When people walk into our house for the first time, they almost always ask the same question: “Have you read all of these books?” Sometimes, if I’m feeling brave, I might say “most of them.” Which is not really true. We’ve been married for more than six years now, and even though we own a house and a car together, have merged bank accounts and basically all other parts of our lives, we have never merged our book collections. This is probably the only part of our marriage where there are profound and possibly irreconcilable differences.
The shelving of books is a difficult matter. I prefer my fiction alphabetized by author. He prefers it arranged by subject sometimes, other times genre or era – an impenetrable system that annoys me to no end when looking for something on his shelves. Both of our nonfiction collections defy the alphabet but don’t nearly approach something as orderly as a Dewey classification system. So I’ve got my books in one room and he’s got his own room. Because we’ve got as many books between us as a small town public library, there’s the inevitable overflow into other rooms, including a designated “reshelving area.”
Books are beautiful. Not only individual texts, the way all bindings glide differently across your fingers or fit into your hands. A wall full of books is a cacophony of colors, sizes and fonts. To my eye, it is more magical than even the most expensive or thought-provoking art. Taken separately, even the most boring books can be endlessly provocative if seen in the right light. Collectively, their possibilities can blur your consciousness if you let them.
The waste stream isn’t particularly kind to books. Some get called antiques and marked up, often for no comprehensible reason. Others are tattered from being passed on and on through avid hands until they can be had for a nickel in bins marked by author or genre. Some are simply sold by weight, or by the yard for decorative projects destined to adorn the shelves of non-readers.
Others are picked up and curated by folks who run an increasingly rare species: the used bookstore. Blame Amazon or Ebay for this decline; blame our depressingly collective low literacy, or television, or whatever favorite scapegoat you have for what seems to be a widespread lack of interest in old things (strike one) that are written on paper (strike two) and take time to consume (strike three).
I go to used bookstores like some people go to museums. There are destination bookshops, like the remarkable King Books in Detroit – a warehouse the size of a city block filled with more stories than a thousand Scheherazades. Milwaukee’s airport houses Renaissance Books (whose downtown location is closed, as far as we know), shelving new alongside rare and used books of an incredible variety. Then there are bookshop districts. My favorite may be the cluster in the French Quarter – some specialize in regional ephemera, others in fiction, others in piles that seem to defy gravity. Each offers treasures commensurate with time spent. It’s an old bargain, but I’ll take it every time, usually ending up with more books than I can reasonably carry or check on to an airplane. This complicates the book storage situation.
A few times a year, I’ll go through the stacks and do a strategic cull. I’m trying to stay within the available capacity, so as new books come in (which they do by the bagful sometimes), I try to find new homes for books I’m done with. Usually, I’ll keep a book if a) I’ll read it again; b) I’d lend it to someone; c) I probably will read it someday; or d) I’d use it as a reference.
But there are always some books that you can’t get rid of, even if they don’t fit into your utilitarian calculus. It’s hard to imagine getting rid of my dead mother’s high school yearbooks. I wonder if I will ever stop missing her enough to dismiss her classmates’ exhortations and hard-to-decipher notes regarding her character and conduct in classes and activities that I struggle to imagine. The same applies to my father’s decades-overdue library books about the Soviet Union. And my calculus textbooks. And the collected works of John Steinbeck. And the 25 volumes of Masterpieces of Eloquence, occupying almost an entire shelf in our hallway built-in.
Over the Transom
This set came from a magical bookstore in tiny Fairhope, Alabama. It was called Over the Transom. You had to walk through a record store to reach it. The record store is still there, run by Dr. Music. Though I’ve never known whether Dr. Music is a real doctor, one of his specialties is surgical: he grafts speakers into old suitcases. You know the store is open if there’s music playing on the sidewalk from one of these contraptions. There’s now a comic shop behind Dr. Music, where the owner’s stock is solidly eclectic but almost weirdly censored: no issues with sex or witchery in the titles. Evidently because it’s a tourist shop, the proprietor’s trying to keep his shelves G-rated. Nevertheless, he’s got a wicked good collection of old issues of Doctor Strange.
America’s got a collection of places like Fairhope (and at least one wonderful novel about an imaginary community somewhat like it) – tiny, experimental, aspirational utopian communities founded on principles that promised to solve, once and for all, the root causes of the problems of the old society. Like America, we all eventually become our parents.
