Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Whole Earth Catalog

My great books #6: The Whole Earth Catalog

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

The Whole Earth Catalog—or, as Steve Jobs famously called it, “Google in book form”—was a product of a time and place that is close to my heart: the Bay Area of the late sixties and early seventies, centered in particular on Berkeley and Sausalito. Stewart Brand conceived of it as a book, modeled on the L.L. Bean catalog, that would provide resources for exploring a range of issues that remain relevant today, notably sustainable living, simplicity, and ecology in its original sense, which spans everything from planetary environmentalism to the humblest forms of home economics. In its book recommendations, accompanied by a running commentary that articulated an entire theory of civilization, it gave readers the tools to investigate space exploration, personal computing, art, literature, anthropology, architecture, health, backpacking, mysticism, and much more. As a work that unfolds endlessly onto others, it’s been the most influential book in my life by far. Of the five titles that I mentioned here last week, I owe my discovery of three of them to browsing in the Catalog, while a fourth, The Complete Walker, features prominently in its pages. (Strangely enough, Brand and his colleagues never seem to have taken any notice of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which played much the same role in the seventeenth century that the Catalog did in the twentieth, as a kind of clearinghouse of ideas and excerpts for curious readers.)

Taken simply as a guide to the world’s greatest bookstore, it’s an essential part of anyone’s reading life. (The edition to get is The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which is so massive and packed with information that leafing through its pages feels like an adventure in itself.) But its larger vision is what lingers. The Catalog is both a guide to good reading and a window onto an interlocking body of approaches to managing the complicated problems that modern life presents. In its physical format, with double spreads on everything from computers to ceramics, it naturally emphasizes the connections between disciplines, and the result is an atlas for living in boundary regions, founded on an awareness of how systems evolve and how individuals fit within the overall picture. Its intended readers, both then and now, are resistant to specialization; interested in technology as a means of enabling choices; and inspired by such practical intellectuals as Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, and Stewart Brand himself, who move gracefully from one area of expertise to the next. Browsing through it even for a few minutes is enough to rekindle your belief in serendipity and the possibilities that the world presents, and although it has inspired a number of worthy successors, notably Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, the original remains irreplaceable. It turned me, for better or worse, into a generalist. And it’s still the model I try to follow whenever I wonder what my life should be.

Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

Threading the needle

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Camel engraving by Heath

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

—Matthew 19:24

When people find an idea disturbing, especially if they have no choice but to trust its source, they’re often perversely eager to twist themselves into knots to avoid its implications. The quotation above provides as striking an example as any I know. Over the years, there have been many attempts to make this image from the New Testament seem less nonsensical or extreme than it initially appears: we’re told, for instance, that the eye of the needle was really a gate in Jerusalem through which a camel couldn’t fit without removing most of its baggage, or that “camel” is a faulty transcription for the Greek word for “cable” or “rope.” In fact, there’s no evidence that this passage means anything else than what it clearly states: the earliest attestation of the gate theory, which I remember hearing in Sunday school, dates from many centuries later. It’s a strange picture, but that’s why it lingers in the imagination. The Jesus Seminar, an imperfect but ambitious attempt to recover the historical deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, gives it high marks for authenticity, for the very reason that later readers found it so problematic. In their words:

The fact that this saying has been surrounded by attempts to soften it suggests that it was probably original with Jesus.

But it isn’t hard to see why many listeners would prefer to wave it away, even to the point of distorting the original or taking refuge in an apocryphal explanation. If it really refers to a camel squeezing through a gate, it seems that much more possible: if the camel can get through simply by unburdening itself, it implies that you can be just a little rich, but not too rich, and still push your way inside. The history of Christianity—and most other religions—consists of taking an uncompromising original message and looking for ways to pay homage to it while keeping things more or less as they already are. We’d all like to have it both ways, and the implication that reconciling wealth with eternal salvation isn’t just difficult, but physically impossible, makes most of us uneasy. But even those of us who aren’t conventionally religious would benefit from taking those words to heart. However we envision our own happiness, whether as a form of fulfillment in this life or as a reward in the world to come, there’s no denying that we’re more likely to reach it if we’re unrelenting about renouncing everything else. And this applies as much to something as modest as writing stories for a living as to trying to save one’s soul, which, to a writer, amounts to more or less the same thing.

