A rare collector of used books

Long after the Stephen King novels have been sold, I can still find a copy of, say, King Zog's biography

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When Stephen King "published" an electronic ("e-") book on the Web last year, some pronounced that this could mean the end of the printed page. I was not one of the alarmists, and the only thing I was willing to admit was that the event made good press.

After the hubbub had died down, even Mr. King himself reflected that there is, indeed, nothing like a bound copy of an interesting story.

It is not often that a time-honored device or tradition is entirely subverted by something new. Despite the advent of the automobile, people still ride horses, and television never - as was predicted at the time - did away with radio. The hand calculator did replace the slide rule, but that's the only exception that readily comes to mind.

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For me, the proof of the pudding that books have staying power is that singular event known as the "used book sale."

Up here in Maine, such sales are legion; they are eagerly awaited hooplas put on by small-town libraries, fraternal organizations, and churches. The flyers go out weeks before the doors open, and folks talk about the treasures they hope to uncover with an alacrity normally reserved for ice-out on the Penobscot River.

So you can imagine the stampede that takes place - akin to the Oklahoma land grab - when a sale commences. Recently, a church in my hometown had its annual used- book frenzy in its basement. The action was shoulder to shoulder, with all ages represented.

Little ones clutched handfuls of colorful covers while elders picked and poked, squirreling away their gleanings one or two at a time in some sacrosanct corner to which they had staked a claim. Even teenagers, who normally find a sock much too heavy to lift from their bedroom floors, found the strength to hoist massive cartons close to their hearts as they pushed their ways through the throng like freighters battling heavy seas.

I am part of such crowds, but I never rush to get there as soon as the starting gate opens. Rather, I amble in a good two, three, or even four hours after the first wave has subsided. Sometimes I arrive an hour or so before closing, when books lie strewn about like the remains of a harvest. The reason?

Nobody seems to read what I read. My tastes are so esoteric (odd? peculiar?) that I am always assured of a few gems after the mine has been sifted.

For instance, who but me would read the biography of King Zog of Albania? Or a play called "The Pigeon Banquet," by Halldor Laxness, Iceland's only Nobel laureate? A few years back, I arrived at the church's book sale about 15 minutes before lockup. Inside were only a few hangers-on: folks who'd had their fill but just couldn't pull themselves away from the scene of so much pleasure.

One of the ladies who oversaw the thing tapped me on the arm and apologized. "I don't think there's anything left that's worth looking at. But if you do find something, 25 cents will do."

Music to my ears. I made a quick circuit of the almost-empty shelves, running my eye over the spines of surviving volumes, and what did I find? A slender hardcover published in the 1940s called "New Jersey Poets." A quick peel-back of the cover rewarded me with a real find: Included among the otherwise unknown names was Louis Ginsberg, the father of Allen Ginsberg and a poet in his own right.

For a quarter, I had my book, a piece of lyric history, and my story for the day. I went home completely satisfied.

Recently, a visitor to my home spent a few minutes going over the books in my library. An avid reader himself, he seemed absolutely transfixed. "Remarkable," he finally said. "A remarkable collection."

I warmed to his generous comment. "You know these authors?" I asked him.

He smiled and shrugged. "That's just it," he said. "I've never heard of any of these titles or writers. Are these rare books?"

What a wonderfully appropriate question. Rare, yes. Valuable? Not in a monetary sense. But before they landed in my collection, other people had read these books; others, for a while at least, had loved them. I had the evidence in the annotations in their margins: comments such as, "Lovely!" "So this is the reason Schneewind feels this way!" and "Dora would agree."

My books, offbeat as many of them are, make me feel less of an owner and more of a steward. Someday someone else will own and cherish (I hope) these volumes.

For now, I dust them, revisit them, and share them with the occasional interested party. They are old friends - a status that an e-book, I am convinced, would be hard-pressed to attain.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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