used is that it’s often opportunistic.  I can pretend it’s intentional and say I’m trying to be well-rounded, but the fact is I try to save money where I can.

This really struck me as I was reading something written by a film maker.  Now, I’ve penned two books about horror films, and I tend to watch them quite a lot.  What struck me about what I was reading was just how many films the writer knew.  Academics can be that way—knowing everything about a subject.  When researching my first book, A Reassessment of Asherah, I read everything I could find in pre-internet days about the goddess.  That is a thoroughly researched book.  When you’re a graduate student your job is to become as familiar as possible with your subject, no matter the language of the research (within reason).  As just an editor my movies and my books are a matter of what I find in my eclectic life.

I often imagine what my life would be like if I could’ve remained a professor.  In those days I read fewer full books—research is often a matter of reading only the parts relevant to your project—and certainly less fiction.  I was never a well-paid academic, teaching at a small school that considered on-campus housing a large part of the compensation package.  I didn’t buy many books then, either.  Some of the most important ones were, you guessed it, used.  I wonder if I would’ve ever have shifted my interest back to horror.  During those days I didn’t need horror (it was a gothic campus and I was beginning family life).  Since then I’ve become an even more eclectic person.  My fascination with geology began then and still comes back when the stars are just right.  And even they, I suspect, might be remnants of even older, used stars.

Photo credit: NASA

Is It Thursday?

Jasper Fforde is an author I discovered because of a friend’s recommendation.  One of the more literate of fiction writers, he is clever and funny, but also difficult to find in many bookstores.  (Believe it or not, some of us prefer to shop in actual bookstores.)  I tend to pick his books up when I find them, whether used or new, and wait until I have time to indulge in a good book.  Well, I seldom have time to indulge, so I decided to go ahead and read Lost in a Good Book.  Now, this involves some mental gymnastics on my part.  Part of Fforde’s Thursday Next series, this is actually the second book after The Eyre Affair—not his first book that I read, but the first of this series I had.

I tend to find used copies of Fforde in certain used bookstores, and so my collection has grown through the years.  I’ve read four of the first seven novels in this series, but in this order: one, seven, six, and two.  Each is understandable on its own, but it occurs to me after finishing the second in the series that things might make better sense if read in order.  The good news is that the next one I have to find should fall in order after this one. Unless it’s one of the others.  That’s the nature of finding things in secondhand stores.  It’s not that I object to buying books new—do you even know me at all?—but that I have some authors that I can find in used stores from time to time and I read them when I do.  Fforde is one of them.

How I find the books probably impacts how I engage with them.  Perhaps because they’re funny I don’t consider the implications too seriously if things don’t always make sense.  I can see myself, if I ever get more time, coming back to the series.  Then I’ll do so in order.  The real pity is that I don’t have time to read all the books by authors I enjoy.  Nor all the money.  Libraries in small towns tend to have collections that reflect local tastes, and besides, I like to come back to my books at my own time, without having to wait for inter-library loan and somebody else finishing it up before I can get ahold of it.  All of which is to say I enjoyed Lost in a Good Book very much.  Thursday Next is a compelling character, and it’s always a pleasure to read an author who, like you, clearly reads a lot of classics.


Electronic Ritual

Religion and horror go naturally together.  Perhaps that’s something I instinctively knew as a child, or perhaps it’s something only mature eyes see.  It’s clearly true, however.  While reading about The Wicker Man lately I felt compelled to read David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, upon which the movie is loosely based.  In many cases it is better to read the book before seeing the film.  In other cases the movie ends up being the superior project.  I had to keep on reminding myself as I read the novel that it couldn’t be measured against a superior vision of what it could have been.  Having written seven novels myself (all unpublished) I hope that I have a sense of the process.  Unless you’re into the commercial side of things you don’t write for the movie potential—you have a story to share and this is your way of telling it.

The novel isn’t bad.  It’s written in a punchy style that I don’t really enjoy, but the story drew me in.  It almost wasn’t to be.  Like many novels of this era, print copies are difficult to find.  Those available on used book websites, or even on Amazon, probably because of rights agreements, sell for over $200.  That’s a bit much, considering that over two dollars per page is excessive for a novel.  I finally had to cave and get a Kindle version.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I have the software on my computer.  Reading it again reminded me of how superior a print book is to an electronic one.  Reading ebooks tends to be faster but like eating snack food, doesn’t really satisfy you.  

