Book Catalogs

By book catalogs, I mean those periodic sales catalogs that show up offering deals on remaindered books. The perennial chief among these, I guess, is the Bargain Books catalog offered by Edward R. Hamilton. I’ve been getting this sales catalog off and on for my entire adult life, I think. In fact, if I recall correctly, it was Edmond Hamilton, the late science fiction writer, who first told me about the Edward R. Hamilton catalogs. That would have been around 1976 or 1977. Back then, the catalogs were in the style of tabloid-sized newspapers: small, sans serif (I think it was sans serif) type and maybe a few black-and-white photographs of book covers screened in huge Ben Day dots.

Maybe my fondness for these kinds of catalogs goes back to when I was in junior high school and used to send away for lists of old comic books for sale. I don’t remember paying for these. Did I? Maybe they were a buck, but that seems high. A dollar was a lot of money back then for a kid in junior high school. Maybe you just requested one. A first-class stamp was about eight cents then, so maybe these were free. Anyhow, I’d spend an entire period in study hall reading these dumb lists that offered such items for sale as the first issue of Detective Comics with a Batman story in it—Batman when there was no Robin and he was more like the Shadow and he killed guys with a .38 revolver. Or the first Superman comic for sale, or the first issue of other old comics from the 1940s and 1950s. It was the same romantic thrill I got from looking at Johnson Smith catalog, the one with the infamous X-ray specs and whoopee cushions. So the lesson is: you get a catalog in the mail with lots of small print and tiny pictures, well, the amount of cool stuff you could add to your life is pretty much endless.

This is absolutely true when it comes to remaindered-book catalogs. I’m looking at the new Edward R. Hamilton catalog right now; it came in the mail yesterday. It categorizes all of the titles in a table of contents on the inside front cover, and the result is that this makes me feel like I have the encyclopedic interests of a Renaissance man or an intellectual titan. I can’t do higher math to save my life—lower math itself is a daily challenge—but, as I browse through the titles listed on page 60, why, I come to understand that there is hope even for me. My latent or nascent fascination with higher math, which did not exist until I turned to page 60, comes to life. Algebra Demystified by Rhonda Huettenmueller! Calculus Demystified by Steven G. Krantz! Come on, if these people can write a book about it, I can read the book and master calculus. It’s like being in a candy shop, the list of books in these catalogs. Like the library was when I was a kid. The whole world is here, the whole freaking world, and so, by extension, I am capable of anything. It’s kind of like watching the cooking shows or the woodworking shows on PBS on Saturday afternoon. You have these people who cook moose ribs with a red wine reduction over campfires and produce five-star meals and they make it look so nonthreatening that I feel I’ve already done it. Come on, I want to say, give me a challenge. Moose ribs? For babies. 

I feel that I want to split off part of my soul or something so that that part of me could indulge endlessly in all of the really interesting stuff offered in a remaindered-book catalog. Am I really going to order and read The Immortal Game: A History of Chess? Unlikely. But just seeing a book on the immortal game offered for sale, simply considering that someone—David Shenk, in this case, Mr. and Mrs. Shenk’s kid—so loves chess or has so much time on his hands to devote to chess, that he is such a chessophile that he wrote this book, and that some outfit spent a lot of effort and time to publish it—at the very least, this means that I should consider, if only briefly, the existence of chess, the reality of chess, the very chessness of chess. My intellect feels expanded merely by considering this.

Public libraries are the living repositories of the wisdom as well as the crap of the ages. In libraries, we can join the parade of multitudes of those who, since at least the days of the Roman Empire’s public libraries, partook in the great thoughts and great diversions of those who came before us. Books are living things. A good library is like visiting the home of an intelligent relative or a curious, probably eccentric, person, maybe the old-timer in the neighborhood.

Used-book stores can feel like museums; sadly, some of the stuff there is dead and is interesting to us precisely because it is dead. However, some among the dead can be revived, and that is the wonder of used-book stores: think of the material there that, ten or twenty years ago, people discarded as worthless. Crime novels you could pick up for a dime. Issues of magazines you could pick up for a nickel. A generation later, someone takes a serious look at this stuff, puts it in a context, tells us that it is important Americana, and then you have to pay top dollar for redesigned trade paperbacks or coffee-table books of those throwaway crime novels or the cheap magazines. It’s the Joshua Bell effect all over again, isn’t it? H. P. Lovecraft in old paperbacks from the early 1970s is somebody’s weird habit; H. P. Lovecraft in the Library of America volume is now safe and clean. 

But the best part of a remaindered-book catalog is that you can order this material and have your own library or museum and indulge your own weird habits. I still have on my shelves plenty of those books I ordered in the 1970s. Books on cinema, mainly, now long out of print. Some volumes on this or that aspect of erotica in antiquity. (Did you know that people in the ancient world had sex? I know! I didn’t either until I got one of these remaindered books!) The 1970s was a ripe time for books on sexuality; times were freer, everybody likes sex, and, in retrospect, we can see that these books likely served a role as a precursor to gender studies in the 1980s and 1990s. I have a lot of books on philosophy and thought and general humanities that I ordered back then from Edward R. Hamilton and other catalogs. And lots of fiction, particularly the reprints in hardcover of writers then considered oddball but who, in a generation, would become mainstream or contribute to the mainstream. The 70s was also a rich period for reprinting gaslight science fiction and fantasy, for example, and Edwardian and late Victorian era curiosities.

So…. There are new categories in the recent Hamilton catalog to allow for things that didn’t exist in the late 1970s or were merely in their infancy. Computer books, for example. Books on the Vietnam War, which no one wanted to talk about back then, or only very few people; it was the “late embarrassment,” I suppose. DVDs of movies and documentaries and TV shows. I see that there are books here about Princess Diana; she has become the Elvis of Great Britain, hasn’t she? These humans who become living, present gods for some people exercise their own fascination for me, not the people so much as the fact that people willfully bend their imaginations in that way, that their hearts move so as to keep fires lit for Elvis and James Dean and Princess Diana. In the classical world, yes, these our departed would have thereby been elevated to the status of gods. Or perhaps genius loci, at the least. Or imps of the hearth or the fields or children of the Muses.

Here we go: Viking Wars—The Norse Terror. That’s for me. The True History of Troy. I have my own small library of books about the Trojan War and the late Bronze Age. The older I get, the more it fascinates me. And I have a growing shelf of books about Appalachia and hillbillies; I am not finding too many books on that topic, but I hope to find more. Neither do I order many books on gardening or cook books, but here’s stuff on the Old West. And if I can get the collected writings of Tom Paine in a Library of America volume, I may do that and replace the battered old paperbacks I bought one time in a used-book store. And which have been living in my own library since then. I think these remaindered-book catalogs open a window into our times that in some ways is more insightful than what’s on talk shows and in news broadcasts. They’re snapshots, really. Time capsules, maybe. And far more enjoyable to browse through than a mimeographed list of comic books for sale.

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