A book buying celebration

A work by F. Hopkinson Smith
I went to the doctor last week for my six week check-in (which was a week overdue) and was told that I’m doing better than most. I hadn’t known how worried Peggy had been because she had the misguided notion that I would worry if she told me, although I don’t remember an occasion on which I took-on her fears. Only after leaving the doctor’s did she confess that the knee’s continued swelling and heat had concerned her greatly.

Brian (the surgeon) suggested that an exercise bike might be beneficial, so we went to Sears where I spoke with a 20-year old salesman who said that, when he was fifteen, he had undergone one of the ten post painful surgeries (in terms of recovery). It was necessitated because his ribs were turning inward and would have killed him had he not had a metal plate inserted and spent a month flat on his back. Then I celebrated the good report by going to St. Vinnie’s and buying seven books. I rarely buy so many, but they had been moved from the rare book room into the main part of the store where I was able to get them for under $5 each and after that to Costco where, because I was using a cane and wearing a compression stocking, a woman who was anticipating a knee replacement approached me with many questions. But enough of all that, because I want to tell you about the seven old books I bought in the hope that, if you don
’t already, you too might come to love old copies of old books.

(1) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970). I read this book twenty years ago, but was thinking just last week that I wanted to re-read it. The German edition appeared in January 1929, and my English edition was published in November of that same year. By its release, Little, Brown, and Company had put out seven editions (presumably, all in English) and fourteen printings. My copy is inscribed “Merry Christmas, 1929. From Mabel to Paul,” leaving me to wonder if Paul had fought in The War to End All Wars.

The store had two copies from the same printing. The other was sent to the States from war-torn Saigon, with the inscription, “Read to Understand.” The preface to the book reads: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war.” I’ve read those words twice since I got home, and I’ve cried twice. How is it that I ever entertained the stupid, stupid belief that war makes men when the truth is that it
’s more likely to break them!? I suppose it was because my culture glorifies war, war, and more war, always in the name of peace, although I suppose it’s possible that testosterone also played a part.
(2) Harold Bell Wright (1872-1944) is best (and most infamously) known for The Calling of Dan Matthews, which is about a preacher who, like Wright himself, left the ministry to save his integrity. The book I bought today is Their Yesterdays from 1928. I first browsed this same color illustrated copy three months ago, but passed it up because it seemed too spiritual. I don’t believe in omens, yet I can’t say that finding the same copy of the same book meant nothing to me, and it’s also true that much of what he says resonates—for instance: “He had said to himself, ‘When I am twenty-one, I will be a man.’ He did not know then that twenty-one years—that indeed three times twenty-one years—cannot make a man.” I suppose it’s common for boys to pick an age at which to expect manhood. I remember that, at age seventeen, I saw a 19-year-old male mentioned in my local newspaper as “a man,” an concluded that my 19th birthday—at the latest—would be the day that I would wake up feeling different. When nothing happened, I advanced the magic number to twenty-one, and when it too failed, I looked pessimistically to thirty. At 68, I still feel like a minor fraud when I call myself a man, there being too much weight on the word for it to ever be achievable.

(3) The Workers East (1897) and (4) The Workers West (1898) were by a economist named Walter A Wyckoff (1865-1908). Wyckoff was so wealthy that his butler saw him off—in July, 1891, when he  set out walking with old clothes upon his back and without a penny in his pocket. He traveled America for eighteen months, taking day laborer jobs as he went, and writing eloquently about his experiences. This was not a rich man’s lark, but a profound effort to understand the lives of the poorest of the laboring class. One of my two copies of the set is gloriously illustrated, and the set itself had at least two previous owners. The inscription identifying the first owner reads, “Here’s to this little world of ours, which is not growing worse to women, like you, who are doing their best to make it better. V.J. from Tom S. Dec 10,1910.” The second owner was Air Transport Local 1881, IAMAW, Burlingame, CA.” Because the U.S. postal service only instituted zip codes and two-letter state abbreviations in 1963, the second listed owner must have come along decades after the first, which makes sense given that air transport would have been unknown in 1910.

