Plus ça change: Buoyed by an ever-evolving ocean of used books

As a college student in Boston, I formed the habit of buying used books. I pluck them from cardboard boxes in the street, crooked shelves in a badly lit shop, a rummage sale for a worthy cause, and a wobbly table on the dew-soaked grass of a neighbor’s Saturday yard sale. I love to browse, to stick my nose in old books. I’m dreamy and distracted. I’m like a person asleep on his feet.

I enjoy the hunt, the good price, the unrecognized gems. I find old textbooks, ex-bestsellers, and books on subjects I’ve never heard of and now must learn all about. I do not search for rare books, first editions, or leather bindings stamped and gilded. My quest is for content.

Yet a cover may catch my eye. A paperback copy of “A Sportsman’s Notebook,” by Ivan Turgenev, published by Viking in 1957, has a drawing of a riverbank with rowboats, peasants in smocks, thatched log houses, and a bulbous church beyond. I am fond of little books in boards and cloth, trigesimo-­secundo titles that fit in a pocket, like “Old Kensington Palace and Other Papers,” by Austin Dobson, printed by Oxford University Press in 1926. I like foldout maps, battlefield diagrams, photos of busts, drawings of coins, and engravings of scenes, as in “A History of Greece,” by J.B. Bury, from Macmillan in 1909.

In my town, a used bookstore in what was once a jeweler’s shop called itself Read It Again Sam. Dave Taylor, the owner, resembled Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in the movie “Casablanca.” Cranky, with a previous life that included military service and fine carpentry, Dave had a passion for discipline. His shelves were orderly, clean, and clearly labeled. He scolded customers who dropped trash and talked too loud on their cellphones. Mute, I’d wander and stare at the spines of books, finding a volume that sparkled once in another setting. I’d slide it out, examine its facets, weigh it in my palm.

Rereading, for me, is a pleasure of retirement. The theater and concert hall recede, along with crowds and hoopla. Solitude and books come to the fore. Literature needs the flesh of experience to have its full effect. Insights and turns of phrase that lodged in my mind like grains of sand in an oyster now shine like pearls. Taste improves with age.

While packing for a move, which occurs at intervals of five to seven years, out of restlessness or what seems to be a good investment, I purge my shelves and cull my books. I find strange titles. I sample a page, read a chapter, and forget the task at hand. I revise stale opinions and clear away false judgments. I air a mind as dusty as the books.

I discard a few, later regret a hasty decision, and find them again for sale, cheap. Several years ago, I got rid of books on architecture, which was my occupation. Some were design guides, reference books, product catalogs, and zoning ordinances, things that go out of date. Some were historical, centered on a period or an architect. And some were lavishly illustrated studies of houses and cities. These had given me many hours of pleasure. Would I ever open their covers again? To reread them struck me as professional nostalgia, and I wallow in the past enough as it is. I held on to the red bulk of Sir Banister Fletcher’s “A History of Architecture” and books on Paris, Rome, and Boston.

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I gave away drafting equipment and a plotter for drawings – heavy electronics. I threw out rolls and rolls of paper, old drawings of projects completed long ago, some of which have even been demolished. I felt a little sad about ending a career, and a little relieved.

This time, I’ve stayed put in a cottage that suits my status, and moved on in spirit. No doubt I will acquire and shed more books, as passions flare and fade, like feathers that change with the seasons. And when I depart, other readers of used books will be the richer for it.


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