October 27, 2021

Once a bibliophile, always…

By John Guy LaPlante

Here are the eight I happily took home.. Quite varied as you see. Not a novel among them. And not a big haul after spending an hour and a half at the sale. But what fun I had!

… Yes, always a bibliophile. That’s me. I love books!

Hey, if you enjoy reading blogs like this, that may well be you, too.

So no wonder I went to last week’s book sale at our Morro Bay Public Library. It’s a great sale, staged by the Friends of the Library. In fact, I scribbled in its date on my calendar six weeks ago the minute I heard it was coming up.

This sale pops up three times a year. Yes, every four months, which is unusual.  Public library book sales are common across the country. Wherever I was living I was a regular. But they’re annual sales … semi-annual in a few.

But three a year! Gosh, the sales require such enormous work by the Friends. They’re all volunteers … don’t get a penny … are rewarded only by the flush of feeling good for doing it for the community. And the applaud of the library staffers, of course.

Enormous work to gather the books and CDs and DVDs and audio books. Get the word out.  Stage it….you know, set up

Of course I’m smiling. So happy to pedal home with my finds. Just $8. Yes, 13 pounds of fine reading for $8! We all love a bargain, don’t we?!

dozens of tables, arrange the books according to novels and health and gardening and fine arts and home maintenance and poetry and other genres.

Manage the lines of customers pressing to get in. Collect the money for their purchases. Replenish the tables as the day goes on, then pack up and store the left-overs.  And soon afterward, start to prepare the next one.

Now a strange thing. Think about it. I go to the library every day of the five it is open, which is Tuesday through Saturday. It has thousands of books.  And rarely do I borrow a book to read at home. How come? I go to read its fine selection of daily newspapers plus a dozen magazines I favor.

I said a strange thing. Yes, because I never call it a day without a book in my hands. I pick one up from a shelf by my bed, settle my head on my pillow, and begin reading. Maybe for just 10 minutes. Maybe an hour. Then turn off the light.

But all are books that I’ve bought! Why don’t I just borrow books from the library? So go ahead — psych me.  I welcome your diagnosis.

Well, the sale starts at 9 on the dot. I was in line 10 minutes early. I was the sixth in line. In a minute the seventh arrived. Within five minutes the line went out the door.

Here’s how the sale works. From 9 or 10 it’s for members only. You become a member by paying $10 dues per year. What a bargain. And you get the best choice. From 10 to 11 it’s for the public…meaning those willing to pay the books’ posted prices, which for most is $1 apiece. Then from 1 to closing, it’s the $3 bag sale. Each customer is handed a standard supermarket paper bag. Jam it with as many books as you can—even disks and audio books– and you can take them home for $3!

Isn’t this the modus operandi you’re familiar with at your library?

Speaking of money, I looked up the Friends’ report for their previous sale. It had netted $3,000! That suggests the take for three sales per year would be $9,000 or so. Wow! Now play with the arithmetic. If every book brought $1 that would mean 9,000 got sold. But the real number is much more than that because of the $3 bags chuck full.

For the sale, the Friends need every square foot of floor space they can scrape up. The sale spreads through the library, right into the community room, even into the children’s wing, even into the walled garden out in front off the street.

That’s possible here where decades go by without snow or ice and where we’re blessed with lots of sunshine. But rain now and then of course, which we’re grateful for to keep things nice and green. So the Friends pray for sunshine on sale days. Which we got this time.

I’ve had a lot of practice in getting the max at these sales.  So there are certain categories of books that I totally skip. One is novels. In my old age, I find that non-fiction is more interesting than fiction. That’s strange, too, because when very young I skipped non-fiction in favor of fiction.

Hey, the very first books I read were novels.  When I was a freshman in high school back in Massachusetts, I ran across novels by Joseph C. Lincoln. You never heard of him, I’ll bet. Must have read six or eight.

They were all about Cape Cod and Cape Codders and their life as such. Cape Cod is in Massachusetts in case you don’t know.  Joseph Lincoln wrote delightful, wholesome, funny novels. I delighted in every one I could find. Google him. You’ll enjoy reading about him.