(5) A 1945 edition of Richard Wright’s 1937 book Black Boy. Wright (1908-1960) was from my part of Mississippi, but, because he was black, I only heard of him after moving to Oregon and happening upon his book Native Son at St. Vinnie’s. (I also discovered Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man at St. Vinnie’s and found grim humor in the fact that, given my hitherto complete ignorance of his existence, the title seemed to prove the book’s thesis.)

(6) The Guest, 1946, by Christopher LaFarge (1872-1944). I hadn’t heard of LaFarge, but was intrigued by the book club insert’s promise of a book about a sixty year old “spinster” who lost her grip on reality after her servants abandoned her during the approach of a hurricane.

(7) Light that Faileth (1891) by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). I’ve never read Kipling, but I have read Jack London, so when I learned that London was a major fan of  Kipling, I decided to read him too. One period reviewer wrote that the book had, “a man-loving [surely a euphemism] and misogynistic undercurrent” and was, “…a metaphor for the failing gallantry of 19th-century man confronting the new woman.” My literary idol, Margaret Deland, was among those responsible for creating this subspecies, only to bemoan the fact that some members of her creation were behaving in ways that she considered coarse, if not trashy; that the exalted concept of ladyhood was being lost; and that men were starting to treat women with the same crudity with which they interacted among themselves. One-hundred years later, the word lady has been lost from our language, and the only time I hear the word gentlemen is on the evening news when a cop is referring to a criminal as such. For example; "After strangling Ms Smith, the gentlemen proceeded to kill her dog..." My copy of the book was owned by an Ada Johnson, and how I wish I could talk to her about it!

I want books that long dead eyes read, upon which long dead minds reflected, and into which long dead hands inscribed, because they allow me, in some small measure, to feel that I’m gazing into those eyes, discoursing with those minds, and touching those hands. They penetrate to my soul, and to hold them is to hold the sacred. New books are like new houses in that in that their faces are blank and their souls in infancy. Without them there would be no old books, and the factual ones are often superior, but I’m glad I have little need of them. No matter that new books cost ten times more, I would feel like I was slumming if I walked into a new book store.

As for the authors themselves—as opposed to individual copies of their works—many of the titles I buy are either unavailable new or they’ve been reprinted in paperback, xeroxed editions that I abhor. Without old books, my life would be impoverished. I would still have Mark Twain and Conan Doyle, but I wouldn’t have Margaret Deland and F. Hopkinson Smith, although both were famous during their lifetimes (Smith for his art as well as his books). It’s commonly believed that authors who deserve to remain famous will remain famous, but in my experience, authors are like clothing fashions, the difference being that clothing styles often come back around while, once they’re lost from memory, literary work are rarely rediscovered.


Elephant's Child said...

'It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war.'
My father refused to talk about the war, other than a very occasional humorous anecdote (like vultures raiding his dinner plate) but did tell us firmly and often that there are no winners in war. There are losers and bigger losers. That quote from the preface almost certainly encapsulates part of what he felt.
I too love old books. Books which have been read and reread. And wonder about their previous owners...

Winifred said...

Well that was a find! Glad your knee is improving. Hope bike continues the improvement for you.

I've never read Kipling not even Captains Courageous! My dad & brother absolutley loved the film with Spencer Tracey.

I do like old books, I have quite a lot of my mother in law's I inherited. There was a lovely copy of Cranford which I had seen on TV & oved but hadn't realised was a book!
My favourite bookshop is Barter Books in Alnwick Northumberland. It used to be a railway station the waiting room is now a reading cum coffee/tea place complete with coal fire in winter. In the main bookshop a miniature model train runs around above the many book shelves. Absolute bliss! You can see a photo I took here in a post I wrote a while ago https://stopprocrastinatingandjustdoit.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=Barter+Books+
I must go back this winter.

Sue in Italia/In the Land Of Cancer said...

I am glad your recovery is going mostly smoothly. The exercise bike should be useful though do not push yourself on it too much. Higher cadence at low resistance would be better. I read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. It affected me.

