Wednesday, February 08, 2006


If you’re anything like me, you carry around with you a list of books that you’re interested in acquiring, whether to read or merely to possess. They may be books found via your comfortable, almost hypnotically meditative browsings of Amazon, or they may be books mentioned by other books (surely one of the great joys of the art of reading, wherein a fine book recommends other books of equal quality, sending you on an inexhaustible journey), or they may be books in which your interest has been piqued by friends or reviews.

In any event, the list. I carry mine around in the back of my Moleskine notebook – a chic accoutrement, I know, but eminently practical and generally delightful – and whenever I come across an unfamiliar bookstore, or a familiar bookstore I have not visited in a while, I enter and turn to the back of my Moleskine, browsing the shelves on the off chance that I will find something. About 70% of the time I will find the book and, having taken the opportunity to read a little, will find that it wasn’t worth all the fuss and bother, and thus it is angrily stricken from the list, never to be mentioned nor thought of again.

29% (these aren’t quantifiable figures, just a rough estimate) of the time I find the book and, after browsing it, decide that it is exactly as good as I predicted it would be, and it is snapped up in an instant, to be savoured at leisure. I have a great pile of just these sorts of books on my desk at home, covering a variety of subjects and styles and, when time and mood permits, I make my way through them gradually.

But that final percent? Those are magical times. Many of the books in which I am interested seem, inevitably, to be either out of print or just generally quite rare. They are difficult to find, and their titles and authors lurk in the back of my Moleskines for months, sometimes years at a time. You hardly find mention of them on the internet, you scour the depths of Amazon and eBay and every other site, to no avail. Scratching through every two-bit bookstore you find, in fact planning entire days of journeying to every corner of the city, into every secondhand bookstore the Yellow Pages makes mention of. Your desperation grows wilder, your enthusiasm morphs into infuriation, and inch by inch you begin to resent every book that is not the one you are seeking, throwing them aside in vile disgust, as though they were all written by Jonathan Franzen. Shopkeepers are harassed and verbally bludgeoned for their stupidity when they raise their eyes heavenwards, scratch at their stupid ears, and mumble that “Yes, that title does sound familiar…I’m sure I’ve seen it about!” Then they lead you to the shelf in question, muttering uselessly and pottering through the volumes before announcing that they were mistaken or, worse: “Ah, yes, now I remember. A young lady came in and bought it last week.” Oh, really? Cunt!

Until, one day, when aforementioned enthusiasm is barely at a smoulder, and, resigned, you grouse your way through those same tired shelves for the thousandth time, there it is. Your eyes, scanning the spines, pass it on the first run, but then a little shot goes off in the back of your head and your eyes snap back like a typewriter’s carriage return. I dare say you even emit a merry “Ding!” as it happens, as I do, constantly. And there stands the title in all its splendour, the pages orange-brown and filled with fossilized food matter decades old, the cover tattered and torn, and you snatch it down, flick through it to be sure it is real – yes, yes, yes! – and shove it furtively under your arm, glancing from side to side lest other searchers emerge wailing from the dark recesses of the store, raking their nails across your face and sinking their teeth into your poor balls.

These discoveries have been made by me precisely three times that I can remember. The first, some time ago, was the termination to my years-long search for The Maze Maker by a certain Michael Ayrton. And not just a ratty, gangrenous softcover, which I would have been more than happy with, but a pristine, hard cover first edition for a criminally low price. I took it home and, fearful, placed it on the shelf. It has not been read since and probably never will be, as I suffered a momentary loss of interest in the subject matter (classical mythology, specifically the Cretan myth of Asterion the minotaur, Daedalus, Icarus, etc.), but the find was just as joyous, and the excitement tangible.

