Things to do with old books

Last Saturday, I attended a public tag-team reading of a chapter from The Fellowship of the Ring, which was held in honor of International Tolkien Reading Day. Having gone on a bit about books myself on this blog from time to time, I thought I could at least go and see how this project would unfold, and lend some support. Although I can’t say I am a big devotee ofThe Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was pretty familiar with The Hobbit as a kid and got around to reading FOTR in college. (I don’t know why I never picked up on the LOTR books at a younger age – I recall thinking that they must be too complicated and grownup in comparison to The Hobbit.)

Although I was familiar with two of the three books in the trilogy (my college library did not have The Two Towers, so I skipped over that one and did the best I could), I didn’t currently have a copy – so I stopped at a used book shop (Stop’n’Swap, in Westvale) on the way to the reading. This is only bookstore left on my side of town. Yes, you can stop in to any big-box place like Target or Wal-Mart and find a pallid selection of the latest best-sellers, and possibly the perennially popular LOTR books as well. But I really did want to go to the shop anyway to pick up not only FOTR, but maybe something else I might want to start reading, as I hadn’t been there in a few months.

I went to their sci-fi/fantasy section (part of a wall, really, since the shop is so tiny) and found myself immediately touched by the past — my past, as it turned out, because the first books I noticed were a whole bunch of classic Star Trek episode novelizations that were published in the ’70s. Hardly high literature, but I grew up with these books. And some familiar Arthur C. Clarke titles that had also been in our basement library (which tended toward popular science and history). My father’s books. Not literally his — but who knows, they might have been, since some of them appeared to be the exact same editions. Back in the early ’80s when he lost his job, one Saturday we had filled up a large cardboard box with books (paperbacks, book club titles, things belonging to all of us that we thought unimportant) and taken it down to the 1/2 Price Book Warehouse on Bear Street and sold for a little over thirty dollars — about a week’s groceries for a family of four, at the time. Yes, for thirty pieces of silver we sold them. Who knows where they had migrated on the local used-book circuit since then?

As for FOTR, they had some new copies at Stop’n’Swap, but I wanted to get a used one so I could maybe buy something else too without having to stop at the ATM. All they had was a soulless movie tie-in with indifferent cover art, which appeared good enough, until I got out to my car and happened to look through it. The book began in medias res, with pages 429-458 in the front. A printing error. This would have been fine, if only the first chapter and a half of the book hadn’t been missing. I took the copy back in to the shop and fortunately there was another of the same edition, with the pages in the proper order. The mixed-up copy, said the cashier delicately as she took it back, was going “you-know-where.”

Now when I remember her using this euphemism, I wonder if a lot of people still have a psychological problem with throwing unwanted books in the trash – even defective ones. If electronics marketing wizards don’t understand why e-book readers still don’t really sell all that well, maybe they should consider the extreme emotional attachment that we still have for physical books. It goes beyond just the creature comforts, the pleasure of the turning of the pages and the sipping of the tea. The burning of books still feels like an obscenity no matter what the context, and I recall some years ago there was a mass disposal (okay, let’s not be delicate — a shredding) of old, unloved books at a local landfill that bothered many people. Maybe such queasiness goes way back to the old Greek legend about the crone who offered three books full of the world’s forgotten wisdom to a king, for an exorbitant price; which he refused to pay, so she just kept burning the books until only one was left, costing three times as much.

Anyway, later I saw this edition still had a few problems, such as:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bid them.

(Come on! That’s the most famous passage in the entire trilogy, and the proofreader couldn’t even get that right!?)

After this (and several other setbacks beyond the scope of this post) I did get down to the event. Many of the people there had their cherished old copies of FOTR and I noticed that a few people had the exact same one I had read from in college (a white paperback with a kind of watercolor artwork on the cover). One woman told a cool story about how she managed to snag her very expensive special edition of the book as a teenager, as a reward for stopping the thief who’d attempted to walk out with it.

It took about two hours to read the chapter page by page – perhaps an important detail because it turns out that Sean Kirst, who masterminded International Tolkien Reading Day and this Syracuse event, has been contemplating a massive all-LOTR reading marathon for some future date. This is a new idea to promote Syracuse as a center of literacy, something that many people have been thinking about for a while (including author Laurie Halse Anderson whose recent essay on this subject I have admired). A stunt, but quite an epic stunt if it were pulled off, something I’m sure would attract great enthusiasm and attention to reading and that a lot of people would want to be part of. (As for me, stopping in for my copy of FOTR also netted me the first Master and Commander book by Patrick O’Brian, a series I’d always wanted to read after seeing Peter Weir’s movie. At 20 books long, and in the dense style that it’s written, this series could keep a reader busy for the rest of their natural life, so “yay literacy.”)

However, the FOTR reading had a sort of multi-dimension to it that felt important. I have to admit I usually don’t feel interested in going to book readings, possibly because they usually take place in huge corporate bookstores. There was a time when I almost couldn’t make myself go into a Borders or a Barnes and Noble, because the sheer psychic weight of all those shiny new books made me feel kind of overwhelmed. (Could it possibly be that there are too many new books being printed, or am I just falling behind?) Maybe it’s an unfair assumption, seeing as how I don’t usually go to them — but such events seem so commercialized; all about the Oprah Book Club or some high-flying author coming in to town, or book readings turning into a kind of showcase for community theater figures where mere mortals are relegated to the sidelines. I was relieved that I was not the only person at the reading who was not an accomplished orator, although I very much enjoyed the couple of people who were. And it was fun when it just so happened that the youngest reader at the event was the one who read the fateful lines excerpted above. (Phil was also there, so you can read his take on it.)

The dimension that I liked was that the event was also organically about people and their books – physical stuff, not just ideas. That to me was very “Syracuse,” a place where people used to make things (such as typewriters on which to write books). Although there are a couple ones in Eastwood, I really can’t help now thinking about the dearth of used book shops in Syracuse. (Or bookstores, period — anyone remember Economy Books downtown?) The 1/2 Price Book Warehouse, that hulking musty palace that ate my family’s box of books, is now gone. The used-book trade has gone online (when I buy from Amazon it’s always from the used-book sellers) and I wonder if it has to be that way. Wouldn’t it be something if Syracuse could become the place where used books go to live?

Maybe that’s another aspect to Syracuse’s literacy future that could be explored and facilitated by those with the power to help the business and tourism climate. There is still something enchanting about the idea of wandering into a shop and stumbling upon
the book that will unlock your life – one that is no longer being mass-marketed, but is instead sitting there in the dusty shadows, waiting just for you. And maybe the book that you lost, too.