Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Addiction-to-Used-Books-on-the Cheap: Confession

What is it about getting a book for next to nothing that makes it feel like a real deal? I’m a used book junkie, I admit. I just spent two weeks in the U.S. and picked up some sixty kilos of books; only two of them were new. It’s gotten so that it feels downright strange to me to purchase a new book at new book prices. Someone has to do it or all these used books wouldn’t be on the market for people like me to capitalize on, but I am ashamed to admit my miserliness. I mean, writers get paid by the book sold, and make nothing on the sale of used books, so what does this say about my support of other writers? Definitely in the non-generous category.

This became clear to me when I happened upon a cheap-made-for-the-masses 99 kroner edition of a new novel by a man who I feel is one of our time’s greatest writers, Lars Saabye Christensen. “Saabye’s Cirkus” – the name caught my eye and I opened it and read the first page. It was brilliant, definitely fine quality Saabye, in fact the thought crossed my mind that that page alone was worth 99 kroner. Unfortunately, I had only my car keys with me, no money, so I didn’t buy it.

But that is not the confession. The confession is this (and Mr. Saabye Christensen please forgive me): the FIRST thought that went through my head, way before ‘this page alone is worth 99 kroner’, was ‘I’ll wait till it’s down to 49 kroner…’

If I am allowed to psychoanalyse myself I think the root is twofold: I grew up with parents who had walls and walls of floor to ceiling bookcases filled with everything from a late 19th century copy of Leaves of Grass to The Physician’s Desk Reference. Early on my mother drilled me in the superior quality of what was gone before, in the form of turn of the century primers and 100 year old copies of the romantic poets. Also from her bookshelf I remember reading Lolita, Naked Lunch, In Cold Blood, Zelda, and Rosemary’s Baby, all purchased new from book-of-the-month, but my primary upbringing when it came to buying books was to accompany my mother to antique auctions and come home with boxes of what other people cast off but we saw as treasures.

The second reason is more deeply snagged, and less sure, but I think on some level I am acting out a personal self-imposed resentment for having gotten rid of so many of my books when I moved from Wisconsin to Hawaii. I sold them by the shelf-full for cheap to Avol Books in Madison. I felt it had to be done at the time, in fact I felt I was long overdue in thinning out my book collection, but ever since I have been haunted by titles that I ‘gave away for nothing’. This could be why I want to get them back for nothing, Lucy the psychiatrist might say. 5 cents please.

So I am always on the lookout for long lost books. There was a volume of comparison texts between Jesus, Confucius and the Buddha. I didn’t keep that?? Duh, what WAS I thinking I ought to keep instead? And then there was Salman Rushdie’s works, which I admit I felt a bit uncomfortable having in the house at the time. Seems silly now, so I’ve been searching for a good replacement copy of Satanic Verses for a long time. Seems everyone destroyed their copies to avoid ending up in Rushdie’s camp, but finally my sister-in-law Grace found a copy in Berkley. She’s over there on another continent scouting out lost and desired titles for me, as where I live the chances for finding used books, new books, and anything other than NY Times bestseller English books are quite remote.

But I was in Trondheim last weekend and guess what: found Hans Jæger, facsimile editions, at a dusty little not-so-cheap-but-charming antiquarian bookshop. Chatted a bit with the owner and realized that I don’t mind supporting people like him. Used bookshops, especially one where the owner actually knows what his inventory is, should be put on the UNESCO heritage preservation list. I told him about Madison, in my day the used bookstore capital of the U.S., and he asked if there were ever any Norwegian books sold there. The question saddened me. Yes, I told him, all of mine. All kinds of books from the complete sets in hardcover of Hamsun and Ibsen to The Illustrated Mother Goose in Norwegian. Deep sigh. Should I plan a trip back to Madison just to see if I can re-purchase in a used bookshop my own long lost Norwegian books?

The following day, my last day in Trondheim, I went to the junk shop. You know, one of those with hardly usable bicycles out front, your mother’s castoff house dresses, your grandmother’s chipped dishes, your distant poor cousin’s old shoes. Proceeds go to something like the Little Old Ladies‘ Christian Tea Society Orphanage. There, in a haphazard placement amid tattered Norwegian harlequin romances, was the long lost Rushdie that even Grace has not been able to find. Shame was the first Rushdie book I read, and why I got rid of it is beyond anyone’s comprehension because it even was set behind the walls of the gated community in Karachi where my father’s family lives. Oh yeah, the fatwa. Well, I’m beyond fearing that, even with a name that caused a very kind and gentle physician visiting Hawaii for a brain surgery conference to phone me out of the blue and ask if I would have prayers with him because I was the only Muslim in the entire Hawaii Island phone book. He had spent that Friday afternoon searching it. I told him I wasn’t Muslim, despite my name, but would be happy to meet him. We had a delightful evening. I even got to dine with the brain surgeons.

But I digress. I’ve got my Rushdie back. I’ve got Jæger, Gooberz and The Day No Pigs Would Die (signed copy!). My living room floor has a pile that’s one foot high and two feet wide of books, and two boxes shipped from the U.S. aren’t even opened yet. They weigh in at about 15 kilo each. I’m slowly rebuilding my library. A friend asked if I was trying for bookstore status. Nope. Except for the occasional duplicate, these books aren’t leaving my possession no matter where I move. Uh uh nosireebob. I’m even keeping the book-that-shall-not-be-named, the worst book ever written, which I have categorized on my facebook page as “won’t read”. It’s a gem of a disaster, worth looking at now and then as a reminder of just how bad a piece of writing can be and still get published with an attractive cover and a blurb from The Observer.

But here’s a bit of advice: don’t buy it, at least not for cover price, it ain’t worth nothin‘.


This entry was posted on 27/07/2007 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , .


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