Alas, my plan to sort and cull my thousands of books — described last week in my Zippy Shell column — failed to make allowance for human nature. For even as I was straining my back by carrying boxes up the stairs to donate or sell to the noble used book dealers of Washington, come bedtime I would go online to take a quick peek at the current offerings from L.W. Currey, John W. Knott, Richard Dalby’s Library, Type Punch Matrix, Wonder Book and Video or Capitol Hill Books. It didn’t matter that I ached like a stevedore at the end of a double shift. During daylight hours, the world applauded a crusading Dr. Jekyll energetically focused on discarding and recycling printed matter, but once night fell Mr. Hyde would emerge and, while fiendishly cackling, type arcane titles into the search engines of viaLibri, eBay and Addall. Typically, when a friend recently recommended H.B. Marriott Watson’s “The Adventurers” (1898), there was suddenly nothing I wanted more in the world than a copy of this forgotten piece of swashbuckling Victoriana.
I wasn’t always like this.
When I first arrived in Washington, driving a beat-up cherry-red Chevy Impala the size of a small ocean liner, all my books — indeed, all my possessions — could fit in its trunk and back seat. As for so many unfortunates before me, it was the big city and all its glittering temptations that brought about my ruin. For years, I’d been squirreled away working on a dissertation — about the French writer Stendhal — and then, miraculously, one sunny afternoon in a one-bedroom Cleveland Park apartment, while the monkeys howled in the zoo nearby, I typed its last brilliant page. I was free, and Washington beckoned.
Books, new, old and infinitely desirable, suddenly called out to me from every street corner. I ogled the rarities in used bookshops and prowled through hole-in-the wall thrift stores. As a boy, I had ridden my bicycle around my hometown, unearthing treasures at the Goodwill, the Salvation Army and the huge junkyard emporium called Clarice’s Values. Once I bought the complete works of Sir Walter Scott in 24 volumes for $5. Clarice must have known that a pudgy, nearsighted 13-year-old would be just the right sucker for that white elephant. When I got it home — try riding a bike with a set of Scott’s novels — my mother said, “Boy, they saw you coming.” Still, I did later read “Waverley” and half of “Ivanhoe,” so the purchase wasn’t a complete loss.
No doubt the seeds that led to my downfall were planted back then. But Dupont Circle and Georgetown undid me, la la. There were then nearly 60 used bookstores in the Greater Washington area, which I know for a fact because I visited most of them. Still, even modest collecting requires a certain amount of cash, and I quickly learned that you got more book for your buck at the many annual sales then hosted by Washington-area schools, churches and similar institutions. The doors would open at 9 or 10 a.m. and a tsunami of collectors and dealers would sweep over a gymnasium crammed with book-laden tables. People carried extra-large L.L. Bean canvas bags, sometimes more than one. As the day progressed — why leave the sale when the tables were being continually restocked? — you might unearth a first edition of Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,” or Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” or even a signed copy of that saddest of stories, Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier.” Such heady times will ne’er come again.
After I started working as an editor at Book World, surrounded by piles of all the latest fiction and nonfiction, I would nonetheless frequently spend my lunch hour quick-marching to Dupont Circle to browse the shelves of Second Story Books. As the years went by, other people’s children played with wooden blocks, while mine made forts with hardback novels and quickly learned that when Dad was on-duty, he would buy them candy if they’d be quiet while he browsed in a bookstore.
Still, nothing was really what I, if no one else, would call out of control until the Friends of the Montgomery County Library opened a retail outlet just a 10-minute walk from my house. Working from home then as now, I would quit reading or writing at 5 p.m. and, with a jaunty spring to my step, stroll toward downtown. If I veered to the right — the virtuous path — I would end up at LA Fitness. Otherwise, after crossing Colesville Road, I would find myself entering the Friends’ store, cheerily saluting its staff with my signature greeting, “Read one book, you read ’em all!” Then over the next hour or so I would slowly fill up two big shopping bags. At least my arms got some exercise in toting them home.
Let me add, no doubt needlessly, that if you zealously patronize a nearby Friends’ store for several years, you too may one day be renting a Zippy Shell storage container. Books and more books! Some of us can’t live without them but, as various unnamed family members periodically remind me, sometimes you can also have too much of a good thing.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.