A MODERN READER #6: In the Stacks


I spent $90, and now I have 39 books stacked on my table. That’s $2.31 each!

Perhaps you’ve been to a public library book sale. Until last month, I hadn’t. The library itself is not selling remaindered books they no longer have a use for. Rather, the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, a non-profit that raises money in support of the library, collect books from their members, friendly folks who want to donate books to a good cause. You may suppose, as I did, that these folks who donate are smart. They like libraries—ergo they read. And you would be right.

The book sale is held in at the Fort Mason Center in the Golden Gate of San Francisco, with the windy Bay at its back. I arrived on the first afternoon and found shopping carts, to aid in my purchases. They seemed alien. How many books fit in a shopping cart? 200? But surveying the rows ahead, I took one. And it quickly filled like a bathtub: books that I’d read but had since lent or lost, books that I’d been specifically meaning to read, books by someone who I felt I should have read, books of essays, novels, short story collections, more novels. They were so cheap. $2 for The Emigrants, $2 for The Fermata, Middlesex – the first paperback edition with the cover nobody has – for $1. No title was more than $5 and most were $2. I bought quite a few “early works” that I had missed – The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Emerald City, The Right Hand of Sleep and A Handbook for Drowning – to assuage the guilt of not reading their authors’ current, more relevant titles.

Then there were silly books that I didn’t even know existed. I bought a little book that was miscategorized in the poetry section—it is the size of a chapbook, but it is actually a Farrar, Straus, and Giroux promotional book for Wells Tower’s collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.  The title page says, “For promotional use only,” and accredits the design to “Employee Number 1.” (Maybe this book is also in the category of “bought out of guilt that I haven’t read their current, more relevant titles.”) I bought George Eliot’s Blotter, an odd volume published by The British Library in 1980. It is what it claims to be – transcriptions and photographic reproductions of eight pages of George Eliot’s notebooks, where she pulled quotes from Dante, Shakespeare, and Coleridge. I’m not particularly interested in Eliot, but this book embodies the minute obsession with literary figures that I strive for.

I admit it: I bought a few books because I knew they were kind of rare, like The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly and B. S. Johnon’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. I bought Slouching Towards Bethelem and Mimesis because they were important to me in college and got lost to a roommate or a move.

I spent $90, and now I have 39 books stacked on my table. That’s $2.31 each! (There are actually 35 books on my table—I bought two cookbooks and two Wendell Barry books for my dad.) I keep rearranging them: by genre, by country of origin, by decade, by thickness, by color.  I need a new bookshelf.

And I can’t help but wonder – will I read them? I started Oliver Sacks’ The Anthropologist on Mars ($4) on the bus ride home. Perhaps I need a plan. Chronologically: all of them – even The Gulag Archipelago ($5). Or by topic. An experimental literature syllabus: Three Lives by Gertrude Stein ($2), then B.S. Johnson, then John Barth, George Saunders. The Paul LaFarge fits in there, too. Then a late-20th and early-21st century literature class. Then a Woolf-Didion-Mary McCarthy class. I don’t know if William Safire’s On Language ($2) will fit with any other book in this bizarre collection. I could have a misfits streak where I unite the Safire with The Letters of Abelard and Heloise ($2) and the Oliver Sacks book.

In early encounters with these piles, I have gravitated towards the essays on literature rather than the literature itself. Mary McCarthy’s On the Contrary ($2) and Donald Bartheleme’s Not-Knowing ($3) both discuss the state of the novel and the role of fiction. And these two estimable thinkers reach more or less the opposite conclusion. In her essay “The Fact in Fiction,” McCarthy makes clear that the novel is a fact-filled product. She defines it as: “A prose book of a certain thickness that tells a story of real life… The distinctive mark of the novel is its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics.” Bartheleme tells me, “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed…” Not McCarthy’s novelists, I suppose, not Melville or Tolstoy or Faulkner. When Bartheleme condemns “work that rushes toward the reader with outflung arms” as irrelevant, I see McCarthy scoff.

Of course, these two critics come from different generations, McCarthy being twenty years Bartheleme’s senior, not to mention divergent literary lineages. This is also to say nothing of the immense volumes of scholarship and criticism on this subject by other writers. But their arguments are beside the point, or beside my point at least, which is to say the relationship between the ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. I can have it both ways, factful and factless, and they both lend a new and useful lens to my reading.

That is why I am so excited about my stack of books! Certainly Julian Barnes will not be “in conversation” with The Gulag Archipelago as much as McCarthy is with Bartheleme, but other convergences will emerge as I dismantle the stacks by reading them.


The illustration for A Modern Reader was created by Brianne Farley.

M. Rebekah Otto lives in Berkeley, CA. She grew up in Chicago. Her current interests include her new nine-to-five, vintage wallpaper, and Evan S. Connell. Also, she's the former Books Editor of the Rumpus. More from this author →