Monday, January 17, 2011

Gathered from Off the Floor

This is a fairly random illustration of books from the floor of my library. I post it here by way of drawing further attention not to the variety of my own reading and collecting, but to the ever increasing diversity of the kinds of books that one will now find, as I found most of these, in the bookstore where I work. Most everything pictured here, as far as I can now tell, from the least substantial looking item to the largest, new, used and remaindered, all came from the shelves of what was, only a scant five years ago, a bookstore dealing exclusively in new books. Everything old, as the song says, is new again.

True, as at least in large part a college bookstore, the Textbooks Department in the basement has been dealing in used books for decades. Blessedly, unlike the majority of my coworkers, I've never had to work for even a day in the Textbooks Department. It isn't so much the idea of working a cash register all day long during "Rush," or even shelving books by class that makes the idea of such a job personally unpleasant to me. I rather like being busy, and I have no distaste for cashiering as part of my work day. I am, after all, just a clerk in this large and venerable institution, and so must work where they put me. Not my place to kick, too much. The idea though of working with textbooks, new and used, I find almost unbearable. Have you seen what a textbook might be nowadays? The new ones, at least the ones that still look like the textbooks I remember from my own unhappy experience of higher education, are ungainly monsters, most of them, designed as much to weight the reader with the full gravity of their subjects, I suspect, as to actually provide the necessary information for a student to study and matriculate. Over sized books, in my experience, tend to only be justified by really big pictures, so while I acknowledge the need of such whales when one is studying something like marine biology, I don't think I would much relish handling these beasts all day. That however is not why the idea of a day in the Textbooks Department depresses me.

Look again at that scan I put at the top of this. Be good enough to notice that even the least well-preserved of these books, the little edition of Hume's Essays, when one considers that that little book is probably no less than one hundred years old, and has doubtless passed in its time through the hands of multiple owners, for what it is, it is still a sound enough little book. I've been able to read it without resort to a repair kit, or fear that it would fall apart in my hands should I drop it, as I did one day in the employee break-room, off a table onto the floor where, not meaning to, I then kicked it under a couch. It survived. All the other small books, though those that ever had them, have since lost their book jackets, and varying in age from more than one hundred years to as few as forty, have all of them managed to find their way through the decades without losing a leaf before they came to me. Oh, it would be easy enough to point out that with a book like that by Walter Savage Landor, some of these have probably had few readers since the date of publication. That said, what they all have in common, these old books, is some standard of care that has kept them intact, even handsome, from that day to this. Some may not have been much read, but others, were you to handle them for yourselves, you would see have had many hands turn these pages, have come down and gone back onto many shelves. I love the idea of that. I love knowing that readers before me have handled most of my books, and read them, as I do, not because it was required of them but because these were the books that were wanted, some drear January night like this one. Think of the fact that many of these old books found their first readers under gaslight or candle, and you'll see what I mean when I admire the longevity of not just these authors and ideas but these little books themselves.

Also in the picture, there are more recent titles. A couple of these, in fact, though this may not be clear just looking at their spines, are quite new. One was a Christmas present from myself to me, and another I purchased at just my scant employee discount because I was unwilling to just borrow the book or wait for it to get remaindered in hardcover, a process that now seems, to my continued amazement, to take roughly a year or thereabouts. There is at least one remaindered book in this little pile as well. It was something I'd meant to read when it was new but for whatever reason never did. It is by an author I collect, someone I've continued to read through the decades, despite not always agreeing with either his politics or his prose, both of which can be a bit florid for my tastes, but still, I admire him very much and have enjoyed every book I've bought, down the years. This one, when I saw it discounted on a table in the lobby, I scooped up and added to a pile that never quite goes away in the cubby under the buying desk at which I work every day on the sales floor. I think I finally paid for the thing and brought it home after a disgracefully long stay in that dark little corner. Have yet to read more than the brief introduction, but now that it's mine, I may do so when I choose and that is a glorious feeling. As for it's condition, it is neither better nor worse than most of the remainders that I buy. There is but one small blot on the bottom pages-edge, otherwise it is as clean and bright as the day the book was initially shipped. This is not always the way with remainders; some publishers and distributors would seem to feel an unjustified hostility to the books they are forced to sell off in this way. There are still major publishing companies who, when they clear their warehouses of unsold copies, would seem to feel that while they can not quite bring themselves to pulp every existing copy, still want very much to make sure they never see these books again, and so deface them with long black slashes of ink that mare not only their edges, but often leaks right onto the pages, as a constant reminder to any future readers that their interest in these books has made the publishers of them no money whatsoever, damn them. A lazy, stupid practice, defacing unsold books. One discreet dot should be enough to flag a book as being the result of unwarranted optimism and or a failed marketing effort, if any such effort was made. Still, most remainders, at least among the ones I buy, tend nowadays to be perfectly presentable books, fit for any library not so fastidious as to insist on only unmarked, unblemished -- and I would bet you, in nine instances out of ten, never to be read -- "fine," first editions, and of only the first printing, thank you very much. Snobbish nonsense, when it comes to most modern books.

