Theodore Dalyrmple mourns the decline of the practice of browsing in secondhand bookstores. Now that the internet allows us to zero in on exactly and precisely the used book we might be looking for, it is no longer necessary—nor do people seem to have the patience and the time—to while away an hour or two (or more) looking at musty volumes in cramped quarters in the low-rent section of town.
I still sometimes go to used bookstores and browse, although I understand why many people don’t. But they miss the serendipitous discoveries that can be made, and the fun of glimpsing the strange, unexpected, and obscure.
Browsing is a somewhat lost art not just in used bookstores, but in general. First cause was the catalogue and now the internet. One can browse online of course, but somehow it’s different. The process doesn’t have the same dimensions, nor does it engage all the senses. A person is limited by the way the website search is set up. Sometimes it’s impossible to find an item because the proper category isn’t known, for example.
It’s the same with hard copies of news media versus reading news online. I can read an online copy of a certain magazine—or think I’ve read it—yet when I hold an actual physical copy of the same in my hand, it has a heft and solidity that’s almost surprising. Glancing at it and turning the pages, I notice items I hadn’t seen before, including things that might interest me. Smaller articles. Advertisements. The shape the words make on the page. The quality of the paper. So something is lost in translation that is gained in convenience.
Dalyrmple also writes about book inscriptions in his essay. They are small bids for immortality on the part of the person who pens them, just as Dalyrmple indicates. For the recipient they are also a reminder, usually of the love and care of someone who is gone.
As a child I tended to request books as presents. I asked for some very strange ones indeed, most often gleaned from other readings, perhaps of library books (I was, and still am, a frequent patron). My parents also used to receive in the mail the Marlboro Books catalogue (an operation that seems to be defunct; I can no longer find it online), and I ordered a few items from it all by myself as a youngster, with money saved from gifts and allowances.
Just to show you what a strange child I was (as though you needed a demonstration), when I was about ten years old I sent away for a copy of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (hardcover, natch), as well as a great little cheerer-upper called The Rape of the Mind. The latter was about brainwashing. Good training for a future blogger specializing in the mental gymnastics involved in political decisions and mass movements. It seems my course was already set back then, although I certainly didn’t know it.
One of the few books with inscriptions I ever received was a gift from my grandmother. It was a Time-Life coffee-table extravaganza entitled The Wonders of Life on Earth (science was another early love of mine).
I still have the book, although it long ago lost its glossy dust cover. The text and the beautiful pictures and drawings were very satisfying at the time I received it. But after all these years the best part is the spidery old-fashioned handwriting on the flyleaf that says, quite simply, “From Grandma,” and the date; she died seven years later. It was the first gift I ever got that I had requested; the first time anyone had ever asked me, and actually listened to my answer.
A poignant example of the treasures (sometimes bittersweet) to be found in used bookstores appears in Vladimir Nabokov’s sublime and haunting memoir Speak, Memory. Nabokov was raised in luxury in pre-Soviet Russia, a condition that ended abruptly with the Revolution and lifelong banishment. In Chapter Nine of the book he describes the library in his childhood home, a room in which Nabokov’s beloved father not only read, but also took daily boxing and fencing lessons from a teacher who visited expressly for that purpose:
The place combined pleasantly the scholarly and the athletic, the leather of books and the leather of boxing gloves. Fat armchairs stood along the book-lined walls. An elaborate “punching ball” affair purchased in England—four steel posts supporting the board from which the pear-shaped striking bag hung—gleamed at the end of the spacious room. The purpose of this apparatus, especially in connection with the machine-gunlike ra-ta-ta of its bag, was questioned and the butler’s explanation of it reluctantly accepted as true, by some heavily armed street fighters who came in through the window in 1917. When the Soviet Revolution made it imperative for us to leave St. Petersburg, that library disintegrated, but queer little remnants of it kept cropping up abroad. Some twelve years later in Berlin [after Nabokov's father had been assassinated in that same city], I picked up from a bookstall one such waif, bearing my father’s ex libris. Very fittingly, it turned out to be The War of the Worlds by Wells. And after another decade had elapsed, I discovered one day in the New York Public Library, indexed under my father’s name, a copy of the neat catalogue he had had privately printed when the phantom books listed therein still stood, ruddy and sleek, on his shelves.
Inscriptions survive their authors; it is one of their most magical and touching qualities. So do old books. This fact is no small part of their allure and their mystery.
[ADDENDUM: For my own strange experience---also involving a parent, in this case my mother---in the New York Public Library, please see this.]
[ADDENDUM II: And if you're hungry for more Dalyrmple today, here's another good one, although this time of the political variety.]