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Wonder Books

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By Michael Dirda


 

Last week I ranted about what it was like to live without electricity on five successive days of temperatures in the high 90s, in a house where most of the windows don’t open. What I didn’t mention was how I managed to get through one of those days, specifically Sunday, July 1, when almost everything in the immediate Washington area was closed because of downed power lines. The places shuttered included the Silver Spring and Wheaton libraries, the Glenwood swimming pool, and most of the local stores. After a 100 degree Saturday, I was desperate to find somewhere cool, somewhere I might take my mind off this latest outage—I almost typed outrage—as well as the prospect of days without refrigeration, lights, and air-conditioning.

So naturally, I turned my attention to the north, to Frederick, Maryland, to be more precise, about an hour away up I-270. Driving my beloved 1997 Maxima, which is much in need of a new muffler and which I really should get rid of, I gradually made my way to Wonder Book and Video.

Wonder Book’s Frederick store is but one outlet of Chuck Roberts’s used-book empire, rivaled in the greater Washington area only by Allan Stypeck’s Second Story Books. But Second Story’s Rockville warehouse is relatively nearby, so I generally drop by there every month or so. Frederick, by contrast, is a bit of a trip. Yet given that I had no power and, just as important, given that my Beloved Spouse was out of the country, I really had no choice but to spend the day in Frederick. I’m sure you can see that.

Also, because Chuck is a friend of mine, he offers me a discount, and because one has a discount, it seems only reasonable to buy more books than one might otherwise. At all events, I spent three hours going through the stock, stepped out for a quick bite at a fast-food joint, then spent another happy three hours before I called it a day. What did I buy? I thought you’d never ask. In no particular order, I bought:

 

Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Harry Clarke. This is a famous and highly desirable edition, but it was quite cheap because the volume, otherwise in very good condition, was missing three plates, including the frontispiece, as well as a page of text. Normally, I wouldn’t look twice at such a damaged book, but it was still attractive just as a classic of bookmaking, and a fine, intact copy would cost several hundred dollars. Oddly enough, I’m not terribly bothered by its faults, given how beautiful it is overall.

 

The Long Ships, by Frans G. Bengtsson. Ever since I wrote an essay—for the online Barnes and Noble Review—pegged to the New York Review Classics paperback of this adventure novel, I’ve wanted to own a proper hardback. This copy’s dust jacket has some losses to the spine and is a second printing, but that’s okay. I may even toss the dj. One of these days I’ll spend a happy weekend rereading this exciting, wittily written saga of Viking exploits.

 

Startling Stories, November, 1950. This is a large-sized pulp magazine, printing in its entirety an early Jack Vance novel called The Five Gold Bands. Its cover features a Salome-like dancer being ogled by shady-looking aliens. Who could resist? Certainly no Vance fan, which I am, and have long been. Happily, my youngest son shares my passion for this greatest of all living science fiction and fantasy writers, so he may end up with the magazine as a Christmas present.

 

The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, by Ross Thomas. Years ago, I traded my mint first of this crime thriller to my friend David Streitfeld—and regretted it almost immediately. In my years as a book editor, I used to call up Ross Thomas to review mysteries and spy novels, and, a consummate professional, he was always at his desk. Like his contemporary Charles McCarry, happily still with us, Thomas never quite received the acclaim he deserves, though his fans are legion. In a Times Literary Supplement survey, of 25 years ago or more, Eric Ambler chose this novel as a neglected classic of its genre. The title, by the way, comes from Huckleberry Finn. Along with Chinaman’s Chance and The Seersucker Whipsaw, which I’ve read, The Fools in Town are On Our Side is probably Thomas’s most admired novel.

 

The Saturday Review of Literature, March 27, 1943. This special issue honors the memory of Stephen Vincent Benét, with contributions by his friends Thornton Wilder, Christopher Morley, Philip Barry, and many others. As I intend to write an essay on Benet in early September, this was an especially fortuitous find.

 

A Touch of Sturgeon, selected and introduced by David Pringle. This tight and handsome hardcover features eight stories by Theodore Sturgeon, arguably the greatest short-story writer in the history of American science fiction. Pringle is British, but he chooses almost all the most famous works, from “Killdozer” and “Mr. Costello, Hero” to “The Other Celia” and “Slow Sculpture.” I’ve got paperbacks and a few hardbacks of pretty much Sturgeon’s entire oeuvre (though not the multi-volume complete stories available to those with deeper pockets than mine). But for some reason, there in the store, I suddenly felt in the mood to reread some of his short fiction and I liked the heft and feel of this attractive hardback. By the way, Sturgeon’s depiction of the mind of an idiot—in the opening section of his novel More Than Human—has always struck me as good as Faulkner’s in The Sound and the Fury. Heresy, I know.

 

Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White. I read half of this novel by Australia’s Nobel Laureate years ago, but—unusually for me—put it aside and never went back to it. When I saw this pretty English first in a fine dj, I thought that I would give it another try.

