“It’s full of books,” I apologize to the Uber driver.
“It’s books, heavy books,” I tell the airline ticket agent.
I stammer as if I am a smuggler, but nobody cares.
Important rituals mark my visits to my daughter and her family in the rainy Northwest, a setting created for readers. One night I mess up her kitchen making fried chicken. Another night we engage in raucous game playing. And one morning my daughter and I head to our favorite used-book sales.
If we are lucky, the library is hosting a blowout members’ sale. More often, we stop there to breeze through the shelves of its ongoing sale of books and then move on to the local thrift store whose donors are bibliophiles.
We also stop at Island Books, whose staff members make great suggestions. We gladly pay full price for their recommendations and for their spirited battle against Amazon.
Used-book sales let us purchase at a lesser price, encourage us to recycle and give support to worthy causes. Those are the obvious benefits, but my recent purchases fit into other categories:
No longer on the bestseller lists: Bestsellers that I missed when “everyone else” read them. I will make time now for Madeleine Albright’s “Fascism: A Warning.” Its tracing of fascism in the 20th century gives a solid base to her alarm. I snagged a copy of “The Lost City of the Monkey God,” by Douglas Preston, which addresses the mystery of a disappeared city and the willingness of a group of men to risk death to understand its demise.
For the very curious: I found the worn paperback “The Double Helix,” by James Watson. I have not cared about DNA since I earned a B in college biology. I do care about Rosalind Franklin, a researcher with Watson and Francis Crick who died before the duo received the Nobel Prize. Was she cheated of the recognition she deserved? I found my answer by page 15. Watson criticized her for refusing “to think of herself as an assistant.” She did not “emphasize her feminine qualities.” He imagined her as “the product of an unsatisfied mother. … Clearly, Rosie had to go or be put in her place.” That was a strong and ugly women’s history lesson.
Quick cultural study of an era: Book sales can reveal the culture or, at least, the tastes of an era. The people who sort books are probably relieved to see that the works of Grace Metalious (“Peyton Place”), Jacqueline Susann (“Valley of the Dolls”) and Harold Bell Wright (possibly the first American author to sell a million books) are finally disappearing. Valuable to me is a recent find, Bill Mauldin’s “The Brass Ring, a Sort of Memoir.” This Pulitzer Prize winner handled losses like the average GI Joe he chronicled, burdened by the stoicism of his generation. His simple drawings of loss and humanity had the power of a graphic novel.
Undiscovered sleepers: These are exciting finds that combine craft, information and surprise. Amos Elon’s “The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933” took me to 1743 with a young, hunchbacked Moses Mendelssohn as he entered Berlin through the gate relegated to cattle and Jews. The book ends in 1933 after linking the darkness of the Third Reich with the adoration of a superior German culture that excluded non-Aryans. A pity, indeed.
Fiction in discards: “City of Thieves” by David Benioff is dark but filled with irony and compassion, the horrors of the siege of Leningrad contrasting with the absurdity of a quest for a dozen eggs for the wedding of a general’s daughter.
After I flipped my suitcase off the carousel, my telescoping handle stuck. A woman lifted it for me and carried it to the rental cart queue. “Are you going to be OK with that?” she said.
“Oh, sure. It’s books.”
Vicki Epstein Pieser has lived in New Ulm for 50 years. She writes essays and memoirs, surrounded by books to be read someday.