Sunday, March 30, 2008

Nothing says "I love you" like an academic ferret discussion!

I love ferrets! I owned seven or so over the course of my hectic childhood. They are such adorable, weaselly, clever little things. So I found 2008's hottest plagiarism scandal to be particularly awesome:

Romance novelist plagiarizes ferret wildlife report

The article is every bit as funny as you might imagine. Unfortunately, it's a "Newsweek" article, and their website is a nearly intolerable mishmash of flashing ads and very short article sections (note: if you have an older browser, it might even crash your browser). But it's definitely worth it for the romantic dialogue quotations that involve the exact weight, diet, and evolutionary history of the black-footed ferret.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Let's all welcome Shag to his new home!

Astonishing things are afoot.

Doug has decided that we need a new label for our American History section ... in the form of a buffalo head! It will hang in the center of the store, gazing soulfully down upon staff and patrons alike. I have to say, "Oregon Trail" never prepared me for the size of that thing. * It is immense and stupendous and I am half-tempted to bow my head every time I pass it. I am a little terrified of its stare, in fact, as I sit here innocently typing away at the store computer.

We have, however, had a few entertaining moments with it, such as the time when our regular Jon started using it as a hatrack, and the conversation about its name. (Doug has decided that it will be named Shag. You may recall that we got a bunch of cool Carl Sandburg stuff a bit back; well, at that time we discovered Sandburg's wonderful story, "The Wooden Indian and the Shaghorn Buffalo", from Rootabaga Stories. From this comes Shag's name!)

But enough of that. Let's distract ourselves from deep dark buffalo eyes with this week's Favorite, which -- strangely enough -- depicts bookstores as totally free of buffalo heads:

I somewhat doubt that many of you, gentle readers, are of an age to be bringing a lunchbox to school -- even a lunchbox with an adorable kinda-three-dimensional kinda-diorama thing behind glass. But this little thing can easily double as a handbag, so that's all right. In fact, it's lined with cloth and contains a wallet!

Plus, I brown-bag my lunch before I come to work myself. So who's to say any of us are too old for a lunchbox?

Apparently, the diorama behind the glass in this handbag is based on a picture by the well-known Dutch artist, Anton Pieck. Pieck worked in many different media -- from woodcuts to paintings to designing at least one fairytale theme park -- and is, in fact, so famous within the Netherlands that there's a whole museum devoted to his work. Most of his images seem to be charming in an old-European, Victorian-childlike sort of way; for instance, can you spot the hook-nosed bookseller with checked pants in the handbag? Or the bonnetted little girl leading a dog? Now I'm not saying that this handbag / lunchbox is an original Pieck or anything, but you have to admit that it's a pretty creative tribute to his work. And you can even carry your credit cards in it! At $35.00, I call that a deal.

Speaking of children, this week's Collector's Item is an 1816 treatise on the making thereof:

I'm not entirely sure why the writers of this book called it Aristotle's Master-Piece, Completed ... though it did at least give this publisher an excuse to create that hilarious picture of a wild-eyed Aristotle holding a skull:

Good God, his left eye is like a very vortex.

I had no idea how well-known the Masterpiece was until I started Googling and found it online (click here). (Although I may be navigating the hypertext of that one incorrectly, it seems to have many divergences from the one I hold in my hands, so I assume that among the many reprints of Aristotle's Master-Piece there were various editorial changes / omissions / etc.) Apparently, this work initially came out around the mid-1600s and influenced -- or at least was mentioned by -- all manner of literary luminaries, such as James Joyce and Anthony Burgess. Perhaps this explains some of their ... funnier ... gender-related attitudes.

After all, among the things this Master-Piece tells us are that a woman's imagination can change the form of her child (therefore, birth defects are determined by things the mother sees or envisions during her pregnancy, as is the child's sex) and that women who don't marry and mate quickly will become ill with the "Green Sickness". Now I know you can follow that link I provided above and read all of "Aristotle"'s insights for yourself, but you have to admit that it would be exciting to own a version bound in 1816. This one is $125.00 -- but the information it contains about imagining yourself a healthy child is priceless!

