Saturday, June 03, 2006

Review of a Second-Hand Book

... I found it in the dry corner of a shabby store in an abandoned suburb run by a dusty old Marxist, on a shelf clothed in spectacles and a beard. Isn't that how all stories start? Well, this one doesn't either.


In fact, I found it on the back wall of a large second-hand bookshop in Moonee Ponds, somewhere between the top shelf and bottom shelf. It was sandwiched between two or three Marcovaldos and one If, On a Winter's Night, a Traveller ... I hadn't read Invisible Cities for years, so I bought it.

Invisible Cities - as you may or may not know - is an ingenious book by Italo Calvino. The concept is simple: Kublai Kahn questions Marco Polo about his travels, and Marco Polo replies, in a series of small, sharp vignettes, telling the Khan fantastic stories about the cities he has visited. The stories are loosely grouped together by a series of themes: 'Trading Cities', 'Cities and Signs', 'Cities and Eyes'.

As the stories and the ideas develop, it becomes clear that, not only are the stories fanciful and fantastic, the loose theme around which the book is based - Marco telling stories to Kublai - bears little relation to some of the stories, which are often about twentieth-century cities, or even science-fiction cities (concepts alien to the world which Marco and Kublai inhabit.)


I sometimes wonder why more people buy new books at all. The only difference between second-hand books and new books is a few years. Why should something be better just because it's been published in the last two or three years?
People have been writing for thousands, probably tens of thousands, of years. Old books aren't necessarily better than new books, either - but they are more likely to be better ...


The book was covered in Contact: obviously it had been through a library.
A black-and-white price sticker on the back was dated 10/05/2006, for $15.37. It peeled off easily, revealing a yellow price sticker (used by a Melbourne University bookshop) underneath the Contact, dated 17/06/96, for $11.95.
Details on the back revealed the book was a New York imprint that had originally costed $7.95 (American) - the difference in prices, incidentally, says something about Australia's ridiculous restrictions against the parallel importation of books.


Here's how the book opens. Even in translation, it is beautiful:
Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.
As it turned out, my copy of Invisible Cities had been previously owned by a student probably studying for his or her exams; they had gone through the book, underlying certain phrases - and more often than not, whole pages. They had made a number of extremely pedantic, very literal 'interpretations' above certain words. The word "Braziers", they helpfully inform me, are "metal receptacles"; and a planisphere, I am officiously told, is "a map of half the celestial sphere".
Some explanations are - I admit it - genuinely useful; others are bizarre and misleading: "Nubile girls", apparently, are "marriageable". And it's just plain irritating to be told - halfway through the book - that "hempen strands" are "made of hemp". Noooo!!!


But then, I guess that is the problem with second-hand books; more often than not, they come with a second-hand reader ...


At 10:01 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Lovely stuff. I buy most of my books 2nd hand. It's not only that they're (usually) cheap, but the randomness of what's available adds to the fun. I don't like being restricted to the books that the store and publishers have decided I ought to choose from at a particular moment. Far more interesting to be restricted to whatever has washed up at that particular 2nd hand store, at that particular time. That said, I sometimes have a hankering for new books, which Reader's Feast always seems to satisfy.

I actually bought Invisible Cities this week! A 2nd hand copy, of course.

At 8:37 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Invisible Cities = Great book! You'll love it. It's got something for everyone, part travelogue, part fantasy, part historical novel, part existential meditation on the meaning of life. Oh, and it's got quite an interesting structure, mathematically - Calvino was able to work in some complicated mathematical tricks into many of his works. (Another example would be 'If On A Winter's Night, a Traveller ...': he reveals his final trick on the last page of the last chapter of that book.)

I got mine from a large store in Moonee Ponds called Academic Books, odd for a second-hand book store because it was so large. Most of the books were school-student things. I'm keeping an eye out for wheelchair accessible places at the moment, after being asked by a friend who likes second-hand books; that Moonee Ponds store is the only one I can think of. All of the other ones are ridiculously narrow. Some are barely more than a large cupboard!

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I was so excited to find IC, apart from If On a Winter's Night Calvino's books seem to be rare 2nd hand. I can understand that - I wouldn't give away or sell my Calvino books either.

Tim, I'm sure you'll join me in coveting the Oulipo Compendium.

At 6:16 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Yes, definitely!

Saw a Penguin Anthology of Columnists in a Kew bookstore: that would be a GREAT read.

At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Fadzilah said...

I suppose, you can see all those scribblings as another world superimposed on the multiple layers of the protagonists' cosmos in the book. That's what I love about second-hand books.

At 5:00 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

I think I've already made some comment here about useless student marginalia in 2nd hand books (Happy Days, page 1. WINNIE: World without end. [student note] "Has no end." No other marks in the book.), but what I really wanted to say is that my girlfriend is struggling through the original Italian across the room from me as I type this. I once scored a 2nd-hand copy of this book (in English) only to lose it, so I will either have to (a) learn Italian to reread it, or (b) start looking for another translation, but only after the girlfriend has finished so she won't accuse me of "forcing her to cheat."

At 10:23 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Just buy the book, man! Don't worry about what your girlfriend says - fight the power!

Yours in solidarity!

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

Fighting the power is one thing. Fighting the girlfriend is another.

At 5:55 AM, Blogger litlove said...

Occasionally my students borrow from me copies of books they can't get hold of in the libraries and I never see one go without hoping I've not written anything inane in one of the margins.

At 8:42 PM, Blogger TimT said...

When I was at Uni, I noticed quite a lot of other students wrote things in the side of whatever novel or book they were studying at the time. I decided to try it, so when I was getting ready for a tutorial, I started taking notes. They didn't help, and I never did it again.

I looked over them years later, and I was struck by how stupid they were. Now I save all my 'thoughts' about literature for petty fights with other readers, or making comments on blogs ...


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