Over the past five years I’ve been amassing an eclectic collection of cheap used books on my trips to Bombay. At Rs.10 apiece (around $0.25 US) they aren’t expensive or significant (most of them are, in fact, the very opposite), but they are valuable to me, insomuch as they are weird — and I love weird. I have read very few of them; Of the hundreds (and by now, thousands), I have only finished a handful. There have been plans ever since I started blogging to talk about them, to read and review them, but this has so far not happened.
I was reminded of this recently when Dan blogged about his bookshelf, and in the comments I lamented that most of my books were in boxes (he suggested I just take a picture of the box). “That’s it,” I said to myself, “enough dawdling!” I looked through a small box of them and chose seven — none of which I have read — but which I think are interesting. Maybe this will give me the impetus to actually read some, but for now I will talk of their weird and wonderful subjects, their pretty and often breathtaking covers, and their all-round coolness. I hope you find them as fun as I do.
A Bit of Background
India has a huge English-speaking population, especially in the cities. In a culture that values education and knowledge as much as we do, it stands to reason that books and reading are still a significant part of life (at least among the urban middle class). So nothing is thrown away, old books move from private collections into small neighbourhood libraries where they get read by thousands of people over dozens of years, and eventually when they’re tattered and worn, or riddled with worm holes, they end up in raddi.
‘Raddi’ literally means ‘scrap’ and raddi merchants deal in paper and other valuable things like copper and metals. They buy in bulk by weight, and pick and sort things by hand into various piles in their usually hole-in-the-wall shops. The loose paper ends up in things like newsprint, and single-side printed matter is cut and bound into cheap notepads, while some of it even ends up as sandwich wrapping from roadside vendors. It’s a fun game to read the scrap on which you get your sandwich; usually it’s some kind of internal documents from companies — memos and letters and photocopied invoices — and sometimes it’s even old school textbooks (which are crap anyway, so no big loss).
The books, however, are kept aside and resold. In raddi shops the price is not fixed and is negotiable; you choose a book, ask the vendor how much he wants for it; he inspects it and quotes something ridiculous (5-10 times what it’s worth) and then you haggle. In South Bombay where time is money and people just want to get from their office to the train station and vice-versa, things are a little more advanced, and in addition to the stack of negotiable old tomes, there will usually be a display of fixed price 10 Rupee books.
Remember, these people buy by weight, not title (and most of the hawkers don’t know English, but can read the words), so it’s quite common to find something you might pay a hundred rupees for just sitting in that pile because it’s too worn or the cover/author’s name is uninteresting. Many bargains are to be found. And below are just seven:
(Oh, and you can click on the front covers for larger versions)
1. Envoy to New Worlds/Flight From Yesterday
Our first book is even greater value for money than the others, because it’s actually two books. Published by Ace Books’ ‘Ace Double’ imprint, this is two novels for the price of one. When you get to the end of one, just flip it over and continue reading! It’s a gorgeous format from a design point of view alone, and there were hundreds of these, including this which was published in 1963.
Of the two tales, Keith Laumer’s Envoy to New Worlds is significant because it marks the first appearance (in a novel) of Jame Retief, ‘The Machiavelli of Cosmic Diplomacy’ as it states on the cover. He’s apparently an intergalactic diplomat, a role modeled somewhat after the experiences of his author in the United States Foreign Service. Retief would go on to star in upwards of sixteen books. The absence of a back cover summary prevents me from making any guesses as to the plot of this first adventure (I’m guessing there will be diplomacy), but any cover that depicts a man who has descended from a ladder with a cape, a gun, and a cummerbund, has piqued my interest.
On the flip side (haw haw), the slightly less well-known Robert Moore Williams (his name is so plain he couldn’t have made it up) gives us Flight From Yesterday. ‘Yesterday in America, tomorrow in Atlantis’ the cover blurb reads. Surely, hey must be talking about lost airport luggage. No? Oh well. Keith Ard (‘es well ‘ard, I hope) is an unemployed test pilot who answers a mysterious classified ad and apparently meets up with vanishing men in togas (or is it vanishing togas?) and girls with literally flaming hair. If this is any kind of good SF, the man with the vanishing toga teaches him stuff, and he gets off with the truly hot hottie. If this is progressive SF, then the roles of the man and the girl are switched. Either way, Keith Ard!
