Thursday, March 02, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins
February 02, 2006
Gordon Hauptfleisch

Every book lover and collector needs to be freeway close to a town like Hay-on-Wye, Wales, a cobblestone village of 1500 inhabitants and over 40 bookstores which stock so many books that their sheer accumulated weight, according to the Paul Collins' whimsical, witty and muse-worthy memoir Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, "has created its own gravitational pull."

Oh sure, it would be great to be caught up in this kind of orbit just on general principle alone, but for me, with my own little force-field accumulation of printed matter to mind, here's the real beauty of living in or near such a town: "You can leave a box of books out in the middle of the street in Hay, and no one gives it a second thought."

Which sounds like a perfectly convenient no-muss, no-fuss solution to me, a mover and a shaker — okay, more like a mover and a mover — one who with each U-Haul uprooting and transplant has reluctantly left behind a trail of bread-crumbed books, of both the door stop or studious tome type, and all weighty and cumbersome enough to defeat my usual purpose of traveling light and low-budget. So with books strewn across such former clean, well-lighted-states of residence as Hawaii and Arizona, and all over California — including some stashed in a dilapidated barn on an old chicken farm in Northern California — the idea that someone could cavalierly leave their worries behind in the middle of the street for others to take on seems like a godsend for us lollygagger types. No more-trouble-than-its-worth garage sales, no donation hassles, none of those tiresome night-rally book burnings - boxes hit the main street cobblestones and you hit the highway.

That kind of impermanence is not what Paul Collins, an up-and-coming writer, with wife and young son, has in mind, however. When he pulls up San Francisco stakes to move the family to the Welsh countryside, Collins is looking to live long-term amidst the kind of antiquarian, obscure and oddball books he has such a passion for: "first editions of Wodehouse, 1920s books in Swahili, 1970s books on macramé, pirated Amsterdam editions of Benjamin Franklin's treatise on electricity."

Tucked away in a small apartment while house-hunting for more permanent digs, such as a 16th century "experienced" house, Collins no sooner is getting acclimated to his book heaven than he finds himself in a little retail hell, working in the bookstore owned by one of Hay's more eccentric residents, one of two living who's-who listed in The World's Greatest Cranks and Crackpots.

Not that Collins minds all that much - the author is the kind of obsessive book lover who knows the value of happy accidents waiting to happen, and bookstore work just means more opportunity knocking upside his enquiring mind: "To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you, the ones you didn't know to ask for in the first place." Luckily for us, Collins is willing to generously share his findings, ruminations and observations as he tells his whopping fish-out-of-water tale, which includes his efforts to become a Lord.

And while Sixpence House meanders along to an anticlimactic and puzzling end in the recounting of the days in the life of the husband, father, house hunter, citizen and writer Collins, he does let us in on the book collector Collins. It is in these eclipsing and enticing bits and pieces of bookish minutiae, the directing of your attention to a grab-bag variety of books you didn't know existed — the kind that we readers of Sixpence "didn't know to ask for in the first place" — that really comprises a considerable significance for Collins, and that constitutes the heart of his book.

So what kind of tidbits — whether of substance or of no consequence, old or newly unearthed, isolated or accumulated, of such facets as buying and selling, binding and titling — can we glean from Sixpence? Dr. William Hammond's 1883 book A Treatise on Insanity in its Medical Relations is a good place to start. Personally, I am struck by the case of a plumber who received messages from "The Boss Plumber of Eternity," who informed him that by mixing shark blood and shark urine he could create an unbreakable steampipe solder. But Collins is more taken with the circumstances surrounding an otherwise rational man desperately protecting his frail hand, who "conceived that his right hand was made of glass, and therefore kept it carefully enclosed in a stout case, made to fit it accurately."

Furthermore, since Collins is one of those perceptive people of hair-trigger mind and synapse who seek and find evoking connections and reconciliation in even the most disparate of affairs, we get a bonus round as he recalls this "notion that our bodies are as frail as glass containers" in Elinor Wylie's 1925 fable The Venetian Glass Nephew and further traces the issue to "the literary freak show" in Britain called The Wonderful Magazine that once had an account of "one who thought his posteriors were made of glass; so that all he did he performed standing; fearing, that if he should sit down, he should break his bottom."

Sometimes, the title tells you all you need to know, or perhaps a furtive glance inside would satisfy your inquisitiveness about never-to-be-a-major-motion-picture items such as Mary Godolphin's 1867 tome Robinson Crusoe, in Words of One Syllable, or the 1829 broadsheet called To the Curious: The Word Scissars Appears Capable of More Variations in Spelling Than Any Other, with 480 spellings listed. On the other hand - and even though it turned out to be a hoax - you know you have to take more than a sneak peek at something titled I Was Hitler's Maid, Pauline Kohler's 1940 memoir.

On the subject of reusing and recycling paper, more than the curiosity factor comes into play when Collins describes the events of 1814 when an American printer gave up on publishing the porn novel Fanny Hill, selling the paper to another printer who marbled over the sheets for a rather unsuccessful and ultimately embarrassing printing that didn't quite take. The result of which turned out to be a rather unexpectedly embellished account of the War of 1812: Barbarities of the Enemy, Exposed in A Report of the Committee of the House of Representatives. Let's just say that an exposure of a different kind was the result.

In addition to learning about the four unloved genres that make up one of the banes of today's secondhand dealer's existence — textbooks, theology, celebrity autobiography, and military history — Collins explores the fascinating telltale psychology behind dust jackets. Amongst the varying "implicit codes" is the notion that raised lettering, metallic lettering, or raised metallic lettering indicates an "easy-to-read work on espionage, romance, celebrity, and/or murder." However, in some kind of harmonic cover convergence of sorts, Collins indicates that on "Serious Books and Crap alike there will be a head shot of The Author sitting still while looking pensive or smiling faintly into the indeterminate distance--the one pose that has no existence in the author's actual daily life." I find that smoking a pipe works, too - even with the women writers.

At the end of Sixpence House, Collins tellingly reveals his favorite work that made it from the high stack in his bedroom to the cherished night stand placement. It is called Recreations of a Country Parson, written by Andrew Boyd in 1861. The musings within the book, the essentially unreligious Collins notes, "are sermons in disguise, really, and they will put you to sleep. I mean that as a compliment: he is a very calming writer" who comes off as "a companionable fellow, neither dogmatic nor uncommitted, and keenly aware of the absurdities of our world and of our human nature."

In essence, then, Recreations of a Country Parsonsis a keeper. It's a book that Collins will, doubtlessly, not leave in a box out in the middle of the street in Hay. Just as I'll be sure that Sixpence House makes it into the U-Haul truck for my next move.


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