My brother is the family aficionado of garage sales – yard sales, tag sales, junk sales, rummage sales, choose your American idiom. Normally I frequent them only in his company, when we trawl Cleveland subdivisions for promising stacks of books, DVDs, CDs and LPs. We’re both hunters but he’s the gatherer. I’m looking for new ways to get rid of stuff, not old ways to accumulate more.
Wednesday morning I passed a garage sale that appeared to have a table devoted exclusively to books, a rare event, so I stopped. The proprietor was a woman, sixty-five or a little older, in floral shorts and a fluorescent-green top, seated in a lawn chair on the driveway. She greeted me, we both approved of the sunshine, and I scanned the volumes, mostly paperbacks, spines up, heavy on thrillers and self-help. At the ends of the table were stacks of hardcovers serving as bookends. More thrillers, a few old college textbooks – and Stylists on Style (1969), edited by Louis T. Milic, once the chair of the English department at Cleveland State University (go here and scroll down to read his obituary). I bought it for fifty cents.
The dedication page reads “For Pamela and my other students,” followed by a tag from Horace’s Ars Poetica: “ne pueros coram populo Medea trucidet” (“you will not let Medea slay her sons before the people”). One senses a story here, one we’ll never read. The book is an anthology of prose selections by one-hundred English and American writers, from the fifteenth century through the nineteen-sixties (Tom Wolfe). In his “Introductory Essay,” Milic writes:
“The book is based on the belief that there is such an entity as style despite the doubts that have sometimes been cast on its existence and the difficulty of defining it precisely.”
I’ve never had such doubts. Milic’s text is a generous confirmation of prose style’s primacy. Here are Jonson and Johnson, Hazlitt, Milton, Hobbes, Swift, Hume, Dryden and Ford Madox Ford. The Americans are less distinguished, but among them are Thoreau, Twain, Lionel Trilling and Henry James. The Thoreau selection is a gem from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers beginning:
“A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. The most attractive sentences are, perhaps, not the wisest, but the surest and roundest.”
The garage-sale proprietress told me, “You enjoy that book now,” and I have. I sense Karl Shapiro’s reputation has faded badly since his death in 2000, but some of his poems lovingly document the American scene. He wrote of Buicks, manhole covers, drug stores and “Girls Working in Banks.” In “Garage Sale” from Adult Bookstore (1976) he writes:
“This situation, this neighborly implosion,
As flat as the wallpaper of Matisse
Strikes one as a cultural masterpiece.
In this scene nothing serious can go wrong.”