This weekend is the big St Louis Book Fair, which I make a habit of attending at least one day of every year. It really started yesterday (Thursday), but that's mostly for the auction and for the Serious Pros, who pay their $10 ticket (the other days are free) and thereupon go absolutely nuts. The paper today showed several of them crowding out of the premises laden with their new purchases. Me, I go the second or third day, when it's far less insane, albeit more picked-over. Folks come from miles and miles.
(About the auction: I'd go, if they had something I'm collecting. They had a few kind of neat seventeenth-century items, but it was pretty uninspiring generally. )
It's amazing to walk around. It's half of one level of a major mall's parking garage, which means there's room for hundreds of tables, each with a layer of spine-up books in scores of categories. I always haunt the foreign-language, biography, history, humor, and game categories, myself. The biggest draws are childrens' books and mysteries. In all the sections, it's not uncommon to see people with one, sometimes two, shopping carts brimming over with books. It may be someone making an instant library, but there's a hard core out there who come to the Fair every year and buy every book in the place that they've heard of but don't recognize. Some hoard the books in their houses, rendered into caves with book stalagmites reaching for the ceiling, but others donate back almost as many books as they got the last year. They aren't all haggard-looking types with suspenders and long beards--although there are many of these, to be sure--but as often as not families buying anything and everything in sight. There's a large "overstock" section, with volunteers replenishing the tables as quick as they can, but still by Monday it's pretty bare.
Another "professional buyer" at the Fair is the person with the cell phone--or, increasingly, the walkie-talkie--communicating with folks far away, discussing the pros and cons of this or that book and overall buying strategy. "Magazines are all fifty cents, and they have some Architectural Digests. Ask Harry which ones he needs." "Which letters are we missing in the Sue Grafton collection?"
Me, I pick and choose. With very few books going for more than five bucks, and most just a dollar or two, the temptation certainly exists to pig out. I don't have much Dickens at all, I think to myself, but for a dollar apiece I could really get started on that. Oo! The complete works of Goethe, in German, for fifty-five bucks. That's only about a dollar a volume...A bag, for two bucks, of cheap postwar French paperbacks of French playwrights I don't really like...but it's two bucks! I still manage to restrain myself. I suspect, though, if it were games for a dollar or two I'd be one of the rugged guys with suspenders paying extra to get in the first night, walking out with two shopping carts full of crappy roll-and-move games from the seventies. OH MY GOD! It's The Spiro T Agnew American History Challenge! I have to have it!
(The sad thing is, I probably actually would buy the STAAHC if I found it somewhere.)
There were some oddities at the Fair. There was an entire 4' x 8' table packed with ancient reel-to-reel magnetic tape recordings of minor operas. There's an opera fanatic with a reel-to-reel player out there who's going to make an absolute killing. Darwin was in the Religion section, which I liked. There were, of course, many-many copies of the various Craze Books that have appeared over the years. If you need a copy of Cosmos, A Brief History of Time, or Angela's Ashes the Book Fair can help you out. I expect to see a dozen copies of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in a couple of years. (I counted twenty copies of Cosmos alone.)
The Fair gets all its books from donations, which means of course that most of the books are dross. Still, there are always a few surprises, and I never go home empty-handed. This year, I seemed to focus on Biographies About People Named "Johnson," picking up Means of Ascent, the second volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, and W. Jackson Bate's Samuel Johnson, which is of course a biography of the Great Cham of Literature himself, which I got because of the extremely high praise that Terry Teachout has heaped on it the past few days. Total cost for the two: Five bucks. Not too shabby.
I really enjoyed the third volume of Caro's biography, Master of the Senate. Maybe not the most scholarly of biographies, but it's well-written and Johnson and the Senate jump off the page. I still don't have Path to Power, which means, I suppose, that I'm reading about Johnson's life in reverse order...until the fourth volume comes out...so I'm going to have a reasonably jumbled appreciation of LBJ, but that's OK.
Terry Teachout's recommendation aside, I'm put on my guard by the description of Bate's Samuel Johnson as a "psychological biography." This has a bad tendency to mean we're going to be paging Dr. Freud early and often. Of course, Johnson himself was keenly aware of his "psychological issues," his melancholy and anxiety, and these played a vital role in his life. Still, I'm constitutionally wary of attempts to put the dead on a couch, particularly if that couch is in Vienna. If a discussion of Johnson's potty training regimen comes up, this book is going back on the shelf. Still, the early going has proved very good. Will report back.
Later that very day, I spent substantially more money on yet another biography, this one of Pal Benko, the Hungarian émigré-turned-American chess champion. Chess biographies, and chess history books generally, are my favorite chess books because I can generally tell what they're talking about. I'm fascinated by anybody who can manage to turn boardgaming into some sort of actual career, as you might imagine, and most of the books on the subject (with the notable exception of the great Word Freak) are about chess grandmasters.
This is a major book--almost certainly the thickest chess book to come down the pike in many a year except for an opening encyclopedia or something--and deserves a fuller treatment than I can give it right now...I'll have to do a "The Grandpatzer Reviews" feature or something for chess books.