September 21, 2012


New and Old : Building a book collection, one treasured volume at a time (Michael Dirda, September 2012, American Scholar)

The other day a friend casually remarked that most of the books in what might be called my library--if I had a much bigger house--probably came to me as freebies. I answered that that wasn't true at all, that perhaps 10 percent had originated as review copies. In fact, just this morning, while groggily sipping my morning coffee, I scanned the nearest bookcase--built by me some 30 years ago--and realized that on its six shelves, containing perhaps 150 books, only four of them weren't purchased with my cold hard credit card.

Which ones, you wonder? The first four volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin series. In fact, Norton sent me its reprinted uniform set, back when I reviewed The Commodore. (That novel, by the way, mentions a small sailing vessel called The Ringle, its name immortalizing Ken Ringle, a former Washington Post colleague and ardent sailor, who told O'Brian about Chesapeake Bay skipjacks.) The subsequent 15 volumes are in storage. To display them all would take too much space, so I just keep out the early ones, against the day I might want to reimmerse myself in the salty waters of the Aubrey-Maturin adventures.

Before I came to Washington, I could fit all my books--and all my clothes, indeed everything I then owned--into a 1966 fire-engine red Chevy Impala. But once I arrived in our nation's capital, I quickly discovered that the place bulged with secondhand books. My friend David Streitfeld, now with The New York Times, and I once visited every used bookstore in the metro area as part of a story for the Washington Post's weekend section. There were something like 60 all told. On top of this, there were gigantic annual book sales--Vassar, Brandeis, and Stone Ridge, in particular--and church sales and antiquarian book fairs and thrift shops and even people selling old books from blankets on the sidewalk. I once bought some novels by Carl Van Vechten from just such a guy--all the books he displayed were by authors whose names began with V. He told me that when Loudermilk's bookstore closed down, the fiction was auctioned off by letter and the hot letters--F and W, for instance--were out of his price range.

Before long, I was hammering together one wooden bookcase after another. Two years after I got to D.C. my Macomb House apartment was lined with books, floor to ceiling. At least everything was on a shelf, which is more than I can say today.

Last week I found the Modern Library translation of Chaucer by Burton Raffel at Books a Million for $11.  Who could not buy it.

Posted by at September 21, 2012 5:25 AM

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