February 27, 2009


The Wisdom of the Discount Rack: The 25-cent rack at a local library offers some insights into the literary taste of a different time. (Phyllis Orrick, 2/10/09, Splice Today)

My husband Jamie and I go to West Branch about once a week, to pick up books and records and DVDs and CDs we've reserved online and to paw through the return trolleys and new book shelves. It's a tiny building, and in the crowded entry room, along with the piles of tax forms, adult school catalogs, lists of public showers, hot meals, paratransit services, and organic low-cost school lunches, sits a small bookcase, four or five shelves high, with a little vault next to it where you can deposit your payment for any of the books you purchase. The proceeds go to the Friends of the Library, and all titles are 25 cents.

I don't know what got me started, but sometime about six or seven months ago, I began pausing at the Friends bookcase to see what was on it. People just dump their old books. The library takes them as long as there is not too much underlining, mold or water damage, and that the covers are intact. I am guessing that the Friends' main bookstore downtown has first crack. They have a real book store there, with hardbacks cataloged by subject and selling for varying prices, all more than 25 cents. The books on the West Branch Friends sales shelves are the ones that no one thinks are worth hauling around any more. This is their final stop.

The idea that I would buy a book to bring home was apostasy in the house in which I was raised. One of my earliest Christmas memories is of my mother Ruth railing about "another damn book in the house" as one of the six of us tore the wrapping off the gift from the Doubleday store introduced into the family by an unknowing outsider. Our living room and den were walled with bookshelves, crammed with Dad's share of the huge library his father had collected. He told me of growing up in a house where the books were shelved two-deep to keep them off the floor.

I had been told that paying money and bringing a book home is anathema. Even if the book is a slight paperback and costs a quarter. So it took me a couple more weeks to get over Ruth's training.

When I saw a copy of The Feminine Mystique, I thought, you know, it's almost an iconic object, even if I don't read it. It is designed beautifully: the cover is a dark, midnight blue, the sans-serif DELL, also in blue, in the upper left corner, encased in a full-bleed black box. Opposite is the price in a white elegant font: 75c. The Feminine Mystique in red, of course, topped by a tagline in white uppercase: "THE YEAR'S MOST CONTROVERSIAL BESTSELLER." Betty Friedan's name is below the title, no "by" needed. And, the real capper from my point of view, a blurb from Ashley Montagu, one of the champion pop-anthropologist explainers who seemingly made a fortune on books depicting the revolutions, sexual and otherwise, that were playing out in the culture of the time. "The book we have been waiting for...the wisest, sanest, soundest, most understanding and compassionate treatment of contemporary American woman's greatest problem...a triumph."

It came out in hardback in 1963. It went paperback in '64. This was the fifth edition Dell printed that year: the first in February, second and third in April, fourth in June and this one, in November. Friedan was a married mother of three, Smith College graduate and journalist for the likes of Good Housekeeping, Harper's, McCall's and Reader's Digest, according to the blurb. That, after all, was where an ambitious woman with kids would find an outlet. (Remember, Sylvia Plath won the poetry contest in Redbook.)

I had to be careful when opening the pages: they're yellowed, and the glue in the binding is cracking. I haven't really done much more than dip into it. But someone has marked it up. There seem to be two or three annotators.

One used a blue ballpoint to make precise dots at the start of lines.

I've previously related the following story:
Much of my book buying is done at library book sales or in used book stores. Two favorite haunts being the local library, which hosts an ongoing book sale in the lobby, and a local store that buys and sells used books. At the library I recently found a book I'd previously never heard of, called The American Conservative Movement: The Philosophical Founders. As it's by former Senator John P. East, and is a hardcover in excellent condition, I bought it, for 50 cents. It went on top of the "to be read" pile, but that's a fair sized pile these days. If not forgotten, it had at least been back-burnered.

Meanwhile, at some point this Summer, perhaps at the Five Colleges Book Sale, I'd found a book called Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?: American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century a collection of conservative essays edited by William F. Buckley Jr.. As it happened, this had worked its way to the top of the "to be read" pile, because it includes an outstanding essay by Albert Jay Nock that needed rereading. The Nock piece, in which he discusses his pet theory of the Remnant made for a useful post at our blog and the book returned to the pile.

Then, a few days later, someone responding to a post asked if I was familiar with the work of Willmoore Kendall, though he assumed I'd not be, since few are any more. He included a link to a great profile of Kendall by retired Dartmouth professor Jeffrey Hart. To my chagrin, after reading the profile, I had to answer that no I was not previously familiar with Mr. Kendall. But the wheels had begun turning and, checking in Dream Walking, I did indeed find one of his essays--Democracy: The Two Majorities. Realizing now how central a figure he'd been in the conservative renaissance of the 50s, I checked the East book, and, sure enough, there was a whole chapter on him. And as the tumblers gradually clicked into place, it occurred to me that not only had I seen the edition of his essays that his wife collected posthumously at the local used bookstore, but it at least conceivably could have been Professor Hart's own copy--they'd told me he was the other regular customer who brought in conservative books periodically. So, of course, I raced down there and, mirabile dictu, there was the book, Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, perched on the shelf. Even better, not only was it once Professor Hart's, it's even inscribed by Nellie Kendall, thanking him for a previous profile he'd written, which serves as the Introduction to the book. Who could fail to feel the fates at work in all of this?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2009 12:44 PM
blog comments powered by Disqus