Annie Proulx's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Shipping News” would never have been written if she had not chanced upon another book at a yard sale.
In her introduction to the novel, Proulx says, “Without the inspiration of Clifford W. Ashley's wonderful 1944 work, 'The Ashley Book of Knots,' which I had the good fortune to find at a yard sale for a quarter, this book would just have remained a thread of an idea.”
In the novel, Proulx uses the earlier work as a benchmark: The knots and nautical language are used for chapter titles, characters' names and as a backdrop of sorts.
No matter. The thing, the glorious thing, is that it was by chance that the author found the earlier book.
Call it serendipity: It is the marvelous thing about books. You can pick them up just about anywhere, and a single volume can change your life or lead you into unexpected realms of delight. If a book purchase at a rummage sale pleases, chances are you will read the author's entire cannon.
The eclectic adventure of reading is part of the joy, perhaps a large part.
My adventure began in a used book store with a single play by Oscar Wilde, “Lady Windermere's Fan.” I was schoolboy who hated school but could be transported by visions of London salons, people talking in epigrams, witty men and gorgeous women.
From then on the used book store was the place of revolt, enchantment, fulfillment and escape. Swiftly I read most of Wilde, a lot of George Bernard Shaw; by chance, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment” and on through the melancholy of other Russian authors.
Wilde and Dostoyevsky with equal relish?
Yes. The trick, I believe, was that unlike the reading list at school, this was private, eclectic, and I did not know where these writers fit in the arc of literature. For me, the works had not been contaminated by didactic teachers and idiotic reviewers.
I only tell you this because the physical book seems to be endangered.
The disruptive technology of the electronic book gains adherents daily, as fewer books are printed and book stores close. The printed book is on its way to becoming an antique, a relic of a bygone era.
When the book finally succumbs to life only among the electrons, gone will be not only the book but also the printer, the binder, the shipper and the bookseller. Gone will be the chance that you will discover a classic by Anthony Trollope or Ernest Hemingway, or just a good potboiler across a crowded bookstore.
I find if you buy books online (I got a Kindle for Christmas, which I lost), you find yourself confined to what you know. Also Amazon will advise of other books that they – their computers, that is — think you will like; but they do it by extrapolation. If you have fancied detective novels set in Italy (say by authors Donna Leon and Michael Dibden) they will send you similar reading recommendations, even though you have a yen for something quite different, although you know not what.
Computers are not as smart or savvy as their advocates think. Also I do not want a computer, no matter how discreet its owners say it is, knowing what I am reading. Based on recent forays, the machine will put me down as a socialist or a pervert, or both.
I know the physical book is doomed like the typewriter, the rotary telephone, the telex and the soda fountain; but I want this to be “The Long Goodbye,” which is the title of a Raymond Chandler book I purchased by chance somewhere.
The thrill of opening a new book is not replicated by switching one on. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate