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.

Sky Mercies

While in a used bookstore recently, I was going over the science titles. I like to read accessible science since I often find it approaches religious ideas in secular terms. Once in a while even the terms of these disparate disciplines coalesce. I spied a volume on the top shelf titled The Mercy of the Sky. The spine showed a purplish cloud-bank, and the very concept set me wondering. We’d just been through a bomb cyclone the day before with wind bellowing through our apartment. Many trees were down and power was out for several people I’d overheard talking that day. I stared at the spine, thinking perhaps this would be a good follow-up to Weathering the Psalms, but as I already had books in my hands, and since I’m not the tallest guy around, it seemed beyond my reach. Of course, after I left I thought more about it.

The previous day’s nor’easter had revived that sense of a storm as divine anger. Strong winds, my wife commented, are generally disturbing. They make it difficult to sleep. It’s hard to feel secure when the heavens are anything but merciful. Although the wind is easily forgotten, it’s among the most easily anthropomorphized of natural phenomena. And it’s ubiquitous. Everything on the surface of the earth is subject to it. Indeed, the atmosphere is larger than the planet itself. Is it any wonder that God has always been conceptualized as in the sky? The quality of the mercy of the sky, we might say, is strained.

Danger comes from the earth below us, the world around us, and the realm above. Like our ancient ancestors staring wonderingly into the sky, it is the last of these that’s most to be feared. The wind can’t been seen, but it can be felt. It cuts us with icy chills, drenches us with dismal rain, even flings us violently about when its anger compresses it into a tight whirl. We can’t control it. Unlike other predators it requires neither sleep to refresh nor light to see. Its rage is blind and it takes no human goodness or evil into account. After a great windstorm, the calm indeed feels like a mercy. Elijah on Mount Sinai stood before a mighty wind, tearing the land apart. It was the still, small voice, however, that captures his imagination. There’s a calm before the storm, but it is the stillness in its wake that most feels like the mercy of the sky.

Morning Thoughts

One of the persistent dangers of being a morning person is the fact that places aren’t open early when you have to be out and about. Since my wife had to work yesterday morning, instead of spending a good part of the weekend alone, I drove her to her location. (The fact that there was a used bookstore nearby had absolutely nothing to do with it, of course.) The bookstore didn’t open until ten. My wife’s meeting started at 7:30. Much of what I have to accomplish on the weekend involves the internet and occupies me well before such late hours. Although I’m anything but trendy, Starbucks is open early and it offers wifi. And it’s ubiquitous. Kind of like churches used to be. As I pulled out of the parking lot where my wife’s meeting was being held, I found a sign saying Starbucks, this-a-way.

It was still early (for the secular) when I arrived. In fact, the banner outside read “Now Open.” This implied that previously it hadn’t been open, so this was virgin Starbucks territory. It was early enough that a table was actually available. I had a lot to get done, and by the time I was finished the place was jammed. In fact, when I first arrived, some of the other new patrons were joking that they would move in now that Starbucks had come to town. Groups sat in small knots for an hour at a time. People borrowed the extra chairs at my table. Countless more came in and walked out with paper mugs steaming in the chill air. I was here to wait opening time for a used bookstore. I was pretty sure I was the only one with that motive.

There are more of us out there, however. While looking for a birthday idea for a writer friend of mine I ran across a writing box online. There were several reviews. Many people lamenting on Amazon the loss of the culture of the bookstore and the hand-written manuscript. They’re the ones who review used bookstores and weep the closing of indies with authentic tears. We’re the displaced. Our society is extinct. I love old books. Touching them takes me into the past. Yes, their words are public domain and can be found online, for free. What’s missing is the thingness of it all. I’m not a materialist, but I’m even less of an electronist. My spellcheck won’t even let me keep that word. Say what you will about the old way of doing things, paper was never so uppity as to refuse the words I intentionally placed upon it. At any time of day or night.

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.

Foundational Books

Over the weekend I visited one of my favorite used book stores, The Old Book Shop in Morristown. It’s neither huge nor fancy, but it has the feel that is so important to the restless mind. The feel of not knowing what you may find. The mystery of discovery. As I browsed, it occurred to me that although books of all varieties lodge here, the predominance of the old books tends toward the religious. The books associated with the church have survived for their centuries, closely followed by the classics—what was once considered the purview of the educated. I suppose one might argue that the breviaries, hymnals, and Bibles indicate overprinting on the part of overzealous presses, but I know that’s not the whole story. In fact, until quite recently the educated were expected to be religious as well. There was a kind of humility at work here. Even scientists respected the God who’d put all of this into place. This was not so much overprinting as it was meeting a prevalent need.

In early America, for example, if a household owned a book, it was more than likely a Bible. Bibles existed in profusion due to—putting it most crassly—demand and supply. People wanted to have a Bible. Particularly Protestants who’d been taught that it alone held the key to their salvation. There are some things you just don’t leave to chance. As that era continues to fade and people unload the books they no longer need or want, the Bibles and hymnals and prayer books make their way to antiquaries and I spend my weekends browsing among them and pondering how we came to be in this place.

Education—books—is/are foundational to our society. Books may be messy and lend to clutter, I’m told. In our apartment they climb in stacks alongside overfull bookshelves like ivy up the side of a tower, and yet I find them difficult to release. There’s knowledge here for the taking. The visit to the used bookstore inevitably leads to finds I hadn’t expected. There were no Bibles in my hand as I checked out, but no matter. I’ve got many Bibles at home. I’m aware that building requires foundations. Architecture may change over the centuries, but old foundations remain for millennia. To be educated is to be aware of them and appreciate them for what they are.

IMG_2732

Durable Goods

CharingCrossThose who love books share a soul. A weekend never feels complete to me without at least an hour spent in a bookstore. On one such weekend a clerk in our local indie recommended Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. The recommendation was actually for my wife, but knowing me, she said I’d like it. What’s not to like about a set of revealing letters between a struggling, New York-based writer and a London used bookstore clerk? Books tell the story of a person’s life. If I’m invited to someone’s house, I look at their books. I would expect the same if they ever came to see me. Kind of like dogs sniffing each other out. Books reveal the inner person. They also give me ideas of more things to read.

I can’t help but think we’ve lost something intangible in the world of ordering books online. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Amazon maybe more than is proper, but how many treasures have I found simply by browsing? The days are well past when a single person could claim to have read every book (and really, who would want to?) so there’s always something undiscovered lurking at the bookstore. And these days used bookstores have the most character. In Milwaukee I used to frequent a used bookstore that could have passed the building inspectors’ visit only by bribery. I spent happy hours there. You see, books are durable goods that can outlast their owners. Can anyone really ever own a book?

84, Charing Cross Road was an unexpected delight. A quick web search reveals that Marks & Co. Is no longer with us. It is now a McDonald’s. Helene Hanff is gone too. And she thought she was born a century too late! Yet here we are in the twenty-first century and books are still with us, despite our losses. They have something of eternity to teach us. The ebook has not yet managed to kill off print. Our local used bookstore closed some years back. I confess to visiting a Barnes and Noble in a state of desperation. There a guy, older than me, was talking to a clerk. I couldn’t help but overhear when they mentioned the used bookstore, now long gone. Even the clerk sighed that they were the only show left in town. Although they were strangers I knew that we somehow share a soul. So it is with those who love books.