Another author I loved was Horatio Alger.  Remember him? All novels about boys — newspaper boys, farm boys — who seemed destined for a mediocre future. But who by dint of hard work and pluck, and often a kind benefactor, made great successes of themselves.  Inspiring stories for a young teen-ager.

Oh, know what? When a few years later I was a junior in college, I got the notion I’d like to be a writer someday and began writing fictional short stories. Always sending them off to the great, big, wonderful Saturday Evening Post, which my mother loved and I got to love.

Every time I put one in the mail, three or four weeks later –it was a long wait and I watched for the mail every day — I got a letter back from the Post. How exciting! But always a reception slip. Of course. Sob! If somebody more experienced had only told me to start off by mailing to a small, modest magazine, my getting published would have stood a better chance.

I got discouraged and quit—so you see I didn’t turn out to be a Horatio Alger boy.

So at this book sale, as I said, I was very selective.  I didn’t buy a thing from tables which at different times would have been an avid interest ….woodworking and home construction…sailing…photography…buying and selling real estate for profit….running a business….advice on getting ahead….still others.

Those are no longer a prime interest.  I do admit I scanned books in some of those categories out of curiosity…saw some I had actually read.

Just roaming the sale was a great pleasure.  I found a set of books that was marvelous  — some 10 volumes by Mark Twain — for a mere $10. His whole life’s output.  What a talent! What a prodigious worker!

I ran across another set of volumes…“The Story of Civilization,” By Will Durant and his wife and co-worker Ariel. Huge volumes… the 11 of them … their life’s work.  What an incredible and magnificent and prodigious achievement! I would have been hard put to pick up the set.  On sale again for peanuts.

I did wonder who, yes, who, would take home this treasure?  For sure a very interesting person in his / her own right. With lots of reading time!

Also I spotted 15 books or so in the Time-Life Book of the Year series.  One published each year, a fascinating retelling of the good, bad, interesting things that took place. Some years were missing.  But I spotted 1929. I was born in 1929. I glanced through it. Fascinating. But my birth was not mentioned. Shucks!

This is a good moment to tell you that I went many years without ever running into a real, live author.  What a great pleasure that would have been. Because I felt awed that somebody could do this, actually write a book.

In fact, I have a vivid memory of the first I got to meet.  It was Elliot Paul, who had become famous for his “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I had read the book. He was very old, broke as I remember it, tired and ill and lonely in a nursing home in Providence, R.I. I had grown up in the Providence area and had been a grad student at Brown University there. I was now a feature writer for the magazine of the Worcester (Mass.) Sunday Telegram. Somehow I heard of Elliot Paul going through that.

I drove to Providence and managed to meet Mr. Paul and sit with him and chat. He understood I was going to profile him in an article. He welcomed it. At one point I asked him, “Who is the most important author of your time, sir?” Without blinking, he said, “I am!” How about that?!

Being in our Morro Bay Library with its many books, and at this sale with many more on display, was a dramatic reminder of the legions of men and women who toil at writing books for a living.  There are thousands and thousands.  And I am a modest one. I have three books on the shelves here.

To me it’s also a reminder of how much work goes into writing a significant book.  In my case, I’ve told people. “I’ve built a house. Writing a book is just as much work as building a house!” I’ve never said it but my Peace Corps book was the work of building two houses!

Oh, this was interesting — I came across a professional book buyer at work. Well, that’s what I call these people. I’ve spotted them before. They have a smart phone with an amazing app (?) on it.  They pick up a promising book, snap a picture (?) of it, and methinks get data telling them whether it’s a good buy for eventual resale. If so, they add it to their box. Nothing wrong with that, I’m sure. It’s just another example of American free enterprise. Have you seen buyers like this at work?

Well, I walked out with a mere 8 books.  All looked new. One had an inscription, ”Merry Christmas, Charlie!”  I weighed them. They totaled a wee bit more than 13 pounds. For a mere $8. I estimated their original price had been about $115.  I’ve taken a picture of the eight. I have no problem with your seeing what I chose.

