Monday, November 13, 2006

The Joys of Cruddy Old Books

Last night when I finished reading my beat-up copy of John Updike's The Centaur, the winner of the 1964 National Book Award, the front cover was torn at both the bottom and the top along the spine, the paper was browning around the edges, turning each page into a sepia-toned document that Ken Burns would love, and the residue from an old price sticker on the back had turned black.

Most of the damage had been inflicted on the mass market paperback long before I came across it a couple of weeks ago in Myopic Books, the magnificent, multi-storied used book store in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Still, I was thrilled to find a copy of The Centaur in any condition stuck in the labyrinthine stacks. You see, about three years ago I embarked on a bizarre project to read all of John Updike's novels in the order they were written until I caught up to the present day or got sick of them. It was time for my yearly Updike fix.

I do things like this. I get an author in my teeth and I just won't let go. I've read virtually all of the novels by Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Reynolds Price, I.B. Singer and Bernard Malamud over the years. After I graduated from college, I was struggling with the basic question of what to read. I was bouncing around from one hokey title to the next. I'd read a mystery one week, a comedy the next. It wasn't very satisfying. I took a weekend trip back to my school and spoke to one of my old English professors about it and he said, "Find something you like and read everything you can by that author until you've had your fill."

Suddenly, the world of literature opened up to me again. I started going through authors like crazy. Julian Barnes grabbed my attention for awhile, then I switched to E.L. Doctorow before discovering T.C. Boyle. It worked well for many years. Now that I am the buyer for a book store, it's hard to do because of the enormous amount of pressure to constantly read new books. You just can't afford to get sucked into an author's backlist for weeks at a time.

At the Mountain & Plains trade show a couple of months ago, I was talking to a fellow book buyer, and we were both extolling the virtures of William Boyd's new novel Reckless. I mentioned how much I also enjoyed Boyd's novel Blue Afternoon and recommended that she read it. She said, "I never read back. I always read ahead. There's no time to go back and read it once it's out. It's over by then." Her comments made me feel a bit guilty because I'm not as diligent a reader of new books. It also made me sad: reading is such a personal pleasure for me. I can't totally subsume it within my job.

I've learned to parcel out my favorite authors slowly over the course of the year. I read Wodehouse in the summer, Updike in the fall, Bellow (the greatest Jewish-American writer) at Christmas-time and Alice Munro's stories are for the interstices amidst the larger books. Spreading the books out like this has made the search for these titles all the more pleasurable.

I know that I could just go online and buy a copy of Updike's next novel for a buck, or even ask my sales rep for a free copy, but I prefer to haunt the used bookstores in city after city looking for one. My standards are pretty low. I won't accept highlighting or writing, and I want something that will hold together for at least one more reading -- that's it. I'm willing to wait. Last year, I never found The Centaur, and was forced to read his next novel, Of the Farm, instead.

My reading habits make me wonder about the customers I see in our store day after day. So many of them seem driven to find one particular book. It's almost always a brand new book with a slick marketing campaign. Often, they come in holding a clipping from a magazine or from the web. Several times a day we hear the magic words, "I heard it on NPR." Of course, the ultimate example of this in the book business is the Oprah Book Club. I can't tell you how many people raved about Janet Fitch's White Oleander when it was an Oprah selection. Now, we can't give her second book away. The publisher of Fitch's Paint in Black is already offering stores a rebate in the hopes that they will put it on the sale table for Christmas. I wonder what all these customers are missing by drowning out their own reading muse with the endless cacophony of media hype.

Back to The Centaur for a moment. What a magnificent novel. The opening chapter, about 50 pages long, is surreal. The lead character, a teacher named George Caldwell, is struck in the ankle by an arrow shot by an unruly student. He hobbles out on all four legs (he is a mythical creature after all) to the mechanic next door, who takes out the arrow and sends him back to school dripping blood on the ground. Once he's back in class, he teaches the history of life on earth from the Big Bang to the evolution of humans in one quick lesson. During the lesson, he has to discipline a student by cracking him on the back with the shaft of the arrow. The boy-creature's offense was that he was sexually mounting another student. All of this occurs while the lecherous school principal is doing Caldwell's monthly evaluation at the same time as fondling a female student.

After that opening, the novel settles down into an extremely realistic rendering of two days in the life of the teacher and his son in 1947 rural Pennsylvania. Caldwell gets written up for striking the student, everyone goes back to having two legs and the mythical allusions are harder to spot. We see the father and son dealing with small hardships: their car breaks down, they are stranded in a snowstorm and a painful tooth must be extracted -- trivialities that certainly wouldn't interest Zeus, or even a more minor deity.

Updike's language, as always, is impeccable. His descriptions, particularly those of nature and of people, are both quirky and dead on. He can imbue the image of the shadow of a falling snowflake with tension. His characters are sympathetic and often hilarious. The teacher, who has survived the Great Depression only to succumb to every neurosis the modern world has invented, is a wholly original man. He's fighting his own inner demons and constantly gnawing on his own perceived inadquacies while still fulfilling his role as father, teacher and bread-winner.

