Tuesday, October 19, 2010

`Battered Unexpected Books'

A thrift store supporting an African relief agency has opened near my brother’s house in suburban Cleveland and he was pleased to find it stocked with a worthwhile selection of inexpensive books. On a recent visit he picked up a six-volume set of works by Shalom Aleichem; Anecdotal Evidence (Point Riders Press, 1993), a collection of prose poems by Texas writer Jim Linebarger; and The Facts on File Visual Dictionary. Ken paid almost nothing for eight volumes, which after all are bulky, space-consuming objects, unlike CDs and t-shirts, and management presumably prices them to move. I envy him each purchase.

In the wake of Fiddler on the Roof, Aleichem was an early enthusiasm, though I haven’t read him in years. It was the title of Linebarger’s slender volume – at sixty-one pages, almost a chapbook – that caught my brother’s attention and mine. Linebarger I know as the author of John Berryman, (Twayne, 1974), the first book-length study of the poet, published two years after Berryman’s death by suicide. On the cover of Anecdotal Evidence, my brother noted, is a “chop,” a new use of an old word. In etchings and lithographs, a chop is a mark or seal made with an embossing tool, usually carrying symbolic significance for the printmaker or owner of the press.

My brother described The Facts on File Visual Dictionary (1986) as his favorite reading matter of the moment. Comprehensiveness and precision of usage are admirable in writing and scholarship. Often in reference books they are cause for comedy. The only edition of the dictionary available in our library was the French/English version, edited by Jean-Claude Corbeil and Ariane Archambault. This proved fortuitous. How else would I have learned that the French for food processor is robot de cuisine. The rest of the 924-page book is equally rich in bicultural/bilingual comedy. The thirty-four-page “Clothing/Vêtements” chapter concludes with a page devoted to the “diving suit/scaphandre moderne” and clothing worn by a “clown/clown.” The latter’s “balloon pants” are “pantalon bouffant,” his “bulb” is a “faux nez” and his “big bowtie” is a “gros nœud papillon.”

The randomness of the stock, the unlikely juxtapositions of title, the book-obliviousness of those doing the selling – these are the charms of thrift-shop bookshops, along with cheap prices. Remembering his years selling used books in London, George Orwell writes in “Bookshop Memories” (1936):

“There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties. For casual reading — in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch — there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl's Own Paper.”

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