My Backlogged Pages, New York Times

Posted January 6, 2010

Categories: Articles, Highlighted

In this age of Amazon recommendations and Kindle downloads, I still rely on the old-fashioned services of a book buyer. My personal book buyer has an uncanny ability to anticipate my tastes. He has introduced me to out-of-print novelists, obscure playwrights and classic philosophy tracts. I’ve enjoyed nearly all of his choices, though quite a few remain stacked in my bookshelf, still unread.

My book buyer follows a simple rule that I set for him long ago. No book should cost more than 25 cents.

You might also be surprised to learn that my book buyer is a teenager. Sometimes his purchases reflect youthful enthusiasms like science fiction and the novels of John Fowles. But he never fails to throw me the occasional literary curveball, like the collected plays of the Belgian avant-gardist Michel de Ghelderode or Eugene Burdick’s prescient 1964 novel “The 480.”

Every time I read one of the jewels that my book buyer has picked out for me, I want to call him up and thank him. But I can’t. Nor can I submit any special requests. He’s been out of business for some time.

My book buyer, you see, is myself.

I made these purchases three decades ago when still in my teens and in the initial phase of my love affair with books. It all took place at a book sale that happened one weekend a year, just before Halloween, in a church around the corner from my house in suburban New Jersey. After Saturday soccer practice I’d hurry over to the church, still dressed in my sports gear, cleats skittering among the fallen leaves. I was so eager to get there that I didn’t want to waste time changing clothes.


Credit…Illustration by David Plunkert

By the time I arrived, the volunteer staff, bookstore owners and early-bird bibliophiles had skimmed the most valuable stuff off the top: first editions, recent hardcovers with high resale value. But that didn’t matter to me. Wandering through the tables piled high with unsorted books, I vacuumed up all the Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury I could find at 10 cents a pop. I stocked up on authors — George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut — I mistakenly thought wrote nothing but science fiction. Then there were the titles that caught my eye because they sounded vaguely fantastical, like “Ten Days That Shook the World” (about an asteroid strike?) and “Invisible Man” (clearly the inspiration for Claude Rains).

By late Saturday afternoon, the organizers of the sale reduced the price to $1 for whatever you could fit into a bag or box. Even on my meager newspaper route savings, I could afford to splurge. I ranged far from my comfort zone of science fiction. I judged books by their covers. I stuffed any and all recommended reads into my sack.

At home with my yearly harvest, I quickly burned through all the light fiction before attempting some of the more difficult novels. Drawn in by “The Metamorphosis,” I became a fan of Kafka. I read everything by Aldous Huxley, eventually reconciled to the fact that “Brave New World” and “Island” were not representative of his work. I was even surprised to find that certain classics like the plays of Aristophanes and the “Satyricon” of Petronius were not in the least stuffy and, as an additional bonus, considerably expanded my vocabulary and knowledge of anatomy.

At every stage of my life, my book buyer has provided me something of value. In college, the books of philosophy came in handy. Many years after that, when I started to write plays, “Krapp’s Last Tape” exploded my conventional notions of theater. Right now, as I toy with the idea of writing a screenplay, I find a battered copy of “The Disenchanted,” Budd Schulberg’s roman à clef about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, to be utterly enchanting. Just as a single book offers something new to your different selves over time, my library catered to the different identities I have cultivated over the years.

When I bought all those books back in my teens, I lived under the illusion that my lifetime stretched endlessly toward the horizon and I would be able to read everything of importance. Pascal and Locke and the collected works of Victor Hugo (Volume 5) did not speak to me then, but surely one day they would. To the great irritation of my wife, I’ve lugged the boxes from place to place, certain that the perfect opportunity would arise to dip into Runciman’s “Byzantine Civilization” or the two-volume Time Inc. edition of “The Education of Henry Adams.”

That time has perhaps come. Tired of buying bookshelves and anxious about the economic downturn, my wife recently instituted the First Law of Literary Thermodynamics, otherwise known as the conservation of libraries. No book can come into our household without another book leaving it. I am loath to give up any books. So I’ve been dipping more and more into my unread stock, which still numbers in the hundreds.

I still may not finish all the books that my youthful buyer picked out for me. But I could never sell them or give them away. They are not just books, after all. Provided I hold on to this library, I can still pretend that I will be all the people that I imagined I would be as a teenager, as I wandered the church book sale and selected gifts for my future selves.

New York Times, June 13, 2010

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