Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Box of Paperbacks Book Club

This book club sort-of-parody charmed me, because it goes right to one of my fondest habits: finding old, forgotten books in odd places like the Salvation Army bookshelves, and actually reading them. I'm happy to hear that others do it as well. We know the books we know by happenstance anyway, a curious mixture of publicity, collective memory, memes, and chance. I've discovered talented authors by doing such counter-intuitive things as buying 50-cent hardcovers by publisher only -- without looking at titles or authors other than to reassure myself that I had never heard of them -- and then reading a bit to see if the books were any good. This led me to the odd discovery that (besides its many bestsellers) Knopf has for years taken risks and published fiction that never sold very much, but that is still wonderful to read. I'll now pick up an old, no-name Knopf novel at almost any yard sale and be guaranteed an interesting time with it. Knopf had a spate of these in the '80s and early '90s that were engaging, smart, worthy novels, and for some reason mostly forgotten. I also enjoy exploring all the books in a two-foot length of library shelf space (reading, for example, every novel within a foot on either side of one that I enjoyed, simply because their authors are near mine in the alphabet), or seeing what I can discover at those take-a-book-leave-a-book shelves in coffee shops. I always give myself permission to bail out if the book is bad, or (sometimes worse) a waste of time, but good books hide in the oddest places, and these can be ways to discover some of them.
Now the Onion A/V Club, an online feature I have rearely read in the past, as I usually found it somewhat like that arty, depressed, noirish kid you knew in high school who smelled like pot and really wasn't even all that talented, has launched a gem, and I hope it means more to come. A/V Club editor Keith Phipps is running an engaging series that I hope to continue following. The Box of Paperbacks Book Club is Phipps's effort to read and review all of the paperbacks he bought second hand, organized under no other rationale than that they were all thrown together in the same box. The cover above is for Earth Abides, a novel by Berkeley professor George R. Stewart.
We think we know things (the 100 best books of the 20th century, the five most important poems in French, the superbest this, the most influential that), but we actually know very little, as our collective "forgettories" can be so powerful, chewing up, deleting and erasing far more than we ever manage to keep. Efforts like the Box of Paperbacks Books Club offer charming push-back to all that, and a glimpse into a dusty pile of things people cared about in the past, if only for a while.

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