Thursday, October 25, 2007

Something Borrowed, Something Little Blue

Although I have put in my time at various pool halls, attempting to master the eye-to-hand skills variously of eight-ball, nine-ball, call-shot rotation, snooker, and three-cushion billiards, it is equally true that I hung out at used book stores. The skills I sought there had less to do with geometry, angles, and physics, more to do with the inner geometry and physics of ideas and drama. Beyond any magical notion of, say, being able to run the table in rotation, which is to say sink all the balls in one turn, my quest, my grail if you wish, was to find the one book that would transform me from novice into professional, from student into teacher, from researcher to informed.

I did better at pool than in the used book shop.

Of course there was no such transformative book, nor with all the titles being published each year, is there one today. But ah, the quest, the single-minded focus, the knitting of the brow, the lure of the unshelved stack of books in the very back of the store, the unsorted box of Reader's Digest Condensed Books in the thrift shop.

Beyond this lure of my potential enlightenment under the Bhodai Tree of the used book store and the occasional treasure that did in some way contribute to reading skills if not to writing abilities, was the inevitable counter-top display near the cash register. Often this display was housed in a shoe box or a relic from the days when bricks of Kraft cheese came in wooden boxes. I speak of one of the major forerunners of the modern massmarket paperback. Whitman sang of the body electric. I sing of the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book. Just a tad larger than a three-by-five index card, these booklets were staple-bound, printed on a pulp paper, covered with a light blue cover. The series began publication in about 1920 and remained alive and well until about 1980, having sold hundreds of millions of copies as new books, untold millions as used books.

Through the Little Blue Books I gained introduction to De Maupassant, Balzac, and Ibsen. Hoping to gain some advantage among my fellow students, I also tried Margaret Sanger, as in What Every Girl Should Know; I also met Ibsen, Omar, Poe, Shelley, and Chekhov, as well as G.B. Shaw and other noted Socialists.

As I'd nourished the dream of a large collection of Big Little Books as a younger person, I thought to have the entire collection of Little Blue Books, the better to pursue the notion of being literate.

While composing this, I essayed a quick look at Amazon dot com to see if any Little Blue Books existed. They do and I can imagine some hours of catch-up.

I didn't realize it at the time one fateful afternoon when I wandered into Thrifty Drug Store at Wilshire and Cochran, midtown Los Angeles, but the handwriting was on the wall for the Little Blue Books. A coin-operated machine next to the tobacco stand beckoned me forth, urging me to part with quarters. Thus did I buy my first massmarket paperback, Microbe Hunters, a series of biographical essays about scientists, by Paul De Kreiuf. The very next day, I contrived to get another quarter, with which I bought a collection of science fiction stories.

I hadn't realized it at the time but this machine and these books were the direct result of a master's thesis written by one Ian Ballentine.

I hadn't realized it at the time but I was already aboard a train rushing out of the station, carrying me away from Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books, clattering toward Dell Paperbacks (where I would one day work), particularly the mysteries with their idiosyncratic maps of the crime scenes on their back cover, plummeting toward Sherbourne Press, where I'd gone to publish and remained to edit and, in the process, receive an intercom message from Helen, the embodiment of the Sherbourne communication system. "A Mister Ballentine is in the outer lobby, here for his appointment."

But that is part of a longer story, one too long to fit in a Little Blue Book.


Smiler said...

I'd never heard of the Little Blue Book until today. I wish they'd still been around when I first took an interest in literature. But I take consolation for my limited exposure in Schopenhauer's words: that reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for oneself. Of course, I only quote this because I've only just now finished reading his book...

Anonymous said...

I also don't know the Little Blue Book. But I have put together a collection of Modern Library Books, gleaned from junk shops and those who have contracts to glean from the SF dump. Alas, most of my collection remains unread. But I do really enjoy the way the books sit in my hand.... :)
- Karen

Lori Witzel said...

Thanks for the slow current, the ox-bow turn, and the extra's the sandbar where I stopped:

And oh, please, tell us the longer story!

R.L. Bourges said...

yes, I want the longer story too.