Emma Springfield said...

There are few things as comforting and familiar as holding a book and losing yourself in the story. I no longer have room to collect books so I read on Kindle. It is not nearly as satisfying. If I find a book I like I can read it over and over. It becomes a friend.
It is good to hear you are progressing well with your knee. Hopefully it will not be long until it is fully functional.

angela said...

Good job on th quick recovery
Wow. And great job on the book find. They sound very interesting indeed.
Slightly jealous lol

Strayer said...

I've enjoyed Jack London's books and have read Kiplings Captains Courageous and Jungle Book. Its good news your knee after replacement is doing better than most others. I hope it continues to improve.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

Books were once my passion but lost vision has me struggling to read now. Rudyard Kipling wrote some works in Lahore where his father was stationed. I have been to the area where he lived and wrote about Kim. As a teacher I sometimes used his animal works.
Glad you are in recovery.

Charles Gramlich said...

Read the Wright book, and All Quiet. Good stuff

Snowbrush said...

"My father refused to talk about the war"

Perhaps, you know of documentarist Ken Burns. He recently came out with an 18-hour documentary about Vietnam. One of the opening quotes was by a Vietnam era Marine who said he had known another Marine for 12 years before either of them knew that the other had been a Marine, or that he had fought in Vietnam. As for not talking about war, I suspect that a lot of the silence comes from shame for what a man did, or else shame for what he didn't do. A big part of what the veterans in the documentary talked about was just such things.

"there are no winners in war."

Many people get rich off of war. Armament makers are the most obvious, but also others who supply the military.

"My favourite bookshop is Barter Books in Alnwick Northumberland."

I saw it on your blog, and it certainly looks like a lovely place to read and reflect. I'm embarrassed to say that I never go to a book store other than for St. Vincent's which is a Catholic owned second hand store where I can buy hardcover books for $2.49. If I find an author at St. Vinnie's that I like, I sometimes buy other things he or she wrote from eBay, Amazon, or Abe Books, but that's it. Walk-in book stores are one of those things that I think every community should have in abundance, but that I don't personally support.

"The exercise bike should be useful though do not push yourself on it too much."

My physical therapist told me of a patient who bought an exercise bike, pumped away on it for nearly an hour, and ended up having to have his knee manipulated to break up the resultant scar tissue. Peggy thought this was just too stupid for words, but I can see how a motivated patient might not anticipate the damage he could do with something that seems so innocuous as pumping pedals. Besides, pumping those pedals feels really good while you're doing it.

"I no longer have room to collect books"

I've gotten rid of hundreds if not thousands of books (to reduce my load in life), yet here I am with a whole new book case to hold the many books, yet I'm down to maybe five feet of available shelf space. I really can't imagine reading a Kindle though, but then I don' even have a cell phone because I feel an growing spirit of revolt against electronic "device." Peggy got an iPod Touch recently, and is enjoying it quite a lot. She can text, email, look up things on the Internet, and play games--everything she could do on a cellphone except for talk.

Snowbrush said...

"Wow. And great job on the book find. They sound very interesting indeed."

Thank you.

"I've enjoyed Jack London's books..."

This makes me realize that I know very little about what you like to read, and that I would like to know more. I filled maybe six or eight feet of shelf space with cat books (and would have more had St. Vinnie's not let me down), but nearly the books I buy are old novels. The last London books I read were "Sea Wolf" and "Martin Eden," but that was enough for now because he's too emotionally intense for me to read him steadily.

"Books were once my passion but lost vision has me struggling to read now."

My father had macular degeneration, but he couldn't really take it in, and would complain about there being something in his eyes that he couldn't get out. Blindness is certainly my worse fear.

