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The benefits of browsing

I’m Switzerland in the war between printed and digital books. I love printed books, of course. They’ve basically taken over our house. (It’s still more of an accumulation than a collection but it’s starting to look and act more like there’s a method to the madness.)

I also have a Kindle, and I have intentions of reading books on Apple’s new iPad. I read and write about books online. The internet has become a tremendous resource for information and criticism about books and the book industry. It also can be a great place to buy hard-to-find books.

But for all the benefits of the web, there is still no substitute for browsing in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, especially a secondhand shop. If you walk into a used bookstore with an open and curious mind, you are likely to leave with an item you’re extremely pleased to have acquired. Thrift shops with well-populated shelves of books also often yield surprising finds.

Take, for instance, a little book I picked up the other day at Dead Poet Books at Rainbow and Charleston boulevards. Wandering with the aforementioned open and curious attitude, my eyes fell upon an old paperback. It lay flat and askew on the shelf next to the properly alphabetized and aligned paperback novels. I can’t really say why I was drawn to the book — a hunch and no more.

But once I started looking it over, I knew I’d found something I had to take home with me. The title: “Edge of Awareness: 25 Contemporary Essays.” Published by Dell in 1966. A fairly slim 240 pages. Sold for 60 cents when it was new.

The cover barely contains any artwork to attract the eye, but it does have this compelling text running down the right side: “Provocative views of man in a complex world by distinguished modern writers, including: Jack Kerouac, Lillian Ross, E.M. Forster, Harry Golden, John Keats, Robert Graves, Margaret Mead, Adlai Stevenson, John Ciardi, Arthur C. Clarke.” I didn’t recognize all the names but I was acquainted with enough of them to pique my interest.

Needless to say, the book now rests on the desk beside my keyboard. I have read the first two essays, by Keats and Kerouac, and they are good, both narratives on the general theme of “something valuable I learned in my youth.” Keats recalls his post-high school, Depression-era adventure riding the rails across America. Kerouac writes about serving a solitary summer as a fire lookout in the mountains north of Seattle. Great stuff.

Kerouac: “Thinking of the stars night after night I begin to realize ’the stars are words’ and all the innumerable worlds in the Milky Way are words, and so is this world too. And I realize that no matter where I am, whether in a little room full of thought, or in this endless universe of stars and mountains, it’s all in my mind. There’s no need for solitude.”

Keats: “I can say that some part of me, now and forever, answers to the sounds of a train whistling lonely in the night, and to the deep tones of foghorns in the mist of the Northwestern coast. Some part of me is still a boy sweating at unloading watermelons from a truck in Portland; I am still shivering atop a cattle car in the winds driving through the snow-covered high passes. There is still in whoever I am the wink of campfires and the sight of drunken men jumping across a fire and someone hitting him with a railroad spike and him falling into the fire. I can still see the lights of San Francisco and of Alcatraz from Coit Tower, and the delicate faces of the Chinese girls that Louis found for us. I have a memory of walking the docks in the rain in Seattle, and of sleepless nights in the fumigated cost of flophouses run by the Gospel Mission; of the Western wastelands creeping past and a hawk swooping on a gopher. . . .”

I will end up reading this entire essay collection, and getting a ton of pleasure and wisdom from it. I’m particularly curious about an essay by one Joseph Wood Krutch titled, “Can We Survive the Fun Explosion?” I’m also eager to read “TV Shows Are Not Supposed to Be Good” by David Karp. I’m curious, too, why this book was published in the first place. Something tells me the very idea would be rejected out of hand today.

And I highly doubt there’s any way I could have come across this book on Amazon or ABE Books or anywhere else on the internet. The only way to come into contact with a forgotten gem like this is to run across it in a book shop.

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