The second was more recently. I had worked myself quickly into a froth over online reviews of The Purple Cloud by one M. P. Shiel. A reconnaissance of the more modern establishments informed me that it was “not on the system”, and so the hunt was on! I searched high, I searched low, having already decided that a certain bookshop opposite Flinders Street Station was “rubbish” and “they’ll never have it”, eventually, almost out of spite, entered said establishment and found the volume instantly, even shelved alphabetically and in the correct section. I about shat myself right there and paid only five dollars for the book, consuming it in a day and finding it better than I had imagined.

The third, today, in Carlton. I had been looking for The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner for a good while. Enter any secondhand bookstore and you’ll find loads of Brunner (The Dramaturges of Yan most commonly), but never this one. So I stepped today into the shop, moseyed up to the science fiction section, planted my hands firmly on my hips, thrust my crotch outwards tilted my torso backwards so as to more properly survey the top shelf where the “BR”s began, and there it was, the first, and, bizarrely, only John Brunner in the shop. I have it now safely ensconced in my bag, to be more properly appreciated at a later date.

Rest assured that my bibliorgasms are under no threat of eradication just yet, for already I am on the prowl for my next acquisition: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis.

But to you, dear readers of this wee 'umble blog, I submit the question: what are your greatest finds? Not necessarily great books, or beautiful editions, or even something that you will ever read, but the finds that put piss and vinegar into your step and plaster groin-tinglings of happiness across your face. Spill, or be forever damned to do all your book shopping at the local St. Vinnie's.


At 6:31 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I had never heard John Cage's music, but early last year somebody gave me a recording of his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano and I thought it excellent and still do. Around the same time I was reading a rather gimmicky but diverting book of American literary history called A Chance Meeting and who should turn up about halfway through but John Cage. I learned that Cage not only wrote music, but books, so I added his most famous book, Silence, to my list. (Which I keep in a $1.50 generic brand shorthand notebook - none of this fancy Moleskine business for me!) I searched everywhere for Cage's book with no luck, but just as I was considering ordering it from Amazon I walked into a book shop in Glenferrie Rd. (not Readings) and there it was! I bought it immediately, and a year later I haven't read it because, like you with your Greek mythology book, I kind of lost interest in the subject. But at least I got the damn thing!

At 8:37 PM, Blogger JPW said...

If the bookstore on Glenferrie Road is the one I'm thinking of, it's Flinders Books (they're a bit of a franchise), and it's where I found my Ayrton book. Hurrah!

At 8:52 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Yeah, that's the one. Are they associated with the one across from Flinder's St.? (Going by the name they should be.)

At 10:12 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Yeah. There's the Glenferrie Road one, the one on Swanston (now Kill City), the one opposite Flinders, and another one somewhere in the boondocks. They're pretty good, all things considered, but are sometimes a bit pricey.

At 10:31 PM, Blogger Lucy Tartan said...

The internet sort of put paid to the longueurs of the chase for me. If abebooks don't show a copy the day I go looking, and I have to wait a bit before one becomes available, that's about as much excitement as I can handle. Recent-ish hard to get purchases: Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty; The Tenant by Roland Topor; The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning; The Journals of Susannah Moodie by Margaret Atwood; Twins by Bari Wood & Jack Geasland; and a bunch of boring lit crit that's deservedly obscure.

Bet you're sorry you asked.

At 11:41 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Once I found a copy of Captain Friderick Marryat's 'Peter Simple' at the Maitland Markets, in a shabby tent (it was pissing down rain, and the whole place was rather muddy). Normally the only Marryat books you find are 'Mr Midshipman Easy' and 'Children of the New Forest'.

I'm a big fan of Brian Aldiss, and I'd been collecting books from his 'Life in the West' series: four books in all. The 1st and 4th books were fairly common; and the 2nd book (Forgotten Life) seemed to be everywhere. But I couldn't find a copy of the 3rd book (Remembrance Day).
I looked EVERYWHERE. This was when I was living in Newcastle, so my searches were confined to Newcastle and Sydney bookstores, mostly. The book seemed to be non-existent!
When I first came to Melbourne at the start of last year, I walked into a bookstore, and found TWO copies of the book. When I approached the counter, they told me they had several more! I was tempted to buy them all.

