Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Journey Through Bookland (redux)

I'm not sure I can quantify what it is that I like about books. It's rather like explaining the merits of a root beer float to someone who has never had one... or doesn't like them. (Gasp! Tell me those people don't really exist!) There are some things that you either feel or you do not.

Much like the nuance and subtle nose of a fine not-too-sweet, but full-bodied root beer, Bookhunting is one of those things that cannot be fully appreciated by or explained to those for whom a book is something you read and then throw in the pile for your next garage sale or trip to the local Goodwill.

Not that there's anything wrong with that sort of behavior. If no one ever got rid of their books, there would be nothing for me to hunt for and I... well, I would be sad. Just don't actually throw them away and we're good.

There are certain things that I particularly love about books. The frustrated thrum of the pages as they reach the apex of their arc and fall upon the page before it, staccato reminders that these ideas are contained but not tamed; they constantly seek to escape. The faded glory of spent gilding, hidden deep in the heat-stamped recesses of aged leather. The scent that wafts past my nose as the pages of an old cookbook flee my thumb, faded memories of a thousand thousand dinners (many of them obviously unsuccessful). Old typefaces laid long ago with handset lead type, tarnished gilt edges and worn marbled endpages... I could go on, but the single thing I love most about books must certainly be: the hunt.

You'll note that not very many of the things I mentioned are true of new books. That's not to say I turn up my nose at new books; I've purchased rather a lot of them and spent rather more than my fair share of hours in both Borders and Barnes & Noble. It's just that in the days of Internet bookselling the hunt for a new book simply isn't much of an adventure.

Whatever it is that draws me to these aged agglomerations of paper, ink and ideas, beyond the contents or the authors, there is the object that supports all those things. There is gilding and sewing, headbands and backboards, cloth and leather, paper and paste, the tactile certainty of the ineffable thing. And of course, there is the quest to find the thing.

The new guys in the big spaces lack several small-but-crucial features I cannot do without. For one, they don't have the bell over the door that jangles when I walk in. I love that about second-hand and rare bookstores. They all have that bell. Like it comes with the kit or something. A jangly bell, ten thousand useless backlist titles, a cat and ten genuine nuggets to bury among the dross.

In my wallet at any given moment is a short list of titles that I'm looking out for. In my head is a much longer list of 'target of opportunity' titles. Most of them are on my list simply because I want to read them. Or because they have some sort of personal meaning to me. Most have very little in the way of resale value. Periodically, I get to throw the list away and make a new one. Because I generally find what I set out to find.

My dad taught me that. Never a day went by when he didn't have a list of books in his wallet. It was as mandatory as his driver's license. When we were cleaning out the house after he died, we found a small pile of booklists, squirreled away in drawers and between the pages of books. And he had thousands and thousands of books, rooms, and boxes, and lockers, and an entire attic full of books. Because patience and persistence and a willingness to shift the stacks at auctions will eventually bear fruit.

If it exists in the Pacific Northwest and someone is willing to part with it, I will eventually run across it. 

But that's not what keeps me hunting... it's the things I find beyond the musty book exchanges with cats and jangly bells. Things I find when I'm not looking or that I didn't know I was looking for in the first place.

At the Goodwill in Port Orchard, Washington I struck just such a vein of gold. Journeys Through Bookland was published in 1909 and edited by Charles H. Sylvester. It's a 10-volume reading plan for children and their parents to wade through the classics of western literature. Each book is bound in grey-green cloth with a beautiful art nouveau design gilded and embossed into the covers and spine. Each story begins with an illuminated capital and is lovingly illustrated with fanciful engravings and halftone plates.

They've been given pride of place in my collection (and an honor guard of Iron Bunnies as you can see).

There's something about holding an old kid's book that you don't necessarily get when you're holding a copy of Joyce or Proust. It takes very little effort to envision the bright young minds that were inspired by these books, youngsters in pre-modern kit, knee-pants or ruffles. Young minds leafing through the pages while sitting on velvet chairs stuffed with horsehair. Youngsters who went on to become moms and dads in their own right. And farmers and pharmacists, barristers and bootleggers. (Yes, bootleggers, it was printed in 1909 after all!)

Were they bought for a boy by his father ere he took ship for foreign climes, off to fight in the trenches of a War alleged to End All Wars? Was it then passed along in turn as the boy became a man and took his turn against the Germans in '42? Was it the first glimpse of print for a girl in an age when women weren't supposed to read such things? Or were they an item of furtive erudition in a time when it was ill-advised for a person of color to seem too educated, hoarded in hope of a better tomorrow?

