Monday, 17 October 2011

American interlude

I've just read a book that I bought twenty-four years ago and had yet to read. I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel in my only new authors campaign, so rummaged through the boxes in the attic in search of something as yet unread that I could take on holiday with me. Why though do I have books that have sat so long unread? Why did I buy them in the first place if I did not have the urge to read them? I know that years ago, when I had few books, and probably more children's books than adult ones (though maybe that's still the case?) I bought books by the handful whenever I found them for good prices. In the days of the Net Book Agreement, this generally meant secondhand or from a remaindered bookshop, though I also picked up a fair few with my 33% discount in my student bookshop job. I was also, am also, addicted to souvenir book-buying, that is, buying things that are relevant to my travels, a book by a Canadian author when in Canada, Asterix in French when in France. The book I've just read, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon comes somewhere in between the avid cheap book collecting and the souvenir hunting. Let me tell you.

When I finished my degree in 1987, I went to Boston to work in the bookshop at the University of Massachusetts (UMASS). The bookshop set-up was unlike anything I'd ever come across. In a huge shop that resembled a supermarket more than a bookshop, textbooks and set books new and secondhand (used) were set out in vast piles in supermarket-type aisles, each pile labelled with the course it was meant for, with a label reading 'Biology 101', 'Poli Sci 201' and so on. There'd be crisp new copies but also piles of used ones, many times used, for the courses with lower numbers, the basic courses, because I think with most US university courses one is expected to take a number of different subjects just like at school to start with and then only specialise later. Students would then just head for the right piles of books and purchase the entire reading list. I suppose this is a perfectly sensible way of going about this, something to be emulated by Dillons and Foyles in London, but I found the whole thing staggeringly foreign. Along with the bunch of other UK staff, a couple of Germans and a handful of locals I was assigned to unpacking boxes, stacking and restacking shelves, and manning the tills. There was a peak of activity at the beginning of the term, then things eased off and the foreigners began began to leave. Except me. I'd managed to make myself invaluable to the undermanager and although my working visa had run out, I discovered that as long as one was in the process of appealing, one could carry on working. I wasn't planning to stay forever, but had nothing special to get back for. So I stayed another three months until Christmas, when a polite letter from US Immigation told me that I was not necessary to the country so would I please go away.

In the meantime I continued to work at the UMASS Bookstore, no longer stacking shelves so much, but generally on the phone to someone with an impenetrable accent proccessing returns. But I had plenty of time to look at the books still set out on the shelves (not everyone bought them all in the first weeks). Most fascinating I found the literature courses, full of authors I'd never heard of, or heard of but not actually come across, and grouped into courses in ways I didn't understand. I was intrigued by these connections and these books, so most weeks I'd buy one or two. I can't recall these connections any more, so I'm frustrated by not remembering what group of books The Crying of Lot 49 fitted into, particularly since it was so difficult and unsatisfying a read. It makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut, the fantastic looped into the mundane, following a path than makes less and less realistic sense, but with Vonnegut I follow wherever he leads and know where I am and where I've come from, whereas with this I was all at sea almost from the start. Oh well, so it goes. It's a pretty souvenir of an interesting time anyway. And rather extraordinary to pick up a book so yellowed at the edges and yet so stiffly new.