The cover reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth movie, which is one of the reasons this book caught my eye. Sadly, no artists are credited on either of the covers. The books themselves are slim (Flight From Yesterday is 120 small pages, 11 pages longer than its ‘book-mate’) and both have a certain charming brevity to the narrative. For instance:
“How’d you get this, Keith?” he asked.
“I was struck in the back by something that felt like a hot wind made in part of living electricity,” Keith said.
Dr. Riker made no comment.
I love old SF.
2. Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles
To say that author Lucy Kavaler’s work is eclectic would be an understatement. Anybody who writes books called The Private World of High Society, The Artificial World Around Us and The Wonders of Algae deserves to be taken seriously, and by all accounts, Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles is a very well received and regarded book. It covers everything from fungi as miracle foods and medicines to yes, even hallucinogens and extra terrestrial speculations. The writing style is a perfect mix of conversational and academic; not shying away from big words when it needs to, but eschewing them when something simpler will suffice.
If it still aren’t convinced, here’s the first section of the back cover copy:
Martinis and the secret of heredity, Penicillin and The Angel of Death, Truffles and L.S.D., the Irish Potato Famine and the Fall of the Roman Empire, Astronauts, Gourmets, Scientists, and Indian Medicine Men…
What does this wildly assorted list have in common? The answer is Fungi.
How could I not pick this book up?
3. A Dictionary of Geography
All this talk of mushrooms should get you in the mood for the great outdoors, yearning to fulfill that romantic ideal of going out into the nearest wood and poking around under a rotting tree bark. It might help, therefore, to have a handy guide to tell you the difference between a gryke and a gulch; to be able to properly interpret the hachures on your map and to watch out for precarious talus.
All these and more things can be found in the Revised an Enlarged edition of Penguin’s A Dictionary of Geography by W.H. Moore. This surprisingly weighty paperback does exactly what it says on the cover, and even has a bunch of pretty black and white pictures in the middle. It’s fun enough if you are a closet geography nerd like me, but is also useful as an idea mine (there are several terms I’m going to steal for story titles already). We’ve all been at a dinner party where we’ve needed to know the difference between a Mercator’s Projection and a Sanson-Flamsteed Sinusoidal one, haven’t we? Well now we can be ignorant no longer.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the top of that there drumlin to see if I can spot that dingle I’ve been trying to find all day.
4. Our Language
Big words scare people. It’s the truth. But big words needn’t scare you any more after you’ve read (Prof.) Simeon Potter’s Our Language. The beautiful Romek Marber cover was enough to convince me to buy this book long before I opened it. Its ambition of telling the history, structure, dialectic branches, trends and future of the English Language (also known as ‘Merican’), and that too in only 200 pages, sealed the deal.
This is the kind of book that publishers seemed to just pop out on a lark back in the 1950s and 60s, and is now unjustly forgotten. They do not make them like this anymore. Here’s something that doesn’t claim to have the answer to everything, is not a trendy pop-culture phenomenon, the latest gee-whiz-ain’t-it-spiffy nonfiction breeze that gets blogged to death and launches a thousand speaking tours (even though I greatly respect and love things like Tipping Point and Freakonomics). It’s just a simple, well-researched, intelligent account of a subject, and we’re all busy reading about Britney’s navel grit.
Shame on you, human race.
5. Teen-Age Vice/Designs in Scarlet
Oh, where do I begin? This 1939 (but 1957 edition) book is so deliciously cheesy. Told in a Bob-Woodward-channeling-Raymond-Chandler style, only bad, it apparently took Cooper eighteen months of “relentless, coast-to-coast personal investigation to ferret out the facts. If you are shocked by what he found, remember — he meant you to be.”(!) — this from the inside flap.
