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March 8, 2012

Hey, you’re cracking my spine!

I read mostly used books. I’m cheap. I can buy ten used for the price of one new. I only buy new books if they’re written by my friends. And I don’t have that many friends.

Recently I’ve noticed something that I’ve always noticed about used books. That is, I finally asked myself why so many of my used books crack when I open them. That is, these wonderful volumes have clearly never been read. For instance, I just read four old books by John Barth, a fantastic writer. All four broke into pieces in my hands. That’s because the glue from the 1960’s is so old that it’s brittle, one even had a hardback spine that torn in two, but what bothers me is that these books have no signs that they’ve ever been read.

Why do people buy books? Because they feel an obligation to read something? Thanks university instructors for the guilt trip! Or is it because they know they will like the book, but there just isn’t time to read everything. Do they hang onto them for years and then give them away? I suspect the intention of reading is, for many people, stronger than the real reading habit. So if I publish a book and sell, say, ten thousand copies, how many of those are bought but left closed? How many are read by several people? How many wind up in the used book store for scavengers like me to find?

“I buy so many books I can never read them all.”
“You can’t go wrong giving books as presents.”
“We don’t have enough space in the garage for all these books. Chuck ‘em.”
“I’d feel bad just tossing good books into the recycling bin, maybe we could donate them or trade for more books.”

Of course, there are those exceptions that are full of writing, so that you get a double reading experience, yours and the previous owner’s. That’s fun. In the textbooks, the notes are heavy in the first chapter and peter out before mid-way. And then there are the truly read books which even after decades smell like the smoke of the person who enjoyed reading and smoking in bed back before remote controls and tablet internet. I opened a book recently and smelled the boiled fish someone was cooking years ago. Maybe reading in the kitchen. These signs are like a time capsule. That pipe smoker may be dead, but his pages carry on his scent to me across the world.

In my copy of My Ántonia, a story of my grandparents’ Nebraska, some uneducated plains-dweller has written notes with a fountain pen like: ‘she’s so nice’, and ‘I don’t like him’. As if this reader felt like the characters were her neighbors. As if Willa Cather were sharing her journal. This dialog is probably from 1918 when the book came out. Amazing.

Happy reading trials, Martin

Mutt: Ready for some American history?
Jeff: I love American history.
Mutt: Not for long.
Jeff: Well, I know that in 1621 a Plymouth band began playing because they wanted to see Plymouth Rock.
Mutt: In 1634 the first twins were born in America on a two’s day.
Jeff: In 1640 the first calendar was produced – everyone knew its days were numbered.
Mutt: In 1803 the first chimney sweep was hired and everyone said, “Soot yourself!”
Jeff: In 1806 liquor was first made in the U.S. – it soon went into mash production.
Mutt: In 1841 the first suspenders were made, but the company was held up.
Jeff: In 1865 Canada sold the U.S. a herd of 40,000 bison. Then America received a buffalo bill.
Mutt: In 1868 the first dressmaker’s shop opened – it seemed to do very well.
Jeff: In 1869 walnuts were first introduced to America – some thought they weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Mutt: In 1883 the first bakery opened on the yeast coast.
Jeff: In 1888 chains were made for pocket watches – for people who couldn’t afford to lose time.
Mutt: In 1889 the first lighter-than-air craft departed on its maiden voyage – everyone thought it was a lot of balloony.
Jeff: In 1892 a shipment of fruit was delivered by boat – it was the first water-mailin’.
Mutt: In 1898 the first submarine sandwich was introduced, but the company went under.
Jeff: Okay, and then what happened?
Mutt: One damn thing after another, brother, one damn thing after another.

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