"Read the Wright book, and All Quiet. Good stuff"

Thanks, Charles. Right now, I'm totally absorbed by The Workers East and The Workers West by Walter A Wyckoff. In fact, I read the first of the two in about three days when is phenomenally fast for me. What I love about these books is that they're true while being as readable as good fiction, and that they give me the best window I've ever had into how the "common people" of 1890s America thought and were treated, along with the minute details of their lives. I doubt that I've ever read any author that I was so excited about as Wyckoff because no one else ever gave me such good information about the place (America) and the era (the 1890s) that interest me most. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote similarly of rural Florida in the 1930s, but even she didn't please me so much as Wyckoff, and it breaks my heart that someone can be THAT good yet almost completely forgotten. Here is a site that is run by a man who traced Wyckoff's route: http://www.wawyckoff.com/TWEast/TWE00.html

Elephant's Child said...

'Many people get rich off of war. Armament makers are the most obvious, but also others who supply the military.'
I am possibly just quibbling but I wouldn't describe those who profit financially from war as winners.
You could be right about some of his (and other's) silence being based on shame but I suspect that seeing/hearing things that couldn't be unseen had a part to play as well.

Snowbrush said...

"I am possibly just quibbling but I wouldn't describe those who profit financially from war as winners."

It depends, of course, on how you define a winner. If you can live with what you do, though immoral; and it brings you happiness in this life; and there is no other life, then you're a winner by your own standards.

I'm reading the second of the two Wyckoff books and am more impressed than I can say because he's teaching me so much that I couldn't find out any other way. One of the things he writes about is going to churches in workingman's clothes (poor people back then wouldn't have had anything better), and writing about how he's treated. He wrote of the wealthy city churches that, though he would be the only workingman there, he was invariably treated very well by the ushers and by those who sat near him. However, he noted that, in a day when people in sweatshops were only making $300 a year, people in these churches were renting pews for $1,400 a year. In case you're not familiar, 120 years ago (and more), in this country anyway, pews were put up for "sale," and once you bought one, it would be reserved for your use alone. Wyckoff also mentioned that, although people were freezing on the Chicago streets, the huge churches that might have given them emergency lodging, stood empty except on Sunday (here in Eugene, Oregon, some churches have started putting pallets on the floors and opening their doors for overnight stays during cold weather). He further wrote that the poor people of the era (the 1890s), at least in the big cities, tended to avoid church, which they saw as clubs for rich men. As for the "missions" that the wealthy churches sponsored, the poor regarded them as "rich men tossing us crumbs." In the country, almost everyone went to church.

"You could be right about some of his (and other's) silence being based on shame but I suspect that seeing/hearing things that couldn't be unseen had a part to play as well."

I can't say that you're wrong. After all, it could be that veterans don't share some things because they are trying to protect their families, but I'm not sure but what this is a rationalization. At best, it's patronizing in that it involves a man (usually) deciding that his loved ones are too weak to handle the truth without giving them the chance. Unless those loved ones are mentally ill, I don't see this as valid. It also erects a wall against those loved ones, and puts them in the position of nightmarish imaginings of what the truth might be. This chain of thoughts returns me to the idea that, if you're not ashamed of what you did, you have an obligation to talk about it. If you are ashamed, well... Should a man tell his family that he raped and murdered? I suppose that if he's truly ashamed, and truly believes that he's a very different man now than he was then, I guess I would say that it's his burden to bear and not theirs. I would see it as a little like the situation of a married person who had a sexual affair ten years ago and felt very badly about it ever since. Should that person tell his or her spouse? Unless the spouse is likely to find out anyway, I would say no because it would involve selfishly subjecting one's spouse to terrible pain in the pursuit of absolution.

rhymeswithplague said...

I remember reading All Quiet On the Western Front while I was in high school and I read Native Son when I was in my forties. I used to read a great deal, then it slacked off with spurts of catching up every few years. I did enjoy Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides and also Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. I don't read much nowadays, and I'm the poorer for it. I tried reading on a Kindle and an iPad bud didn't care for it. I prefer to hold a real book in my hands.

Snowbrush said...

"I used to read a great deal, then it slacked off with spurts of catching up every few years."

