Theodore Dalrymple lovingly describes the joys of second-hand bookstores. A sample:
But serendipity is the greatest pleasure of browsing, and there is no substitute for being able to hold the physical book in one’s hand. Among other things to be found in books are the markings of previous readers. When I first started buying antiquarian books I rejected those that had been marked, but now I find the markings sometimes more interesting than the books, and certainly revealing of the byways of human psychology.As a bibliomaniac, I found the article wonderfully evocative of my own experiences as a life-long browser in second-hand bookstores. The thrill of discovery, the incidences of patience rewarded, the agony of putting off a purchase until “next time”, only to find the desired volume gone upon my return. For example, I recollect my long search for the second volume in José Maria Gironella’s trilogy of novels about the Spanish Civil War. I had read, and greatly enjoyed, the first (the Cypresses Believe in God), and had found the third (Peace After War), but searched unsuccessfully for 12 years for the second (One Million Dead). It finally turned up at one of my favorite old bookshops, and my arm shot out so fast to grab it that I picked up a splinter under a fingernail. Hurt like hell, but it was a small price to pay for finding, at long last, one of the objects of my bibliophile dreams. I remember clasping the thing tightly to my chest, as if it were in danger of being hijacked.
There are, for example, those who seem to read hundreds of pages with the express purpose of finding the single spelling mistake or misprint contained in them and underlining it, putting a triumphant exclamation mark in the margin, as though finding the error established their intellectual superiority to the author. (Of course, they attribute all errors to the author and none to the printer.)
Then there are the underliners. The majority of these rarely get past the first chapter or two; some underline things so banal – Smith then went to London, for example, or The snow fell in flakes – that one wonders what kind of mind wants to commit such things to memory. Philosophy books of the Forties and Fifties, meanwhile, tend to smell strongly of tobacco.
I’m also an avid collector of 18th century English literature, and the joy of stumbling upon various books in the Yale series of Boswell’s diaries over the years (some of them now fairly valuable) has always given me a jolt of serendipitous excitement. On one of my regular trips to a small Coral Gables bookshop that I had frequented for a couple of years, the owner, who knew my interests, proudly pointed at a stack of green volumes which turned out to be the Parfraets Press edition of the collected works of Samuel Johnson. Stopping just long enough to check out the price, I made a mad dash to my bank’s ATM, only to find it temporarily out of service. What a ridiculous figure I made, standing there on the sidewalk, shaking my fist at the machine, and cursing the mental defective who had had the brilliant idea of pulling the ATM out of service during my lunch hour!
In another shop in Coral Gables, I found numerous anti-communist classics from the Cold War period that turned out to have belonged to Louis Budenz, a former top official in the Communist Party USA, and a Soviet espionage agent, who ultimately broke with, and denounced, the Party. Some of the books were gifts from his new friend, Henry Regnery.
Perhaps most interesting of all my experiences have been the experiments, the flyers taken on authors previously unknown to me, or only known by virtue of their having been mentioned in an essay or magazine article somewhere. It was in this way that I was introduced to Arthur Train’s amusing stories featuring the fictional lawyer, Ephraim Tutt. Just picked up a volume and decided to give it a try. I spent the next couple of years scouring bookstores for any Tutt stories I could find, so fond did I become of them. It was also mere curiosity that caused me to pick up John Masters’ Bugles and a Tiger, the first of his three autobiographical books; it is the story of Masters’ army life while stationed on the northwestern frontier of India on the eve of WWII, and is one of the finest, and certainly one of the funniest, military memoirs I have ever read (I wrote a brief piece about the book on this blog quite a long while ago; see here, if you missed it).
Ah, the old, simple pleasures! These young folks coming up today don't know what they're missing.