Thursday, April 02, 2009

`He Would Take It for Heaven'

A small and unexpected windfall last weekend permitted a rare bookstore visit that proved an exercise in futility and gratitude. Most of the stock is used, with some remainders and review copies, and the prices are seldom outlandish. I brought my mental wish-list, including Plutarch, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, a biography of Piet Mondriaan, Wyndham’s Lewis’ Self-Condemned, a sturdy hardcover of The Prelude and Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White, among others. I found none of them, which prompted memories of the books I once owned but sold or gave away (Plutrach, Anderson), and fumbled opportunities to buy others (Thompson long ago in Boston, Wordsworth two years ago in Houston).

Hardly a tragedy and I know from experience my best finds are often serendipitous. At a library sale in upstate New York about 20 years ago I happened upon a battered first edition of Kerouac’s On the Road priced at 50 cents. I detest Kerouac but I’m not stupid: I sold it to a dealer for $150. I resumed my search and found Letters of Anton Chekhov in hardcover, translated and edited by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, a book I’ve read and consulted many times but never owned. Price: $8.98.

That was my only happy discovery. I spent almost an hour in the shop – an eternity with two kids in tow – and ended up buying the boys a stack of books and comics. I couldn’t even feel virtuous about that, knowing I would have squandered everything on me if the right books had been in stock. I pouted some and posed the predictable adolescent questions -- Why can’t they put more good books on the shelves? Why do they stock so much crap? -- until a few days later Guy Davenport set me straight, as he often does. In Nov. 1993, in a letter to James Laughlin, he writes:

“Imagine Duns Scotus in an American bookstore. He would take it for heaven.”

Sure, the shelves are bowed with dreck but consider the Chekhov, and the public library (including the miracle of interlibrary loan), and online dealers, and my own blessed shelves overflowing with books.

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