To return for the moment, however reluctantly, to the Textbooks Department, the thing that sinks my heart every time I have occasion to go down there is the sad and sorry state of most of the used books one will find in any such venue, anywhere in the world, where students have got hold of books. I could not be made to care how badly treated some kid's chemistry textbook has been. Many of the academic monographs and the like; written, printed, studied and returned as part of the ever cycling system that pays for degrees, tenure and summer research trips to the Ozarks or the Greek Isles, can look, upon being restocked as "used," as flatly new and unread as they doubtlessly would if their only fate had been to rest undisturbed on the shelves upstairs, among the books that might be sold to those who read from interest or curiosity, rather than as required to pass some dull course. I can't help but smile at this, but really, I couldn't care. No. It isn't all that scholarly stuff, in whatever state of stasis or use that I am grateful not to have to much sell, or even see. But to see great piles of Austen in Penguin paperbacks, whole haystacks of Conrad in Norton Critical Editions, all of them marked "used," as if they were no different from the books we sell upstairs, that is what sends me into immediate gloom.

The state of them! If anyone might be said to treat books with less concern than the clerks at the desk of a public library, it would have to be college students. If it were in my power, I would ban "highlighters" all together, just as various municipalities now ban those wide, permanent markers, and for much the same reason; the damage they do far outweighs their utility. How many books do we see at the buying desk that, from their covers would seem to have been unread, only to open them at some random page and find nearly the whole of it discolored with some sickly, glowing yellow or green ink? And why please, in an age when almost no one under the age of forty still seems to carry a pen or write anything in longhand, why will college students still insist on scribbling in ink, right into a book, every inane note taken down while drowsing through a lecture on the post-colonial reconsideration of the South American revolutions, as seen by early modern novelists in English? But the interiors of most of those abused Penguins I mentioned don't have to be so much as opened for even the casual observer to note the violence done to their books by the average student. How do so many books that, at a guess, I would have to say were not read beyond the second chapter, yet manage to look as though they had traveled across the Steppes unpacked in an open ox-cart? Semi-detached covers, broken spines, bent and twisted wrecks, the majority of the used books one sees for sale in a college bookstore, to say nothing here of the huge, permanent and hideous stickers that textbook-folk seem to slap on anything that might come their way.

Coming back upstairs into the healthier air of the general bookstore, I can not help but marvel at not only the growing diversity of our stock, but also at it's rude fitness; row upon row of old books shelved right next to the new and, most of 'em, all but indistinguishable, but for the discreet little yellow dot we put on the spines of all the used books. Now that we've had some considerable success at selling the discount and remainder books throughout the store, shelved in thick stacks, face-out, often with a small sign announcing their presence and excellent prices, but often with nothing to distinguish them from their fellows but the small, but bright new yellow price-tags on the front covers, one might be right to worry that with these, and all the used books that now mingle so freely with the new books, the place might start to look a bit seedy. Not true. If anything, the addition of all these different kinds of books, with so much variety in their bindings, and prices, their sizes and shapes and subjects, has if anything only added interest to our stock and made the shelves full again, for the first time in a very long time, with all the diversity and glamour of the very best bookstores.

As someone who buys many books, and who consequently has seen the inside of too many bookstores, I must tell you that to the lovers of books, there can be few finer sights than spacious floor crowded with good old books, and new books, and inexpensive books, and rare books, and all of them clean, and all of them in surprisingly good shape, and all of them, or most of them anyway, seemingly untouched by the grubby mits of callow youth. I've been haunting used bookstores since I was a kid myself, way back in the way back, and even before I stumbled into making a living, after a fashion, by selling books, I came quickly to recognize the signs of a bookstore run with good and gentle, if not downright genteel, readers in mind. Seems I'm lucky enough to work in just such a place... so long as I never have to go downstairs.



  1. Awuuh Brad, 'tis true, 'tis true, we are lucky folk. But let me take your hand and guide you to the basement... all the lights work ... & there are lucky charms, which are magically delicious. (I personally love all the amazing ART supplies that my beloved orders ... lol.)


  2. I have a compact edition of the Skeat Chaucer (as well as my five-volume Skeat). It's one of the few books I ever wrote my name in, and I did so because all (or several, at least)of the previous owners had written their names in it, beginning in 1935 or thereabouts. As I wrote my name, I thought of the books next owner, whoever that might be, and hoped she would do the same, specculating, as I did, about who those previous owners might have been.

  3. Jan, always turn left at the foot of the stairs: got it.

    Richard, thank you for this. So goes Chaucer, ever on...