Wherever I travel, it has long been my custom to check out the local secondhand bookstores. I carry a pocket flashlight for scanning dark shelves and shadowy alcoves, methodically pull out any hardback with a faded spine to verify the title, and never use a cellphone to compare prices with online listings. If I want a book, I’m not going to nickel-and-dime a brick-and-mortar shop, especially when so many of them are struggling.
So, last Tuesday I rode the light-rail from Beaverton, near the suburb where my son lives, into downtown Portland to spend an afternoon at Powell’s systematically working my way through its many, many shelves of literature, mystery, science fiction and fantasy, poetry and literary criticism. I sauntered into the superstore — masks required, no restrooms — at 1:30 p.m. and left five minutes before 6, when the doors closed for the day.
Books attract me for sometimes unexpected reasons. For instance, while sifting through the Powell’s fiction section I came across a long run of Anthony Burgess titles. Today, I suspect only “A Clockwork Orange” is still widely read. But as a young reviewer I wrote about “Earthly Powers” (superb), “1985” (so-so), “The End of the World News” (bad), the pictorial essay “On Going to Bed” (charming) and the autobiographical “Little Wilson and Big God” (enthralling). I particularly admire Burgess’s exuberant novel about Shakespeare, “Nothing Like the Sun”; the Enderby books, which are comedies relating the horrors of the literary life; and his many works of nonfiction, starting with his studies of James Joyce.
Suddenly seeing two long shelves of Burgess titles, many of them English editions in fine dust jackets, I experienced such an upswelling of nostalgia that I chose three to take home: “M/F,” a bizarre fantasy inspired by the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss; the satirical “Honey for the Bears,” set in the old Soviet Union; and a handsome English edition — I already own the American — of Burgess’s collected literary journalism, “Homage to Qwert Yuiop.”
Long before Hilary Mantel brought out her prizewinning books about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, Ford Madox Ford produced a much-praised trilogy called “The Fifth Queen,” set in the same period and centered on the doomed Catherine Howard. I’ve long meant to read the book, a favorite work of one of my favorite critics, William Gass. Powell’s was selling the elegant and compact Bodley Head edition, and it proved quite irresistible.
My mentor in literary journalism, Robert Phelps, was an all-around man of letters, now mainly remembered as an authority on Colette. In his younger days, Robert co-founded Grove Press, published its first three books and then sold the company to Barney Rosset, who made it famous. Being a collector of Phelpsiana, I look out for copies of those first three Grove titles, and at Powell’s I discovered two of them: “The Verse in English of Richard Crashaw” and “Selected Writings of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn.” (The third, by the way, is Herman Melville’s “The Confidence-Man.”) Though these are important canonical works, they obviously aren’t the kind to enrich a fledgling publisher.
Today, Norman Douglas might be revered as a pioneer of gay liberation or banished because he liked adolescent boys. Whatever the case, Douglas’s travel books about Southern Italy — “Siren Land” and “Old Calabria” are masterpieces, as is his mildly campy, comic novel “South Wind,” which opens, “The bishop was feeling rather sea-sick.” At Powell’s, I happily seized upon “Three of Them,” a volume of this sometimes controversial writer’s novellas.
Lest you think all my purchases were as recherché as the above, let me add that I bought a 1953 Ace Double pairing Leigh Brackett’s “The Sword of Rhiannon”— a wistful tale of swords and sorcery set on ancient Mars — with “Conan the Conqueror,” the first paperback appearance of Robert E. Howard’s formidable Cimmerian warrior. Wanting to read some of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedurals, I also picked up a signed copy of “Three From the 87th,” which contains “Fuzz,” reputed to be one of the series’s high spots. Just before lugging my overflowing basket to the Powell’s checkout, I added a paperback of Helen McCloy’s “Through a Glass, Darkly,” said to resemble the work of Golden Age mystery writer John Dickson Carr.
In the end, I shipped home 15 books, including “Memoirs of an Oxford Don” by Mark Pattison (who served as a partial model for George Eliot’s dry-as-dust scholar Casaubon in “Middlemarch”); a book of essays by Violet Paget, who as Vernon Lee wrote the classic tale of erotic horror “Amour Dure”; “Faber & Faber: The Untold Story,” by Toby Faber, which reprints business letters and internal memos from T.S. Eliot and other editors of this iconic English publishing house; and the 1913 first edition of Holbrook Jackson’s groundbreaking “The Eighteen Nineties” (which, notoriously, fails to mention the decadent poet Enoch Soames). Not least, I also acquired, but did not mail to D.C., “The Ultimate Spider-Man” by Tom DeFalco. As you might guess, this was a present for a certain 4-year-old who knows seemingly everything about Spidey and the web-slinger’s dastardly adversaries, the Green Goblin, Venom and, of course, Doctor Octopus.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.