from my forthcoming memoir, Principles of Retail.
Users shouldn’t deal and dealers shouldn’t use
Somebody other than me must have said Reading is a finer world within the world. Presumably an unpunished vice, my relationship to literature has at times smacked of self abuse. So much so I’ve been called promiscuously well read. Most can’t be bothered to read but I prefer it to much of what otherwise passes for a spiritual or intellectual life in this most worldly of worlds. I have always preferred reading to writing. I suppose it’s creative time but it doesn’t, in itself, create anything. It is a solitary past time, during which time you aren’t doing what someone else wants you to do. I don’t think its pretentious to say that the act of reading is subversive.
Most of what I have to say for myself is snippet’s from a dilettante life spent trying to be left alone to read. The first book I read seriously was the Bible. Good book/bad movie. I was on drugs and found it a gratifying experience. It was all about the Word – now the sole signage on my shop. It’s one of many on the subject. How else would one know how other people think? What do I care what other people think? It amuses me. Sometimes I have to laugh. It’s better than dope. I haven’t read a bad book in years but then I seldom read anything contemporary anymore. I am not interested in self-help. It’s only about what I think and what do I care what I think? I know what I think. Whereas then…what can’t happen to me… I can’t experience history without reading. That’s interesting.
It’s knowing the books that signs your paycheck.
It is insufficient to know a few books well. Reading a lot of books gives one perspective on what happens when you’re not reading. While reading, the world shirks as it is observed by language. Books that reveal the world for what it is are well worth knowing. They are one of the few things I have a knack for remembering. I used to be able to guess the book my customers were thinking about but couldn’t remember. It was like a parlor trick. I could do it by color sometimes. When you know what people read you know what they’ve been thinking about and they seem like better people.
It’s a shame how many people aren’t as interesting as television and seems in direct proportion to as many as are interested in it. Those who spend too much time on the internet seem to suffer a similarly diminished interest. The reason to read a lot is the same reason one should make a lot of friends. Not dull friends but intelligent friends. I grant that these are in increasingly short supply, which is sufficient reason to read more, but exceedingly gratifying when all goes well. How many people do you know who are as entertaining to spend an evening with as Proust? Or, for that matter, Phyllis Diller.
Millions of books have gone through my hands since I took up dealing in the early nineteen seventies, hundreds of thousands have passed cataloged through my mind, blocking out millions of meaningless distractions from the traffic in thought. After seventeen years of selling new books part time, I posited myself in opposition to the tyranny of the now and became an antiquarian. I’ve gotten snobbier as I’ve got older and it hasn’t helped sales. However, there are plenty of good Capitalists and there are increasingly few booksellers. It’s like Robert Graves said: “There’s no money in poetry. But then there’s no poetry in money.”
Illustration: The Private Library’s card circa 1990.