Pope’s Works, with a life by Dr. Johnson
Even before the door opens, a cart full of books tries to
tempt me… but I know from long experience that there won’t be anything
worthwhile. There’s a reason why they’re free or just really, really cheap.
This is the place where failed wannabe bestsellers go to die, usually in the
company of how-to books for software that’s been out-of-date for decades.
Still, I look (because one collector found a first edition
of Moby Dick on a wheelbarrow outside
one of those long-gone Fourth Avenue booksellers’ shops—a book that was signed
by Melville to Hawthorne). I’ve never found anything remotely like that, but
you never know…
Once through the front door, a second table of inexpensive
books, or sometimes titles just recently added to the store’s stock. Always
worth a peek. Sometimes, perhaps in an effort to justify the “rare books”
portion of the store window’s “Used & Rare Books” signage, antique
glass-fronted book cases hold the shop’s treasures: signed first editions;
incunabulae; an unbound section of Pope’s Essay
on Man; bizarre misprints—like 1631‘s Wicked
Bible. I glance at these with a mixture of longing and parsimony. There
will be nothing I can afford in those cases.
Further in, a wall of elegant leather-bound sets speak, in
reserved tones, of opulent private libraries, lined in dark woods, and paved
with thick sound-deadening carpets. These ancient volumes, wearing a patina
that suggests, simultaneously, generations of care and the likelihood that they
have never been read. I open one carefully, see the un-cut pages, inhale the
fragrance of benign decrepitude, run the tip of a finger over the indentations
of early letterpress upon ever-so-slightly foxed rag paper, then slide it back
on the shelf. None of these books would satisfy anyone but an illiterate snob
or his interior decorator. Who, among us, longs to read through twenty-eight
volumes of seventeenth-century sermons written by an obscure pastor from an
unpronounceable parish in Wales? Or pore over the military memoirs of a retired
officer, recounting forgotten and inconsequential deeds in neglected corners of
a long-gone empire?
These books are
rare, and deservedly so.
I walk away from these shelves, respectfully—as if stepping
between the stones of a cemetery, the graves filled with people I never knew,
or even knew of. There may be nothing
there for me, but there’s no need to be rude, either. I’m impatient to get into
the parts of the bookshop that pander to my particular forms of book lust, but
I’m vaguely aware of another urge, something perhaps more visceral in nature.
I ignore its implied message, and head to the alphabetically-organized
shelves of favorite authors. I look to see if they have the one volume of
Boswell’s journals that I’m missing. Alas, no—but they do have a better copy of
the first one I acquired, and I’m tempted to upgrade. I hold off, since the day
is young, my budget is limited, and I have no idea what serendipitous wonders
are lurking back in the stacks.
How about TC Boyle? My living room has one shelf bulging
with his books, but I’d like to replace a couple of paperbacks with hardcovers,
especially the early Water Music.
Alas, there are many copies of his later books, printed when his fame justified
huge print runs. I’m beginning to feel a little anxious about my chances for a
big haul, or maybe it’s an unsettled something-or-other in the abdominal
Perhaps I should have had breakfast before starting this
book trek. Never mind; I’m here now; let’s see what finds are in store.
Do they have any of the four volumes that would fill out my
set of complete works of John Burroughs? Not likely. I do find yet another copy
of Locusts & Wild Honey—a tasty
book, to be sure, but I already have two editions of it and a third would place
an uncalled-for burden on already over-stuffed bookshelves.
Speaking of burdens, those complaints from my nether regions
are becoming more insistent. It is becoming obvious that the problem is not the
emptiness of my upper abdomen, but quite the opposite. While writers of books
may be metaphorically full of shit, this collector of books is literally so.
Why don’t I ever remember to void my bowels before wading
into the vowels (and consonants) of a major book hunt? For some reason, moments
after entering a bookstore, the urging of my corporal (and less ethereal or
aesthetic) nature begin to dictate my behavior. This has happened so often that
I suspect there may be an element of causality at work.
Is it because I read in bathrooms—and all that literature is
telling me it’s time to find a private place to sit and read?
Is it a variant on the gastrointestinal effects of fright
and flight—the urge to empty one’s colon to ease an escape? If so, what could I
possibly fear in a bookstore—finding more treasures than I can fit in my
book-jammed house? Not likely, since I rarely pass up the opportunity to
acquire more books.
Perhaps the urge to purge is metaphorical—my body telling me
to make room before ingesting yet more volumes? Or does the smell of old books—“vellichor,”
the word itself suggesting the Proustian aroma of parchment perdu—merely trigger ancient memories of
reading in restrooms? Do rolls of toilet paper mimic the scrolls in the library
Whatever the reason, I soon find myself in a small room at
the back of the shop, seated between walls covered with old New Yorker covers, portraits of authors
long gone, photos of the great libraries of Europe—a kind of sanctum sanctorum,
consecrated with icons of literary lives, real or imagined. These bookshop
bathrooms invariably hold a few books to distract the temporary occupants from
their mundane tasks.
No longer burdened by the baser elements of my
nature, I emerge fully refreshed and refocused. Where was I?
Ah yes, “C.”
wonder if they might they have any
Calvino or Catullus that I’ve not yet perused...