My priorities these days are: interesting topics, of course. On practical subjects.  But all with chapters that stand by themselves, if that makes sense to you. Rarely a book that merits reading from beginning to end. I’m not up to reading a 350-page book anymore.  If I do, I’ll read the juicy parts.

I do admit that I buy books for the mere pleasure of owning them. I want to own them! I want…I must…own them because they mean so much to me.

An example is “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, published in 1719!  Imagine the millions who have read it! Yes, a novel. I’ll bet you’re familiar with it. I read it in my late teens. It had a life-changing impact. A sailor marooned on a small island in the tropics…the sole survivor of a shipwreck…all alone for years on this island…who by resourcefulness and hard work makes a satisfying life for himself

Eventually met another man on the island, a black man, Friday, called that because Robinson met him on a Friday. Made Friday his devoted servant, and though he didn’t know a word of English, even managed to teach him to read. Happy ending, too. Rescue!

Easy to explain why that ancient masterpiece affected me so greatly. Robinson could have curled up and starved and died. By sheer determination and talent, he thrived and found fulfillment.

So, as you see, I had great fun at the sale. The next one will be Saturday, May 19. I’ll be there.

I finished the hard part three days ago.  My bookshelves were full. Had to make room for my new ones. Of course each of the old ones excited me when I bought it. So which to discard required lots of thought.

Now another thought. All those people who went home with $3 bags full of books — how will they ever get to read them all?

There’s only one conclusion. They’re bibliophiles, too. As I am. And as you are if you’ve read all 2,063 words I’ve put down here!

~ ~ ~ ~

As always, I welcome your comments. I read them all and appreciate them.  I delight in their variety. Writers write to be read, of course. In my case now, there’s not a penny in this. Your c0mments are my only payback.

 

A famous, controversial book. Only $2!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 1 photo

(Warning! This contains dirty words.  Words I’ve never used in print before. Words I’ve never, never used in my speaking.  You may blush. Feel  free to opt out.)

Morro Bay, Calif. –I’m in our Public Library and I spot it on special display. Wow! I go right to it for a good look.

Like all libraries, ours has a section with used books for sale. Most go for $1.But this one is twice that much. Yes, $2. Because it’s such a hefty book, I’ll bet.

It’s the Merriam-Webster Third New International, published in 1961. Merriam-Webster is our biggest and most well-known dictionary publisher to this day.

Head librarian Mary with the great big Merriam-Webster “Third New” and the book about that red-hot edition of the dictionary by David Skinner. The little circle at top right says $2.

I know a lot about this dictionary. It is the granddaddy of edition after edition of dictionaries that Merriam-Webster puts out.  Smaller versions, abridged so-called, like my M-W Collegiate, enormously popular. I keep one by my lounge chair. Another by the computer I do all my writing at.

The Third New, as it has come to be called, was greeted with lot of kudos and acclaims, but also with loud complaints and denunciations. National newspapers, influential magazines, prestigious publishing houses, prominent intellectuals weighed in on it.

I witnessed all that.  After reading much about it, I myself approved the Third New. And know what? I got involved as a journalist, and quite an experience it turned out to be. It’s  still vivid in my memory of the so many stories I got to cover.

Looking down on the big book now, I’m so excited that I ask Mary to come see. She’s our head librarian.  She’s nearby working the check-out desk.

“Know anything about this dictionary, Mary?”

She looks it over. Takes a minute or two. “Well, it’s a biggie. And it’s a Merriam-Webster. That means a lot. But pretty old. I have no idea who donated it to us.”

“This book came out in 1961. Got huge publicity. The reaction to it was sensational,” I tell her, tapping it. “In fact, revolutionary. Because there was a different philosophy behind it.  There had never been a dictionary like this before.”

“Oh?”

“Here, let me show you something.” I flip it open and start searching.