The words "catching up" made it sound like an assignment of definite duration, something you can put off until the last minute, and then get it done, but, perhaps, you just had reference to certain books that you had accumulated. I can't imagine ever NOT reading, but then there were decades when I couldn't imagine ever NOT having dogs, and here I am with no dogs and three cats. Perhaps, you stay a lot busier than I, especially during my prolonged recovery from surgery, but if I didn't have books, I don't know what I would do because no amount of TV, even good TV, can substitute.

"I remember reading All Quiet On the Western Front while I was in high school and I read Native Son when I was in my forties."

You must have enjoyed them, or I shouldn't think you would remember them.

rhymeswithplague said...

My "busy-ness" at the moment includes a lot of driving -- three days a week to cardiac rehab sessions (a 30-mile round trip each time), church activities on Sunday and Tuesday (a 32-mile round trip in the opposite direction), trips to the barber/hairdresser every other Friday (a 40-mile round trip), a monthly trip to get an injection in the eye that has wet macular degeneration (a 48-mile round trip in another direction), and starting today I agreed to feed my son's black lab twice a day until the humans get back (a 25-mile round trip morning and evening until next week). Maybe part of the problem is that we live in the boonies and everything we do or need is at a distance. In the midst of all this fun I recently had to get four new tires and a front-end alignment (on the car, not on me). Leaves little time for settling in with a good book, because by the time we have eaten and recuperated from all the driving, it's bedtime.

Snowbrush said...

I cannot imagine driving so much. We have averaged 300 miles a month in the 15 months since we bought our car, and, I would guess, Peggy has put on most of those miles attending button club functions down the Willamette Valley (we live at the upriver end, so it can't be "up and down," although "down" is actually north). I just checked these figures upon reading your comment, and was actually surprised that we average as much as we do. For 34 of my first 36 years (the years prior to leaving Mississippi), I lived in the country, and it took me no time at all upon moving here to realize that I would NEVER live in the country again. Not only that, I would never want to live in a small town. If a person fits in, I suppose there's a feeling of community about small town life (assuming that it's a real town and not a commuter community) that I wish I had, but since I probably wouldn't fit in (at least I didn't in the South), I'm not optimistic about having that feeling. I also very much like being close to shopping and, increasingly, doctor's offices and so forth. I met a lady today who had a hip replacement about the same time I had my knee done, and it meant a 60 mile--each way--drive. For me, a long trip would be if I drove to the farthest part of the metro area, in which case, I would have traveled eight miles from my home in the heart of Eugene. I try to keep such LONG trips to a minimum by combining chores. I do this not just out of frugality but out of safety and environmental concerns. At the rate we're going, we'll need about 32 more years to put a hundred-thousand miles on a car that should be good for 400,000 miles. Is there any chance that you might move to a place that would have you on the road less, or do you see yourself staying where you are until your driving days are winding down?

joared said...

Glad to hear you’re recovering so well. I have many books I need to downsize but feel like I’m giving up part of me when I get rid of most, though I know I’ll never read many of them again. I do have the Kindle app on this iPadMini on which I have just a few books. I specifically wanted a few books on a device I could carry in my purse to choose to use in waiting rooms, for example. Also, I presently have at least 9 hardbacks waiting to be read but I’m in a l book reading lull which is my pattern. Interesting book finds that you have. Am familiar with a few authors you mention, but don’t recall reading their books. I agree there are probably good writers in every generation that become lost to future readers. The best in everything, whether writers, musicians, other, aren’t always limited to those who receive the most notoriety or are designated as the most popular, I think. My bro was in high tension environment though not in direct combat in another country during WWII but he only talked much about it to me in his later years before his death. He was starting to write his memories of it in response to PBS solicitation of stories years ago, but then became unable to do more. His limited conversations with me were mostly because with the he had been reading some books researching submarines lost and accounts of war in Pacific — I learned he had been in submarine service. From other sources I learned many men in that branch didn’t speak of it either as secrecy had been so ingrained in them. A Maine blog I coincidentally was reading earlier was written by a woman who authored a book about her father in that service, lost at sea. She was trying to get to know him via her research — Full Fathom Five: A Dtrs Search by Mary Lee Coe Fowler.