The New York Times ran a review in 1963 that was lukewarm at best. I think the reviewer might have been just a little old fashioned judging from his last line: "One other aspect of The Centaur must be pointed out. It contains numerous obscenities, no more loathsome than in many recent novels, but entirely unnecessary." You can view the whole review at

Now, I'm on the prowl for a beat-up copy of Couples, Updike's novel from 1968. In the meantime, I've got the new collection of Alice Munro stories, The View from Castle Rock, to keep me occupied. I want to read it before my guilt gets the better of me, and I pick up some pristine advance reader's copy of a must-read novel that won't be half as good as a dozen cruddy old books I could discover in the tight aisles of an unkempt used book store.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Have I Got a Deal For You

The book business sometimes forgets that it's a business. It likes to dress itself up in the robes of educated and idealistic sophistication. Publishers host dinners for authors and booksellers at swanky restaurants with private rooms and plenty of excellent wine. Booksellers love to discuss an author's writing style and the importance of weighty ideas when touting their recommendations for the next season. We talk about that book that's going to change the world and the importance of freedom of speech. It's enough to make a guy like me forget that I'm in the business of selling, not worshipping, books.

Then there is CIROBE (Chicago International Remainder & Overstock Book Exposition). CIROBE is a week-long feeding frenzy of buying and selling sale books. It's all about wheeling and dealing; there's no such thing as a set price. Sometimes, sales people take you behind the curtain in the back of the booth to see the secret stash of a title that they can get you because you're such a valued customer. It's enough to make a used car salesman blush. No one cares about the writing or the ideas in a book. How many can you sell? That's all that matters.

I love it. Sure it makes me dizzy, and for at least a week afterwards I am still seeing parades of book covers in my dreams, but it is capitalism in its purist form in the book business. The thrill of finding a key title on sale for just $2.00 is enough to make my hands shake. All those beautiful cookbooks -- the ones we could never sell at $40 -- now available for $12.98. Just the thought of it makes me salivate.

Here are some notes and random thoughts from my week in sale book heaven:

  • CIROBE is held every year at the Chicago Hilton Towers. This is the Hilton's flagship hotel, and it is so ostentatious that it makes Paris (that's Paris Hilton) look demure by comparison. The huge ballroom features a painted ceiling, a ton of molding, gaudy chandeliers and plays host to a black-tie event nearly every Friday and Saturday night. Often, there's live classical music in the second-floor lobby. It's a very strange setting for a group of people (remainder sellers and buyers) that think wearing a corduroy sports jacket is the height of fashion. The promoters of CIROBE must know this because the show is always booked into two relatively dingy basement rooms that wouldn't suit Eloise at all.
  • The exposition opens at Friday noon, but if you don't arrive by Wednesday morning you'll miss most of the books. About two dozen vendors start selling books in breakout rooms, hotel suites and even -- in one case -- the hallway. When I arrived in Chicago on Tuesday, I immediately headed for the Powell's store located a block from the hotel. I made my way into the cave-like basement and was met by a representative from Powell's wholesale operation, as well as by a couple of reps from the remainder company Texas Bookman. It's a good thing I showed up early. I immediately bought every copy of The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. By the time I left, there were buyers from three other stores in the cave.
  • When I left Powell's, I was greeted by a huge fire just three blocks away. The vacant six-story Dexter building, designed by Louis Sullivan, was spitting flames and a plume of dense black smoke. All week long, whenever you entered someone's room, they would show you their view of the fire. It worked out well for me. For the sixth straight year, I didn't have a lakeside view, but I had a great angle on that fire. It took nearly 24 hours with three fire hoses to calm the blaze.
    • When is it acceptable to cross a picket line? That's a tough question, but one that I'm forced to contend with every CIROBE. In addition to the sellers in the Hilton, several vendors set up down the block in the perpetually picketed Congress Hotel. Three years ago, there was a group of 30 people on the line with signs. This year there were two to five people manning the line. I've stayed away from the Congress the last few years, and have given the strikers some money for the cause. This year I was kind of fed up. Obviously, the strike hasn't worked. The hotel is still open, and the picketers don't have jobs. Fellow booksellers told me how to avoid the picketers by going in a side door, but somehow I felt that was worse than just going in. I steeled myself for compromising my values on Wednesday afternoon, but when I got to the Congress, all the strikers were on a break. There was an orphaned sign, but no picketers.
    • For the last few years, CIROBE has been a bit of a struggle because so many vendors are selling on the web. It's been hard to find new and unique titles. This year was a refreshing change. I couldn't believe some of the titles and authors that were available, including Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Also, I was able to snag many of Christopher Moore's and Philippa Gregory's titles as well as several beautiful cookbooks. Of course, with CIROBE there's always a chance that a high percentage of your most anticipated titles won't even show up. I won't say it's a bait-and-switch, only because there's no switch. They bait you into placing an order with the amazing titles, and then somehow the titles are all sold out when it comes time to ship the books. You're left with the odds and ends. I'm keeping my fingers crossed this year.

    The books from CIROBE are just now starting to arrive at the store. Each day brings a new delivery and with it the expectation of a great deal for the customers. I rip open those packing lists and the memories of the search are fresh in my mind. I try to explain to the staff how great it is that I was able to get 100 copies of the Stick it to Bush bumper stickers for close to nothing and I usually get a look that says, "Where in the world are we going to put these?"

    The first few years I went to the show, I was filled with paranoia. I was sure that I was always missing the great books. My order was too late, or I didn't go to the right booth. Other booksellers will always tell you about the great books they ordered, and you can't believe you missed the title that they're bragging about. It can be an angst filled week. Now, I realize it's about the books that you got, not the ones that got away. If I could only get the lakefront view, CIROBE would be the perfect week.