Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Simplest Taste

I am not a reader of paperback books. I once was, when I was young and my means were appropriate to my age and station. But since the increasingly remote days of my innocence, I have acquired the habit of Hardcovers, and debt. I like the weight of a hardcover book; the heft in the hand, the durability, the size of the print. Paperbacks are meant to have their spines cracked, to be stuffed carelessly in a pocket, to be annotated, digested and discarded. A well-read paperback is a sorry thing. A well-read hardcover -- at least if it is of the era from which I tend to select my reading -- is a better book for having been read; it is flexible from use, laid on a table or knee, the cover opens at a touch, the leaves separate naturally and fall to the bookmark, the pages, softened with turning and light, have mellowed, and the print no longer glares blackly out at the reader but rather floats up on the cream.

As I was leaving my twenties, I put aside childish things and began to sell off all but a few of my paperbacks, retaining only those rare titles I could not immediately replace with hardcovers. A few poetry titles, a few chapbooks, a few very old political pamphlets are now all that survive in my library. Yes, there was an element of snobbery to the thing. I did become something of a book collector rather than just a reader; modern firsts, complete collections of modern authors, etc. But in my forties my tastes shifted again and as many of the moderns and the contemporary novelists leave, the classics -- major and minor -- return, and the paperbacks I might once have purchased are gone. (Find me a copy, in any edition, of Smollett's The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom -- other than the one I own because I bought a complete set of Smollett a few years back. Hell, find a new paperback of The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle!)

But now and again, a paperback from the glorious past when paperbacks were attractive, affordable and inclusive of nearly all of English and American literature, comes quietly across the Used Books Buying Desk, and something catches my greedy eye. Just today, A modest Avon pocket book of Wilde's De Profundis made me pause. I need never read Wilde's longest and most heartbreaking letter ever again. But this little book from 1964 boasts "an essay by W. H. Auden" by way of introduction. I've never read Auden on Wilde. Don't I need to not only read but to own such an essay?

As Oscar said, "I have the simplest of tastes. I am always satisfied with the best."
I would amend that only to add, "... even in paperback."

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