Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Better World Books

Masters of the earthworm, or the generalist’s dilemma

leave a comment »

Buckminster Fuller

Over the past year or so, I’ve scaled back on the number of books I buy each month, mostly for reasons of shelf space. Every now and then, though, my eye will be caught by a sale or special event I can’t resist, which is how I ended up receiving a big carton last week from Better World Books. (As I’ve noted before, this is the best site for used books around, and a fantastic resource for filling in the gaps in your library.) The box contained what looks, at first, like a random assortment of titles: Strong Opinions, the aptly named collection of interviews and essays by Vladimir Nabokov; Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich, which was named one of the hundred best nonfiction books of the century by Modern Library; Cosmic Fishing, a short memoir by E.J. Applewhite about his collaboration with Buckminster Fuller on the book Synergetics; and best of all, Ernest Schwiebert’s magisterial two-volume Trout, which I’ve coveted for years. If it seems like a grab bag, that’s no accident: I really had my eye on Trout, which I ended up getting for half the price it goes for elsewhere, and the others were mostly there to fill out the order. But my choices here also say a lot about me and the kind of books and authors I find most appealing.

The most obvious common thread between all these books is that they lie somewhere at the intersection of art and science. Nabokov, of course, was an accomplished lepidopterist, and Strong Opinions concludes with a sampling of his scientific papers on butterflies. Art and Illusion is a work on the psychology of perception written by an art historian, and the back cover makes its intentions clear: “This book is directed to all who seek for a meeting ground between science and the humanities.” Fuller always occupied a peculiar position between that of engineer, crackpot, and mystic, and this comes through strongly through the eyes of his literary collaborator, who strikingly argues that Fuller’s primary vocation is that of a poet, and reveals that he briefly considered rewriting all of Synergetics in blank verse. And in Schwiebert’s hands, the humble trout becomes a lens through which he considers nearly all of human experience: in the first volume, he wears the hats of historian, literary critic, biologist, ecologist, and entomologist, and that’s before he even gets to the intricacies of rods, flies, and waders. As Schwiebert writes: “[Angling’s] skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge.”

Hilaire Belloc

In short, these are all books by or about generalists, original thinkers who understand that the divisions between categories of knowledge are porous, if not outright fictional, and who can draw freely on a wide range of disciplines. Yet these authors also share another, more subtle quality: a relentless focus on a single subject as a window onto all of the rest. Nabokov was as obsessed by his butterflies as Fuller was by the tetrahedron. Gombrich returns repeatedly to “the riddle of style,” or what it means when we say that we draw what we see, and Schwiebert, of course, loved trout. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them became generalists by accident; it takes a certain inborn temperament, and an inhuman degree of patience and curiosity, to even attempt such a comprehensive vision. But it’s no accident that all four of these men—and most of the generalists we know and remember—arrived at their expansive vistas through the narrowest of gates. Occasionally, a thinker with global ambitions will begin by deliberately constraining his or her focus, in a kind of apprenticeship or training ground: Darwin spent long eight years studying the cirripedes, a kind of barnacle, in what Thomas Henry Huxley called “a piece of critical self-discipline.” He knew that you need to go deep before you can go really wide.

And that hasn’t changed. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson recently published a book entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, which would seem insufferably grandiose if he hadn’t already proven himself with decades of laborious work on the ants and other social insects. When we think of the intellectuals we respect, nearly all are men and women who made fundamental contributions to a single, clearly defined field before moving on to others. That’s the generalist’s dilemma: it’s hard to think in an original way about everything until you know one thing well. Otherwise, you end up seeming like a dilettante or worse. I’m acutely aware of my own shortcomings here: I’ve spent all my life trying to be a generalist, to the point of becoming a writer so I had an excuse to poke into whatever subjects I like, but I’ve rarely had the patience to drill down deeply. And while I’m content with my choice, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone else. Hilaire Belloc once said that the best way for a writer to become famous was to concentrate on one subject, like the earthworm, for forty years: “When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world’s great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm.” Belloc pointedly failed to take his own advice, but he has a point. We need to become masters of the earthworm before we become masters of the earth.

The perfect bookstore

with 2 comments

The Next Whole Earth Catalog

I’ve written before about the end of browsing, but for me, it took place a little sooner than I expected. In the old days, I’d spend hours roaming through used bookstores like The Strand in New York and Open Books here in Chicago, keeping an eye out both for books I was hoping to find and for a few unexpected discoveries, but now, with a baby in tow, it’s hard to get into the timeless, transcendent state required for a deep dive into the perfect bookstore. My definition of the perfect used bookstore is a simple one: it needs to have an enormous inventory of interesting books, low prices, and the possibility of exciting serendipity. You shouldn’t know precisely what to expect going in, and if you do find the book you’re looking for, you feel a surge of delight in the same region of the brain that responds to varied, unpredictable pleasures. I thought I’d left this kind of browsing behind, but recently, I discovered a way to do it from the comfort of my own home. And although it really only works for the kind of idiosyncratic, obsessive browsing that I prefer, I’m sharing it here, in hopes that someone else will find it useful.

The first step is to get your hands on a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog. I’ve sung the praises of the Catalog here more than once, but even more than “Google in book form,” as Steve Jobs memorably called it, it’s a portable simulation of the perfect bookstore. It’s usually associated with the 1970s hippie culture of Berkeley and the rest of the East Bay, and not without reason: the older editions include several pages of resources on how to build your own geodesic dome. Really, though, it’s a book for curious readers of every persuasion. Every page is bursting with fascinating, often unfairly neglected or forgotten books on every subject imaginable: literature, art, science, history, philosophy, religion, design, and much more, along with the more famous sections on homesteading, environmentalism, and sustainable living. If you’re the kind of browser I have in mind, it’s the ultimate book of daydreams. (Any edition will work for our purposes, but if you can only get one, I’d recommend The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which gives you the greatest poundage per dollar and breathes the right air of intelligent funkiness.)

