Is anything sadder than yesterday's bestsellers? Once they were shiny and unblemished, promising pleasure without risk, at once virginal and passionate, like the latest actress or new cars in the showroom. Now, ranked on dim shelves, they look faded, not entirely resigned to being forgotten. New books are odorless. Old bestsellers seem shamed by the must they emit when you riffle their pages. They remind me of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
My in-laws own thousands of books, arranged without order in almost every room. On Sunday, while cleaning the closet under the stairs leading to their basement, pulling out luggage, sleeping bags, a wicker picnic basket, Christmas decorations, a baby stroller and boxes of old Life magazines, I found another pile of books. Among them was Lake Woebegone, by Garrison Keillor, already in its 17th printing in the year of its publication, 1985.
Here are some of the authors, spanning two or three generations of bestsellerdom, whose names I noted on their shelves: Thomas B. Costain, Jimmy Breslin, R.F. Delderfield, Taylor Caldwell, Ernest K. Gann, Irwin Shaw, Mary Stewart, Leon Uris, Pierre Salinger, James Michener, Nevil Shute, Herman Wouk, Elia Kazan and the Irvings (Stone, Wallace). Each of these names is familiar to me, like brands of discontinued laundry soap, yet the only work by any of them I can remember reading are some newspaper columns by Breslin and a story by Shaw, "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses."
Sharing shelves with the bestsellers are some of the books my father-in-law accumulated in his student days -- 23 volumes of Rudyard Kipling in leather bindings, nine volumes of George Meredith and eight of Robert Browning -- evidence of an admirably Anglocentric sensibility now as extinct as the antimacassar.
I also found a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and awarded to my father-in-law in 1953 for coming in first in his class at a boarding school in Canada. It's a beautiful volume, with binding the color of ox blood, gilded end papers and a sewn-in marker. It's compact but dense, with the heft of a paving stone. The first poem is the anonymous "Cuckoo Song," famously parodied by Ezra Pound: "Sumer is icumen in,/Lhude sing cuccu!" Today it reminds me of the old Clarence Ashley song, "The Coo Coo Bird."
The last poem, after selections from Sassoon, Owen and Blunden, the Great War Poets, is "Dominus Illuminatio Mea," by a poet I have never heard of, Richard Doddridge Blackmore. Its final stanza begins like this:
"For even the present delight may pall,
And power must fail, and the pride must fall..."
That's a fitting epitaph for yesterday's bestsellers.