My husband and I share a mania for vintage books, and no trip or vacation is complete without stopping at a used bookstore or two. We often stop at estate and garage sales just to see what we might unearth, and I recently came upon a trove of mid-twentieth century novels sitting under a table. Not high literary grade, but probably Book-of-The-Month club offerings, A.J. Cronin, Kathleen Windsor, Frank O’Hara, that sort of thing. I wondered: Does anyone read these kinds of books anymore? Are there any academics out there, studying them for clues about life and society in the middle of the twentieth century? In a world where there are four and a half million Kindle books alone, all of very recent vintage, who’s reading the old stuff? Yet some of that old stuff is pretty good.
These are the sort of ‘adult’ books I grew up reading, once I made the switchover –at the tender age of twelve or so—from kid’s chapter books to the grown-up stuff. Hate revealing my age, but I was 12 in 1968, so the books in the Adult Reading Room of the library were mainly from the 1940s and 1950s, and earlier. I read Gone With the Wind when I was junior-high-school age, loved it but thought it was the most deliciously wicked book I’d ever read! Then I got to Forever Amber…! But a large part of my education about adult life—and some of the trickier and difficult aspects of it, such as love and the man-woman thing—came from these books, so is it any wonder I’m as weird and out-of-step with modern life as I am?! I’m a literary anachronist.
Then came the Fiction stacks at my college. When I wasn’t working the circulation desk out front, I was dispatched to the back stacks to put away books, and found myself lingering in Fiction, which was the weirdest collection of literature on earth, or so it seemed to me. How this section came to be was this way: All of the top-notch literary novels studied in classes were catalogued (under the old Dewey-decimal system) into the 900s; New Books in a shelf out front, and the old, old, unclassifiable fiction—ancient best-sellers, alumni-donations, alumni authors, and maybe stuff other students left behind in their dorm rooms—was set on these shelves. Of course, I was drawn to it like a moth to a lightbulb. I still remember the musty, faintly acrid smell of the books, the flaking pages rimmed with sepia, gold printing on leather covers worn away into invisibility. But it was here I discovered Sigrid Undset and her crazy medieval trilogies; Rumer Godden, Anais Nin (but her relatively chaste diaries only, none of that Delta of Venus stuff at a Catholic college!); Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, a few forgotten classics mingled in with some truly atrocious work by nobody noteworthy at all. I think it was here that I acquired some discernment, and learned to tell quality from drivel.
I guess in old books, I find people I still recognize, the consolation that humans really don’t change so much over the years, despite the Internet Revolution, technology and all that nonsense. We still long and yearn for things just beyond out grasp: for love or wisdom, recognition or power; we wonder why we’re here and what the purpose of life is. Maybe that’s what keeps me haunting the books sales and second-hand stores: that somewhere is a musty, neglected old book that will have all the answers.