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Rare Books


Between September, 1983, and October, 1987, I purchased 21 books through Rare and Out-of-Print Book agencies.  The books cost between $35 and $80.  The process allowed me to send the agencies on a hunt for the book, then they mailed me a price quotation once the book was found, and I chose whether to buy it or not.  It appears cumbersome today compared to the near instantaneous quotations one can get from  I stopped purchasing books this way ten years before I bought a computer, partly for lack of money, not that I had very much when I was buying them. 


I found an inventory of the books in an old personal journal. These were books I had seriously wanted and had sought them after having exhausted my closest resources: several bookstores in New York City and Philadelphia and many bookstores on or near several college campuses I visited.

My first purchase was Reasons of the Heart by Edward Dahlberg. Dahlberg interested me, among other reasons, because I collected books of aphorisms: E.M. Cioren, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Nicolas Chamfort, etc.  My passion for this form of writing had previously led me to try to complete an MFA at Columbia by writing a book of aphorisms.  The project never got beyond one class where we discussed fifty or sixty of them (I had written five hundred), but the teacher, Frank MacShane, received them coldly, despite his having written on Dahlberg’s aphorisms.  

As described in Jonathan Lethem’s Harper’s article in 2003, Dahlberg adopted a severe persona inside and outside of his books.  His writing style is one of the most demanding in American letters.  No less intensely does he judge the work of his contemporaries and classics. For instance, Henry James was plainly unreadable (I read this at the time I was trying to get through The Ambassadors and couldn’t have agreed with Dahlberg more).  Apparently, Dahlberg damned student writing in classes at Columbia University just as severely, advising the fragile egos in writing classes to give up trying to write.  His aphorisms continue the assault on those who expect life to relax for a moment and allow the horse’s ass to pass by.

A writer whose path crossed mine in one such writing class at Columbia, was William Bronk, a friend of my teacher, Richard Elman. Bronk read passages from The New World, a book rhapsodizing Mayan and Incan civilizations (a topic Dahlberg touches in The Gold of Ophir).  I was so impressed that ten years later I ordered The World, The Worldless by Bronk, a book of poetry.  I seldom bought books of poetry, but these poems lived up to my anticipation.  Several years later I joined a group which met weekly where one of us brought a poem into to discuss for thirty to forty-five minutes.  I chose Bronk’s “A Postcard To Send To Sumer”:

      Something you said--I found it written down--
      and your picture yesterday, brought back old times.
      We are here in another country now.  It’s hard.
      (When was it ever different?) The language is odd;
      we have to grope for words for what we mean.
      And we hardly ever really feel at home
      as though we might be happier somewhere else.
      Companion, brother, (this funny) I look
      for you among the faces as if I might find
      you here, or find you somewhere, and problems would then
      be solved. What problems are ever solved?
      Brother, the stars are almost the same
      and in good weathers--here it is summer now--
      when the airs are kind, it seems the world and we
      might last unchanged forever. Brother, I think
      you would like it here in spite of everything.
      I don’t know where to send this to you. Perhaps
      I’ll be able to find it before the mails have closed.

I was impressed by the poem’s melancholy stemming from the sense of fatal brotherhood with a past civilization and, simultaneously, our mutually expecting to never find final comfort with what we have become.  It is why we read, breathe, and write.  

I also purchased six works of fiction:

The Blue Flowers -- Raymond Queneau      

Mahu, or the Material -- Robert Pinget
The Axe -- Ludvik Vaculik                          

To the End of the World -- Blaise Cendrars
Sutter’s Gold -- Blaise Cendrars                  

Brave African Huntress -- Amos Tutuola 

These books were written by authors I had read intensively the previous decade, most of them first encountered in several Comparative Literature classes taught by Paul West. I had wanted to read all of their novels, especially Pinget’s, whose nuances and narrative devices I had tried often in my own work. The title of my first novel was taken from Mahu’s first line: “This is a story I can’t make head nor tail of it....”  Overall, Queneau may have influenced me more greatly.  I have described my novel, Berthcut & Sons (formerly known as Head Nor Tail, in queries to editors, as being “Ameriqueneau.”  

The other thirteen books comprised various works of nonfiction – philosophy, history, memoir – from influential authors.  A Cendrars memoir of World War I, Lice, complemented another work about the French soldiers in the trenches, Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory.  T. Harry Williams’ P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray I acquired because of my interest Southern Civil War Generals, especially Beauregard, who participated in many battles and campaigns: Fort Sumter, First Mannasas, Shiloh and the southern retreat into Mississippi, and the defense against Sherman’s drive through South Carolina at the end of the war.  After reading it I was more amazed by the organized chaos of battles in the Civil War (and probably all wars), especially the apparently arbitrary factors which allowed one side to carry the day (Battles of Bull Run and Shiloh) and how generals could make or break battles with decisions made in an instant with little or scattered bits of information with which to work.

Invertebrate Spain and Meditations on Hunting by José Ortega y Gasset added to my already large collection of the Spanish philosopher’s book, as Ortega was and remains the single strongest influence on my ideas and direction in life.  My aforesaid novel began with an epigraph from Ortega.  Invertebrate Spain proved to be a necessary prelude to his most famous work, The Revolt of the Masses.


The remaining purchases:


The Outlook for Intelligence – Paul Valery        

The Greek Tyrants – A. Andrews          

Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin – Otto Jespersen 

Terrorism – Walter Lacqueur            

The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes – Arthur Waley

War and Human Progress – John Nef                    

History of Rome – Thomas Mommsen

Idols of the Tribe – Harold R. Isaacs                  

The End of Our Time – Nicolas Berdyaev


Only one or two of the twenty-one books I didn’t finish: The Greek Tyrants and War and Human Progress.


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