Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Open Books

Books do furnish a life

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The dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore

When I was growing up in Castro Valley, California, one of the high points of any year was our annual library book sale. My local library was located conveniently across the street from my church, so on one magical weekend, I’d enter the parish hall to find row after row of folding tables stacked with discards and donations. In many ways, it was my first real taste of the joys of browsing: there wasn’t a good used bookstore in town, and I was still a few years away from taking the train up to Berkeley to dive into the stacks at Moe’s and Shakespeare and Company. Instead, I found countless treasures on those tables, and because each book cost just a few dollars, it encouraged exploration, risk, and serendipitous discoveries. Best of all was the final day, in which enterprising buyers could fill a shopping bag of books—a whole bag!—for just a couple of bucks. If you’re a certain kind of book lover, you know that this can be the best feeling in the world, and I still occasionally have dreams at night of making a similar haul at the perfect used bookshop.

Over time, though, the books I picked up were slowly dispersed, usually by a series of moves, so that only a few have followed me from California to Chicago. (Looking around my shelves now, the only books I can positively identify as having come from one of those sales are Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction and my complete set of Great Books of the Western World, which certainly counts as my greatest find—I vividly remember camping out in a corner to guard the volumes until the time came to drag them away.) It’s a cycle that has recurred repeatedly through my life, as I stumble across a new source of abundant cheap books, buy scores of them in a series of impulsive trips, then find myself faced with some hard choices at my next move. Over the course of seven years in New York, I probably spent several thousand dollars at the Strand, much of it in the legendary dollar bin, and when I moved, I donated twelve boxes to Goodwill, coming to maybe five hundred books that had briefly enriched my life before moving on. As Buckminster Fuller wrote about his own body:

I am not a thing—a noun. At eighty-five, I have taken in over a thousand tons of air, food, and water, which temporarily became my flesh and which progressively disassociated from me. You and I seem to be verbs—evolutionary processes.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

A library, I’ve found, is a sort of organic being of its own, growing along with its user, taking in raw materials, retaining some while getting rid of others, and progressing ever closer to an ideal shape that changes, like the body, over time. It’s even more accurate to see a library as the result of a kind of editorial process. The bags of books I picked up when I was in my teens were like a first draft, ragged, messy, but a source of essential clay for the work to come. More drafts followed with every change of address, with the books that no longer spoke to me—or whose purpose had been filled in providing a few happy hours of browsing—standing aside to make room for others. A library moves asymptotically, like a novel, toward its finished form, and in the end, it starts to look like a portrait of the author. To mix analogies, it’s like a sculpture, or a collage, that finds its shape both through accretion and removal. I never could have assembled the library I have now through first principles: it’s the product of time, shifting interests, the urge in my programming to buy more books, and the constraints imposed by mobility and shelving. And although the result may puzzle others, to me, it feels like home.

Not surprisingly, I’ve become increasingly picky, even eccentric, when it comes to the books I buy. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gone to a number of book sales—at the Printers Row Lit Fest and the Open Books store in Chicago—that previously would have left me with several bags to bring home. Instead, I’ve emerged after hours of browsing with a handful of books whose titles bewilder even me: Hidden Images, Design With Climate, The Divining Rod, Ship Models. If I’m drawn increasingly to odd little books, it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve already filled up the shelves in my office, so I tend to favor books that I don’t think I’ll be able to find at my local library. Really, though, it’s because the books I buy now are devoted to filling existing gaps, like a draft of a novel in which the choices I can make are influenced by a long train of earlier decisions. It’s starting to feel like my life’s work, and I treat it accordingly. Every now and then, I’ll cast an eye over my shelves, and if a book doesn’t make me actively happy to see it there, off it goes. Each one that remains carries a reside of meaning or history, if only by capturing a memory of a day spent deep in the stacks. And unlike my other works, it won’t ever be complete, because on the day it’s finished, I will be, too.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2014 at 9:24 am

Confessions of a Bookavore

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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

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