This past weekend, I gathered up my courage and drove out to the Friends of Seattle Public Library book sale at Magnusun Park . I generally avoid crowded places (less out of any sort of phobia and more out of my general misanthropy), but how could I stay away from a giant plane hangar full of cheap books?
Some self-published authors seem to have unloaded great crates full of their perfect-bounds in order to write them off as tax deductions, and it also seems someone had the good sense to rid his library of a giant collection of schmaltzy Rod McKuen paperbacks. But there were some extremely good finds among all the jetsam: I scored the complete works of Anne Sexton, a Mary Jo Bang collection, several of Judy Grahn’s mid-career works, and 1960s manual for psychoanalysts detailing “the perverse neuroses,” all for just a few bucks.
I also came away with a strangle little volume, circa 1930, with the catchy title Essays For Discussion. It has a marvelously icky preface in which it describes the joys of “literature of a distinctive tang” as being tantamount to the enjoyment of “planked venison, chicken in aspic, and sparkling jellies.” Most of us, the editor claims, feast on mere “fiction with some solid merit,” which amounts, in the culinary conceit, to “the favorite meal of babyhood–milk and zwieback.” What a zinger.
So what’s the aspickey chicken? Apparently it’s a bunch of essays by Francis Bacon with a bit of Charles Lamb thrown about here and there (the meaty irony is not lost on we who eat zwieback). But what interests me about this group of essays is less the grand flesh consumption than the publication date. It’s the fact that, in the middle of the Great Depression, Harper thought it important to publish a bunch of obscure essays. For discussion. The literary world in this current recession has taken a hard hit. Weighing heavily on the minds of many poets and fiction writers this week is the fate of TriQuarterly, a stalwart in the furthering of American literature at its best for 45 years; the print journal was given an unceremonious ax this last week in a cost-cutting effort by Northwestern, which is turning the respected journal into a student-run online publication. What does it say about the progression American culture that, in the worst of times, we turned to good ol’ Francis Bacon and fed our intellects, and that in a sour-yet-far-less-dire time, we fund sports teams through our University systems while cutting literature off at the taproots?