It seems that Aristotle's Master-Piece was sometimes considered a kind of "dirty book", passed around to clandestine giggles and gasps -- though really, nothing in there struck me as remotely sensual. There have been far more sensual printed things since then, anyway, as our Affordable and Interesting item tells us:

This book was well-reviewed by (click here); from what I can tell, it's partly the story of Olympia Press but mostly the story of Maurice Girodias, its founder. Olympia was a famous "smut" press -- famous because, though it published its share of icky titles, it also printed many literary masterpieces that might not otherwise have seen the light of day. Nabokov's Lolita, for instance, was published by Olympia, as was Burroughs' Naked Lunch. In the delirium of censorship that apparently afflicted the mid-twentieth-century,** Girodias put out literature that -- had it been successfully suppressed -- would have been a great loss to mankind. Of course, it doesn't really sound like he was a saint -- the reviewer I linked to above calls him "the strangest fish imaginable, a contradictory, insufferable, magnetic man". But his bravery is worth noting and personally, I'm glad we have Lolita, so I can't help but be pleased that this book is available (for $7.50) to tell the world about Girodias.

It's warm again, gentle readers! I know I talk about the weather way too often here, but I'm just glad I can walk to the library without whimpering from cold. I think I'll go there tonight, in fact, and see you all next week.

* "Oregon Trail" is one of the most famous educational video games ever made -- there are even popular, mass-produced T-shirts available that reference the game -- and doubtless shaped my entire generation's attitude about buffalo.

** Perhaps we shouldn't assume that censorship has left us behind too soon ... there's some unsettling news from Indiana: Indiana Bookstores Are Now Required to Register with the Government If They Sell "Sexually Explicit Materials".

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Triumphant return, sans liquids

Ah, gentle readers ... having returned, I (Lydia) fear that it is beyond my abilities to write entries as hilarious as those penned by Mr. Alan. I guess it's lucky for me that he's got too much to do to write the blog entry every week! Well, sort of lucky, because that means I get to research ridiculous topics and wander around the store looking for books to feature myself -- but unlucky, because his blog entries (one and two) made me laugh hysterically all the way in Berlin, and I'd like to read more.

Berlin! Yes, Berlin! I was in Berlin -- seeing the remarkably beautiful, vibrant city for the first time, and learning all about the place, including the German people. Did you know, for instance, that Berliners in particular are famously rude? They disdain saccharine smiles and soft-spoken courtesy -- hallmarks (they maintain) of American interactions. If I notice any Berliners coming into the shop, I will be sure to scowl at them and shout invective in order to win their respect.

I was inspired by my newly vast knowledge of the German people to investigate this week's Collector's Item:

This seventeen-volume set from our Germany section was first written by the well-known Catholic priest and historian, Johannes Janssen, in the late 1800s. It's a facsimile (printed in the 1960s) of the 1890 15th edition -- indeed, it was a successful series! Janssen himself apparently felt that he was redressing quite a lack: "I ... resolved to bring out ... the civil and intellectual growth of our nation; not to give marked preference to so-called leading state events, campaigns and battles, but to depict the German national life in all its varying conditions, and stages, and phases of destiny ...." A man of modest aims, I see. I do think he either was very fair-minded or very sarcastic, given that he describes earlier Protestant scholars as "trustworthy and unprejudiced".

Volume 1 alone describes everything from a totally unbiased description of 16th-17th century German writing ("in place of the earlier simple, natural, fluent writing, a sort of clumsy, jerking stuttering and stammering had come into fashion, which cannot be read without a feeling of pain") to 1400s pictures of headgear ("Women wore pointed lace caps a yard high, or head-dresses formed of coloured stuff pressed and ornamented with gold and precious stones"; I have to say that if I had something like that on my head, I'd be rude too). If you're interested in sixteen volumes (plus index) of similarly trustworthy and unprejudiced discussion, they can all be yours for a mere $275.00!

This week's Affordable and Interesting item was also published by Catholics:

The Daughters of St. Paul, an order that apparently puts out quite a lot of media, published this book in 1967. It gathers several decrees from the Pope regarding the use of modern media. The book is mostly the decree itself, plus pictures; it mainly encourages Catholics not just to view properly Catholic media, but also to produce it. Interestingly, it also instructs authorities to pass laws that will restrict media to a certain moral level. In some parts, it sets up Catholic offices to oversee media and tells them how best to control the beast. I would be intrigued to see what Catholics who currently work in the media thought of this book. It might also be a good resource for students of religious history or media studies; it's a good price for students -- $7.50!

