Sunday, May 14, 2017

`A Thousand Unaccountable Things'

Some of us never learn. After a lifetime of hunting and gathering, the hopped-up sense of anticipation remains strong, less a symptom of greed than wonder. The Houston Public Library’s book sale on Saturday was held in the “multipurpose room” (gymnasium) of my youngest son’s middle school. Arranged in row after row with strict impunity, tables and shelving carts parodied Melvil Dewey’s famed system. Marcus Aurelius in Self-Help?

Much of the stock consisted of library discards, always a sad sight. A pristine copy (but for the library sticker and plastic cover) of Flann O’Brien’s Complete Novels, published in 2007?  An untouched Brideshead Revisited, also in the Everyman’s Library edition? Most of the rest was wood-pulp-to-be, recycled thrillers and biographies of actors and politicians. Still, people managed to fill shopping bags and knapsacks, though the books weren’t cheap: hardcovers, three dollars; paperbacks, two dollars.   

I was relieved to find an Everyman’s Library edition of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. I love it almost as much as Robinson Crusoe, and it was a favorite of the Joe’s, Liebling and Mitchell. The pages are browning but the spine is intact. The only mark I find in the book, printed in 1931, is a single word on the front free endpaper: “Neuhaus.” The prior owner had exquisite penmanship. Here is a sample of Defoe’s clear and precise prose:

“As the desolation was greater during those terrible times, so the amazement of the people increased, and a thousand unaccountable things they would do in the violence of their fright, as others did the same in the agonies of their distemper, and this part was very affecting. Some went roaring and crying and wringing their hands along the street; some would go praying and lifting up their hands to heaven, calling upon God for mercy.”

I found a sturdy paperback copy of a novel I’ve lately had a hankering to read again, Nostromo. There was a time when we turned to fiction, in part, to learn how to live our lives. We expected moral education and some of us still do. Conrad is a reliable teacher:

“The fault of this country is the want of measure in political life. Flat acquiescence in illegality, followed by sanguinary reaction—that, seƱores, is not the way to a stable and prosperous future.”


Tim Guirl said...

Marcus Aurelius in Self-Help? Why not? Or the spiritual writings of Samuel Johnson, the poems of George Herbert, the Syndicated News Articles of Eric Hoffer?

mike zim said...

Thanks for the prompt, for this excellent read.

In the midst of all the suffering and woes, the Story of the Piper stood out. (page 89, Penguin edition)
He'd fallen asleep, and was picked up and thrown on a Death-cart. ("Bring out your dead.")
He awoke, and said "But I an't dead tho', am I?"

This was in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Cleese was trying to throw his father on the cart. ("But I'm not dead yet." "Oh, don't be such a baby.")
Then the cart man clubbed the old man, and he was tossed on the cart.

The Sanity Inspector said...

The public library probably depends very heavily on both the sales of these materials, and also on the statistics that show that its collection is indeed circulating, not just sitting there being library wallpaper. It is indeed sad that so many hidden gems go undiscovered on library shelves--but the book sale is simply setting them off on their second life in the private sector, to be matched up with an owner looking specifically for them.