Reading on the cheap


Let me begin by admitting, right up front, to being unashamedly and unrepentantly on the lookout for cheap books. More accurately, I am constantly in the market for good books at cheap prices.

Some of the best treasures on my shelves came from clearance tables at bookstores.   And from garage sales, where I’ve dug my way through many a pile of books on card tables or in paper boxes, like a prospector sifting through an acre or so of river sand looking for a speck of gold.

The end result of all of this is that I have what many people would consider too many books.  Of course, some people would consider any at all too many, so I can’t spend any time worrying about that.

But when my shelves start groaning, I weed some volumes out and either donate them to charity sales or haul them off to a second-hand store to sell them, because I could no more throw a book away than I could toss a puppy out into a blizzard.

Recently, I made a grand total of twenty bucks for three full boxes of hardbacks.  Which amounted to a profit of about a nickel per book, hardly enough to cover the cost  of the gasoline it took to lug them up to Houston.

But that’s okay.  Most of those books will be read again, and then, probably, again.  And that’s what books are for.  I know people who have books on their shelves as decoration only, placed there because of their handsome leather bindings or because the covers blend into the color scheme of the room. Once, I naturally gravitated toward someone’s bookshelves at a party and found a row of perfectly new, obviously unopened French texts.  Since I knew that my hosts neither spoke nor read French, I realized that the books were purely cosmetic, like props on a stage set.

That’s fine with me.  But the numerous books in my house are both keepsakes and reference tools. Though perhaps not always enhancing the ambiance of the decor, they’re pulled down on occasion to be thumbed through, read or re-read, and actually used.

Step over here to the bookcase and let me show you.

That little one right there, with the worn cloth binding, is The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart; it was the first mystery novel I ever read, and the catalyst for a lifetime of pleasure.  I’ve read those novels by Gore Vidal – the seven big ones there together, all of them set in Washington, D.C. from the Revolutionary War through World War II – twice each, and may or may not read them again.  But there they are, just in case.  That covey of poetry anthologies is for when a snippet of verse pecks at my brain, or I have a decision to make and need to read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to nudge me.  And Kristin Labransdatter by Sigrid Undset, in those three volumes there at the end, may never get read at all.  Who knows?  Maybe sometime in my further dotage a long Scandinavian saga might be just the ticket for a couple of weeks one blustery winter.

I got that boxed set for one dollar at a garage sale years ago. That same day I found an early Anne Sexton.  Not a first edition, but not bad for fifty cents.

There’s another reason I’m all in favor of buying books on the cheap, and it might sound silly to you.  As the author of several books – all of which are sometimes found on discount racks and clearance carts – I like to imagine a shopper unknown to me – maybe in Duluth or Peoria or Tallahassee – on a crisp Saturday morning lifting up one of my efforts, thumbing through it, reading the first couple of paragraphs, paying their two dollars, and taking it home.  Where it might just provide them with an acceptable few hours of reading and maybe end up in their bookcase.  Or, better yet, passed along to a friend to read.

It’s wishful thinking, I know.  But, after all, what’s wrong with a little of that? It’s a nice feeling, the possibility that some of my books are wandering around out there in the wide world, making their hopeful way like Dickens’ pitiful waifs, finding refuge, finally, on a friendly shelf or bedside table.

By the way, the twenty dollars that I made at the used book store never left the building.  A handsome copy of Derek Walcott’s poems called out to me, and three paperback whodunits.

The bill came to $24.95.

[This was a newspaper column in some yesteryear]



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