There’s Nothing Like a Cheap Paperback …

I believe a cheap paperback of great literature dresses up a book shelf better than overpriced hardcovers and oversized trade paperbacks… I mean just those small ones that fit right in the back of your pocket like it was always meant to be there. There’s plenty I found through my years bought for a nickel or a quarter, or maybe I stole from some flea market table where I didn’t have the dime or quarter, but the title or author drew me to such extremities. I feel guilty about that…

There’s a whole line of Faulkner paperbacks I have with split black spines and mysterious photos of a vanished America that retains the hate and desperation of its people in the American south, of fronds of Spanish Moss and blood soaking in puddles within a rutted wagon wheel path. All the Snopes and Compsons in the world took up a couple of feet on the bookshelf near The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Women In Love.

I have a really aged copy of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans sent to me from Terry Malick. He said he had it as a boy when he worked on a farm where he drove a tractor to harvest wheat. He kept it in the glove box. He told me one December evening in Austin that he “wanted to look cool,” but he never really understood the book at all. A few months back he mailed it to me with a neat inscription.

Cheap dirty paperbacks, the pages pungent of must and experience. If we could lift the prints from the cover, how many murderers and saints have clutched these titles in a search for redemption and resolution?

Maxwell Bodenheim was murdered clutching a copy of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, and as he laid there in the Bowery cold water flat, the blood sea of his heart pumped out his life essence to stain his Arrow collar shirt.

Once I rode a trolley to Tijuana from San Diego holding a thick paperback of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I never have been able to read it the same way again, with the lift of spring flowers wafting through the air imagining the Salinas Valley.

Right here with me is a Vintage paperback of Faulkner’s Flags In the Dust with its front cover photo of a dilapidated home and Weeping Lilac Tree and I remember reading it, the first time reading Faulkner, and being entranced with the language (and this was not even vintage Faulkner in his prime!):

“They drank again. It was high ere, and the air moved with gray coolness. On either hand lay a valley filled with shadow and with ceaseless whip-poor-wills; beyond these valleys the silver earth rolled on into the sky. Across it, sourceless and mournful and far, a dog howled. Before them the lights on the courthouse clock were steadfast and yellow and unwinking in the dissolving distance, but in all other directions the world rolled away in slumbrous ridges, milkily opaline.”

These words turned me on to Faulkner, and at the time, I think it was a little bookstore in a Massachusetts mall, there was a shelf of them, all Vintage books, each equally enigmatic. Light In August had its cover of a window shade with the mysterious yellow light tinging it, and The Sound and the Fury had its little country cemetery awash in sunset blood red sky.

Pocket paperbacks: a dishwasher in Detroit washing pans with a volume of Stephen King jammed in his back pocket; a socialite reading Lolita in the back of a limousine; an old man reading Beckett on a park bench; a sailor reading Jack London’s Call of the Wild; a bored teen reading Naked Lunch. I would defer to a quality paperback of Ulysses over a grand Folio edition. In between its beat-up pulpy pages, a secret pulses like a buried ember in its bed of ashes, waiting to spark into full flame.

As a kid, we went to flea markets spread out over the lot of a drive-in theater, and there was table after table of people with books, many of them remaindered. We knew they were remaindered because they tore the front cover off, thus stripping the book of its character. Dirt cheap, then, wasn’t always better. I was weaned from young adult fiction to Stephen King back then. I distinctly remember finding an almost-newish copy of the Signet edition of Salems Lot with its slick black embossed vampire girl with that one crimson drop of blood seeping out of the corner of her mouth and no title on the cover. A collectible now, it was commonplace then … and I could never pick up the novel again, because that edition kept with it the entire mystique of the little village taken over by everyday vampires. Who could ever forget floating Danny Click in that book?

I’m not one for memory lane type of blogging, but picking up this copy of Carl Jung’s edited collection Man and His Symbols published by Dell flooded me with memories.

What’s your favorite pocket paperback book?


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