Like the set from an old Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, my favorite old book store, Gutenberg’s Rare & Used Books, now gone, reposed obliquely and elegantly in downtown Rochester. A musty-royal air of elderly books drifted from the door, like incense.
Old books, like people, grow character with age. They have their own odors, and the more obtuse, the better. I once noticed, at some cocktail parties, that my knowledge of post-World War I field ordinance was embarrassingly shallow. That is, until I found at Gutenberg’s a copy of Leslie Edward Babcock’s 1925 Elements of Field Artillery, heavily highlighted in pencil, with one previous owner’s own cutaway drawing of an artillery shell’s anatomy on the flyleaf. I don’t believe I’ve seen that one at Barnes & Noble.
And under the counter, this gem: A meticulously-kept boxing scrapbook from the turn of the past century, recovered from a local estate. Most of the scrapbook concerned John L. Sullivan, but there was a precise, interesting story on the Bob Fitzsimmons victory over Gentleman Jim Corbett in their championship fight, re-typed from a story in the March 17, 1897 Democrat and Chronicle. The knockout punch, it reported, “landed just a little to the outside and under where the ribs curl away from the breastbone.”
And you never saw this kind of sportswriting coming out of a Mike Tyson fight: “Fitzsimmons is no beauty in make-up, but his great hairy chest and freckled arms and shoulders bespeak immense strength.”
Gutenberg’s was a warehouse of cheap detective novels. So I’m a Heel, by Mike Heller. “Why shouldn’t I be a wise guy in a world filled with suckers?” the cover warns. And John McPartland’s Danger For Breakfast and I’ll See You in Hell. I selected Let Them Eat Bullets, a 1954 novel by Howard Schoenfeld. It goes something like this:
“Mama’s drunk, she said, and she grinned. Then something cunning came into her eyes. “I’m twenty-two. Did you know I’m twenty-two?”
“Not in this state.” I looked warily around this room of hers in which there wasn’t a tack or a nail or an object of any kind that could be used as a weapon. But the bars had been torn from the window, and recently.
“Did you hurt him?” she asked. “The one you had the fight with?”
“I mangled him.”
She squealed with pleasure.
Questions and answers with Jeff
Q: Did you read anything today that you wish you had written?
A: Yeah. From Albert Zugsmith’s The Beat Generation, a 1959 paperback with a back-page blurb that promises “drugs, ‘way-out’ jazz, perverted sex, actual crime.” Mamie Van Doren and Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars were in the movie:
“Hold it! Everybody! Hold it! Stan rolled his eyes heavenward. “I’ve got a vision! We’re gonna have a real beat hootenanny,” he cried out, the sham ecstasy coloring his voice. “One that’s far out! A beat hootenanny to beat all beats! Give me that.” He took the guitar from the nearest hipster.”I’m going to lay it on you.”
“This is a real gone drag,” someone shrilled.
“This earth is nowhere, man!” Stan chanted, plucking at chords. “This earth is nowhere, man! Going to the moon, but not for a day. I’m going to the moon – and stay…!”
Q: You’re right, that was good. What’s the best first paragraph ever?
A: You mean, after “Call me Ishmael?” How about Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . .” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming, “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”