Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Used Book Adventures

I happen to think I can learn about anything by finding the right book. Currently I am studying poetry. In the past, I collected and read work by poets Hansen (the new poet laureate of Nebraska), Hasselstrom, Kenyon, Kooser, Nye, Oliver, Saiser, and Stafford for the sheer beauty I find in their language. Now I am reading several other poets whose work speaks to me. I am reading more slowly and making a few notes about the ways they use word sounds and origins, rhythm, and space in their early and later work. Some of my poetry books are new and some are used. I love a new book as well as any book lover. I enjoy the smell and feel of new paper in a book. I love the heft and crispness of a new hard back book as well as the slight tension in the binding of a new trade paperback. I have attended readings to have new books signed by the author.

Still, I enjoy looking at the typeset, the little symbols between sections, book jackets, and cover art of used books. Finding another reader's note in the margin intrigues me. Very old books spin more than one tale. For example, my great grandfather, Harry Ulmer, lived in Omaha in the early 1900's. I know him through my grandmother's stories about him: the car he rented on Sunday afternoons for family outings and the latest contraptions, including a radio in a wooden cabinet, that he carted home. He also brought home books. I know this because I have inherited a few of them, including this small volume of "Snowbound," a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. This little worn book was published in 1907. From Harry's inscription on the title page, I know that my great grandparents attended a party, perhaps playing cards or charades on June 23, 1909 and he won this little volume. I can see him tipping the straw hat he often wore and smiling broadly while telling his five children about the winter poem he won on a summer day.  

Early in my used book buying, I purchased a few lemons. Once, I received a book that reeked of cigarette smoke. Even propping it open on the deck in full sun of ninety degree days couldn't remove the odor. I notified the seller about the condition of the book and then put it in the garbage. While a notation or two in a book is interesting, a book heavily marked with fluorescent pink high-lighter is distracting so I learned how to read descriptions of used books. Shopping at A Novel Idea, one of my local used bookstores, is a great adventure and a way to view books before purchasing.

Recently, I ordered a couple of books by a lesser known author because I wanted to compare her poetry and prose. When the book arrived in June, I put it on the stack in my writing room. When I opened it this winter,  I discovered it was a signed copy. The paperback is worn but author's signature is very clear.

This month I ordered an anthology of poetry by May Sarton. I have read her journals but decided  to study her poetry. I wanted this anthology in order to make my own notes in the margins. When the book arrived, I noticed a newspaper clipping tucked into the book. The clipping, dated July 18, 1995, was the article published by The New York Times at her death. I think proprietors of used bookstores enjoy the idiosyncrasies of used books as much as I do.

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