The fair game
I have measured out my life with book sales. Not with bookstores, mind you, which have played an equally important but altogether different role in my dreams, but by the high school cafeterias or parish halls filled with books, donated by friends of the local library or church, that appear once a year and then vanish, like a treasure hoard conjured up in a fairy tale. Some of the most intense memories of my childhood revolve around the book sales once held at Faith Lutheran Church in my hometown of Castro Valley, California, where, on the last day, you could fill up a brown paper grocery bag for about five bucks. At the age of ten, amazingly, I actually had five dollars, which meant that I could get to the indispensable work of stocking my bedroom shelves with the tattered volumes that seem to fill everyone’s home library: the Stephen King and Michael Crichton paperbacks, the ten matching tombstones of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Mankind, the Reader’s Digest collections of household hints. Few of those books have survived the dozen times I’ve moved since then, but they served their purpose, like the seven tons of food and water that temporarily become a part of the body before passing on. But at least one find has remained with me for nearly two decades. One year, I found a complete set of the Great Books of the Western World, missing only the volumes for Darwin and Marx—which tells you a lot, I think, about the home in which they once resided. I literally sat on top of them until my parents could come to pick me up that day, and I still own them all, with the two forbidden authors restored. And I’m not kidding when I say that when I open one at random and inhale the scent of its pages, it transports me back at once to the happiest time in my life.
That book sale, obviously, wasn’t particularly exceptional, and similar ones are held each year in every town across America—which doesn’t make any of them any less precious. But ever since moving to the Chicago area, I’ve been lucky enough to live near the epicenter of three fantastic book events: the Printers Row Lit Fest, the Newberry Library Book Fair, and the Oak Park Book Fair. I missed the Lit Fest this year because I was out of town, but to make up for it, the Newberry and Oak Park book fairs took place on the very same weekend. As a result, I spent four consecutive days gorging on used books. It should have been wonderful, and it was, but it also forced me to confront a fact that still makes me a little uncomfortable: after three decades of buying, owning, and culling volumes for my own library, a book fair is bound to present diminishing returns, at least compared to the almost painful excitement that it afforded me when I was growing up. I’ve bought so many books over the years that most of the titles I see either leave me cold or generate a brief spark of nostalgia: I remember when I bought that one. When you’re twelve years old and don’t own many books, a copy of The Source or A Brief History of Time or a James Clavell doorstopper seems like a fantastic find, and maybe it is. Later, after you’ve been to a few more book fairs, you realize that they’re all glutted with copies of The Source and The Story of Mankind and, yes, even complete sets of the Great Books of the Western World. And in the meantime, your own shelves have become full to bursting, which means that for a new book to grab you, it has to squeeze through the eye of an increasingly tiny needle.
These days, when I step into the Newberry Library Book Fair, I begin with a sense of limitless potential, as if I’ve arrived the book fair of my dreams. As I browse the tables over the next couple of hours, that feeling of uncut possibility dwindles into—well, not disillusionment, exactly, but a rational lowering of expectations. Before the book fair begins, it’s possible that it has all the weird, eccentric books that I need to fill out my collection, and that I’ll stumble across, say, a complete five-volume set of The Lisle Letters for less than fifty dollars. (This might seem absurdly optimistic, but remember, this is the same book fair where I found the sixteen volumes of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights last year for the same price. Miracles can and do happen.) It doesn’t take long for your fond wishes of what might be there to collide with the knowledge of what actually exists for the taking, much of which is great, but nearly all of which falls just a bit short of your hopes. It’s the equivalent of the kind of narrowing of possibility in writing fiction that Joan Didion describes to The Paris Review: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” In science, Thomas Henry Huxley called it “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” If you want to get really existential, you could say that it’s like the reduction of options in life, or politics, when the inconvenient truths insist on impinging themselves on the ideals you cherished when you weren’t limited by reality. When you’ve been a dedicated bibliophile for most of your life, every book fair turns into a picky exercise in the art of the possible.
This might seem like a lot of symbolic freight to place on such an innocent pleasure. But I’ve begun to realize that what I love about book fairs is their annual renewal of possibility, even if it only lasts for an hour or two. I’ve spoken frequently about the art of browsing, which is part luck, part skill, and all serendipity: it’s the one time in our adult lives when we’re most fully exposed to happy accidents. A book fair is browsing at its most intense: the collection of books before us is one that will never exist again, just as when we shuffle a deck of cards, we get an order that has never been seen before in all of human history. Playing the book fair game is a matter of sharp eyes, a relaxed but active brain, and an ability to spend hours on your feet, scanning a hodgepodge of titles. Not every book fair results in a moment of revelation, and although I’d love to wind up this post by saying that I was blindsided by a great find, that wasn’t the case this year. (The one that gave me the most happiness was a copy of Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder, which is one of those books that I always have at the back of my mind whenever I enter a bookstore, and which cost me all of three dollars at the Newberry.) But I still wouldn’t have missed it for anything. As John Gardner might have said, browsing is a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and at a time when I’m preoccupied with reading a narrow slice of books for my work, it’s good to have a reminder that the universe of ideas is so much greater than any one person can ever absorb. For thirty dollars, you can buy an entire liberal education, as long as you’re willing to look for it. And there’s always next year.