 

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Twelve Stories for Late at Night. This is just an ordinary paperback, but it contains many classic tales of science fiction and horror, including John Collier’s “Evening Primrose,” C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season,” M. R. James’s “The Ash-Tree,” and Evelyn Waugh’s “The Man who Liked Dickens.” I’ve enjoyed all these in various collections. But this paperback also reprints Gouverneur Morris’s “Back There in the Grass,” which has been referred to as a classic lost-race story and the only thing the author is remembered for. Well, here was my chance to acquire the story without shelling out serious money for Morris’s scarce collection It and Other Stories. Morris did have a flair for titles—one of his other books is called If You Touch Them They Vanish.

 

The Silver Stallion, by James Branch Cabell. This is still another first edition, one of 850 signed and numbered large-paper copies, of arguably Cabell’s best book. I first read it in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter, but couldn’t pass up a signed copy for only $4. Though his output is uneven, Cabell is probably the most significant American writer of ironic high fantasy. He is, of course, generally remembered for the once scandalous Jurgen, which was banned in Boston and championed by H. L. Mencken.

 

Short Talks with the Dead and Others, by Hilaire Belloc. Published in 1926, this is—as far as I can tell—a collection of casual essays, rebound in ugly library bookcloth. Belloc is under a cloud these days—he was, more or less, anti-Semitic—but he was also a consummate English prose stylist (and one of the first serious writers to acclaim the genius of P. G. Wodehouse). I own a number of Belloc’s books, including The Path to Rome, and aim to read him at length one of these days.

 

The Murder League and The Tricks of the Trade, both by Robert L. Fish. As a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, I tend to look out for Sherlockian material. As all Irregulars know, few send-ups of the sacred canon are as hilarious as Robert L. Fish’s The Incredible Schlock Homes: “To my mind, Watney, sabotage—next to the pilfering of coal—is the dirtiest of all crimes.” But Fish also wrote several mystery and thriller series, which I’ve never read. The Murder League is about three aging crime novelists who form a kill-for-hire organization; The Tricks of the Trade is the first novel about Kek Huygens, the world’s most successful smuggler. Needless to say, both books appear to share the lighthearted tone I favor in mysteries.

 

The Lunatic at Large, by J. Storer Clouston. Published in 1900 as part of Appleton’s Town and Country Library, this is apparently the first American edition of a book reissued a few years back by McSweeney’s. It’s a comic novel, about, well, an escaped lunatic, an arranged marriage, and I don’t know what else. Even though I possess the modern hardback, I always prefer to read books in their original editions whenever possible. Only those early formats possess the right feel, the right aura. Nonetheless, I won’t pay a lot for a book I already own in a perfectly good edition—unless the price is right. This one was.

 

Dream Days, by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. Published in 1902, this is the first illustrated edition of an early collection of stories—the best known being “The Reluctant Dragon”—by the author of The Wind in the Willows. It comes with a richly decorated cover showing a castle keep covered with shrubs, while the interior photogravure reproductions of Parrish’s pictures represent the period’s very latest in print technology. A very handsome book and greatly underpriced, probably because the copyright page makes clear that it’s not the first printing. But that edition of 1898, which forgoes illustrations, is probably less desirable than this one.

 

Mayfair, by Michael Arlen. This is a fine English 1925 first, in an Edmund Dulac jacket, of witty and cynical, and sometimes supernatural, stories, set among the bright young things of 1920s London. It includes the celebrated horror classic “The Gentleman from America.” I’ve never read Arlen at length, and this seemed a golden opportunity to own a proper first of one of his best books. I already have a copy, not a first, of his most famous, or infamous novel, The Green Hat.

 

The Servant, by Robin Maugham. I bought this slender volume largely because of the striking and rather ominous cover design by G. N. Fish. I did know that the novella was the source of a celebrated Joseph Losey film, with a Harold Pinter screenplay, which I haven’t seen. Years ago, however, I read Robin Maugham’s two books about his Uncle Somerset Maugham and liked them both. The nephew never quite emerged from the elder Maugham’s shadow, but this novella, I suspect, will be a dark treat.

 

Well, I could go on and mention the copy of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle in the Moon (which, I failed to notice, offered some illustrations hand-colored by a juvenile artist of limited talent), or the copy of Nelson Bond’s Mr. Mergenthwirker’s Lobblies and other Fantastic Tales, in a water-damaged dust jacket, or the first paperback of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, or the ex-library copy of Frederic Brown’s What Mad Universe (albeit with a good dj).

I know, I know—I probably shouldn’t have bought quite so many books, or settled for several that are in rather shabby condition. Still, all my purchases were of works I love already or that I have long wanted to read. I’m no investor: I only collect books and authors I care about. When, that hot Sunday afternoon, I finally left Wonder Book and Video my wallet was certainly lighter than when I arrived, but then so was my heart.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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