Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Stalking - Berkeley, CA

Caffe Mediterraneum has become my haunt for books. Like the other dens of vice and criminal caffeination I've come to prefer, it follows the Italian school of bean slinging, though the majority of staff are South American, and doesn't scrimp on the extra F. Also, it's got a pretty good book exchange on the second floor, which has so far yielded two treasures.

Originally, I had thought to do a photo series of the libaries of the bay area, defining 'library' as any congregation of two or more books. But the cost of film is never going to go down, and I have on only one occasion in life been more broke. That puts book buying out of the budget for right now too. There had been a large box of books, prints, and my entire collection of negatives which had been shipped to my address, but through some deliberate negigence on account of my landlady ("I don't know what could have happened to it. It's been on the porch for four days.") they are now irrevocably lost and as consequence she can count on someday being fictitiously - and scathingly - memorialized in my writing.

This means I've have become a more voracious book stalker.

Book stalking is simple. To start out, you simply look for books. Usually this means in bookstores, the internet, municipal libraries, thrift stores, garage sales. For the more financially strapped, it means snatching books wherever they are up for grabs. Coffee shops, at friends' houses, recycling centers, church bins, sidewalks, bus stops. Places books have gone to rest till they can be trotted out again. This really isn't that hard either, though it does require some dedication. It is one of the best ways of getting to know a city. Once convinced of all the places books can be, you go out looking for them, and soon all the previously strange streets gain the sheen of familiarity as you browse them for that elusive title.

Which brings me to the second part, which is the harder one. You have to catch the book unawares. You can't be overly picky about what title you pick up. If you have it in your mind to find the first edition Alexie you will never find it. Or even second edition or older. Unless that is the strategy of deception, and you are using the name of a better known author to cloak interest in the lesser-known, and actually desired one. In which case, you might do very well to set Alexie as your goal if, say, looking for Zusak.

Then there is the third, and final, part of book stalking. I would offer that it is best to keep an open mind and willingness to say yes to a new book. However tempting it might be to type an author's name into Google, or ask a passerby what they know about the Joneses, or to ask what Penguin editors might think of it, just grab the book and go. Read a few pages here, some there, till you are ready to read it as the author intended. Then, and only after this decision to either accept or reject the book, should you do your research. This is a wonderful gamble. If you don't like it then there wasn't much investment. And if you do, you will feel particularly lucky, blessed, fated to have to met this book.

It helps in book stalking to have a fair belief in a concept of meant-to-be, or else chance. To acknowledge the many small, wonderful, and incalculable influences which have made us each who and as we are. Then, just before reading, to succumb however briefly to nostalgia, for the book which you hold has been held before, gazed upon, carried around, examined. Unless they are in imminent danger of destruction - refuse collection, perhaps, or too near a pyromaniac convention - one title alone will suffice. At the Mediterraneum, I believe the other titles will be safe for some time, for other book stalkers or else myself.

The last book I took from the Caffe is 'An Affair of the Heart' by Dilys Powell, published 1957. The cover is torn off, showing the naked title page. Written in tidy cursive is the name E. Colson - Lusaka - June 1963. I thought Lusaka to be a family name, or perhaps somewhere in Greece since the book is about the author's travels in that country. It wasn't until I had read 54 pages in that I thought to look it up and found that Lusaka is the capital city of Zambia. Furthermore, the edition I held was not available for commercial distribution in the United States. I have a fugitive book.

This is something that no electronic book can rival. The testament of paper pages. That E Colson had read from this book in far off Zambia and it had then made its way by hands and shelves to Berkeley, California where I found it at a cafe made it exceptionally valuable. For a used book has not just the value of the author's words, but the value of the reader's experience. I enjoy when I find a book another has written in, underlined different sections, left comments in the margin. Though this particular edition of 'An Affair of the Hear' has none of that.  But it still has the really good words of Miss Powell. Listen to this:

"In 1945 I knew what the capital had undergone since I last saw it. But I could not rid myself  of my romantic ideas. I still thought of Athens as a place of sun, friendly, elegant, cosmopolitan; a place of chattering cafes, small parties, and sophisitacted argument; a place to sit on a summer evening amidst the murmur of crowds and the glimmer of bright dresses..."

How Powell has described Athens, that has been my thought of San Francisco. And when I have thought of San Francisco, I have really, I admit, been thinking of Berkeley.  The right words always come at the right time. Maybe because we never remember the wrong ones.


  1. Love books....when i went to graduate school at FMC....reading books 12 hours a day was my passion....Henry Miller my find...'on turning eighty' my treasure....after grad school his life became a parrellel universe to mine, meeting his buddies and everyone with the name of miller it seemed...until i had a son named miller....looking for books is fun....but if i had it all over to do again...i think i'd skip education and reading books....face to face, heart to heart or nothing at all ...love your words....would prefer sitting down and treating you to another lunch or two....happy happy day

  2. The art of book scavenging is in danger of being lost. To say nothing of that of reading. But as long as there are writers....