The entire book is like this. I should probably point out here that the author started his career as a clown, and at the time of his suicide in 1940 was the chief publicist for a circus. Of course, nothing I could say about this book could match the back cover copy, so I’ll just let it do the talking:
What makes them do it?
Who is to blame?
They hold orgies in cellar clubs, go on juke-joint “honeymoons.” They get hopped up on liquor and dope, then rob and rape and murder. They are the young people under 21 who commit more than half the major crimes in the U.S.A.
Inspired by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Courtney Ryley Cooper gives you the grim and tragic answers in this brilliant and blistering exposé of TEEN-AGE VICE.
…To paraphrase Renée Zellwegger, “You had me at ‘Hoover.'”
6. Cool Kids with Hot Ideas
Likewise, this book had me the second I saw its cover. No, I’m not just talking about the naked girl on the bike (although it is a well-posed photo, and she isn’t bad either). The cover design is remarkable, though entirely uncredited (and in a rare instance, they paid attention to the back too. Cover, that is). I routinely pick up books I have no interest in if the cover is particularly good. Being a graphic designer (with the emphasis on graphic), strong stark covers like these have always appealed to me over today’s wispy, layered and overworked Photoshop monstrosities.
The text itself is a lot less sensationalist than the cover would have you believe; certainly, it’s not as SHOCKING(!) as Teen-Age Vice. A compilation of articles, Cool Girls… may have lost its edge when viewed from our media-saturated times. Perhaps, in 1968, this boook chronicled the kind of shocking behaviour people associated with fringe sorts like hippies and beatniks, not ordinary teenage daughters. Most stories deal with unplanned pregnancies, unwed mothers, and illegal abortions (remember, Roe Vs Wade only happened in 1973). The others deal with drugs and teenage prostitution, and none of them are made to look sexy.
It’s interesting that a book with such an unabashedly titillating cover disguises what is fairly straightforward, even depressing, content. I could go on and on about how news has always been latently pornographic, but that’s another story. This book is the perfect example of ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover.’
But what a cover.
7. How to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home
Well, sure, I’d love to, and if you do want to chuck it all and move to the farthest wood, it would be a good idea to have some place to live when you go there. The first thing that strikes you about this Popular Science Skill Book (other than the splendid Bauhaus cover by Frederick Charles) is the little note on the inside that says it’s printed on 100% recycled paper. Somehow I never imagined that people highlighted that fact before the 1980s.
This is an honest to goodness 160 page attempt to teach you how to build a cabin. It’s pretty successful too, and I have little doubt that a person of average intelligence might actually end up with a functioning home in the woods if he used it as a rough guide. The genius of the book lays in the fact that it doesn’t just show you ‘four methods of supporting rafters on top plates in gable-roof construction’, but also covers things like ‘how to develop a spring’ (as a reliable water source), how to choose a site for your home in the hills, and an overview of the tools you might use (of chainsaws it says: “Gas-powered chainsaw speeds log-cabin building. It is strictly for outdoor use.“).
My favourite part has to be an early chapter showcasing classic and avant-garde cabin designs to inspire you. I have half a mind to buy a plot of land and try one out, but I think I’ll start in miniature with ice-cream sticks. The fun doesn’t stop there, though; the back cover gives the names of several related titles, including How to Work with Concrete and Masonry (for my closet brutalist, of course) and How to Build Your Own Furniture (I’m also vaguely intrigued by How to Do Your Own Wood Finishing by Jackson Hand, but only so that I can giggle like a schoolboy).
How to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home is strange; it’s set up almost exactly like every book on drawing I have ever seen or purchased, only at the end of it you get a house. How cool is that?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short trip through a little corner of my book collection. Even though I didn’t look through the majority of them, there were enough good ones that I was spoilt for choice, and could even group them by theme. This first one was a pick-and-mix of strangeness to whet the appetite, an amuse-bouche for your bibiomaniacal palette.