Monday, September 13, 2010

Nine Paperbacks

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.

[click to enlarge]

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.


Jean Spitzer said...

These look like beautiful additions to your library. My books are still in boxes or piled on the floor, only beginning to be organized on shelves. So many wonderful decisions to make.

nouvelles couleurs - vienna atelier said...

you know william that I for one feel a certain respect for books? My dad taught me not to write on books, or when I absolutely must do it, dann only with pencil,
well I try (and still now after read your post I have never tought about it) I try to handle my book very carefully so my heirs can recive book as new... even if I don't know if my heirs likes my book... hehehehehehe

I don'´t know because I have so respect about book, I think writing on them is not so bad or?
but I don't do it.. and when, dann only with pencil...
:-(((((((((( sig

nouvelles couleurs - vienna atelier said...

... sorry for my bad english, are days that come not out...

William Michaelian said...

Jean, that’s it exactly, the wonderful torment of these unresolved stacks, knowing there’s no end, really, to the pleasure they will give and the surprise, nourishment, and inspiration they contain.

Laura, don’t apologize, your meaning is quite clear. I treat books the same way. I don’t write in them. And yet when I buy old books and I find someone else’s writing, I’m pleased and fascinated by it. Books are sacred objects. At the same time, they have lives and destinies of their own.

nouvelles couleurs - vienna atelier said...

yes... you are so right, used book have more inside

-K- said...

Slightly off-topic but I remember reading about a couple who were reading their way through the Penguin booklist. And were keeping a blog about it.

Couldn't it find it just now but to me there's not a better publishing house than Penguin.

Anthony Duce said...

The imagining of the lives of others, I like very much. I think we imagine our own lives in the same way, thinking I suppose how our lives look through others eyes. As much as we try to understand who others are, its’ the story I imagine they are living I probably enjoy more.

William Michaelian said...

Like people who have lived.... Thank you, Laura.

Kevin, it’s an amazing list they’ve assembled over the years. Let me know if you find that blog.

Anthony, I think we do imagine our own lives — both in picturing how they might seem through the eyes of others, and in the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive and to see ourselves in a positive, if not noble, heroic light. Also, when we’re imagining the lives of others, I think we’re probably simultaneously imagining our own.

Two Tigers said...

William, this post reminds me of a period when I still lived in Manhattan and would haunt the Strand bookstore for secondhand treasures. The smell, the feel, the apprehension of the personal histories that preceded the giving up of these prize was a dull looking 1922 collection of letters between Flaubert and Sand that contained, when I browsed it at home later, a glittery vintage postcard from Serge to Melanie wishing her happy holidays, and a small passenger list from a transatlantic cruise ship that, yes, included the names of Melanie and her likely maiden aunt chaperone! Priceless. Thanks for bringing back this memory.

William Michaelian said...

Gabriella, thanks for your wonderful note. Your Serge-to-Melanie card is indeed a priceless discovery. I’ve found leaves and ribbons, tiny photos, business cards and appointment cards, expired credit cards, shopping lists.... Some of the notes are heartbreaking, declarations of love, lines from parents to their children and vice-versa, that make me wonder how on earth these books have slipped away from their families or loved ones. Well — all the more to imagine, I guess.