Thursday, January 10, 2008


Picking over sale books

We stopped by the local bulk salvage store (Marden's, famous in Maine for heaps of great junk) this week because they were advertising books for sale by the pound. A dollar a pound. With this place, you never know what you'll get - upscale merchandise that used to be in a store which is now flattened by a hurricane, or everyday five-and-dime stuff and heaps of it - all housed in an old woolen mill that resembles an airplane hangar. I've gotten some deeply great books there before. So we went with high hopes. But out of five eight-foot tables full of books, I came away with only two titles in hand, a Peter Matthiessen softcover reprint and a lovely hardcover first edition of Penelope Lively's memoir of her childhood, Oleander, Jacaranda (HarperCollins 1994). The rest of the books were beyond bad. Strange, ugly, damaged, hideous topics, old remainder stickers fused to them, black grease pencil scrawls on their covers, I felt so bad for them. A sad, sad sight. We paid our $1.56 and left in a hurry.

While reading the Penelope Lively book today (no customers to interrupt, yet), I came across this great description of her early life in books - after being raised in Egypt, she'd been sent to a girls' boarding school in England, and at 12 years old was "a fervent reader, with a capacity for application and an assumption that learning on the whole was enjoyable." At school for the first time in her life, however, she found that reading was socially unacceptable, both among her peers and oddly enough, among the staff (pp.83-84). But it was too late:

"I was by then too deeply steeped in heresy to recant. I accepted, grimly, that I was cherishing a perversion and went underground. I read under the bedclothes at night and on the rare occasions when I could find a secluded corner and thought that no one was looking. I got found out, of course. Pious dormitory prefects reported me. My copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse was confiscated from my locker by an assiduous matron and returned to me in a reproving private interview with the headmistress. She pushed the book across the desk towards me - assertive red-tipped talons lay on the dark blue binding: 'There is no need for you to read this sort of thing in your spare time, Penelope. You will be taught all that.' She went on to point out that my lacrosse skills were abysmally below par.

I grew up, after what seemed like several centuries, and found my way at last into the sunlight of a university, where I discovered to my surprise that lots of other eighteen-year-olds had been reading quite openly for years."

(I read this and thanked god and my parents that I grew up in a house full of books.) I've never read Moon Tiger, Lively's Booker-winning novel from the '80s, but I've had so many people tell me to that I'm beginning to think I absolutely must. Odd, but whenever I decide I really have to read a certain book, a copy suddenly appears out of the ether. Of course it helps if you're out there book-hunting all the time. You never know what'll turn up.

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