What I have learned as a bookseller

(Too little, for sure. And all of it arguable.)

I have learned that Harper Torchbooks, a non-fiction softcover imprint of Harper & Row from 1956 to 1979, are of such generally excellent quality that they should always be looked for when buying used books, especially if browsing library and yard sales, and given a specific personal interest, they can be purchased in preference to other imprints with one exception, Pelican Books, an imprint of Penguin from 1937 to 1984, and the best the British had to offer despite the prejudices of both imprints for the pervasive left-wing political interests of the mid-twentieth century.

It is the consistent quality of the writing in the many titles of both imprints that makes all the difference, whether it is Jacob Bronowski or Robert Graves, George Gamow or Karl Popper. I am currently reading something in a Pelican edition that I stupidly resisted for many years, Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. At the risk of my own credibility with purists, I now wonder if the sister was the better writer. But that was in some part the mission of the editor Collette Clark as she created a continuous text of extracts, Home at Grasmere, in the context of the brother’s poems. And at the very least I wish I might have trodden those paths of Westmoreland before the tourists came.

One aspect of both imprints is usability. For most titles, the bindings are superior, as well as the type styles and sizes. The British paperbacks often suffer from cheaper paper which has yellowed with age, as well as slightly smaller type, but they are generally smaller in physical size making them easier to carry in a pocket or purse, and until recently, cheaper to buy. As with all things excellent, they have become collectible, and because the Torchbooks used better paper, more have survived the rigors of age.

Had an average college student of the boomer generation spent a few hundred dollars over four years on the best Pelicans or Torchbooks covering any given field, instead of going to college and incurring that onerous debt, while investing the difference between their book purchases and tuition in the stock market, every one of them would have started their adult lives far smarter and far richer. And one side benefit would have been in meeting the better quality of people browsing in bookshops.

There is a good reference for the Torchbooks here: https://www.publishinghistory.com/harper-torchbooks.html, and a good one for the Pelicans here: https://penguinchecklist.wordpress.com/pelican-books/pelican-main-series/

One recommendation I can make to all those poorer and I hope now somewhat wiser Boomers is that they finally start reading them. Make the time. Find out what you missed. There isn’t anything on the computer nearly so good. All the pleasure of the written word without the noise, or the ‘Karen’ telling you what you should think about it. Sure, you can listen to a podcast while driving to and fro, but at home, or in a chair on vacation, take the opportunity of a lifetime. Yours. And in no time at all, the time will make itself.

(more of this to come)

The Best of Books

People ask me for book recommendations quite frequently and I have half a dozen ways of putting them off to avoid the matter, usually resorting to some commonly accepted classic but occasionally putting forward something that I like myself. This last thing is a problem for a small bookseller. Typically I don’t have a copy of a book I would recommend because I’ve already done that too recently and haven’t had time to restock the shelf. But worse. too often my taste in letters does not match that of the customer. When I later ask, ‘How did you like it?’ and they answer, ‘It was okay,’ it’s a dagger in my heart.

These are unusual times and I have taken the chance here to recommend some books. They are all easily available at biblio.com or abebooks.com and if you research a title for just a few minutes at goodreads.com you will likely eliminate any clunkers.

My standard here is that these are all books I’ve read more than once and would happily read again. It does not purport to be a list of the best books ever written or any such thing. There are many more books I’ve read once that I would never read again, (some admittedly great), and many more I’ve never finished. And, of course, there are countless fine books I have not yet managed to read, so I really don’t know them yet except by reference. I still have the best of intentions in that regard and high hopes. I have discovered new titles just in the past year that I’m already rereading because they enlarged my world and enlightened me, pleasured me, and offered comfort.

You will notice there is a predominance of fiction, but there is history and biography too. I offer no reason here for my loving these particular works. They stand on their own merits. Any comment I might make could only miss the mark. However, there are some wonderful book reviewers out there and it’s worth the time to find the ones who tend to like what you might enjoy. An example of that for me is Noel Perrin. His A Reader’s Delight had me discover William Dean Howell’s Indian Summer as well as Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines. If you are trapped at home, there is much of that kind available. You can grow old just by reading reviews, so it will help if you find a kindred mind to point the way. Which is also to say, you are unlikely to like all of these titles here. Books are a personal matter.

(Note: this list is constructed during the Covid 19-epidemic, with my shop temporarily closed, and cannot be completed simply for the fact that my memory has too many lapses. I’ll add a few more titles as they occur.)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Emma by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Uncle Silas by H. E. Bates
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
Boswell’s London Journal by James Boswell
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Green Mantle by John Buchan
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Witness by Whittaker Chambers
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie
Miss Marple: The Collected Short Stories by Agatha Christie
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
Youth (three stories) by Joseph Conrad
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas
The Frontiersmen by Allan Eckert
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Between The Woods and The Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
Time and Again by Jack Finney
Paul River’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer
Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Golden Bough by James Fraser
The Collected Poems of Robert Frost
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
The Holy Bible (King James Version)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm
The Log of a Forty-niner by Richard L. Hale
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
Indian Summer by William Dean Howells
The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
Modern Times by Paul Johnson
Dubliners by James Joyce
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Ulysses by James Joyce
Elmer Kelton Country, by Elmer Kelton
The Time It Never Rainer by Elmer Kelton
Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
My Father’s House by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr.
Mr. Revere and I, by Robert Lawson
Ben and Me by Robert Lawson
The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Le Morte de Arthur by Thomas Malory
The Last Gentleman Adventurer by Edward Beauclerk Maurice
Rising From the Plains by John McFee
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Happy Days by H.L. Mencken
Prejudices (collected) by H.L Mencken
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Michell
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
A Gift of Fire by Richard Mitchell
Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby
The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
1984 by George Orwell

