Sunday, December 30, 2012

On Used Book Stores

Whenever you begin compiling mental lists of the jobs you've had before you evolved to a truer representation of your profession, the one with the greatest resonant pleasure and sense of being close to where you belonged is without question the years you spent as a page in the Beverly Hills (CA) public library.  Your job was to re-shelf the returned or non-circulated books to their proper ranking as determined by the Dewey Decimal System, a classification with ten major headings, each of which is broken into ten sub-headings.

When you came to work, you simply went to the return desk, where the library equivalent of shopping carts awaited, each filled with books that had been left on the reading tables or returned by borrowers.

Libraries have evolved much since those days, many of them well in step with electronic technology.  "Your" library seemed modern enough, the head librarian always back from some meeting or convocation, her knowledge and energy readily apparent, her pride in her own work and calling manifest.  You also had a secret crush on one of the reference librarians, which to your late teen and early twenties hormones, seemed the perfect balance.  You frequently saw "her," had contact, even conversation with "her," and were actually paid for handling books, some of which you were able to read on the spot.

Thus this prologue to introduce the subject of your fondness for the library and the sense of a growing relationship with it that came to fruition when you entered the publishing trade, were often sent to main and regional meetings of the American Library Association, and where library adoptions of books you'd acquired as editor meant the success of a particular title.  Not to forget the pride of being given your own subscription to Library Journal, which you were expected to read as a part of your job.  To add meat to the stew, not to forget your own sense of satisfaction in early December of this year when a book you'd written was given a :highly recommended" review by Library Journal.

Before, during, and after these associations with the Library as an institution, you carried on a more or less secret life, having to do with the person you wished to become, the things you wished most in life to do, and the growing, absolute sense that there were no formal ways for you to achieve these goals.  If they were to come to pass, you've have to pursue or blunder or experiment your ways into them.

In a real and significant sense then, the used book store, as a specific place and as an abstraction, meant as much to, perhaps even a tad more than the library.

The place you were sent by Dave, of Spider's Pool Hall fame (see entry of December 29, 2012) was a used book store on the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, presided over by a younger man than Dave but every bit as edgy and driven as Dave.  He hat a sharp, angular face, accented by large, black horn-rimmed glasses.  He always wore a blue suit, perhaps his only suit, and a red tie, perhaps his only tie.

The things you sought in his store, some of them with his direction, were several plateaus above what you sought at Spider's pool hall.  You could not have articulated your quest at the time; the closest you could have come was to say that you were looking for a particular book that would have a transformative effect on your life and your writing ability.  You were in effect looking for yourself and your themes and cholers and humors and politics.  You were looking for young love and lost love and everyday love and the remarkable bantering love of your parents. You were looking for heart wrenching joys and the acute, momentary stab of the wisdom accompanying the laughter of humor.  You were looking for secret love letters in your notebooks and explanations for the hows and whys the world was as it was and its inhabitants what they were.  You were looking for heredity, environment, esp, sanity, and Transcendentalism.  You got instead some books at reasonable prices and cards entitling you to a free spaghetti dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant, although if you wanted meat in the sauce, you had to pay for that.

You got thoroughly misunderstood by your teachers, misunderstandings you were only too willing to reciprocate.  You were as moody as the moodiness you later saw in James Dean, but you had neither leather jacket nor motorcycle.  You drifted away from pool hall friendships and more into nodding acquaintances with others who paced and prowled the shelves of the used bookstores.

You became other in the non-pool hall sense, the other from the used bookstore sense, where for as little as two dollars, you could buy works of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Dashiell Hammett.  The man at the La Brea used book store would eye your purchases carefully, his voice edged in scorn.  "You're going nowhere with that crap."  He pounced under the counter and came forth with a smaller, six-and-a-half by four-and-a-half-inch green book, your introduction to The Loeb Classic Library, and for the first time since you'd known him, he smiled.  "Half of this book will be of no use to you because it is in Greek.  But the other half will more than make up for it."

"What is it?"

"Plotinus.  He is worth your while."

Many things were worth your while, but you still did not know who you were and, as things were beginning to become clear to you, Stanley Vestal's Writing Magazine Fiction was not the transformative thing you'd hoped.

In time, you discovered a used bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard, where individuals regularly traded old copies of National Geographic and Life for credits on collections of short stories or books showing the way to save money by developing film in your own bathtub or raising chinchillas.  Over the months of your prowl there, you saw at least three sets of guidebooks from The Famous Writers' School, which meant persons other than you, wishing to become writers, had joined you in the discovery of used bookstores.

Once or twice, you'd stumble upon a book such as Jurgen by James Branch Cabell, or The Golden Ass by Lucius Appuleus, which made you think you were perhaps on the right track, but growing tall enough to cause bartenders to think you were twenty-one set you on another track, which meant you could hang out at The Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard, or, further west, The Cock & Bull, where you sipped Moscow Mules or Pimm's Cups, and ventured conversations with the more sober among the screenwriters, all of whom cautioned you against taking Hollywood money.

In a fit of frustration, you said you'd be happy to take anyone's money for your stories, which earned you a few months of patronage from a husband-wife writing team who tried to convince you that the secret of story telling was to take something with a well-known plot, then recast it as something else, Mutiny on the Bounty being offered to you as the "key" to the current John Wayne-Montgomery Clift movie, Red River.  This gave you an ah-ha moment, but after several wild rides, you realized it was only an ah-moment; the ha had somehow eluded you.

But you were far enough in to see the logic of one piece of the puzzle:  you were not interested in reselling books that mattered to you.  On the other hand, you were interested in reselling Writing Magazine Fiction.

Years later--many years later--you've reordered Writing Magazine Fiction from the present-day equivalent of a used book store, Amazon.  The work is not transformative, but you had not expected it to be.  Rather, the book is still what it was, more than a competent guide.  By the nature of where you bought it, the book was something someone else no longer wished.  The thing transformed is you, not by any one thing but rather an entire cascade of event, wish, fantasy, idea, and the fierce, no-nonsense logic of revision.  This is not to say by any means that you invented the process of revision, but you did reinvent it for yourself, and the reinvention is right there in your book, The Fiction Writer's Handbook, to prove your point.

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