It’s been six months since I joined “Hey There’s a Dead Guy,” and as Jeff warned me up front, the hard part of blogging has been thinking of things to write about. Some weeks I have a topic I am enthused about and life is easy; others, I have to stretch my mind a bit. I took Jeff’s advice to jot down ideas as they occur, and now have a hefty (and messy) file of notes, magazine clippings, and indecipherable scrawls on receipts. There are several items which are interesting but don’t merit a full post. It seems like a good day to clean the file and share some of these random tidbits. (Guess which kind of week it’s been!)
WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?
Michael Popek is a used book dealer in Oneonta, New York. Like all of us in this business, he discovers “bookmarks” left behind, ranging from airline ticket stubs to pressed flowers. Last year, he published a book, Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages, showcasing some of the curious items he has found. He has photographed the found objects with the books in which they were placed; the combination piques the reader’s curiosity about the previous book owners even more than do the markers alone. There is a package of unused cap gun caps in a copy of Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship; a ticket for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from May 1954 tucked in copy of Thoreau’s Walden; and a venomous letter referring to the addressee as “a slime,” “a walking mass of ego,” and a “voyeur,” among other insults, tucked into a copy of While Waiting, a book on pregnancy.
My own finds have been less intriguing: bookmarks from bookstores all over the country, photos, postcards, a Popsicle stick, greeting cards, appointment cards from doctors, and just today an instruction card from British Telecom on how to pay cash for an overseas call (using MCI as one of the options). Perhaps because I deal in more contemporary books or because I have not been as clever at retaining and cataloging my finds, Popek’s compilation is much more fascinating than any I can offer. You can view some of his treasures on his blog www.forgottenbookmarks.com.
It’s a bit sad to realize that the next generation may be deprived of this type of view into the lives of today’s readers; electronic communication has cut down on the number of handwritten letters and postcards, pictures are often not actually printed on paper, and “bookmark” has taken on a whole new meaning.
WRITERS ARE READERS TOO
We booksellers have our own form of voyeurism, and another book published last year is a treat for those of us who like to sneak peeks at other people’s book shelves. Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, edited by Leah Price is a feast for the eyes, full of striking photographs of the personal libraries of thirteen writers, including Junot Diaz, Jonathan Lethem, Stephen Carter, Alison Bechdel, Claire Messud and James Wood. The pictures alone would make the book a worthwhile investment; Price also asks each author to list his or her top ten books, and interviews them in detail regarding their reading habits, way of organizing their books, and even the selection of shelving.
I’m not particularly a fan of Diaz’s books, but he won my heart. He has a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf next to his refrigerator. He only throws away books that are in such bad condition that they are no longer readable; he gives away what he no longer wants, sometimes to homeless people who resell them. James Wood, when asked if there were shelves beyond those that he allowed to be photographed said, “I have a separate bookcase for ‘unread books I want to read sometime soon.’ Of course, it’s enormous and dispiriting.” Most of us can empathize with that comment. He also comments on the frustration of lending books, having learned, as I did long ago, that if you want a friend to enjoy a book you like, give them a copy. If you lend it, you will never get it back.
Unpacking My Library is eye candy for the book lover.
LARRY MCMURTRY, BOOKSELLER
I’m always surprised to find out how few people know that Larry McMurtry is a used book dealer. His store, Booked Up Inc. in Archer City, Texas, consists of four buildings and about 400,000 books. It makes my 35,000 seem paltry. McMurtry was for a while the author of the “New Books” column in Harper’s Magazine, and in January of this year he reviewed One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com. After a few kind words for Bezos as a “farsighted merchant whose company provides an excellent service” for which all readers should be grateful, he excoriates him for his “obvious irritation at the continued existence of the paperbound book.” He says Bezos thinks the traditional book has had its run, and it’s time to do away with it. “Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”
McMurtry goes on to discuss his own views on the future of the book, with which I heartily agree. Although the culture is shifting to e-books, McMurtry finds it possible that this will not go on forever. “It might be a bubble; history grinds slowly.” My own prediction, for what it’s worth, is that e-books will level out once the initial fascination with a new technology wanes. They will serve a useful function and be part of everyone’s reading agenda, but will not be the sole mode of reading. This week has brought a surge of business here, as people prepare for vacations. Typical comments have been: “I have a Kindle but I don’t want to take it on the beach (or boat or by the pool);” “I can’t read my IPAD in the sun;” and, my favorite, “I’m not sure what I want to read, so I just want to browse.” The bookseller from Texas not only has more books than I do, he writes better: “. . . Bezos shouldn’t be persuaded that our Gutenberg days are over, at least not from where I sit. One thing we offer that he can’t is serendipity, the thrill of the accidental find. Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”
I hope everyone has a safe and happy 4th, with plenty of time to read.