They have three every year, the local library does, and I go to every one. It doesn’t matter how many unread books I have at home. A new favorite might be waiting patiently for me on the overfilled folding tables, or underneath them in the ragged cardboard boxes, holding its frayed corners as still as possible to keep them from getting torn or bent by some careless browser, so that it might look as sharp as it may when I find it and take it home.
There are certain books I know I am looking for. Anything with Rosemary Sutcliff or George MacDonald or G.K. Chesterton on the spine or cover page. One of the titles that has been most highly recommended to me by multiple friends. A nonfiction book on history or mythology that promises to be uniquely useful.
And then there are the happy surprises and the experiments. The “Oh, cool! That’ll be great to have” and the “Well, it’s only a buck, let’s give it a try.” Both important in their own ways. The happy surprises feel like little bonuses, rewards for patronizing the library. But in some ways, the experiments are probably the most exciting and valuable, even if they fail to reach the greatest heights of literature. These are the books where you’re venturing outside your comfort zone; where you hold off exploring no more, but turn your helm and open your sails to receive the wind and wherever it may lead you. The experiments are more likely to make you a larger person.
Reflecting on this most recent book sale, I am satisfied that I have some from each category.
Books I knew I wanted
MacDonald is one of those authors whose books I will buy just on his name alone, so long as I can spare the money and I don’t already own the book. I’ve been curious about At the Back of the North Wind for many years, mostly because of it’s beautiful title. The only other thing I know is that it’s about a boy named Diamond. Who, presumably, gets to ride on the back of the North Wind. There isn’t much more I need to know about it.
Again, Sutcliff’s name alone will get me to buy a book, even when it looks like something completely different from what I expect of her and not something I would normally give a second look. I wondered for a few moments if this wasn’t perhaps some other Sutcliff. But no, it’s her. And it’s a beautiful little story.
In fact, I just read it now, in under half an hour, and it charmed my poor soul and warmed it to no end. This is even more impressive because the story—and it really is just a short story published with its own hardcover—is about a Chihuahua, and I generally dislike Chihuahuas. But it’s as much a Sutcliff story, in its own way, as is The Eagle of the Ninth. Her prose is tender, sprinkled with yellow daffodils, and describes thoughtful people yearning for companionship and love. A children’s story, to be read aloud, but also to be savored comfortably by adults. After reading it, you will want to hug your pet—if you have one—and generally share smiles with those you love.
In recent years, I’ve grown to appreciate short stories and seek them out. Last year I bought a huge collection of Rudyard Kipling stories that I still have barely scraped, but that didn’t stop me from snatching up Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy. The cover design is appealing, and it promises excellent stories by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Patricia McKillip, Larry Niven, and many other names more or less well known in modern fantasy and science fiction circles. I was never more than average at statistics, but I think the odds are high that, for roughly a buck and a half, I just bought some really neat stories.
I’m still reluctant to whole-heartedly recommend Guy Gavriel Kay after my experience with Tigana. I love his prose, the historical reality of his worlds, and the integral, though subtle, nature of magic in his stories. I also liked his characters, his twisty-but-sensible-plot, and his many dramatic flourishes. But his indulgence in sexual deviancy in that book really turned me off. However, I promised someone I would give him another chance, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is one of his most highly regarded novels. It also is inspired by medieval Spain and the Cid, a time and person that have also inspired me recently.
Science Fiction. I love it in the movies. I love it in computer games. I love it in webcomics and artwork. I’ve never read any serious, sci-fi novel. Time to change that.
I picked up Ringworld first. The title is famous and the concept so outrageous as to be irresistible. I’ve also heard that Niven regularly marries profound ideas and realistic science with really engaging adventure.
Then I started chatting with a bearded older gentlemen, who was also browsing the sci-fi section. He started mentioning the sci-fi greats and pulled out Glory Road as his favorite Robert Heinlein novel. It seems to be an unusual one for Heinlein, being as much medieval fantasy as it is sci-fi, but it promises rousing adventure by an acknowledged master, so I’m excited to begin my exploration.
So, folks, moral of the story is: Libraries are cool, never turn away from a used book sale, and always be ready to explore new books, new authors, and new genres.