Stewart Brand

I’ve been pondering this a lot recently, particularly in relation to making a living through art, which is often compared to threading a needle. It’s a phrase we see tossed around frequently, especially with respect to navigating our way through a world that seems ever more hostile to the idea of creative careers. If you want to be a novelist or freelance writer or critic, you soon find that the eye of that needle has grown increasingly narrow, as publishers are squeezed by declining sales, magazine circulation continues to fall, and websites search for sustainable business models while readers expect to read everything for free. I’ve been writing for a living for close to ten years now, and I don’t think I’m any closer to threading that needle than I ever was: if anything, the environment for writers has become so challenging that I’m not sure I would have tried to write professionally if I were faced with the same decision today. A few weeks ago, Todd VanDerWerff of Vox wrote a long article about the pitfalls confronting anyone trying to make it as a writer online—or anywhere else—in this climate, and if it peters out in the end without a solution, that isn’t his fault. Nobody, including people whose job it is to think about this stuff all the time, has yet managed to come up with a good answer. And the clock is ticking for all of us.

But the first step is to honestly acknowledge the challenges at stake. We aren’t dealing with a rope and a needle, or a camel and a gate, but a camel and a freaking needle. And it’s likely that anyone who pursues this life with any kind of seriousness will have to be just as methodical about stripping everything else away. I’ve always been heartened by what Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, had to say about voluntary simplicity: “What I find far more interesting [is] the sheer practicality of the exercise.” Anybody who tries to make a living as an artist soon finds that scaling back everything else isn’t just practical, but essential: threading that needle demands time, as well as many failed attempts, and you have to give up a lot to buy the necessary number of years it takes to get there. It doesn’t mean that you have to go up into the garret at once, as Thoreau advised, but it does mean that you can’t fool yourself into thinking that you can get there with half measures, or by pretending that the needle is a gate. The needles of the art world come in different sizes, but they’re all getting smaller, and if we can’t control the top line, we can at least control the bottom, by sacrificing as much as we can to buy the time we need. If we aren’t willing to do this, there are plenty of others who will. A compromise here and there may seem harmless. But sooner or later, one of those straws will break the camel’s back.

Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2015 at 10:24 am

The great teachers

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schwiebert

In his recent New Yorker review of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, Nathan Heller offers up a piece of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me fifteen years ago:

The best advice I ever got in college came from the freshman-year adviser to whom I had been assigned…I had come into her office with a dog-eared copy of the catalogue. I thought that maybe I would take a class on Keats? And physics? My adviser, who taught history, shook her head. “The topics aren’t important,” she said. “What you want to do is find the people who are the best teachers and the best writers and take whatever they teach.”

I’m not sure if I ever articulated this principle to myself as clearly as it’s stated here, but a fumbling version of it guided many—though not most—of my choices in college. I was able to audit courses from the likes of Cornel West and Stephen Jay Gould, and when it came time to select a major, I was guided primarily by the idea that I should spend my time in a department that was ranked among the best of its kind, which is how I ended up in classics. But if I have one regret about how I spent those four years, it’s that I didn’t follow this tip more systematically. There were a lot of great classes that I could have attended but didn’t, and I won’t have a chance again.

Fortunately, though, the scope of this advice isn’t confined to college. When I look at my own bookshelves, I get the sense that I’ve been unconsciously following this model all along, at least when it comes to the authors I read. There’s a wild array of titles and subjects here, and I picked up many of these books on little more than a lucky hunch. What unifies most of them, though, is the aura they radiate of lives spent in pursuit of difficult intellectual goals, and the ability to convey them in ways that shed light onto unexpected corners. It’s why Edward O. Wilson’s books on ants share space with the work of statistician and graphic designer Edward Tufte, and why I keep The Plan of St. Gall a few shelves away from books by or about Colin Fletcher, George Saintsbury, Pauline Kael, Roger Penrose, Kimon Nicolaides, and Saul Bass, along with such otherwise inexplicable titles as Chinese Calligraphy and Ship Models: How to Build Them. These books don’t have a lot in common except for the fact that they’re all the work of great teachers, and I’ve found that it’s best to follow them wherever they decide to go, without worrying too much about the subject.