Not particularly Catholic, but possibly related to the beginning of this entry (Berlin!), I now present you with this week's Favorite:

How can a cane be relevant to Berlin, you ask? Well, look at this:

It's a flask-cane: you can store beer in it! (Not to stereotype Germans, or anything.) Imagine: a beer-storing cane, just for you. Only $30.00. Please, come buy it and take it away from me before I consider sneaking all manner of strange liquids into my workplace. Ooh ... I wonder if you could sneak liquids onto a plane with this cane?! (I had a delicious energy drink removed from my possession on the way back into the U.S., and I still miss it.) Or perhaps one could fill the cane with poison, and become a famous and subtle assassin -- always smartly dressed. But why limit it to liquids? You could fill the cane with sparkles and be a street magician ... or with sand to create impromptu Zen gardens wherever you go! The possibilities are endless! Indeed, I hope whoever buys it doesn't just use it for beer.

It's good to be home. I'll be dreaming up strange fancies of what to put in that cane all week, now ... I love my job!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Brain Judo

It is in the best interest of booksellers to promote the great benefits of books. Some of these are so obvious they hardly need mentioning: books tend to have information printed inside of them; they make excellent gifts; heavier ugly ones can serve in a pinch as doorstops or projectile weapons, and so on. But being the creatures of letters that we are, most scientific evidence has been, until recently, well outside our bailiwick. Fortunately, the Internet has put rigorously researched medical knowledge into the hands of those unqualified to judge its veracity, but well-qualified to wield it to their own ends. One such tidbit recently appeared on Yahoo Health, in a short article entitled “Pick Up a Book, Bulk Up Your Brain.” It claimed that reading books doesn’t simply increase one’s knowledge. Indeed, the article extols passion for the printed page as a “self defense class for your brain.” Scientists have always known that avid readers outperform their indolent counterparts on cognitive tests. But what they recently discovered is that people who read regularly have “extra brainpower to keep the mind rolling when brain cells are under attack.” This is known as a cognitive reserve; extra brain cells are set aside to be called upon when their employer is exposed to pollution and toxins. In a study of factory workers exposed to toxic substances like lead, big readers routinely showed no loss of cognitive function, while others tended to drool on the survey questions and occasionally attempted to eat the paper.

So kudos to the advances of authors, chapels of printers, and pies of typesetters who have contributed to the mental health of people everywhere. Advances? Chapels? Pies? What the heck is going on here? Has the author of this blog been exposed to too much lead and too few books? Hardly, my friends. These extraordinary collective nouns are the genuine article. They come from this week’s Affordable but Interesting item, An Exaltation of Larks, complied and written by noted playwright and actor James Lipton. Filled with engravings and over 1,000 venereal terms (yes, you read it right, that’s the actual word for collective nouns), this fine volume is guaranteed to provide hours of entertainment, ridiculously cool trivia, and a strengthened brain cell per word. Of course, we would never make such a scientific guarantee were it not backed by a discord of experts. Seriously – see page 182 of aforementioned book. And if you are worried about your finances because a foreclosure of bankers (pg. 250) has informed you that your account is running dry, fear not. It will run you a mere $7.50.

Perhaps some of you are skeptical. Perhaps you think Yahoo Health news is an unreliable source. Perhaps you suspect that the complex of psychoanalysts (pg. 172) responsible for this study is interested only in sensationalism. I don’t blame you. Doctrines of doctors (pg. 80) will claim that only the hard sciences can provide us with the objective basis necessary for assessing the veracity of otherwise sketchy studies, conducted by unreliable broods of researchers (pg. 182), whose results are as reliable as the interest groups that fund them. Therefore: this week’s Collectible item. Published in 1918, this beautifully bound French Manuel de Neurologie is chock full of the information you need to evaluate the information you want to believe. And for those who don’t speak French, there are lots of pictures of weird looking things, which appear to be the very cells that books are purported to strengthen. Dr. C. Winkler’s fact-filled phenomenon is a mere $75 – a low price to pay for certainty about one’s brain.

But all this science is making me feel a little woozy. What need is there to objectify the value of books? Why the insistence upon facts and figures, the constant justifications in terms of brainpower improved or information gained? According to the author of this week’s Favorite, Books and Men, it is because modern progress has made na├»ve belief and superstition into vices. Children “have ceased to read fairy stories, because they no longer believe in fairies; they find Hans Andersen silly, and the Arabian Nights stupid; and the very babies, ‘skeptics in long-coats,’ scorn you openly if you venture to hint at Santa Claus.” This is a disaster, says Agnes Repplier, in her beautiful and affordable ($12.50) 1896 treatise on the relationship between humans and the written word. Such books, she writes, free of facts but full of fancy, are “legitimate food for a child’s mind, nourish its imagination, inspire a healthy awe, and are death to that precocious pedantry which is the least pleasing trait that children are wont to manifest.” A displeasing trait in adults, as well, I might add. Agnes might have been aghast to hear us justify books according to brain cells created rather than worlds imagined. But we booksellers need to sell books, and so both approaches must be used.

