Out of student poverty or a natural inclination for dated and worn out things, I formed a habit early in life of buying used books. I pick them up from cardboard boxes dumped in the street, overstuffed bins on the sidewalk, crooked shelves in a badly lighted shop, a rummage sale for a worthy cause, the basement of a church, and wobbly tables on the dew-soaked grass of a neighbor’s front yard on Saturday morning. I love to browse. My nose stuck in an old book, dreamy and distracted, I stand stock still, like a person asleep on his feet.
Like any shopper, I enjoy the play of chance, the good price, and the outright steal. I find moldy textbooks, former best-sellers, titles once again in the news, and books on subjects I have barely heard of but suddenly must learn all about. So far as I know, I have never found a rare book or a valuable binding. I do not look for those. My quest is for content.
Yet a cover catches my eye. A paperback copy of A Sportsman’s Notebook by Ivan Turgenev, published by Viking in 1957, has a drawing of a riverbank with rowboats, peasants in smocks, thatched log houses, and a bulbous church beyond. I am fond of little books in boards and cloth, trigesimo-secundo titles that fit in a pocket, like Old Kensington Palace and Other Papers by Austin Dobson, printed by Oxford University Press in 1926. I like fold-out maps, battlefield diagrams, photos of busts, drawings of coins, and engravings of scenes, as in A History of Greece by J. B. Bury, from Macmillan in 1909.
In the town where I live, a used bookstore on Main Street in what was once a jeweler’s shop calls itself “Read It Again Sam.” Dave, the owner, bears a resemblance to Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in the movie Casablanca. Cranky, with a previous life that may include espionage or military service, Dave scolds customers who talk on their phones or loudly to each other. Mute, I wander and encounter a book that sparkled once in another setting. I handle it, examine its facets, and redeem it like a diamond held in pawn.
Rereading is a pleasure of retirement. The theater and concert hall recede, along with a liking for crowds and hoopla, while books come to the fore. Edgar Allan Poe died a premature death at the age of forty, but he sensed this shift. He embeds a poem in his short story “Ligeia” about a learned lady, dearly beloved and long ago deceased, “certain verses composed by herself” that end with the “Conqueror Worm:”
Lo! ‘tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
Insights and turns of phrase that lodged in my brain like grains of sand in an oyster shine like pearls. Literary style needs the flesh of experience to make its full effect. Despite what you hear, taste improves with age.
From the bowels of the Friends of the Library, from the used book sale in the basement of the Gordon Avenue Branch, I emerge with an armful of books. My stack is small next to what others carry, up to their chins in literature. We are flushed and happy. So many great titles, old and new, donated by neighbors, university professors, freelance reviewers, casual browsers, and affluent consumers who barely cracked the spine, the books are priced at a fraction of what they cost. Most paperbacks are only a dollar, while a new hardcover in perfect condition costs two or three. What a bargain! On sober reflection, when will we ever read them?
Nine times out of ten, we book buyers are the same as the donors. As population subsets, we are indistinct, like varieties of finches that interbreed. Charles Darwin could not with scientific justice classify us as separate species. In our plumage of coats and hats and scarves, as we browse and pluck at the rows of books, we are all Friends of the Library.
Some fly to the extreme of membership, which is open to anyone. These staunch supporters are often volunteers. By virtue of their knowledge of English Literature, Art, Physics, Military History, Cooking, Gardens, Children, and Parapsychology, they sort through hundreds of boxes of books and haul them to storage. The sale goes on for ten days, during which the volunteers haul the boxes to empty spots in the warren of shelves and fill them with books. Since stocking is continual, shoppers come back again and again. Some of us bring our own bags and empty boxes. Conversations spring up, and old friends reconnect. This semi-annual social event, like a migratory flock, is not to be missed.
On a rainy afternoon, or while packing for a move, which occurs at intervals of five to seven years, out of restlessness with fate or what seems at the moment to be a good investment in residential property, I purge my bookshelves and cull my collection. These reassessments easily turn into marathon sessions of sampling and rereading. I revise stale opinions and clear false judgments. I air a mind as dusty as the books. I discard a few, regret my decision, and find them again for sale cheap.
Toward the end of last year, I got rid of books on architecture. Some were design guides, reference books, product catalogs, zoning ordinances, and engineering manuals, things that go out of date. Some were historical, on a period or an architect. And some were lavishly illustrated studies of houses and cities. These gave me many hours of pleasure. Would I ever open their covers again? To reread them struck me as professional nostalgia, and I wallow in the past enough as it is. I held on to the red bulk of Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture and books on Paris, Rome, and Boston.
I gave away drafting equipment and a plotter for drawings—heavy electronics. And I threw out rolls and rolls of paper, old drawings of projects completed long ago, some of which have even been demolished. I felt a little sad about ending a career, and a little relieved.