In childhood, we learn the lay of the land. As we do, two paths become clear. We can find a way to thrive in the existing stream of goods, services, values and priorities. Sometimes this works. Or we can try to cut our own path away from or against the prevailing currents, upending and contesting commonly held beliefs as we go. This works less often.
Fairhope began with a dream that puts most people to sleep: tax reform. More specifically, the colony’s founders migrated all the way from Des Moines to relatively remote South Alabama because they were inspired by the ideas of Henry George, an American journalist and sort-of economist.
As best I can determine from touring the Fairhope municipal museum and consuming the things the Internet has to say about Henry George, I can explain Georgism this way: land has intrinsic value to a community, but people should own the value of the way that they improve land (buildings, businesses, etc.). This translates, in practice, to a “Single Tax” colony like Fairhope, where the land is understood to be a common good and is taxed accordingly. Sound socialist? It might surprise you to know that the land value tax is a concept endorsed by free-market types dating back to Adam Smith. George’s main idea was that because economic activity and investment created the value of land, it made the most economic sense (read: efficiency) to tax land value itself, rather than the factors creating that value. As a bonus (and in theory), land value taxes are progressive; they cannot be passed on to tenants, workers, or people who otherwise use the land. In theory, this means that a single tax structure should promote growth by removing disincentives to improving land. The owners pay the tax while the innovators reap the rewards.
Sounds good? Enough to move from Iowa to Mobile? In 1894, 28 people were convinced enough to relocate. Even today, the Fairhope Single-Tax Corporation is still a thing, covering more than 4,000 acres in and around the current city of Fairhope. Which is, let me say, a very charming place to spend a day.
Fairhope is the kind of place you feel compelled to write home about (or Facebook about, or whatever passes for this kind of notification these days). Downtown is mostly composed of a shopping district outlined by about six by six streets, densely layered with boutiques, galleries and restaurants. You can happily kill a day wandering from store to store while considering all of the things that you might like to buy and/or eat. A few key factors will affect your decision-making:
- Are you a person who likes glittery or exceedingly patterned things? If so, Fairhope’s retail offerings are definitely for you. You will find items from the affordable to the aspirational in every clothing store, often on curbside sale racks. Also there is plenty of oversized novelty jewelry, which will look great matched with your new white capri pants, turquoise blouse and sparkly sandals.
- Are you walking a dog or other companion animal? Good news! Most stores will allow your dog indoors, and almost all have water bowls outside. Many restaurants will allow you to dine on the patio, where sometimes you can listen to singer-songwriter music about meaningful places, sad relationships and big ideas.
- If you have a beach house sadly lacking in beach house-related decor, the shops of Fairhope have you covered. You can find many signs, tchotchkes, and other signifiers designed to tell people that you live at the beach. This is in case they didn’t know by, for example, looking out of the window toward the actual beach.
There are bookstores, but none of them are as good as Over The Transom was. Page and Palette is good, but in an obvious way. They’ve got most of the books you already knew you wanted to read. They key to Over The Transom was that they had the books that you didn’t know you wanted to read – Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Proprietor Martin Lanaux had a quiet but always present approach to his shop. You’d come in, be left alone for a while, and then he’d manifest suddenly, guiding you to the book you didn’t know you wanted but now could not leave without. This is a special gift, the matching of reader to book. While there, I watched him join the curious to a mystery series; the gardener to an environmental history; a tactile child to science primers.
Me, I was a harder catch. I resisted recommendations. I’d read it already, or I wasn’t interested, or I was skeptical of the genre. We played a cat and mouse game for more than two hours that day. I went through boxes of books to be priced later, allegedly from Rick Bragg’s moldering basement. I considered some overpriced psychology books. I set aside a handful of fiction. Finally, he caught me mulling over a set called Masterpieces of Eloquence. I’d studied philosophy and rhetoric, so I was interested in what was contained. I think he smelled a sale, even though they were marked at $500 for the set – much, much, much more than I was interested in paying.
He asked: “Why are you looking at these?” I explained that I taught debate, that I’d studied rhetoric. I added, for some reason, that in the next two weeks I would take the US national high school debate team to South Africa to debate for the world championship.
He asked: “Would you use these?” I said that I wasn’t teaching classes right now, but that I was sure that if I taught a class on rhetoric again, I’d use them.
He asked: “Can I sell them to you for $50?” I paused.