Edward O. Wilson

Recently, for instance, I’ve become interested in the work of Ernest Schwiebert, a legendary author among fly fishermen who remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world. I’ve never been fishing in my life, but after encountering Schwiebert—thanks, as with so many other books that have changed my life, to a glowing mention in The Whole Earth Catalog—I’ve started to think of him as a mentor and kindred spirit. Angling is an appealing sport, even from the confines of an armchair, because of the multitude of skills and states of mind it requires, and there are times when I feel that Schwiebert, who was a Princeton-trained architect and author by trade, is really talking about something else:

Its 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. It also combines the primordial rhythms of the stalk with the chesslike puzzles of fly-hatches and fishing, echoing the blood rituals of the hunt without demanding the kill.

Take out the reference to physical dexterity and grace, and you have a pretty good description of how it feels to write a novel, which requires a constantly shifting balance between intellectual precision, brute force, intuition, and luck. And this is ultimately true of any craft, which goes a long way toward explaining why I find myself reading books on urban planning, coding, theater, animation, and other subjects that have only a tangential connection to what I do for a living. At one time, I thought I was looking for particular insights from other fields that would turn me into a better writer, but that isn’t necessarily true; the challenges that writing presents are so specific that approaches from other disciplines are useful primarily as metaphors. What really matters, I’ve found, is spending time in the company of great teachers and craftsmen. Those qualities of temperament—curiosity, diligence, an embrace of serendipity combined with ruthless pragmatism—remain constant across all forms of workmanship or expression. And even after college, we can find role models and examples in all the best teachers, regardless of their areas of expertise, as long as we’re willing to seek them out.

Written by nevalalee

September 17, 2014 at 9:40 am

Four ways of looking at simplicity

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Carlos Castaneda

A man of knowledge needed frugality because the majority of the obligatory acts [for acquiring knowledge] dealt with instances or with elements that were either outside the boundaries of ordinary everyday life, or were not customary in ordinary activity, and the man who had to act in accordance with them needed an extraordinary effort every time he took action. It was implicit that one could have been capable of such an extraordinary effort only by being frugal with every other activity that did not deal directly with such predetermined actions.

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Stewart Brand

Personally I don’t like the term [voluntary simplicity]…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

Stewart Brand, The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Sometimes the inculcation of poverty may be a concession to human weakness, which finds the golden mean so difficult. Poverty then appears as a kind of universal Prohibition. Confucius says rightly,

I know why men do not walk in the Way: the clever go beyond it, the stupid do not reach to it. I know why men do not understand the Way: the virtuous exceed it, the vicious fall below it.

But actually the sweetness and light of the Way of the Mean comes from complete, absolute poverty, for as Milton says in Samson Agonistes,

What boots it at one gate to make defense,
And at another let in the foe?

Poverty appears again as a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.

R.H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

The Plan of St. Gall and the sacred act of reading

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The Plan of St. Gall

I’ve wanted my own copy of The Plan of St. Gall ever since reading about it two decades ago in The Whole Earth Catalog, which called it “the most beautiful book produced anywhere in a generation or two.” Because of its rarity and expense—only 2,500 copies were ever printed, and used editions generally go for $300 and more—I never seriously thought I’d own it, although I’ve browsed through it lovingly at the old Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Berkeley. After literally saving my pennies and tracking it down online at a reasonable price at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, though, I decided to treat myself for my upcoming birthday, and it finally arrived last week. The result is worth the price and more: it’s the most physically gorgeous book I’ve ever seen, with three enormous folio volumes printed on exquisite paper, lovely layout and typography, and a thousand immaculate illustrations. Even if the subject matter weren’t in my wheelhouse, I’d still love it as an example of the bookmaker’s art, but its contents are even more fascinating, touching on many ideas and issues close to my heart, including monasticism, medieval life, vernacular architecture, and how the deep interpretation of text and image can provide a window on the entire world.