At one point the navigation function stopped.  Confused, I couldn’t go any further in the story and wondered if I’d reached a sudden but unexpected end.  With a physical book I could’ve paged ahead to find out.  In this case, with the controls frozen with that obdurate computer attitude, I had to find another way to make the illusion of reading continue.  I eventually got it going again after clicking here and there, but reminded myself again that ebooks should only be the last resort.  As for the story itself, it was okay.  I read it as a parable about intolerant religion.  I’m not sure it was intended that way, but it certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.  It ends differently than the movie does, so I won’t put any spoilers here in case you decide to spring $200 to get a used copy.


Feeling Bookish

It does my soul good to attend a used book sale.  I recently attended one while on a visit to Ithaca.  Everyone was wearing a mask.  Even though it was May, it was quite cold and rainy, and due to the limited number of people permitted in the space, there was a line that took about half an hour to endure.  This did not deter people and it was this that most lifted my spirits—these people were devoted to books.  At times when the media gets me down, informing me that book culture is dying and that all people want are their devices and their distractions, seeing proof of the love of books is restorative.  The used book sale is a place of discovery.

Although it’s easy to nip over to Amazon (or better, Bookshop.org) and order your book, especially during a pandemic, there are things you only find by being where the books are.  I keep an extensive reading list with me.  Before I go into a sale venue I promise myself I’ll stick to my list.  But what a facile promise it turns out to be—how can you make such a vow without knowing what you might find?  Books you’ve never seen or imagined before?  That’s the discovery aspect that sweetens the in-person experience.  And although I still find crowds scary, I tend to trust people who like books.  Besides, the books I tend to read aren’t always in the most popular sections.

The Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library book sale has a dedicated building with permanent shelving.  While wandering is fine, maps are also available.  I’m occasionally ribbed for having too many books.  One of the reasons I dread any move is knowing the movers’ inevitable comments about the fact.  People who love books are made to feel somehow inferior for it.  Fans of Kindle or other such readers extol the virtues of having lots of books that take up no space.  Such books, however, are limited to those converted to electronic form.  The many thousands of books published before the invention of the ebook, many of them out of print and mostly forgotten, can only be found in libraries, used bookstores, and sales like this.  (Google books hasn’t found everything yet.)  It was cold and rainy outside.  In here there were silent companions that speak loudly.  Books, as my daughter said, are like snacks for the mind.  And sometimes you just don’t know what you’re in the mood for until you go to the kitchen and browse.  It can warm your soul.


Dirty Books

Dirty books annoy me.  Not that kind of dirty book, but books that arrive dirty.  If a book is expensive, particularly an academic book, I look for a used copy.  Since we’re in a pandemic, and also since the books I read tend to be outré, shall we say, getting them in the local second-hand place generally doesn’t work.  Sellers of used books online have to rate them.  Acceptable, poor, fair, good, very good—the scale is somewhat arbitrary.  I don’t like books with writing in them; I don’t want somebody else telling me what’s important.  I think I can find a topic sentence, thank you very much.  Lately I’ve gone down to the level of good with my online buying.  (Have you looked at the prices?!)  When you add that “very” to “good” sticker shock sets in.  Okay, so the books arrive well loved, I expect that.  But dirty?

I used to sell used books on Amazon.  I never sold many, but I always tried to be sure they were dusted off before putting them in the envelope.  I never put a cup of coffee on them.  Nor used them as a plate.  Some people apparently do, though.  I had one book arrive so filthy that I took the 409 to it.  Thing is, it cleaned up nicely.  Is it too much to expect that someone selling used books might go ahead and get some of the gunk off before sending it?  It’s not exactly Antiques Roadshow patina, after all.  It’s someone else’s slovenliness.  Who knows—might not a quick wipe-down improve the profitability by enhancing the condition of the book?