This would be an entire shelf of scarce shelf space. Never mind the richness of subject. Volume one has orations from Homer to Demosthenes. Volume 23 contains oration from Eliot to Bourinot. This ranged from vague undergraduate philosophy knowledge in volume one, to just about no idea by volume 25. I imagined myself reading all of these – at best a hazy future. And the space they’d take up! But then I thought of all of the work that Mayo Hazeltine, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Mason and others that I’d never heard of had put into this collection. That gave me pause. I turned to Martin.
He sized me up. “You’ll use them, right?” Yes, I said, or at least I nodded. I wanted the books but I had no idea how they might come home or where they might go.
He offered to sell me the books if I promised to use them. I agreed, and loaded them into my car. Weeks later, I sent him a postcard from Capetown but never heard from him again. The next time I went to Fairhope, Martin’s store was occupied by thin volumes featuring capes and costumes.
Masterpieces of Eloquence
These days, the 25 volumes of Masterpieces of Eloquence occupy most of a hallway shelf in our Montgomery home. I do not open them often. I wish I was more child-like about their presence, that I thought of them more in the way that my younger self encountered the encyclopedias, great book collections, and other sets sold by volume that occupied my grandparents’ shelves. But I’m older now, and more resistant to wonder. Age imputes the worst kind of immunity. I find myself prone to pick up books that already interest me. That leaves the volumes of MoE, sadly, out of the regular rotation. For this post, I picked volume 23 off of the shelf and dusted it off a bit. I opened it to a random page and found a quote that seemed, eerily, to speak to Martin – or at least my work:
As one goes in life, especially in modern life, a few conclusions are hammered into us by the hard logic of facts. Among those conclusions I think I may, without much fear of contradiction, enumerate such practical, common-sense, and common-place precepts as that superficiality is dangerous, as well as contemptible, in that it is apt to invite defeat; or again, that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well; or third, that when one is given work to do, it is well to prepare one’s self for that specific work, and not to occupy one’s time in acquiring information, no matter how innocent or elegant, or genuinely useful, which has no probable bearing on that work; or, finally- and this I regard as the greatest of all practical precepts – that every man should in life master some one thing, be it great or be it small, so that that thereon he may be the highest living authority: that one thing he should know thoroughly.”
Gendered pronouns are kept as in the original, as I’m pretty sure Charles Francis Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams) meant to be talking about cis men upon the occasion of his address to Harvard in 1883, titled “The Study of Greek as a College Fetich.” The text notes that this speech “attracted wide attention, the speaker contending that the knowledge of Greek should not be required for attention to Harvard.”
Evidently, this speech caused Harvard to make Greek optional. Which is entirely in the keeping of Over the Transom’s lost ethos. The books you take home may or may not be “canonical,” whatever that means. You choose them, but that doesn’t mean that you occupy the entirely heroic free-choice subject position. The good bookseller knows that their role goes beyond mere curation. It’s about putting books in the homes where they go – where people might open them up and give them a shot on their own terms. In a bookstore where there were at any given time at least three copies of Dale Carnegie’s masterwork, Martin knew better how to influence people. He also seemed to embody Adams’ message, that superficiality invites defeat.
And this is how I ended up with a shelf’s worth of the Masterpieces of Eloquence. A master book seller sized me up as I stared askance at Joyce Carol Oates and saw that I was wanting. He watched as I touched the collected works with wonder, imagining at the treasures within. He knew that it might take some time, but that one day I would open them and maybe even share them with the outside world, and he took a gamble on finding them a new home.
We’re living in a world of surplus stuff – does this need any explanation or elaboration? It has not been too long since any issue of Tom Swift or Nancy Drew was valued beyond price and read under the covers. Just last week I ran the cashbox at a yard sale where these same books were sold by the yard. But just as you fix your mind on civilization’s inevitable catastrophe, it’s worth bearing in mind Mark Twain’s comments from Volume 23:
You make up your mind that the earthquake is due; you stand from under and take hold of something to steady yourself, and, the first thing you know, you get struck by lightning.
Book love begins as a child, when words and their vast accumulation seems like a repository of absolute magic. You work your whole life to master their incantations, to identify and mimic the artists you admire so that your powers might grow stronger. But then, at some point, you begin to doubt yourself. The ocean is so vast and your boat is so small. You brace for disaster, cowering behind hastily constructed barriers of safe and reliable words. Then, inevitably, there is lightning. Which we used to call eloquence.