Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Reader's Lament

Thinking about why it is I so often want not what I have but what I can ill afford, and I think I may have arrived at an answer, or, better say, a better question, at least in so far as I'm talking about books. (As to any larger issues, personal, psychological, philosophical, etc., I think it best to leave those to the privacy of my own none too tortured reflection, don't you?) I want expensive books not because they are expensive, but because the books I want to read and own, so that I might read them again, happen to be expensive. Why is that? That's really my question. Why, for example, are the two volumes from Oxford University Press of New Writings of William Hazlitt, two hundred and seventy five dollars? Why, for that matter, are The Complete Works, as edited by P. P. Howe in twenty one volumes, now worth thousands of dollars, and the nine volumes of The Selected Works, edited like the two new volumes, by Duncan Wu, selling for fourteen hundred dollars?

I know all, or most, of the usual justifications for this: limited, largely scholarly interest, the expenses of research and editing to be defrayed, the necessity of a small print-run in expectation of low sales, yadda, yadda, yadda, -- you should forgive my saying. I'm a bookseller and I've used exactly these explanations with customers shocked by the prices of specialized and or academic books. I do think it fair, should one write, say, the definitive text on a rare species of ringworm, or the best manual for a software program used by less than a thousand other people, that specialists need to expect the expense of specialization. My next question though would be, when did English literature become a specialty, like entomological research or computer engineering? When exactly, and why, did the best of our common literary heritage cease to be something one could reasonably expect to read for any purpose other than research? Because, ironically enough, one is actually likelier to find the latest treatise on ringworm or the code necessary to make the sky blue in a Pixar cartoon, than one is to find a decently edited and comprehensive collection of Hazlitt in a public library, let alone a bookstore.

Forget for a minute that it has taken me years from my first acquaintance with the great essayist to amass the books I now own, including the five volumes of The Miscellaneous Works of William Hazlitt, published in 1876 and Lamb and Hazlitt: Further Letters and Records Hitherto Unpublished, edited by William Carew Haziltt, from 1899, both of which I find in my search of the database for the Seattle Public Library. Neither the Howe edition nor the Wu is listed. I can't afford either, but could the Seattle Public Library not? And what about the two new volumes from Oxford? Is it safe to assume that these will likewise not be in the great library's collection, as they are unlikely to ever be in mine? Is it really true that my humble collection of second hand Hazlitt is substantively the equal of the best public library in the Northwestern United States? I do have nearly as many books by William Hazlitt as they do, and in the same editions, in addition to the two I mentioned. So how then is the reader of Hazlitt to read him without buying him, piecemeal and in old and delicate editions, if not piecemeal and in old and delicate editions at the public library? To try to find Hazlitt, new or used, in even so good a bookstore as the one in which I work is almost impossible. The Penguin collection never comes when reordered, and the Oxford paperback, in its present edition, was edited by an idiot who felt the need to abbreviate one of Hazlitt's most famous essays!

I am increasingly convinced that the least often acknowledged reason for, or at least a contributing factor to, the widely accepted decline of reading in the Western World may well be the result of our public institutions being priced out of the market for good books by the ridiculous prices set on those books by other public institutions. Now this assumes that the lack of a definitive set of William Hazlitt has been felt by someone in Seattle other than a snotty book clerk with a taste for English essays. But surely, there must have been someone at the Seattle Public Library who saw, if not the Howe, then the Wu edition, which dates back little more than a decade to 1998, in a catalogue, and passed. Perhaps the acquisitions librarian at the time was already restrained by the anticipated space and fiscal restrictions of the as yet unrealized new library building of which we are all so very proud, here in Seattle. I would like to think that someone at least sighed before the page was turned and one of the greatest authors in our language was skipped over. I don't know any such thing, of course, but I'd like to think so. (Just as I'd like to think, when I visited two new and or recently improved branches, that someone other than me was embarrassed to see more books by Stephen King than by either Jane Austen or Charles Dickens in the open stacks, but then I seem to be assuming against the evidence of my own eyes.)

So why then, to return to the question with which I almost started, is the best edition of William Hazlitt so damned expensive? Why not, having created such a wonderful book, print enough and in an affordable enough edition as to make it attractive, if not to the general public, at least to libraries? But then, that question may have been asked and answered. I want expensive books because they are good. Libraries don't necessarily want good books when they are expensive, because I may be the only one to ever ask for them, but then I may be the only one to ever ask for them because how else is anyone to know of their existence unless the books are readily available at a library or for a bookseller to recommend?

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

It seems, so far as I can tell from well outside of the institutions I find so frustrating, that literature is a specialty nowadays after all, however absurdly ridiculous that idea strikes me as being. Readers, I'm convinced, had nothing to do with this. Hazlitt has had and continues to have readers for nearly all of the past two hundred years. May he always. What he has now, sad to say, in addition, like Samuel Johnson and so many others, are definitive editions never meant to be read. Literature would seem to be no more a common interest now than ringworm and pixels, and if this is true, it is a bitter irony that the institutions meant to preserve and promote it are largely responsible for rendering it inaccessible to any but specialists.

Meanwhile, there's a new boxed set, from Norton, of all the Highsmith Ripley novels, The Complete Ripley Novels: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Ripley Under Water. This is only one hundred dollars. I might be able to get that for my birthday. I don't need it, actually, as I already own these books and frankly have no immediate plans to reread them, but I think I want it. So there's all my high-flown indignation undermined by a simple admissions of plain old fashioned covetousness. Hell, I don't even know that I think all that highly of Highsmith, I just like her.

Blew it a little at the end there, didn't I? Oh well, indignation is exhausting. Maybe I can find the Howe edition in a broken set on the Internet somewhere, like I've found the occasional stray volume of the Yale Johnson.

Damn Yale. Damn Oxford. Damn me.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.


  1. brad-
    my essential morning blog reads: you and dennis cooper. i contain multitudes, or something like that. inventory sunday: almost made me nostalgic! and of course some books and book sets are meant to be touched, held, and only eventually if ever read...

  2. Dearest Richard, if your nostalgia becomes overwhelming, I have a shift available this Sunday, from 5 PM until ?
    Thanks for mentioning Dennis Cooper. I'll look for him.

  3. Richard (not LaBonte)June 30, 2009 at 5:28 PM

    Brad Craft and Dennis Cooper - now there's an unexpected pairing.

  4. But I like Dennis Cooper. He drives me crazy, but he's touched with something quite special, isn't he? And he is easily the most influential writer of my generation. Now if he just wasn't so... sticky.