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 ...