Friday, June 10, 2011

Books For Sale

Today is the day above all days in the year that I look forward to. . .

No, it's not Christmas.

It's not my birthday.

And, it's not "Judgment Day."

Did Van Winkle "sleep" through this?
Yes, we were one of the lucky thousands of cities to be graced with a billboard declaring that the world as we know it was ending in May. The merry month of May came and went. Nothing seems to have happened. No Rapture. No Tribulation. No Mark of the Beast. No nothing.

Or am I mistaken because of my Van Winkle Project vow not to follow the news for just a while longer?

Did I miss Judgment Day?

Whatever the case, the day I most anticipate has managed to roll around again. This marks the 13th year I've been able to attend, spend an hour or so blissing out, then write a check and walk out the door, a satisfied man.

With both hands gripping bags of books purchased for pennies on the dollar.

The Reading Generation
One of the more interesting facts about the city I live in is that it has more than its share of retired folks. Many of them grew up here. They either never left or they moved back to spend their golden years stretching their twig-like limbs beneath the familiar hot sun.

The older folks are attracted by the relatively hospitable cost of living (you can still by a perfectly adequate used home for under $100,000), the low crime rate, the many churches, the patriotism (we are home to a major Air Force base), and the cultural life spawned by three major universities, including free concerts and lectures.

1998 Buick Park Avenue: the Septuagenarian's choice
to drive slower than the speed limit.
Whenever I go out I can spot the old people quite easily. 

I come upon a car going down a straight, otherwise empty street and it's moving along slower than the speed limit. The car is almost always a 10-year-old Buick. Yep, that's one of them behind the wheel.

Or they're the gray or silver or bald heads that are already in their seats at the movie or theater twenty minutes before the show begins. It's a senior paradox: they like to be on time so they always make sure they arrive early.

But, "bless their hearts" (a Southern politeness phrase I've learned is used to mask what actually amounts to a sharp criticism) these old people have one especially favorable characteristic as far as I'm concerned.

Call me crazy, but I smile
whenever I see an old person reading.

They were part of a generation that reached adulthood before the arrival of television. Much more than the people who would be born after them, they always knew how to make their own entertainment.

They played  cards. They knitted. They collected coins and stamps. Another manifestation of this pre-TV/computer screen DIY mentality toward leisure?

They've always been readers.

Think of the implications... As the rigors of aging require them to move into smaller houses or assisted living or nursing homes or, worse case, settle into the turf beneath Forest Lawn, they have to unencumber themselves of some of their possessions. You've probably guessed what they are casting aside at a prodigious rate.

Their books. Lifetime collections of books.

This is why the annual Friends of the Library Book Sale is a bibliophile's dream.

At 9:55 the line is almost out the door...
The Hunt Is On
I walk into the Civic Center downtown and elbow my way past the crowds toward the long rows of tables groaning beneath the weight of "Fiction."

I'm always excited about what I might find in hardback. Give me a nice stiff spine. Un-yellowed pages. Perhaps a dust jacket that is still intact. I'll pick up a copy for $1.75. As I said, pennies on the dollar.

And children's books? They go for $1 an inch. Your purchase is measured with a ruler at check-out. What a deal!

As I browse these tables crammed with the castoffs of someone else's cultural life, I notice that most of what was purchased came from the bestseller list. It's interesting to see how quickly these authors sank from sight. Does anyone talk anymore about Sidney Sheldon? Rebecca West? Frank G. Slaughter? Whatever happened to Arthur Hailey who wrote about the perils and loves in a different industry in each of his novels? Airport, The Moneychangers, Hotel. Did Mr. Hailey ever write about steel? Silicon? Wal-mart?

I  begin in my favorite section - fiction.

Look at all these hardbacks...
 I keep searching, hoping to find my version of treasure. Like the year I picked up a hardbound copy of The Writer's Chapbook, a collection of writers' advice on their craft, edited by George Plimpton. It turned out to be signed by Mr. Plimpton, himself--famous writer, founder and editor of the Paris Review, and affable host of America's most celebrated late-20th Century literary salon.

Or our son found on the special items table (i.e., $5/book) a hardbound tribute to the Wallace and Gromet movies signed by their creator, Nick Parks.

What "treasure" might be lurking in one of these rows, I wonder.

And even without an author signature it was nice to pick up hardbound copies of Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, and any book by my favorite, Mr. Kurt Vonnegut.

What an upgrade! This moving from paperback to hardcover is like trading in T-shirt and jeans for a nice Italian suit!

Today's Finds
So I walked away with fewer books than some years, but there was still enough to please. Such as the first really LONG book I ever read from beginning to end. That honor goes to A Thousand Days by Arthur Schlesinger who told the story of JFK's abbreviated presidency in this book. I read it in fifth grade and wrote a book report. I was so impressed with myself! A Thousand Days was 1027 pages long!

I'm also happy to have picked up the only novel written by F. X. Toole who spent most of his life as a cornerman for a succession of boxers. As anyone knows whose read his short story collection that gave Clint Eastwood the material for the film Million Dollar Baby, nobody has ever written with more authority about punching the speedbag, climbing into the ring, or hitting the canvas.

And a first edition Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is not too shabby of an acquisition either.

I also had another bit of good fortune...

I found all three of Cormac McCarthy's novels that are part of his "Border Trilogy," I now have a nice uniform edition of some of the best work of the best living American writer.

But there's still one more book I have to show off. It wins the prize for the "Most Unexpected" volume.

Did you know that Charles Lindbergh wrote a lengthy book recounting his adventures in aviation up to and including his historic crossing of the Atlantic?

As I could tell from the price listed on the dust jacket, this book came out in the 1950s. What was most surprising, though, was that the entire memoir is written in present tense. Who was writing nonfiction in present tense back then? I can't think of anyone. Yet it's a wonderful gamble on the part of the writer. All of those present tense verbs can make us feel we are climbing into the cockpit with Lucky Lindy.

So I walked out of the Civic Center without anything by Kurt Vonnegut this year, but I still feel fine. In fact, I strongly suspect that there may have been a book or two by Kurt and I just overlooked them among the thousands of competing volumes. Oh well, my loss can be someone else's gain. And there's always next year - V.W.

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