From the first chapter of Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night:
During the day, I write, browse, rearrange books, put away my new acquisitions, reshuffle sections for the sake of space. Newcomers are made welcome after a period of inspection. If the book is second-hand, I leave all its markings intact, the spoor of previous readers, fellow-travellers who have recorded their passage by means of scribbled comments, a name on the fly-leaf, a bus ticket to mark a certain page. Old or new, the only sign I always try to rid my books of (usually with little success) is the price-sticker that malignant booksellers attach to the backs. These evil white scabs rip off with difficulty, leaving leprous wounds and traces of slime to which adhere the dust and fluff of ages, making me wish for a special gummy hell to which the inventor of these stickers would be condemned.
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I told my son the other day that it wasn’t my intention to visit Goodwill, that I arrived there by accident, and awakened from a blacked-out condition in the used book section, only to find these nine paperbacks clutched in my hands. Seven of them — the five Penguin-Pelicans and the two from St. Martin’s Library on the Savoy Operas, were published in 1956 and 1957. They’re beautiful books, flexible but sturdy, and the aroma of their pages is heavenly. The former were ninety-five cents when they were new, the later a dollar and a quarter. I paid ninety-nine cents for each of them. By that time I was fully awake, and alert because the young man waiting in line behind me had called out, somewhat mournfully, “Pop!” to a man picking absentmindedly through a rack of shirts. In fact, he was still waiting for his father outside when I left the store, and made a point of thanking me for suggesting that he take advantage of a new checkout line that had just opened. He was quite serious, as if he would not rest until his duty had been discharged. Something about him in the fall sunlight reminded me of the young Alyosha in one of Dostoevsky’s masterworks, The Brothers Karamazov. And yet if I had to guess, I would say he hailed from Oklahoma — such is the magic of people, and so are our impressions of them shaped by things of which, often, they have not even heard. There was sorrow in his face, a definite familiarity with disappointment, loss, and hunger. His face was intelligent, with only the slightest trace of self-pity, brought to the surface by weariness and travel, and on its way to becoming, possibly, a kind of puzzled acceptance.
I do not apologize for imagining the lives of people. I know mine is imagined in the same way by those I meet. This story we live survives through our need and ability to invent it.
The other two books are self-explanatory. Quite Early One Morning, by Dylan Thomas, was published soon after his death by New Directions in 1954, released as a paperback in 1960, and reset in 1968. This copy is from the twenty-first printing. Oh, yes — and the dictionaries-as-bookends: those, too, are recent purchases, an accidental investment in words of four dollars.
So far, I’ve succeeded in removing two of Goodwill’s blasted price stickers. They are every bit as evil as Mr. Manguel contends.
In the Forum: Moncrieff and Blossom.