Once I found several copies of 'The CEO of the Sofa', by P.J. O'Rourke in the bargain bin at an Angus and Robertson store. I spent about twenty dollars and got seven of 'em, so I could give a copy out to friends.

A friend of mine was walking through Gould's bookstore in Newtown, Sydney. It's the biggest secondhand bookstore in Sydney - actually a renovated warehouse, or something similar. It's stacked full of smelly old books, balanced in precarious piles, and run by an old Marxist (Bob Gould).
Anyway, what book should - quite literally - fall in his hands but a chess book by Richard Reti? (We were chess geeks, you understand). He bought it there and then.

The one that got away: a beautiful copy of Edgar Allan Poe short stories, with woodcut illustrations by someone like Beardsley - in Cooks Hill books, on Derby st in Newcastle. I was down to my last twenty dollars at the time. It cost fifteen dollars, but was priceless. I needed the food, man!
When I came back two days later, it was gone. To this day, I think - I should have starved.

Dream finds? I'd love to get a reprint of Tannhauser (illustrated by Beardsley). Phantastes by George Macdonald is quite rare (I read a copy at Uni). Parsifal - if not in the original German, then at least a decent translation. Man oh man, the list could go on ...

At 8:09 AM, Blogger JPW said...

I never got to Gould's while I was living in Sydney. Wish I had - Marxists always have the best bookstores.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

You couldn't walk through Gould's book depository! Not when I went there: the aisles were blocked with mounds of books four feet high. I tried digging through one and found Wyndham Lewis' Self Condemned and HD's Trilogy in hardback. Bob was very friendly, presumably because I was paying to get two cryptofascist authors out of his shop.

I daren't look online for second-hand books, partly because I like the thrill of the chase, and partly because if I did I would be broke and have a house full of books I'll never get to read.

Other good gets: when Book Affair in Melbourne closed (sigh) and held their half-price sale, I spent half a day in their Flinders Lane shop combing for mis-shelved books. The pick of that rich crop was a $1 hardback of Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry ( lists its cheapest copy at US$20). Oh, and $6 got me both volumes of Margeurite Young's Miss Macintosh, My Darling.

As for John Cage, I'd like to thank the op shop in Hobart that had a somewhat battered first edition of M. While I'm at it, I'd also like to thank Macrobertson Girl's School for buying, and then selling at a heavy discount, for reasons best known to themselves, William Gaddis' The Recognitions.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Lucy Tartan said...

oh yes, when high school libraries get rid of the book the children don't care for it's a joy to behold. I got about a dozen Becketts from University High's library a few years ago - apparently donated to the library by Peter Robb since each one had his name on the flyleaf.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Lol! It's understandable! I can't see a school kid get into lines like:

"Let's go."
"We can't"
"Why not?"
"We're waiting for Godot."

I love those big university booksales they have from time to time. I've picked up some good bargains at a few of them.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger JPW said...

I used to pinch them outright from the old Townsville State High School library - got me a nice little collection of old Everyman hardcover editions. Darwin, Montaigne, Wilde, Bacon, the works. Never read 'em but damn they're delightful.

At 7:57 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

Stealing books from libraries, how terrible!

Anyway, as Lucy was saying, ex-student copies of Beckett are always good value. My copy of Happy Days has precisely one annotation by its previous owner. Winnie's first line, "World without end", is circled in pencil, accompanied in the margin by the helpful crib "HAS NO END".

At 8:42 AM, Anonymous Gwenda said...

Mockingbird -- and Tevis in general -- is SO good. I believe it's currently in print, so finding a copy shouldn't be that hard.

I also recommend another book named Mockingbird by Sean Stewart (which just came back into print). You really can't go wrong with books called Mockingbird. It's a theory.


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