Well, there you have it. Fact or fiction? Either one will most likely be good for you and your squiggly gray friend upstairs.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Just to get this out of the way: Lydia. Please do not refer to me as Mr. Alan. Mr. Alan is how my 1st and 3rd grade Chinese students referred to me, before asking if my goatee was real and then puking watermelon all over the floor. Incidentally, there were no teacher's assistants to help me correct their misappropriation of my name, or the floor's misappropriation of the watermelon. China, while a charming country, has its drawbacks.

On to the actual blog.

Okay. It’s very simple – weird coincidences happen at used bookstores. There’s simply no way around it. About a week ago I received a book recommendation from a German friend of a friend. She told me to look for a copy of “Max und Moritz” by Wilhelm Busch. This happened to be the only week when I was not responsible for putting out new arrivals on Saturday, so I had no idea what might be around the shop. Needless to say, when I came into the store on Monday there was a vintage, German, hand-colored copy of “Max und Moritz” sitting in the new arrivals section. I had been looking online that morning for the book, to no avail. The few copies on abebooks were far too expensive. And the price of our copy, you ask? $15. Yep, hand-colored 100 year old coincidences starting at $15.

The current owner of O’Gara and Wilson, Doug Wilson, has assured me he partakes fairly often of this invigorating synchronicity. Three times in thirty years he has encountered customers who came in to the store and began describing a particularly scarce book, only to realize he was holding precisely that book in his hand when they started speaking.

What does this mean? Well, I’m not exactly sure. But the people who frequent used bookstores know exactly what I’m talking about. They thrive on the energy that has infused used books – four leaf clovers that flutter out from old editions, inscriptions that yield unusual provenance when you check them out on Google, marginal notes that eerily echo your own opinion as you read. These books are alive, in a strange way, and looking for human companions.

Speaking of “alive in a strange way and looking for human companions,” this week’s Collector’s Item is about a gentleman who meets that description to a T. If you can’t afford the tens of thousands it costs for a first edition, this pristine first trade edition of Dracula is well worth your $75. Copies routinely go for more on ebay, and in far worse condition. Ours looks like it just came off the press (though it’s actually about a hundred years old). And there are irresistably cute bats on the spine…

But I’ve gotten away from the synchronicity theme. How to get back. Let’s see… give me an hour or two to wander around the store, looking for some coincidences.

Just back from wandering around the store for an hour and a half, and nothing. Absolutely nothing. Because that’s the thing with synchronicity. You just can’t go looking for it, and I should know that after years of trying to and failing. However. As I was looking through the children’s section I found the following book, which I had never seen before, and will definitely be our Favorite for the week. Published by Let’s Save the Children, Inc. in 1972 (nothing here is a joke), it is a rhyming, twenty page biography of Marvin Gaye with full page pictures, apparently meant for children. The poetic bio includes such gems as “For Marvin is a special man / He has a lot to say. / He’s not just a writer who writes / Of everyday sights / Nor a singer who sings / Of everyday things.” No copies available online, and this one a mere $20! Fantastic collector’s item and a very, very basic description of Marvin Gaye. Very basic. Not for serious research purposes. Perhaps this will be exactly what someone was looking for, and in that case synchronicity, as it always does, will come through the back door.

So just now a customer came in looking for a very scarce play by an obscure playwright. Guess what? I walked right over to our drama section, and couldn’t find it. But we have a large collection of scarce drama in our back storeroom, and Mr. Wilson was kind enough to check and see if it was there. And you know what… it wasn’t. But while I was looking for it, I found this week’s Affordable but Interesting item. If you are like me, then you think Johnny Depp is freaking awesome, in a Platonic way of course. If you are female and like me, you probably just think he’s freaking awesome. Either way, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is coming out on video quite soon, and we have a beautiful copy of the play, complete with dust jacket and dramatic black and white photos of the 1979 production. Expensive? No, this out of print book club edition is an astonishing $7.50, complete with the macabre dust jacket.

Well, here we are at the end of the blog on synchronicity, and nothing crazy happened. In fact, everything went totally normally. But in the process of looking for coincidences, I came across books I didn’t know existed. Very cool books. And that’s the upside of a used bookstore – you can never really lose once you walk in, provided you look hard enough.