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Well Thumbed

by Brandon Edmonds / 23.07.2010

I love second hand books. My heart leaps at a title I didn’t even know I wanted until I see it on a shelf or sandwiched in a pile of other titles. It was waiting for me. Waiting for me all along. It’s a strange dynamic, the book that finds you and accompanies you home: half surprise, half inevitability. How the falcon returns to the falconer. You feel stirred and grateful. When the book you didn’t know you needed finds you, becomes yours, all yours, it parallels encounters with people you’ve known and loved, how the best of them return to you, if you’re lucky, and we’re all lucky sometimes. It makes second-hand bookstores magical enclaves of humanity. They contain multitudes.

I worked through the Penguin paperback Classics in my twenties. Those sexy black spines. Your big realists: Hardy, Austen and Eliot. Balancing the bulk on your knees or gazing overhead in the bath. Lolling hours in narrative. I moved on from the 19th Century sharply. On to Joseph Conrad, Saul Bellow, Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus. The 20th Century masters. Seeing Kafka’s name for sale would make the hairs on my arms rise. The great Russians soon got hold of me. Any Dostoevsky had to be owned immediately. His bulky masterpieces. I’d flip to the front page where the price waited in pencil. He was always more because of the heft. I was happy to find Notes from the Underground, his slimmest volume, for a mere five rand in Melville. Gogol’s strange tales. The natural wonder of Tolstoy. The quiet moving brilliance of Chekhov.

All that bound paper. Much better for trees ground into literature than scaffolding. There’s nothing like the well thumbed suppleness of a thoroughly read paperback. It’s pulpy malleability. It always reminds me of Dali’s floppy watches. That dough like give. The neat square rightness of a loved volume. Second-hand books are artifacts, time-speckled objects, overlaid with the lives of strangers, their page markers, their scribbles, their lunches and sneezes. It’s a gentle kind of voyeurism. A low end kind of time travel. This intimate continuity of the book through passing minds. There’s such beauty in the shared ownership of second-hand things. An unbounded community of fellow curiosities.

Ulysses was expensive. I was happy to get it home, feeling like the smartest guy on the bus, with it poking from my tote bag. A lovely lime green Penguin edition. With Joyce on the cover looking myopic and exhausted. I was then roundly defeated by his galloping, challenging prose (and am yet to finish the fucker, the rapturous closing pages where Molly Bloom yabbers on in the most bravura “stream of consciousness” in all literature). Nabokov’s Lolita was a happy find. It’s a book so well written you despair as a writer in its wake. You have to leave it alone for a bit. Let the envy and admiration die down. At least it makes you want to devour everything the author ever wrote. Great comics, too. I picked up a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers anthology once. That was fun being high to read. Early Batman. Tintin and Asterix & Obelix. So good for the bathroom’s glum necessity.

Finding Greil Marcus’ astounding punk mind meld, Lipstick Traces, was a good day. The Andy Warhol diaries. I became obsessed with the chic white spines of Picador paperbacks. I had a long arctic line of them on my bookshelf. Knut Hamsun. Kathy Acker. JG Ballard. I seldom turned my back on Graham Greene. He’d always insist on coming home with me. Marquez and Kundera, of course. I found Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in a sodden box and put it on the windowsill to dry. Peter Guralnick’s great book on soul music. His biography on Elvis too, Mystery Train. Joseph Brodsky’s profound, exquisite essays in Less Than One. David Thomson’s incredible noir novel Suspects and his perfect biography of Orson Welles, Rosebud. All used, all well thumbed, all grimed and pocked and essential to me.

It’s a passion for collecting on the wane though. I have less time or inclination to read. Being online defeats the call of all those tender books. Their generosity lies immanent in the pages, their intellect, the sparkle of the achievement and wonder, it all squats on the shelf, gathering dust. While I send emails and network and flip through blogs and sites. What second-books don’t have is the elixir of immediacy, the satisfying jolt of quick topical prose, the web offers. They’re outdone by the ever rolling thunder of mass information. The jostling multitude of explication online. My books have the hangdog air of toys in an attic lately. They’re well on their way to being passed on. If you come across them, read the shit out of them, promise me, bend their backs and splay their spines. They love it rough. And that weird poo-like slick on page 23 – it wasn’t me!

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