It’s so heavy. Has hundreds and  hundreds of pages.  Very unwieldy. Needs to have its own table to rest on.The typeface used is tiny—8 point, it looks like. The definitions are long. Each page is crammed shoehorn full. Finally I find the word I’m looking for. I point to it for her. The word is “ain’t.”

She stares at it. I can read her mind. She’s thinking, “It’s one of a million words in here. So what’s the big deal?”

“Mary, this is the very first time that little word ‘ain’t’ got into any dictionary. Which is true of many, many other everyday words we all use. For the first time they got put in a dictionary. That was a big reason behind all the arguing.

“What a ruckus it created. Some people loved it. Some people hollered and vowed they’d continue with M-W’s previous biggie. That was the Second New International Dictionary, also huge, published in 1934. The country, Americans, the culture had changed so much in those 25 years.”

She tapped my arm. “Sorry, John, got to go. A lady wants me to check out her books,”

Well, I didn’t buy this Third New, in fine condition though it was.  Had no need for it. Besides, no place for it, so big.

I get by just fine with my M-W Collegiate.  And when I’m typing away on my computer and I wonder about a word, often I just look it up on M-W’s online dictionary. It’s easy.

I went home. But I didn’t stop thinking about the Third New. I went back the next day.  I was worried that somebody might have handed Mary the 2 bucks or it. Not that I had changed my mind. I had a different reason. It was still there.  Good!

I got Mary again. Asked her how much she thought it weighed. She tried to heft it. “Oh, maybe 15 pounds.”  Which is what I thought it weighed, too.  I had brought my step-on bathroom scale along. I set on the counter. Her eyes opened wide. She thought I was crazy, I’m sure. I hefted the book and placed it on the scale. Just 2 ounces short of 6 pounds. But it sure felt like 15 pounds.

Then, with Mary still watching, I checked how many pages. 2,662! There were zillions of words listed, and their definitions were long. Then I looked at a few pages.  They were jammed full, with everything in tiny type, 8 point, I thought. So hard to read. Should have brought my magnifying glass, too.

I said to her, “Here’s why this dictionary became so controversial. The Merriam Second New—the big one before this one—put in all the words that the editor-in-chief felt should be in the book. Only good words, in his opinion. If a word was recognized popular but was slangy or uncouth or uncultured and therefore second-class, well, to him—“ain’t’ for instance—it was kept out. A huge list of words that were a vital part of our language never got in.

“This one, “I said, tapping it, “put in word after word that everybody knew and used all the time. Including some naughty words, even some dirty words.  Words that were on just about everybody’s tongue. For the simple reason they made the job of speaking with people so much easier. Thousands of new words got included.”

Besides my bathroom scale I had brought along a book of my own. I showed it to her. Its title was “The Story of Ain’t.” And its subhead was “America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.” By David Skinner, a bog-time journalist and author, highly respected.

He laid out the whole incredible, fascinating story of the Third New. And of its its editor-and-chief, who inspired the new thinking. And all the heated words and arguments that rolled out pro and con.

Mary flipped through my book, stopping here and there, then turned back to look at the check-out counter. then said  “Quite a story, John! But….” Another customer was waiting for her.

I wouldn’t be surprised if later she brought all this to the attention of her librarians. Also because of my own little role in all that, which I had told her about. I’ll tell you about it in a minute.

Well, how come the Merriam Third New was so radically different from the Merriam Second New?

Primarily because the new top man was Philip Babcock Gove, Ph.D. He saw the huge changes  that our country and culture, and as a result, our language, were going through. Believed that a dictionary shouldn’t preach. Believed it should just record the words  and define them if lots of people use them. That if was important.

To determine that, the lexicographers studied usage in books, publications of kinds, movies, menus, songs,  advertisements, scientific and technical publications. A file was kept of every word, and the file contained many “citations.” These were white index cards that showed exactly how a word was used, where, and its exact context.  New meanings to it, old meanings falling out of style.

These files got reviewed periodically, and if something new about the word was developing or something old was fading out, that would have to be noted in a modified definition of that word.

He recognized that language is dynamic. Constantly changing. Which is normal. Any user of the Third New would get to see that.