This time, I stayed put in a house that suits my status as a codger, and I moved on in spirit. No doubt I will acquire and shed more books as passions flare and fade, like feathers that change with the seasons. As I was befriended, so I will be a friend. And when I depart, some reader of second-hand books will be glad.
Busy persons say they lack time to read. Can this be true? What keeps them so busy? If following the news, taking part in politics, serving on committees, and fulfilling professional and family obligations take all their time, they substitute one pleasure for another. They fall victim to the vice of busyness, the sin of overwork. They incriminate themselves with gusto. They brag about how busy they are, how much in demand. With so much to read for work, for school, for the next board meeting, how could they relax with a book?
I lack the patience to watch a story unfold on television, to sit through a tedious exposition in a theater full of strangers, to peer at tiny figures on a screen no bigger than the palm of a hand. There is nothing immediate about these media. The digital world is a jail. So-called virtual reality is worse, like being forced to wear a blindfold.
Solitary, I flee confinement. I love the freedom of reading print, unbound by time and videotape. The printed word is faster. When the going gets slow, I skip whole paragraphs and flip to the last page to see how it ends. Or I stop and reread a sentence. I savor it, and time stands still. Or I turn back when I miss some vital clue, a character’s name, or where she lives, or why she allows this brutal man to touch her.
Samuel Johnson confessed to James Bowell that he seldom read a book straight through. He skimmed, flew from page to page, and extracted the essence as a bee sucks nectar. This was his method late in life, when his eyesight was poor. As a student at Oxford, he was diligent:
In my early years I read very hard. It is a sad reflection, but a true one, that I knew almost as much at eighteen as I do now. My judgement, to be sure, was not so good; but, I had all the facts.
I am less sure than the great essayist and dictionary compiler. Yet years ago as a student at Harvard, I did have a moment in the reference room of Widener Library. The way a sinner sees the light, I believed in that moment I had learned enough to research any topic. Maybe it is less a question of knowledge and more one of vigor.
At any rate, Johnson’s confession makes me feel better about my reading habits. I flit from book to book in the course of a day, and within one volume can hardly stay on a single page. Dogged readers say when they start a book they must finish or feel guilty. Without a pang, I abandon a book and return when I am ready. The writer waits patiently, forgives my absence, and welcomes me with a smile. She knew I would come back.
The writer is an ideal lover who thinks only of the beloved reader. The writer knows her own worth, her power of attraction. She is a perfect rose, fragrant and whole, whose petals blush with extravagant color. Who can resist? A wayward butterfly, I inspect and inhale. A fingertip strokes the silky bloom that cannot bruise or fade. No need to hurry. The writer I love with an ache in my heart will be mine forever.
Readers and writers dabble in the occult. The poet and storyteller cast a spell on the passive reader, the willing subject. The charm works but resists analysis. No teacher can break it down and lay it out for a class of students, any more than the gears of a clock spread over a table can explain the mystery of time, or a corpse dissected for a lesson in anatomy shows the life force. With practice, the reader becomes an adept. By virtue of craft, the writer is a sorcerer.
Marcel Proust makes much of the power of art, whether painting, music, drama, or literature. His characters go to the opera, plays, and exhibitions. They earnestly discuss the effect of a word, a patch of yellow, or an intonation. In Swann’s Way, the “little phrase” in a string quartet by Vinteuil becomes the “national anthem” of Swann’s love for Odette.
The narrator Marcel rhapsodizes on reading novels as a boy in the garden of the house in Combray. He calls his favorite writer Bergotte, a fictional amalgam of Anatole France and Paul Bourget. Bergotte rhapsodizes in the same way as Proust, which creates an effect of mirrors aligned, or echoes in a gorge. Here “he” refers to Bergotte:
Whenever he spoke of something whose beauty had until then remained hidden from me, of pine forests or of hailstorms, of Notre-Dame Cathedral, of Athalie or of Phèdre, by some piece of imagery he would make their beauty explode into my consciousness.
Proust himself is a master magician, with a hundred tricks up his sleeve. He cites a few details—the sensuous color of the sky at dawn, a street-seller’s cry, the shape of a nose. His long sentences hypnotize, like a train that rolls through a landscape of marvels, more vivid than a dream or the memory of a journey to a much-loved country, one we visited in childhood when the world was fresh and our appetite was keen, and we revel in the language as it effortlessly flows—then he pulls up short. The train jerks to a halt, and we glimpse the sleight of hand.
In his essay “The Article in Le Figaro,” however, Proust puts on a modest front:
As if thoughts lay on the printed page, as if they had but to meet the eye of a reader in order to be received into a mind where they were not already native. All mine can do is to awaken kindred thoughts in kindred spirits.
As a definition of a good conversation, the last phrase is not so bad. I read to discover that kindred spirit. We know each other by a secret handclasp, a certain turn of phrase, the all-seeing eye atop the pyramid.