Used books and used-book stores

Category: Literature

My favorite form of reading involves used books. You can imbibe much life among those pages. Smell the cigarette smoke. Feel the passage of time across the previous readership, manifested by the highlights, the underlining, the page folding. Postulate the meaning the book may have imparted on the previous owner.

I can imagine a group of witches hunched over a steaming cauldron, absorbed in an ancient ceremony to rematerialize vital matter from the aged parchment.

Sometimes a used copy leads to the discovery of the original purchase receipt. The Bleak House edition I recently finished was first purchased in 1991 at a Boston bookstore for USD $4.95. I wonder how the copy felt when fresh?

A new book of crispy pages feels less organic from that archaeological standpoint, although nothing in comparison to the soulless electronic reading device. It’s all about the user interaction for me, which I see little reason to undermine considering the amount of time spent within those books.

Let’s not forget the supplemental touches: the preface, the biography, similar publishings, the critique, all within one printing, nothing of the internet. What is the likelihood of stumbling upon detailed excerpts of Nabokov’s Bleak House lectures at Cornell University, if not for the paperback preface?

Another book of a renowned Brazilian author I recently skimmed, the title of which escapes me, contained a list of translations of all the author’s works. A couple have been translated to Esperanto.

Even the illustrations, for the editions fortunate to include them, feel livelier than the digital renderings.

Yesterday, I couldn’t resist spending at least two hours at a used book store in search of new reading. I would have remained another two, if not for a pressing appointment.

Without a doubt, the establishment is one of my favorites of the sort, preferable to any museum, preferable to any botanical garden. And it necessarily must be a used book store, inseparable from the smell, the antique furnishings, and often the lack of any organization.

That perusal of literature forms part of the experience: the unreachable top shelves if not for a footstool; the double rows; the further stacks of material spread out on the floors and tables; the second story accessible by a steep and narrow staircase, to then navigate additional shelves of endless books arranged in double rows, apprehensive of the narrow corridor barely wide enough for a single occupant, with only a low railing obstructing the incidental collapse into the majestic plateau of mounds of literature below.

I departed with Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (selected stories), each in the original language, purchased for a ludicrously low price. Temptation, however, was besetting.

In midst of the hunt, I had encountered a thick volume of three of Jane Austen’s romances. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights was also a contender.

Works of José Saramago (Portuguese) and Machado de Assis (Brazilian) were among strong candidates. As was Joseph Conrad’s Lord Gym, although unavailable in the original.

Umberto Eco’s Portuguese translations were in ample abundance, yet strictly in hardback binding. Hardback simply will not do, not for this nomad.

The Greco-Roman section felt disappointing. With the exception of Cicero’s essays (not necessarily my preferred), the memory imprint I left with is that of endless, literally endless copies of Homer’s and Virgil’s epics.

I found an assortment of Dino Buzatti’s works in the Italian section, all but the one I was seeking (Il deserto). The same applies to Garcia Márquez (my interest only for Cólera). Stranger yet, Mario Vargas Llosa’s Portuguese translations seemed to dominate the respective shelves of Latin-American literature.

Across the Dickens works I was quiet surprised at the multiple copies of Pipwick Papers and Our Mutual Friend, over the more divulged works I expected.

Madame Bovary I’d found only in hardback. Proust’s Em Busca do tempo perdido came in two volumes, this too impractical for nomadic purposes.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales I wouldn’t purchase in any but the ancient English variety, if ever. Lastly, not a single Russian author appeared in the original language.

Those were the highlights. Some prefer record stores. Others seek refuge in street markets and bazaars. This nomad finds enchantment in piles of used books.

Questions, comments? Connect.