I should tell you that Merriam-Webster had a large staff of lexicographers. Trained and seasoned professionals. It takes a huge effort to produce a dictionary of this magnitude.  A big staff. Dr. Gove had to win them over and get them roused up.

Incredible the discussions that resulted.  So many new words had to be reviewed. “Ain’t” is the one that became famous, or notorious, depending on your point of view.

Most words have several definitions, of course.  The conventional one for “ain’t” is that it is a word used by un-schooled people. But a new one was developing fast. The word was being used to give emphasis and drama, and by sophisticated people. Such as, “Dammit, that just ain’t so!”  I’ve used it in print a few times in that way for that very reason.

There developed a long list of  common words and expressions that got Dr. Gove’s team talking about–Chinaman, faggot, french-fried (potatoes), nigger, prick, cunt, tits, Jap, bum, snot, masturbation (as opposed to Onanism), GI, Jewess, chop suey, pizza, Nazi, shit, tofu, transatlantic flight, high-octane gas, pisspoor and pissed off, on and on. Many were put on a “taboo” list. Others got cleared for publication.

And thousands of words in the  Second New had to be deleted because research had shown they were falling off.

Gove insisted on using some. “Fuck” was one.  “Fuck up” was another.  “Cunt.” “Period,” meaning a woman’s you know what.   Everybody knows them. Millions  use them. But he didn’t get his way on many. Yes, Gove was the editor-in-chief. But Gordon J. Gallan was the publisher of Merriam-Webster.  Sharp executive and businessman. He wanted excellence, but also big sales.  He worried about sales of this Third New. So he sent down a memo, saying about some of those, so to speak,  “No way! Nothing doing!” (Both expressions with specific new meanings, as we have gotten to learn.)

For your information, the first time “fuck,” as a noun and a verb, made it into a general dictionary was in 1964 when the American Heritage Dictionary included it. The AHD has grown into a worthy competitor to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate.

So what was my role?  I was a feature writer on the magazine of the Telegram in Worcester, Mass.  I was always prospecting for a good story. I saw this incredible ruckus.

Merriam-Webster’s headquarters were, and still are, in Springfield, another big city, just 50 miles to the west.  I put in a call, made my pitch, was invited to come,  got a fascinating  tour by a staff editor on how a dictionary is put together, and interviewed the big man himself, Dr. Gove.

I decided my big focus should be on him. What kind of man was this? I came back later with a photographer to double-check my facts and take pictures. This was going to be a big lay-out in the magazine. At the end of the day we followed Dr. Gove to his home. He lived in a little town 15 miles east and he had a farm. He introduced us to Mrs. Gove, Grace, I believe, and his kids.

Incredible! Every night the great scholar would swap his business suit and dressy shoes for bib overalls and mucky boots and stride out back to the barn to milk his cows. My photographer that day, Bob Lilyestrom I believe it was, caught him doing just that and happy at his work.  Who could ever imagine an incredible character like that?

Oh, on my next visit to our public library I checked. The Third New was gone. I asked Mary who had bought it. “No idea, John.”

Gosh, I’d like to meet that person! There’s another great story there, I’m sure. That would be a wonderful interview, too.

Now truth is, I have written about Dr. Gove and his Third New before as a blog. Some of you probably received that piece.

If you feel you’d enjoy it, send me an email at either johnguylaplante @yahoo or gmail. And I’ll send it to you. Lots of interesting stuff in it.

You’re all sophisticated readers, I’m positive.  Who else would read something like this? Let me know if you’ve  gotten around to using “ain’t,” will you?

(Oh, by the way, I’ve just re-read this, checking for typos. These days I always seem to make typos–blame bad typing by my tired old fingers. Didn’t spot any. But was struck by the many words and expressions that I’ve used that I never would have employed in that article of mine for the Telegram back n 1961. I didn’t know them!  There are dozens. See how many you can spot.  Shows how dynamic language is!)

~ ~ ~

To subscribe or unsubscribe Click Here