The Plan of St. Gall itself is an architectural blueprint drawn on a piece of parchment about 45 by 31 inches in size, dating from around the year 816, that has been preserved ever since at the Abbey Library of St. Gall in Switzerland. It depicts an ideal monastery, complete with church, housing for the abbot and monks, buildings for guests and servants, gardens, workshops, privies, even a henhouse, and although it was never actually built, it served as kind of a paradigm for what monastic architecture could be. (The author of the plan is unknown, although it was likely commissioned by Haito, the abbot of Reichenau.) Using the plan as a starting point, the late authors Walter Horn and Ernest Born—both faculty members at UC Berkeley—have meticulously reconstructed how the building complex would have appeared, as well as what the lives of the monks there would have been like, in a remarkable feat of historical and architectural detective work. Not surprisingly, this requires the mastery and assimilation of an insane amount of material. If you want to learn more about the properties of parchment, barrel-making, wine and beer production, ecclesiastical design, bleeding, water management, timekeeping, horticulture, livestock, and more, it’s all here, with a density of content that goes all the way from the title page to the footnotes and index.

Map from The Plan of St. Gall

And the story behind the book is just as fascinating. It was originally conceived in the sixties as a modest project for the university press in Berkeley, covering a few hundred pages and three years of work. When it was finally published in 1979, it had taken fifteen years, with countless cost overruns and delays, thanks largely to Born’s obsessive perfectionism over the illustrations and design, as well as the project’s constantly expanding ambitions. It led to a highly publicized war of memos between the authors and August Fregé, the director of the press, who threatened to shut down production and retired long before the book itself ever saw the light of day. In his memoir A Skeptic Among Scholars, Fregé comes off as a little shellshocked by the experience, and he seems to think that Horn and Born exaggerated the importance of the plan in their own minds to justify creating such a monument. Yet if we think of the plan as a lens through which to examine the whole of life in the Middle Ages, it’s hard to imagine a better one. It’s a subject that deserves three big volumes and more, and it only could have been published by a university press. (In the end, according to a piece in the New York Times, the book cost $489,000 to produce and brought in $500,000 in sales, meaning that it barely broke even, even before you factor in the thousands of hours of work it required.)

When I look at proudly it on my office shelf now, it strikes me as exactly the kind of book we need, at a time when the physical act of reading seems especially vulnerable. Engaging with The Plan of St. Gall compels the reader to take on the role of a monk: it’s too large to be held comfortably on one’s lap, so ideally, you’d read it on a lectern, like the one provided to the reader who recited verses of scripture to the monks at every meal. (Fregé refers to it as “the only three-lectern book the Press will ever publish.”) As a result, you study it with special intensity, devoting an extra degree of attention to every page, to the point where the book ultimately embodies its own message. Think of it as the importance of humanism, the life of ideas, or the preservation of knowledge over time: whatever you call it, it’s a reflection of the same impulse that allowed the plan itself to survive over so many centuries. Reading it, you feel a sense of continuity with the unknown monk who traced it over a millennium ago, as well as all the others who kept it safe, and with Horn, Born, and those influenced by their example, including Christopher Alexander. As a reviewer wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, it’s “an eloquent and exultant answer to those who still believe that print will soon give way to electronics.” That was written in 1980—and it’s a message that I’m glad this book, and all books that remember they were once sacred objects, is still around to provide.

