"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book hunt

Yesterday I went on an adventure. With notes and map in hand, I traversed unfamiliar territory and came back with nine items of treasure. Books, that is. As a new student of literature, I have much to read, and I thought a tour of the local bookstores would be a nice way to get to know the area and acquire the tomes on my reading lists.

So I set out in the bright, cold morning and arrived at my first destination full of hope. The moment I stepped inside the door of the first store, I realized the enormity of my task. I was standing in a room full of books. Well, that's not quite sufficient to describe it. There were bookshelves, I guess, but they were obscured by stacks and rows and piles and bunches and columns and messes and masses of books. I looked for a pattern in their arrangement, a method to the madness. Couldn't find one, really.

But as I said, I was still full of hope and energy at that point, so I didn't want to give away the pleasure of the search by asking the owner if he had any of the books on my list. Nor could I imagine that any one person would know this immense and disorderly stock by heart (I later learned this was a misguided doubt, because I later did resort to asking him, and he knew instantly that he had none of my books). So I began making my way around the room, picking up piles of books to see the books underneath. When I got tired of that, I left to try my luck elsewhere.

The next store was the same deal, with less piles but more mustiness and spines that looked like they might disintegrate at my touch. I didn't spend much time there.

I tried the bookstall at the open-air market next, which was an interesting experience even though it yielded no purchases. They had their books organized in the most remarkable way. First I thought I was looking at a fantasy section, a crime/thriller section, a romance section. Then I saw that what I had dismissed as romance was actually "Female Authors A-Z, which stood across from a separate section called "Male Authors A-Z." What? Do people really go to look for a book and think, hm, I really want a book written by a man today, I don't even need to look at the women writers? Or - more annoying - do they assume that women will browse on one side of the store and men on the other? Oh, and turns out there was a separate romance section in addition. 

At that point, I figured I needed some sustenance, so I headed for the bakery. But before I could be lured in by the amazing cakes and pastries in the window, I noticed a bookstore right next door! An uncharted bookstore, which I thought I had glimpsed somewhere in the area a few days before but wasn't sure I could find again. That's were my luck turned. They had, inexplicably, a whole shelf of Wordsworth Classics for 2 pounds each. Not even used books. So happy. These books have beautiful cover art and feel like silk. I picked out The Great Gatsby and Age of Innocence.

My only regret was not needing to buy more of them. I also snagged a copy of Henry James' The Ambassadors at that store, not as schnazzy as these books, but still wonderful, especially since it's one of those books whose pages turn beautifully.

Having finally procured a croissant, I wandered over to the next shop, and stopped along the way at the cathedral, where I saw a really wonderful printmaking and calligraphy exhibit. My next find was Absalom, Absalom!, which is surprisingly hard to find in English second-hand stores. Actually most things are hard to find, aside from Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. I suppose maybe literature of the American south doesn't have much readership here, and I can't say I blame them, because I have yet to learn to love Faulkner. Although he keeps turning up on my reading lists. He's very persistent.

Anyway, I found this very bright red copy, so at least if I start falling asleep while I'm reading, I can just glance at the cover to shock myself awake. Really, the design of book covers is fascinating. I would love to shadow a cover artist or designer on the job or sit in on a meeting between them and the author, if such meetings actually occur.

Later I found another rabbit-warren store, and this time I just cut to the chase and gave my list to the guy behind the counter. He produced an old copy of The Trial, nothing special, but no problem since it was only 2 pounds and I have a nicer copy in German.

And then I relinquished my goal of buying all my books second-hand and headed to Waterstones, which is a chain but which also has a nice café and a giant dalek randomly sitting amongst the bookshelves and lots of copies of The Casual Vacancy that I could peek at and resist buying.

There I found 2666 by Roberto Bolano, which is immense. It's so big. I thought it was several books stacked up until I reached for it and realized it was one book. But it has this wonderful little punched out spot in the cover that you can use to spy on people while you're reading it, and it looks very impressive on the bookshelf.

I found a copy of Lolita that I really like, It's a little smaller and more compact that your average book, with a simple cover design, not too creepy but suggestive.

And The Bell Jar. That one looks a little creepy, actually. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to reading it.

There was also copy of The Crying of Lot 49, but I didn't really care for the cover, and I thought I might find it cheaper online and with a better design - or one that suited me better at least.

And finally, The Emigrants by Sebald. I don't know anything about it, but it looks pretty.

So off I went home with my bag full of books and collapsed in my chair to read another book, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I will review soon, maybe tomorrow after we talk about it in class. Then I can impart to you the wisdom of others as well as myself. Or maybe before class so I can think my thoughts through on paper before the discussion. We'll see.


  1. This is my favorite post so far :)
    Your library will soon become the envy of everyone dear - TWO beautiful copies of Great Gatsby?? It's hardly fair. And that Lolita cover is a very lucky find!

  2. Somehow I knew you would like this :) You would have loved the calligraphy exhibit at the cathedral, wish you could've been there.