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The Joy of Lex

The Hidden Treasures of Old Books

By Tamia Nelson

A Note to the Reader

Tamia and Farwell are cleaning up from the after-effects of a winter storm. Don't worry, though. If you've been following "Trip of a Lifetime," Ed and Brenna will be back next week. In the meantime, Tamia takes you on a trip through her library, and talks about the treasures that can often be found on the shelves of used-book sellers.

February 13, 2001

I confess. I've got a weakness for bad puns. The "Lex" in the title of this column is short for "lexicology." Properly defined, lexicology is the study of words—their history, form and meaning. Here, however, I'm using it figuratively, to mean words as units of thought, collected together in those wonderfully portable data-storage devices we call "books."

Even the most active paddler can't paddle every hour of every day. The demands of work aside, there will be days when paddling is out of the question. In northern New York, these days add up to nearly half the year, from late November to mid-April. I call these the "hard-water" months.

OK. What's a paddler to do to occupy herself during the season of hard water, to say nothing of all those days when family obligations or other demands keep her ashore? There are many answers to this question, of course. You can snowshoe or ski. Or take up ice-boating, perhaps. Ice-boats are fast and elegant, and they make good use of all that hard water locking up your favorite paddling lakes in January. You'll have to learn to sail first, though, and you'd better have good health insurance. When an ice boat "capsizes" at 30+ miles per hour, it dumps you out onto a surface that's not exactly warm and welcoming.

Call me a coward. I don't have an ice-boat, though I do own snowshoes and cross-country skis. My hands-down favorite pastime for the winter months, however, is reading. Indeed, it's my favorite pastime for any time of year when I can't be canoeing. (Hold on a minute. Make that one of my favorite pastimes. There are other ways to fill long winter nights, after all.)

If you paddle, and if you like to read as much as I do, there's a lot out there for you. Every time I go into a bookstore, I'm amazed at the number of new paddling titles, each glossier and more colorful than the last. Books that I thought were the final word on their subject—Bill Mason's wonderful Path of the Paddle, for example—have already become slightly old-fogyish "classics," even in their new, revised editions. This shouldn't surprise me, I suppose. In my own small way, I'm in the business myself, churning out words about paddling and paddlesport and hoping that—now and again, at any rate—I'll write something truly new and really worth reading. We paddlers float on a sea of words, it seems.

Still, the continuous outpourings of the publishing industry shouldn't fool us. People have been paddling canoes and kayaks for the fun of it for nearly a century and a half. They've written a great many books in the process. And the newest books aren't necessarily the best. Perhaps for that reason, I find that I'm buying fewer and fewer new books. In part, this is simple common sense. If you're not a competitive paddler, and if you don't mind getting out and walking when the river you're running moves up into Class IV, then you really don't need to follow all the latest fashions in technique. I've got Path of the Paddle. I'll probably never need to buy another how-to book in my life.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the folks chasing the cutting edge of paddlesport. It's different strokes for different folks, right? I'd rather eat my lunch alongside a waterfall than run it, that's all. Wave to me as you go over.

A funny thing's happening, though. I'm buying fewer new books, but my book-shelves are getting more and more crowded—so crowded, in fact, that hardly a month goes by when I don't clear some off in order to make room for more. What's happening here? I'm sure you've already guessed. I may not be picking up too many modern paddlesport best-sellers, but I'm buying more old books.

"Old books"? That doesn't sound very sexy does it? Images of the dark, neglected corners of large public libraries come to mind. Mildew, torn photo-plates, and blobs of stale chewing gum stuck between the pages. Well, sometimes you get all three in one volume, but most old books are in surprisingly good condition.

And where do I buy these old books? Just about anywhere, in fact. If you live in New York City, Ottawa, or Seattle, you don't have to ask. And even if you live back of beyond, you may be surprised at what you'll find close to home. In all the years Farwell and I've been driving around with boats on our truck, we've kept a weather eye open for signs saying something like "10,000 Used Books For Sale." We find these signs almost everywhere, even in the smallest hamlets and most out-of-the way places. There are three used-book sellers within twelve miles of our cabin on the 'Flow, in fact, and you can't get much more back of beyond than we are.

All right, then. You've tracked down a used-book store. What are you likely to find on the shelves? Almost anything, as it happens. Will it cost a fortune? Not necessarily. Here's a small sample of books taken from my own library. All were bought used. Each cost less than $10. And every one is priceless.

  • A pocket-sized hardcover edition of the The New Oxford Book of English Verse, chosen and edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, better know by his minimalist pen-name, "Q." This little book was in perfect condition when I got it, more than twenty years ago. Now the cover's almost torn off, most of the pages are water-stained, and my favorite poems are marked by the bodies of smashed black-flies. I wouldn't part with it for the world, though. It's been both a comfort and a joy to me in river and mountain camps throughout the continent.

  • Henry Hill Collins' Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife. I used to take a whole library of field-guides with me on trips. Now I take only one book—this one. The color plates are muddy and the paintings are tiny, but I can live with that. When I've got Collins in my pack, I've got a guide to every bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and freshwater fish in eastern and central North America —and to a fair number of seashells and marine invertebrates, as well. That's not bad for a book no bigger than some paperback novels! There's more, too. Collins was a biologist with a difference. Nearly every entry concludes with a personal note, a quotation from some natural history classic, or a stanza from a poem. Here's how Collins ends his entry on the moose:

    So for one the wet sail arching through the rainbow round the bow,
       And for one the creak of snow-shoes on the crust;
    And for one the lakeside lilies where the bull-moose waits the cow,
       And for one the mule-train coughing in the dust.

    Kipling isn't very fashionable these days, of course, but he still has the power to make words sing. Collins recognized that.

  • Company of Adventurers, Peter C. Newman's three-volume history of the Hudson's Bay Company. If you want to understand the role that the beaver and the canoe played in North American history, you have to know something about the story of the "Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson's Bay." Newman's books are well-researched, readable, and humane. They're the best guide to the Company's "vanished empire" I've seen, and they're proof positive that history doesn't have to be dull.

  • Calvin Rutstrum's Way of the Wilderness. Long before Bill Mason, long before James West Davidson and John Rugge, there was Rutstrum. You can probably find a copy of his The New Way of the Wilderness in every used-book store in America. My copy is a rare fabric softcover from the privately-printed first edition. It's fascinating. And it's still useful. If it were the only how-to-canoe book in my library, I'd probably get along just fine, though I'd certainly miss Mason's wonderful photos and Davidson's and Rugge's supple, energetic prose.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. New books are great. I hope to be adding to the flood of titles in the not too distant future myself. But old books can be every bit as good. Sometimes they're even better. So the next time you're driving back home from a day-trip on a river, and you see a sign saying "10,000 Used Books For Sale," why not stop and take a look? I can almost guarantee that you'll be glad you did.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.










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