So much has happened since these books were published, so many stories lie between the lightly-yellowed pages. Stories I can never know but only imagine.

Whatever their tale, the books I found were obviously treasured by someone for over a hundred years before the finally ended up in the donation pile. Short of holding a family Bible in your hands, you cannot ask for a more poignant cross-section of a life. Every old book has a story to tell. Beyond the story it contains, there is the story that it supported, the life that it led before it came to me.

I'm not sure why I love and collect children's books but I do. Probably because that's when I discovered the simple joys of a book.

Without an effort, I can drum up memories of the dim stacks of the Sedalia Public Library, staring up through the wavy glass at the outline of my dad's feet as he browsed the adult sections above my head. There was something comforting about the basement space in that monolithic old Carnegie building on Third Street, at the foot of that grand old staircase. I spent innumerable happy hours there as a kid, looking at pictures of tanks and helicopters, occasionally glancing up to see if dad had shifted to a new section. (Yes, there was an astonishing number of children's books dedicated to weapons of mass destruction in those days and I think I probably read enough of them to become a UN weapons inspector.)

As all children must do, I grew up and transferred to the upper floors with my dad. Bought my own books, started my own private library to match his. And as I sit here staring around me at the books on my shelves, I wonder what stories the antiques have to tell, and I ponder the stories that those new books of mine will one day acquire. But that's a thought for a future bookhunter.

I have some childhood reading to catch up on that has nothing to do with helicopters... or tanks.

What were your favorite books as a child? What books do you collect (if any) and if you don't collect the books you read, I'm curious as to why? Leave your answers in comments!


  1. Those bookstore photos are amazing... I love the reuse of what I presume are old churches. I had to laugh, though, at the photo of the Shakespeare & Co photos in Paris. When Denise and I were there in Oct. 2007, I took photos of the outside of the shop FOR YOU. I don't remember now whether I sent you the photos, or not. Funny.

    My favorite books included L.S. Montgomery's "Anne of Green Gables" series, Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women", Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess", "The Secret Garden" and "Little Lord Fauntleroy", "Alice in Wonderland", and "The Wizard of Oz". My childhood poetry favorites were A.A. Milne's "Now We Are Six" and Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree", "Where the Sidewalk Ends", and "A Light in the Attic".

    These days we collect vintage books - children's, education, short stories, plays, poetry (including several first edition Edna St. Vincent Millay poetry), etiquette, fashion, farming, French, and a special volume of Kinsey's studies.

  2. I have lots of favorite children's books, some are my favorites because I read them as a child, and some because I read them TO a child, but in any case, here they are: "Where the Wild Things Are", "Harold and the Purple Crayon", All Dr. Seuss books, "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", "Anne of Green Gables", "Bunnicula", "Tom Rabbit", The Berenstain Bears, The Laura Numeroff books (especially "If You Give a Moose a Muffin"), The Nancy Drew series (I read them all when I was a girl),Ramona Quimby, Paddington Bear, "A Little Princess", "Creatures of Nimh", "The Wind in the Willows", Harry Potter,
    "Little House on the Prairie", "The Chronicles of Narnia","Pippi Longstocking", Junie B. Jones series, "Pollyanna", "Old Yeller", "Black Beauty", Encyclopedia Brown series, compilations of Charlie Brown, Garfield, or Calvin and Hobbs comics...Oh, and Skippyjon Jones!!!

  3. As a child I adored Enid Blyton books, particularly The Magical Faraway Tree, and Nancy Drew stories.

    Reading your post made me realise that I don't have many books in my collection which are not brand new, and this is rather sad. My uncle has shelves and shelves of books covering almost every topic you can think of, mostly picked up in bookshops of the kind you described, and most of which are at least decades old. When I was younger I used to love looking through them.

    Now however it seems I buy books based on recommendations from friends, or newspaper reviews; and a lot of my books are by a handful of authors, such as Meg Cabot and Anthony Horowitz. Maybe I need to get back into those old musty bookshops and put some variety back on my shelves.

  4. I really need to make a list of these and start The Desert Island Library. All I need is a desert island and some shelves and you all can come visit me and feel confident of being marooned with something to read. Hmmmmm...


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).