The Joy of Lex
The Hidden Treasures of Old Books
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 wordstheir 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
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
subjectBill Mason's wonderful Path of the Paddle, for
examplehave 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 thatnow and again, at
any rateI'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 crowdedso 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
- 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 bookthis 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
And for one the creak of snow-shoes on the crust;
And for one the lakeside lilies where the bull-moose waits the
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