Library builders like yours truly want to afford the best editions that we can.  Books are more than mere objects gathering dust on the shelves—they’re individuals that we get to know.  Those that we meet but don’t really care for we pass along, hopefully to loving homes.  The way someone treats books reveals quite a bit about a person.  Accidents happen, of course.  A hazard of reading a lot may lead to the occasional spilled coffee or dropped bit of food, but treating books with respect not only increases their resale potential, it’s also an acknowledgement of the accomplishment.  Writing a book involves a considerable amount of work.  And although your property is yours to treat as you please, books are particularly vulnerable to damage by water, mice, or neglect.  Add fire, food, or extended exposure to sunlight and you get a sense of their fragility.  Acknowledging the effort a book takes to produce can go a long way towards making sure no book is dirty.  That, and a quick wipe-off before shoving it in the envelope.

Neat as a pin.


Wooden Translation?

The summer got away from me, as it always seems to, leaving several boxes of things yet to be sorted.  Since these boxes are in the garage where there’s no heat, doing it during winter isn’t really feasible.  Still, I found myself in the garage storage area the other day and quickly tipped open a box or two to remind myself of what might be inside.  One of the treasures I found is actually from my wife’s family memorabilia.  Not exactly a family Bible, it’s a New Testament one of her grandfathers gave one of her grandmothers as a gift.  It’s a red-letter edition, but what makes it unusual is the binding.  It has olive wood covers from Jerusalem.  The front cover is embossed with a Jerusalem cross.

Bookbinding has long been an area of personal fascination.  Growing up when and how I did, most of my books are paperbacks.  The paperback was initially one of the responses to shortages introduced by wars.  Since they were cheaper to produce they could be priced down.  I have a few academic paperbacks from the twenties (I can’t make myself acknowledge that 1920 was a century ago) whose paper bindings are literally paper.  I fear to take them off the shelf, given the fragile nature of their bindings.  Prior to that books tended to be “hardbacks.”  A piece of cloth-covered cardboard was the preferred means of protecting the vulnerable leaves inside.  Before that leather was routinely used.  Those were the days when books were properly thought of as an investment.

I often think of how little I will leave behind, at least in terms of items of monetary value.  Books seldom maintain their cover price for long.  As someone who lurks on used book websites, however, I do know that the choice tome of either quirky fiction or nonfiction under-appreciated at the time can easily jump market values with predatory sellers.  Even for a paperback.  I am loath to confess how much I’ve paid for a book I really needed for research that mere public libraries simply can’t access.  (The university library is a place of wonder, and one of the resources I most often miss in having become secular.)  Just this past week I saw a sci-fi book from the sixties I wanted to read priced at over $500 on Amazon (used).  When I went to check on it this morning all copies were gone.  And to think the world considers books a poor investment.  The real key is to be obscure, no matter your binding material.


Wolves? Where?

One of the oldest tricks in the capitalistic playbook is to make something look like a more successful product.  Trademarks and copyright laws prevent too close a similarity—for money is sacred—but we all know “brands” that try to look like other brands in hopes of picking up some of the business that attends success.  The same feature was apparently at operation behind The Dark Dominion: Eight Terrifying Tales of Vampires and Werewolves.  This is a book that I picked up in a used bookstore because its cover design—a dull olive green with a picture oval on the front—was clearly based on the Dark Shadows book series.  While the latter are still available, they’re increasingly difficult to find in used bookstores, so when I come across one I don’t have I tend to buy it.  I knew this wasn’t part of the series but the cover suggested to me it might be similar enough, like store-brand breakfast cereal.

Werewolf stories, it turns out, shouldn’t hunt in packs.  There’s no surprise since it’s pretty clear that one of the characters is a shapeshifter and it’s pretty obvious which one.  Six, or maybe seven, of the eight stories concern werewolves while one outlier has a vampire menace.  Some of the stories in the book are clever, but most follow the same trajectory: attacks are made, the villagers suspect something, one of them turns out to be a werewolf.  Time for the next story.  I noticed a long time ago that unlike vampires and Frankenstein’s monster, the werewolf doesn’t have the definitive novelistic origin.  Others wrote vampire tales before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that telling set the stage for those that followed.  The olive green cover suggests Barnabas Collins, but in reality is more in Quentin’s territory.