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
The Works of William Shakespeare
Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute
With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Sketches of America’s Past by Eric Sloan
A Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
Gulliver’s Travel by Jonathan Swift
Tschiffely?s Ride by A. F. Tschiffely
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Autobiography of Anthony Trollope
Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Collected Short Stories of Mark Twain
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The White Hills by Cornelius Weygandt
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
The Essays of E. B. White
One Man’s Meat by E. B. White
The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
Our Town by Thornton Wilder
The Virginian by Owen Wister
Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe
From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe
The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats

Neglected Books:
In Praise of Those We’ve Lost to the Literary Wilderness

My favorite new website is most extraordinary in so many ways that a biblio-besotted Robert Browning would have to do it justice. But this is just me. I’ll do what I can. . . . In truth, it’s what I have been doing for my entire life: making note and taking care of the wonderful books that are forgotten in this age of hype. I’ll even credit a few of the authors who were once hyped themselves but since forgotten but deserve to be remembered yet. By ‘deserve,’ I mean, they earned it, not that I have bestowed upon them some special status of my own.

As examples of the latter, take the fine work of Maine author, Robert P. Tristram Coffin. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice, and is not read today for either his prose or poetry. But his Yankee Coast is a wonder in a treasure chest of such work. Or, take Kenneth Roberts, another Down East author I discovered by the good services of a librarian when I was 12. His novels were hugely successful, and an excellent selection of historical fact worked into the fabric of fiction, but my favorite of his then and now was his autobiography I Wanted to Write, which is a hard find even with all the copies of his bestsellers still to be found in every church sale.

What do you know today about Stewart Edward White? Likely very little. But he was a bestselling author for fifty years. Hard to pick a favorite now because it has been too long since I ate books like candy. Back then I’m sure it was his California trilogy, The Long Rifle, Folded Hills, and Ranchero, all following the good cowboy Andy Burnett. The library copies of those volumes had been read so many times I didn’t have to hold the pages open. By the way, I had found Mr. White because I wanted another author like Owen Wister, who really only wrote one book, and not even that intentionally. The Virginian stands as the progenitor of all Westerns, only better. But like many authors who met with too much fame, he was ruined for such a project ever again.

The Neglected Books Page is a far more sophisticated attempt than my bookshop can ever be by aiming at authors who never achieved the heights of Wister or Roberts. After half a century of bookselling, I have never read more than a small number of these titles. Take the current entry as of the day I write this: Betsey Barton. I am ashamed to think I had never read a thing. Not that she is my cup of tea—she’s not. But she is a very good writer with a purpose, who arose at the very center of an age of authors I revere. I should have known her before. And there are many others here that I’m just as happy I missed. You don’t live long enough to read all that you might and what time you have ought to be focused on the best, first. Even the best trash. (I am still a Harold Robbins fan.)

But Brad Bigelow (even sounds like a name of those times), the editor, must be a speed reader with an incredible eye for the obscure. And though most of these books will not be your cup of tea either, enough will be to intrigue you. Better yet, the reviews are superb, in and of themselves, offering portraits and sketches and enough of the author’s own words to tell you what you need to know. He bothers to understand the author when he can, as well as he might, I love his guess at what made them tick (or rat-tat-tat on their typewriters). Virginia Faulkner is an author I knew because I read something years ago thinking she might be a cousin of William. She’s not. But for this fan of the picaresque as well as Wodehouse, I’d say she forged her own trail. The Barbarians took a couple of my evenings back in 1968 or so. I was hoping for another Movable Feast but it’s not as sweet, though I think the ‘artists’ she skewered deserved her sense of humor. And speaking of Wodehouse, Joan Butler is a close second, at least much of the time. It appears from the wonderful period dust jackets that she never let a serious assessment get in the way of a good double-entendre. And Eileen Winncroft’s Be a Gent, Little Women, Be a Gent, at least based on this review, should find a large new following today, even with political correctness. Drives My Green Age is a small masterpiece of the 1950s, and a lot of fine prose. I’m reading it now. And you can read a bit right there on the Neglected Books site.

But most of all, enjoy the effort. Even the worst of the authors re-discovered here made the effort to write for a reason even if it was a bad one. You can read Mr. Bigelow’s effort to retrieve them and avoid the ones you shouldn’t bother with. Everybody has their own taste in such matters. And if they got it right, your life has been changed by a reviewer who cared about his work. If you’d like to read one, or two, or twenty, you can find most of the titles at the collective websites biblio.com, or abebooks.com. Sadly we have very few of these titles ourselves, but I’m looking.