Books I Bought Last Week, Where I Bought Them, What They Cost
Last week was a big book-buying week for me. I don’t know why, exactly, but I just kept going for it. If anything, I think I was reminding myself how thoroughly lucky I am to live in a city where there are literally dozens of independent bookstores that I can go visit anytime I feel like it.
Bookthug Nation – a newly opened used bookstore on North 3rd street between Berry and Wythe, in Williamsburg. This place is really fantastic, and I’m thrilled that they exist. The space is super-intimate, the curation is stellar, there’s art on the wall by the guy who does Cometbus, and they hold events there. Books purchased: (1) A hardcover copy of The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth ($5). I already own this book as part of the Zuckerman Unbound quartet, but my copy of that book is falling to pieces, and I figure that GW is the one I’m most likely to re-read. (2) The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fitzgerald ($3). This is the best-known translation, and owning it feels sort of like owning a copy of the King James Bible–something you ought to have on-hand, irrespective of when (or whether) you actually read it. (3) Bawdy Verse: A Pleasant Collection ($4) edited by E.J. Burford. A sweet little anthology of dirty poems and songs from Old England. “The weather is cold and chilly / And heating will do thee no harm, / I’ll put a hot Thing in thy Belly / To keep thy body warm.” – “Mine Own Sweet Honey-bird-chuck,” ~1655. And so on.
The Strand – I went to The Strand to try and find a decent edition of Keats, but they didn’t have one. They had no Keats, in fact. They also did not have a paperback copy of Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, which I’d like to have because my hardcover copy is too ungainly to carry around, and the jacket is coming apart. So I want a copy I can knock around with, and read on the train. But anyway. In the course of failing to find the Keats or the Brodkey, I came upon The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. I don’t know much about Roethke, but I feel like maybe I should, and I figured for seven bucks, it was high time. The edition is really hideous–softback, with a Georgia O’Keefe cover and a light-purple border. It looks like the designer thought this was an anthology of poems about menopause. Then, on the way to the register to buy my Roethke, my eye caught a copy of Miracles by C.S. Lewis. Every time I talk about my infatuation with Christian philosophy and apologetics, I’m invariably asked if I’ve read Lewis–usually The Screwtape Letters. The answer is no, because after finding the Narnia Chronicles insufferable as a kid, I never went back. But for five bucks… This is a hideous edition also, actually. It’s got a peach spine, and a b&w photo on the cover of a child holding small black shells in cupped hand. Lewis’s name is scrawled over the image in white cursive. Yikes! Not that that stopped me.
BookCulture – Hideous name (it used to be called Labyrinth Books, which was much better), but still one of the best bookstores in the city–their poetry collection is almost certainly the best. Also, because they are way up on the Upper West Side (112th street between Broadway and Amsterdam), they exist largely to serve the needs of the various liberal arts departments of Columbia, which sits just four blocks North. This means that their lit-crit, philosophy, and history sections are also vast, and filled with all manner of wondrous and arcane volumes. They mix new and used on the shelves, but some of the best action is on the staircase between their two floors, where they stack dirt-cheap remainders of everything from Sontag’s journals to poetry in translation to the most recent William Vollmann to some weird academic book you suspect even the person who wrote it didn’t really care about. But it’s all 75% or more off, so its a good place to take a chance on something that seems like it might be interesting. I actually came here with a particular item in mind–the Oxford edition of the Major Works of John Keats, including a healthy serving of his letters, the edition which I hadn’t been able to find at The Strand (or at St. Mark’s, or at Three Lives in the West Village, or at Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper East Side). It is an enormous white paperback that cost me twenty dollars, and I know, it seems silly to pay full price for a new copy of something like this when there are a bazillion editions of Keats in print in a gazillion editions–but you know what? This book was exactly what I was looking for, and BookCulture had it on-hand exactly at the moment that I wanted it, and I wanted to reward them for that. They had properly stocked their shelves, accurately anticipated my desires. In short, they deserved to have my business. They got it.
Westsider Records – I didn’t mention this before, but I was at BookCulture with Jeremy Schmall (if you’re wondering what he bought at BookCulture- it was the newest Zizek, First as Tragedy Then as Farce, plus Benjamin’s Illuminations). Since it was a nice night, we decided to walk awhile rather than get on the subway. We ended up walking from 112th down to 42nd, through Times Square, and over to Bryant Park before finally giving in to the call of the subway–though in our defense we might have walked the whole island but for pre-existing plans to go have a drink in Brooklyn with the great Joshua Cohen. Anyway. Somewhere in the middle of our walk, at 72nd street to be exact, JS and I came upon this little shoebox store, a dealer in the Rare & Used, and apparently also a record store and video transferer, though I saw no evidence of the latter two services other than the signage that advertised them. We spent the next thirty or forty minutes in there, picking through their poetry shelves and then their art books. There was barely enough room to turn around in, and an upstairs–where I assume the fiction lives–that we never even saw. I ended up with Sleeping on the Wing, another poetry anthology, this one edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell. This is specifically a teaching anthology, and each selection of poems is accompanied by a short essay on “how to read” the particular poet, plus a sample exercise for teachers to use in classrooms. From the essay: “Because words are used mainly to ‘make sense,’ it seems strange to use them in a completely different way, as Gertrude Stein did. She wrote as no one had before.” Etc. Wish I had discovered this book 11 weeks ago. The book starts with Whitman, Dickinson, and Hopkins; and goes up through Ashbery, Baraka, and Koch himself; finding Rilke, Mayakovsky, Pound, Yeats, and many more along the way. It cost four dollars. I also bought a copy of Moses and Monotheism by Freud, in a mass market paperback edition that seems to have been printed just a few years after he died. The translator claims to have had access to the opinions of the author. It won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve been meaning to read Moses and Monotheism ever since I learned that Harold Bloom sets such enormous store by the Doctor’s final work of literature, a slim historical volume that he originally conceived as a novel entitled The Man Moses. the book was written in part under the protection of the Catholic church in Vienna in 1938, and completed in London in ’38 and ’39 just before his death. The thesis of the book is fascinating- Freud argues that Moses was an Egyptian who belonged to a monotheistic sect that was out of favor, and that the Exodus happened not in flight from a despotic Pharaoh but peacefully during a generation-long gap in the Egyptian royal succession: a time of anarchy. He argues further that the Jews rebelled against Moses in the desert and murdered him, then only later attempted to repent for this crime by venerating his legend, which they combined with the story of an entirely different leader who lived anywhere from 30 to 50 years later. The book is laden with footnotes and historical sources, and though I’m hardly capable of judging its accuracy, as a re-conception of the origin of Judaism, it’s fascinating and audacious. I’m about halfway through it, and just in awe. It set me back three dollars.