Better World Books

Next, you need to head over to Better World Books, my favorite online used bookstore. More specifically, you want to check out their Bargain Bin, which allows you to buy four or more used books at a discount, usually translating to something like four books for $12. (You’ll also want to get on their email list for flash sales and special events, which can lead to even better deals.) Then you settle down in a comfortable chair—or maybe a bed—with The Whole Earth Catalog and start to browse, looking for a book or subject that catches your eye. Maybe it’s Form, Function and Design by Paul Jacques Grillo, or The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides, or Soil and Civilization by Edward S. Hyams, or the works of R. Buckminster Fuller. Then you check the Bargain Bin to see if the book you want is there. In my experience, four times out of ten, you’ll find it, which may not seem like a great percentage if you absolutely need a copy, but it’s ideal for browsing. Even better, since you need four or more books to qualify for the deal, you’ve got to keep going, and it’s often when you’re looking for one last book to fill out your order—and end up exploring unexpected nooks of the Catalog or your own imagination—that you make the most serendipitous discoveries.

Best of all, the Catalog is only a starting point. When you’re leafing through it, you may end up on the page devoted to computers and remember, as I did recently, that you’d been meaning to pick up a copy of the legendary handbook The C Programming Language—and bam, there it is for four dollars. Each page is likely to remind you of other books that you’ve long wanted to explore, and if you follow that train of thought wherever it leads, you’ll find yourself in some unexpected places. And it’s the peculiar constraint of the Bargain Bin, in which you might find the book you want for a wonderful price, that makes the exercise so rewarding, and so much like the classic used bookstore experience. (If you don’t have a copy of the Catalog, you can also use other books with big annotated bibliographies to spark your search: if you’re interested in the sciences, for instance, the one in Gödel, Escher, Bach is particularly good.) When you’re done, you’ll have a package on the way, and part of the fun of Better World Books, as opposed to Amazon Prime, is that you’re never quite sure when it will arrive, which gives each mail delivery an extra frisson of interest. I find myself doing this every month or two, whenever Better World Books has a sale, and I love it: it’s a sustaining shot of happiness for only ten dollars a pop. And my only problem is that I’m running out of shelf space.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

Confessions of a Bookavore

with 2 comments

I’m addicted to books. Not so much to reading—although I do a lot of that, too—but to the physical act of buying and owning books themselves. This has been the case for as long as I can remember, but in recent years, I’ve tried to be more selective. The first turning point came in my move to Chicago, when I had to ship most of my belongings across the country. This involved paring down my library to what I saw as its essentials and donating the rest, which included hundreds of books that I had accumulated over seven years of weekly browsing at the Strand. (In the end, I wound up giving away eighteen boxes of books.) Another purge, on a smaller scale, took place before my recent move to Oak Park. And even though I’m settling into my house here for the long term, I’ve been trying to keep my book purchases to a minimum, mostly because I don’t have any shelves at the moment—although I’m hoping to have them installed this week.

It came as a bit of a shock, then, to realize that over the past month, I’ve bought no fewer than twenty-two books, at least as far as I can remember. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s those coupon sites: whenever a daily deal involving books is offered, I have no choice but to take it. This is how I ended up buying a bunch of stuff this month at a discount from Better World Books: A Life and The Arrangement by Elia Kazan, who has been on my mind a lot these days because of the recent revival of Death of a Salesman; Draw! by Kurt Hanks and Larry Belliston; and Thinking With a Pencil by Henning Nelms. This last book is one I’ve been trying to find for a while, having lost my old copy years ago, and it’s led to a sudden fascination with the life of the extraordinary Mr. Nelms, also known as Hake Talbot, a magician, illustrator, stage director, playwright, and not incidentally a master locked-room novelist. It’s inevitable, then that I would pick up a copy of his Magic and Showmanship on Amazon, bringing our count for the month to five.

Things only got worse when I got another daily deal for Open Books, one of the best bookstores in Chicago, which runs largely on donations and uses the proceeds to fund local literacy programs. A month ago, I’d used the first of my two coupons to pick up The Tangled Bank by Stanley Edgar Hyman and Showman by David Thomson, so when my wife and I ended up back in the bookstore’s neighborhood on Saturday, I knew I had to use the other one. After an hour or so of browsing, my wife had found The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlanksy, but I still hadn’t seen anything that met my high standards. (My eye was caught by Adhocism: A Case for Improvisation by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, but at $75, it struck me as a bit rich—although I may still go back and get it.) Then, to the sound of a heavenly choir, I saw a pristine copy of Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants for only $8. With a coupon, I got it for only $5.50—which, considering the fact that the cheapest used copy goes for $70 on Amazon, might be my best book bargain ever.

Of course, that was only the start. My other great weaknesses, as regular readers know, are thrift stores and book sales, and this month had some corkers. At my old favorite, the Brown Elephant, I found Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch and Notes on a Cowardly Lion by John Lahr. From the Economy Shop in Oak Park, I got The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte and Frank Capra’s The Name Above the Title. And the annual book sale at Oak Park Temple yielded a ton of treasures: my wife got the collected letters of Margaret Mitchell and the best columns of Mike Royko, while I got The Evolution of Man and Society by C.D. Darlington, the two volumes of The Outline of History by H.G. Wells, the first volume of Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, and a nice copy of Mimesis by Erich Auerbach, to replace my current edition, which is getting worn out. Combine this with a few miscellaneous purchases (Sophie’s Choice, a double edition of novels by James M. Cain, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood), and it’s clear that these bookshelves need to come soon.

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2012 at 10:17 am

%d bloggers like this: