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September 2017

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It is a morning like wearing an upturned iron pot that drips condensation directly into your mind. The Beautiful Shed refuses to be warmed or comforted. There's nothing for it but to make a book-buying post with minor material culture notes.

The local newspaper's book sale happened last weekend. You will be delighted to know that the sale is usually held in the curling rink. Cheap rent, big space, authentic cultural aura.

The sale is one of the iconic events on the city calendar, with the Moss Street Paint-In (local artists line the titular way with booths and demonstrations) and the Symphony Splash (the symphony plays on a barge in the harbour, culminating in the 1812 Overture with real cannon fire from the nearby naval base).

I have to be careful, faced with the rows and rows of heaped books, with more stacked in boxes beneath the tables, or I get trapped in discovery anxiety -- you know: must look at everything so as to miss nothing. Instead, I try to surrender to serendipity. I try.

There are themes in every sale, and one can't help but speculate -- who moved? Cleaned house? Split up? Got together? Who died (peacefully, after a brief illness)? Who grew suddenly tired of old preferences and began anew? -- all to create this momentary pattern. This year there seemed to be a lot of A.S. Byatt, which is admittedly not a very dramatic finding.

I spent more money (and concomitant time) than I intended, for they had two levels of paperback pricing: pocketbook and large-format. However, the prices are still fantastically cheap, so I escaped at the cost of a pricey brunch. My only quibble was finding out afterwards that I'd paid $2.00 for a Dover Thrift Edition of Bartleby that cost only $1.50 new. (It's all in a good cause.)

The 2017 Haul

  • Annharte. Being on the Moon. (1990) Annharte, an Anishinabe poet, is one of the poets in the anthology I used in teaching Indigenous Literatures and Oratures. I don't know her work well, so this presented an opportunity to deepen my knowledge. Signed by the author!

  • Byatt, A.S. The Game and The Shadow of the Sun. (1967, 1983) (1964, 1991) -- honor the pattern. Also, they were about British academics. (Goodreads is not so sure about my choices.) Sun is one of those nice solid Vintage editions that came out I think with/because of Possession. Game is orange-spine-era Penguin.

  • Clarke, Lindsay. The Chymical Wedding. (1989) I had no prior knowledge of this book's existence, but John Fowles claims to have liked it, and Michael Wood said "the very craziness or the Hermetic Quest is turned into a sane metaphor, representing a glimpse of how symbolic the world actually is, how much it is made in our image, littered with fragments of our dreams," and I thought "Yeah, all right." (Goodreads is fairly positive.)

  • Eliot, T.S. The Sacred Wood. (1960). As booksales are for the cheap acquisition of classics, and as it is fun to read old criticism. A dramatic University Paperback with vermilion woodcut trees on age-stained ecru air.

  • Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. (1984, 2001). To remedy my lack of having read Erdrich. When opened at random, full of beauty.

  • Lathers, Marie. The Aesthetics of Artifice: Villiers's L'eve future. I'm actually not that interested in artifice-for-its-own-sake -- more in self-creation and inhabitation -- but I picked this up and read from the Foreword (by John Anzalone, a person of whom I know nothing): "Defiantly unconventional, despite his deep-seated traditionalism, Auguste de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam produced a body of writing so uncomfortable for canonically determined hierarchies that for a time it seemed in danger of disappearing altogether." This is a convergence of an author, a forewordist, and a subject I have no knowledge of whatever, but sometimes these convergences produce beautiful inkblooms in the mind, where mystery must be filled in by supposition.

  • Le Sueur, Meridel. The Girl. (1982) Seems to have been damaged in a fire: a river of smoke runs up the gutter of the dedication page. (Goodreads cautiously approves.)

  • McEwan, Ian. The Cement Garden. (1978, 1980) I'm not a particular fan of McEwan, and I don't know his oeuvre that well -- I found Sweet Tooth a little disappointing -- but I liked the film of this book a lot when I saw it in my hazily distant past. A nice old weird-looking Picador edition.

  • Melville, Herman. Bartleby and Benito Cereno. I really just wanted to have actually read "Bartleby," rather than nodding and chuckling knowingly whenever someone says "I would prefer not to."

  • Meredith, Richard C. We All Died at Breakaway Station. (1969). One of two purchases from the SF table. Here's a sample from the back cover copy: "these brutally injured officers had been restored to temporary, artificial life ... because no intact man or woman could be spared from the main conflict" (to take a hospital ship back to Earth). Um, yes please.

  • Merril, Judith (ed). Judith Merril's England Swings SF. (1968) -- for this, I broke my rule about no dilapidated/stained/smelly books. It was dusty, and someone had spilled an alarming substance on its first few pages at some point in the 1970s, but it is an intoxicatingly self-delighted artifact of New Wave SF. (Only 12 ratings and one review on Goodreads! A true Find.)

  • Tonks, Rosemary. Bedouin of the London Evening. (2014) Bloodaxe Books. Poems and an interview with Tonks in the back. I believe I first read of Tonks' poetry and this collection only a few months ago in the TLS, so this was fortuity manifest and was obeyed. (Her name always makes me think benignly of the Harry Potter character.)

  • White, T.H. The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King. (1988) There were actually two copies of this -- one in a random fiction pile, and one with SFF. This scholarly edition (U of Texas P) is an unbeautiful but intriguing artifact in a bright vermilion cover. (Vermilion again!) Prologue by Sylvia Townsend Warner (!!)

  • Yeats, W.B. The Poems of W.B. Yeats. (1966) A nice little hardcover, just a hand high, green, smelling of horse-glue. Probably the best artifact here for material culture. The owner's signature on the flyleaf in black ink has imprinted its mirror image in yellow on the inside front cover: M (E? G?) Y (F? J?) Williamson, in an upright but emphatic hand. A Macmillan (Canadian) edition. I wanted a proper Yeats -- my last one is a Dover all marked up from class.

There are more important things to be said, but they cannot be copied from the copyright page of an aged book, so they will have to wait.

I almost never cull books, since I am shoring them up against the apocalypse. Once in a long while I let myself admit that there are books a) that I will not read and b) that won't be immediately useful after the revolution. I culled my novels on Saturday, and therefore on Sunday there were thirty boxes of free books at the library. They were left over from a rummage sale for the seniors’ centre.1 I took home five books. I call that remarkable self-control (and illness-induced fatigue).

  1. Samuel Beckett, Stories and Texts for Nothing Grove Press, N.Y. A collection of pieces first published in the Evergreen Review. In terms of material culture, this is the score. It has a great cover: fragments of Beckett's name arranged orthagonally in blue and green. The paper's water-damaged and mustier than I usually accept -- but the illustrations!

    The book is illustrated with terrific 60s-era line drawings, and these drawings are all about the line. Geometrical forms somehow give the effect both of rapid work and of obsessive precision, and the image arises out of their intersection -- almost despite the lines rather than because of them.

    I thought I had a mystery in the illustrator’s name (which I was misreading), until a friend pointed out his credit on the copyright page right where you’d expected it.

    The illustrations are actually by Avigdor Arikha. (Cut for biography intersecting with traumatic 20th C history.) )

    Further instances of obsessive precision behind the cut )

  2. James Thurber, Lanterns and Lances I mean, Thurber. This is an odd artefact, a "Time Reading Program Special Edition"3 printed in or about 1962. The cover is of thick immobile cardboard, matte purple inside. There's no jacket copy, just Thurber's drawings blown up. It is also illustrated, by Thurber, natch. You'll be excited to know it has a New Introduction, probably because it's a posthumous edition.

    A thing I like very much is a book with layered introductions which, as we read forwards, take us backwards into innocence and before death. Alternatively, I have, I think, that edition of James Tiptree, Jr's Warm Worlds and Otherwise with the two introductions, before and after.

  3. (Collected by) Sage Birchwater, Chiwid Now this is interesting. It's an oral history of a Tsilhqot'in woman named Chiwid, born in 1904. She lived in the Chilcotin (a region of British Columbia just south of the Cariboo, where I was born a long time later.) Birchwater seems to have been interested in her because she was famous for living independently on the land, and maybe more as a figure around whom stories crystallized than for herself (she'd died before the book was published).

  4. Christina Rosetti, Goblin Market A tiny Phoenix booklet containing the titular poem and a few others, marked 60p. A lot of UK expats fetch up here.

  5. Vera John-Steiner, Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking Printed in 1985, this is an obviously dated book about modes of thought, but as I leafed through I saw it had a section called “The Thinking of the Body”, which goes to my preoccupation with embodied mentation, so I snagged it on spec. As well as compiling published research, John-Steiner conducted many interviews for the book with subjects from novelists (Margaret Drabble) to psychologists, poets, and scientists (though fewer of these).


1. I say material culture, but it's just books and ephemera. "Rummage sale" makes me think of a fluted lamp of molded pink glass or a warped cardboard landscape in a heavy wooden frame, but no -- just books.

2. The 5 looks like a 1, but that would be an oddly specific price.

3. More on that imprint here. This edition follows the design specs they detail: "The editions were trade paperbacks, with covers constructed of very stiff plastic coated paper, for durability .... each book had a wraparound cover with a continuous piece of artwork across both covers and the spine".
Herein I attempt some deduction.

My edition of Howards End is a decaying Penguin Modern Classics paperback once owned by a Warren Cocking. I don't think he would mind my publicizing this, since he wrote his name the inside front cover, followed by both his address and his phone number.

In which our hero spends a perhaps surprising amount of time describing a hypothetical felt pen. )

What I really came here to do, though, was to talk about the blurb on the back of the book. )

I can see what the blurbist is going for: you are meant to really value and appreciate this book, not just consume it. It's just that they seem to be telling you this while backing away, slowly and mournfully, into the void.

Here is someone else's entertaining mention of the self-same blurb (on a slightly earlier edition). In this blog post, Robin Stevens mentions "the 60s, era of charmingly hilarious back-cover blurbs", and a similarly misguided blurb for The Waves.3

Was that a thing? Was it just a Penguin thing? A British thing?4 I don't remember my other paperbacks of the era having anhedonic and passive-aggressive blurbs.

What I'm asking is -- where can I find more?


more footnotes )
3.So far searching for strange old book blurbs just finds me many, many sites about how to write a catchy blurb for your self-published book, and searching "The Waves back cover" gets me illustrated phone cases.
4. It seems very British indeed, in reflecting that distinctive double-negative-for-positive phrasing, e.g. "not unpleasant".