Interestingly, The Dark Dominion, like occasional collections before and after, doesn’t list an editor.  Modern books use the stature of volume editors to reinforce that what’s contained within has quality.  Otherwise who knows whether someone with good taste has picked the stories by authors you’ve never heard of and wrapped them together in a package meant to move?  That’s not to say that some of the stories aren’t good.  A couple are quite clever.  One is a translation of a medieval German tract.  Another comes from medieval Ireland.  The remainder are stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Perhaps it’s the burden of an editor to wonder what the selection criteria might have been.  What’s entirely obvious, however, is that making something look similar to a recognized book series still has the power to sell.


Something Burning?

It’s all Amazon’s fault, really.  Several years ago—I can’t recall how many—they were running a horror movie DVD sale (that’s how long ago!).  I hadn’t yet watched enough movies to write a book on the subject, and most of the movies on offer I hadn’t heard of.  One of them was called Burnt Offerings.  Well, burnt offerings, by definition, come from religious settings.  The DVD was very inexpensive, and so, well.  The movie wasn’t that scary, but it was moody, which is often what I’m really after.  I did wonder, however, at the title.  In one sense it fit the plot, but in other ways it was almost as if something were missing.  A vital clue.  For one thing, the movie was completely secular, nothing I could include in Holy Horror.  

I’ve watched the movie a few times over the years.  There’s something compelling about the story, even though missing something.  A little research revealed that the movie was based on a novel by the same title by Robert Marasco.  Now, when I learn a novel was written in the 1970s, my thoughts turn to used bookstores.  Although the days of getting books there for less than a dollar seems long gone, the fun of browsing makes up for it. I don’t know how many years I looked for it in shops throughout the tri-state area.  Now with the virus, I finally broke down and ordered it from Bookfinder.

My main reason for wanting to read the novel was to find what I’d been missing.  The movie, it turns out, follows the original story very closely, for the most part.  The ending is different, however, and that makes all the difference.  (If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, there will be spoilers here.)  The Rolfe family decides to move to an estate for the summer to get away from the noise of New York City.  There’s something odd in the house they’re renting, which they sensed even before moving in.  Marian Rolfe, the mother of the family, clearly becomes possessed by the house.  In a diabolical sense.  As her family dies off the house renews itself.  In a scene not in the movie, the regular caretaker stops in for a visit and tells Marian that she has to give her all to keep the house.  Finally, resigned to the death of her loved ones, she asks to have any remaining doubt burned out of her.  Her family will be the burnt offering.  So at last, it makes sense.  And yes, there’s a more religious theme in the book than there is in the movie.


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.


Private Browsing

Montclair, New Jersey, is a diverting place. At least it is for me. I used to teach—strictly as an adjunct of course—at Montclair State University. And like many other diverting towns, Montclair has multiple bookstores. On the occasions my wife has to spend a Saturday working in Montclair I often accompany her. If the weather is decent I can walk to both bookstores and have a leisurely browse. Since anything leisurely is rare these days, I eagerly anticipate such trips. Typically I’ll sit in my wife’s work place counting off the minutes until I can leave to get to the Montclair Book Center just as it opens. Used bookstores are a bit like archaeology—you never know what you’ll find, and some of the treasures may be unique. I often have the store mostly to myself, for private browsing.

This time, however, I had another task to accomplish first, before I could go to the first bookstore. By the time I arrived, it had been open for over an hour and there were, surprisingly, plenty of people there. We’re accustomed to hearing that people no longer care for books. While it’s true they won’t bring in the numbers of, say, those wanting the latest video game, it’s also true that on a pleasant Saturday morning an independent bookstore can be a crowded place. It warmed my heart to see so many readers out. And they weren’t all old like me. Younger people talking about the merits of this or that author, browsing in the sections I frequently haunt. Although I found none of the books on my list, I still had that blessed feeling you have when you discover you’re not really alone.

The other store, Watchung Booksellers, is a couple miles to the north, at least by the walking route I use. A small indie, it typically has what modern-day people might be expected to be interested in. I arrived to find it crowded as well. I’ve been there a number of times in the past and usually there are two or three others browsing. This time it was actually a little difficult to get around the small space. Seeing children there made me especially glad. A crowded bookstore is a sign of hope. As we struggle against the forces of ignorance and hatred that seem to have gripped the privileged classes, Saturdays at bookstores doing brisk business are an indication that the future may correct such ill-informed sentiments. Bookstores are termometers of national health, and seeing them busy made my Saturday. It’s worth getting up early just to spend such a day in Montclair.