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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, April 24, 2004

Books About Books: It's Quite a Collection, Indeed

In 1968, I was a college student visiting New York City, and had the opportunity to prowl the used bookstores on Fourth Avenue. I would eye their crusty proprietors uneasily as I burrowed among the books piled in corners, on shelves and under tables.

I did not know that these shops were the last struggling survivors of a once-flourishing Fourth Avenue book row in existence since the turn of the century. By 1968, rents had become prohibitively steep, and stores were closing or moving .No longer would America have the equivalent of London's Charing Cross Road or Paris' book stalls on its Left Bank.

Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Marvin Mondlin & Roy Meador (Carroll & Graf, 2004).

Co-author Mondlin is a long-time employee of the still-surviving used book megastore the Strand, and Meador is a book man with the heart of a Christopher Morley or Lawrence Clark Powell.

Book lovers know Morley as the author of the fictional adventures of bookshop owner Roger Mifflin in the books The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels.

Powell was a librarian who wrote books filled with the same book-loving spirit. Unfortunately, his books, such as Books in My Baggage, are out of print and no longer in the library's collection. I intend to find copies online.

It is, in many ways, unfortunate that the Internet has replaced most of the old bookshops of the past.

The convenience of online shopping fails to compensate for the thrill of the serendipitous discovery of just the book you were looking for and didn't even know it.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles (6 unabridged compact discs, Books on Tape, 2003 or Norton, 2003).

Harvard graduate and Harvard librarian Battles' take on library history is "unquiet" because he focuses on the destruction of libraries by the Romans, the Chinese, the Turks, Hitler, and the Serbs.

Battles is an elegant and erudite spokesman for the profession of librarianship.

A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World by Nicholas A. Basbanes (Harper Collins, 2003).

Basbanes' latest work completes his trilogy that began in 1995 with A Gentle Madness and continued in 2001 with Patience and Fortitude.

He, too, is concerned about the destruction of libraries, especially by librarians themselves.

He laments the fact that old and rare books are being withdrawn from public libraries.

There are good reasons for this. The books may be falling apart or not being checked out very often.

Yet somehow, these valuable books should be saved from destruction.

Firebrand: The Life of Horace Liveright, the Man Who Changed American Publishing by Tom Dardis (Random House, 1995).

No one has ever checked this book out of the library, but someone should.

Liveright was the publisher of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Theodore Dreiser's novels after the scandal of Sister Carrie, and the originator of The Modern Library imprint.

His heyday was during the Roaring '20s, and he drank and gambled with the best of them. All the great writers of the period cross these pages.

The Bookman's Prom-ise by John Dunning (Scribner, 2004).

Dunning's third mystery, featuring bookseller and ex-cop Cliff Janeway, centers on a collection of books by 19th-century British explorer Robert Burton.

Janeway is no shrinking bookworm, and if you enjoy the Spenser stories of Robert B. Parker, you will like Janeway.

Like me, you may find yourself checking out a biography of Sir Rich-ard Burton, too, because a good book is a link in a chain that never ends.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.