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2014 at 9:50 am

Cool tools and hot ideas

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

In 1968, in a garage in Menlo Park, California, a remarkable publication was born. It was laid out with an IBM Selectric typewriter and a Polaroid industrial camera, in an office furnished with scrap doors and plywood, and printed cheaply on rough paper. Modeled after the L.L. Bean catalog, it opened with Buckminster Fuller, ended with the I Ching, and included listings for portable sawmills, kits for geodesic domes, and books on everything from astronomy to beekeeping to graphic design, interspersed with a running commentary that cheerfully articulated an entire theory of civilization. The result was the original manual of soft innovation, a celebration of human ingenuity that sold millions of copies while retaining an endearing funkiness, and it profoundly influenced subcultures as different as the environmental movement and Silicon Valley. As I’ve said before, the Whole Earth Catalog is both a guide to good reading and living and a window onto an interlocking body of approaches to managing the complicated problems that modern life presents. Its intended readers, both then and now, are ambitious, but resistant to specialization; interested in technology as a means of greater personal freedom; and inspired by such practical intellectuals as Fuller, Gregory Bateson, and Catalog founder Stewart Brand himself, who move gracefully from one area of expertise to the next.

And it had an enormous impact on my own life. I grew up in the Bay Area, not far from where the Catalog was born, and I’ve been fascinated by it for over twenty years. Leafing through its oversized pages was like browsing through the world’s greatest bookstore, and as I photocopied my favorite sections and slowly acquired the works it recommended, it subtly guided my own reading and thinking. In its physical format, with its double spreads on subjects from computers to ceramics, it emphasized the connections between disciplines, and the result was a kind of atlas for living in boundary regions, founded on an awareness of how systems evolve and how individuals fit within the overall picture. I became a novelist because it seemed like the best way of living as a generalist, tackling big concepts, and studying larger patterns. It provided me with an alternative curriculum that took up where my university education left off, an array of tools for addressing my own personal and professional challenges. Looking at my bookshelves now, the number of books whose presence in my life I owe to the Catalog is staggering: A Pattern Language, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, On Growth and Form, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief, and countless others.

Cool Tools by Kevin Kelly

The Catalog has been out of print for a long time, and although the older editions are still available in PDF form online, I’ve often wished for an updated version that could survey the range of books and tools that have appeared in the fifteen years since the last installment was published. Much to my delight, I’ve recently discovered that such a work exists, in a somewhat different form. Kevin Kelly, a former Brand protégé who later became the executive editor of Wired, once wrote: “It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.” It seems that Kelly has slightly modified his point of view, because last year he released Cool Tools, an oversized, self-published overview of hardware, gadgets, books, and software that comes as close as anything in decades to recapturing the spirit of the Catalog itself. Cool Tools originally appeared as a series of reviews on Kelly’s blog, but in book form, it gains a critical sense of serendipity: you’re constantly exposed to ideas that you never knew you needed. I’ve been browsing through it happily for days, and I’ve already found countless books that I can’t believe I didn’t know about before: Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, Richard D. Pepperman’s The Eye is Quicker, James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, and many more.

I can quibble with Cool Tools in small ways. Personally, I’d prefer to see more books and fewer gadgets, and I especially wish that Kelly hadn’t confined himself to works that were still in print: some of the most exciting, interesting ideas can be found in authors that have fallen off the radar, and with used copies so easily accessible online, there’s no reason not to point readers in their direction. And we get only glimpses of the overarching philosophy of life that was so great a part of the original Catalog‘s appeal. But I’m still profoundly grateful that it exists. It serves as a kind of sanity check, or a course correction, and I’m gratified whenever I see something in its pages that I’ve independently discovered on my own. My favorite entry may be for the Honda Fit, my own first car, because it sits next to a parallel entry for the blue Volvo 240 station wagon—”the cheapest reliable used car”—that my parents owned when I was growing up in the East Bay. I spent a lot of time in both vehicles, which serves as a reminder that who I am and what I might become is inextricably tied into the culture from which the Catalog emerged. Cool Tools probably won’t have the cultural impact of its predecessors, but it’s going to change more than a few lives, especially if it falls into the hands of bright, curious kids. And that’s more than enough.

Written by nevalalee

April 21, 2014 at 9:39 am

The perfect bookstore

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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

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