Accidental Selections

Christmas Critics

For the used-book business this is the worst of times and the best of times—worst because stores are closing all over the United States, and best because the internet makes it possible to sell and purchase old books online. In a sense, books no longer go out of print but are easily found, easily ordered, and quickly delivered. A search for a title and an author’s name will get instant results on the online marketplace AbeBooks.com. How long this happy state of affairs will last I can’t say, but I am sure it will last through Christmas this year and next. This means you need not limit Christmas gifts to books of the moment but can reach out to pick up almost anything that has appeared in the past hundred years.

The books I’m recommending here I more or less bumped into by accident, usually when some reviewer or essayist or author of a memoir took the trouble to cite something good. The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday review is a good place to prowl, with its weekly “Five Best” list: cookbooks, noir novels of the 1940s, reportage of the Vietnam War, classic books of espionage—the range is wide and there is always something to catch your eye. When a title catches mine, I look it up online. I check the condition of book and dust jacket, choose a copy from a mom-and-pop store if I can spot one, and sometimes buy it in that instant. But most of the time I put it on my saved-for-later list. A week or so fermenting there is usually long enough to test the depth of my interest.

That’s the mechanics of acquisition. Try it the next time anybody says you should consider this or that—one of the titles below, perhaps, just to get the hang of it. This is one of the great things the computer has done for literature—not on a level with ease of rewrite, but close.

Before writing something about Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove) recently I read his early (1968) collection of essays about Texas, In a Narrow Grave (Simon & Schuster, $14.99, 208 pp.). (On AbeBooks.com you can find a first edition for a couple thousand dollars, or a paperback for $1 plus $3.98 shipping.) McMurtry had a lot to say about the competition—the Texas writers any newcomer would be measured against. In passing he mentioned J. Evetts Haley’s “superb biography” of the legendary early trail driver and rancher Charles Goodnight—a man McMurtry has often mentioned in print over the years. He added that “it is a pity [Haley] has contracted so virulent a conservatism” and called him “the Captain Queeg of Texas letters.”

So I went online and got a copy of Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman (University of Oklahoma Press, $24.95, 504 pp.), and can report that McMurtry was holding back with “superb.” Haley’s life of Goodnight would be a plausible choice for any list of Great American Books for its vivid and sustained treatment of place, character, weather, the mule’s capacity for smelling distant water, the moods of cattle, drought, and the extraordinary ordeal of Goodnight’s partner, Oliver Loving, when attacked by Indians in West Texas. The subject is interesting and the writing is compelling. When I checked, fifty-three secondhand copies in various editions and conditions were available online.

If you would like a break from quarrels over money in Washington, I recommend Across Atlantic Ice: The Origins of America’s Clovis Culture by Dennis A. Stanford and Bruce J. Bradley (University of California Press, $27.95, 336 pp.), a book you’re not likely to find at the corner bookstore—if you’re lucky enough to live near one. The authors are paleoarchaeologists, and on the cover is a photograph of an eight-inch long “laurel leaf biface”—a particular kind of prehistoric knife. This one, amazingly, was dredged up by a scallop boat in two hundred forty feet of water about forty miles off the coast of Virginia in 1970. In the dredge with it was the skull of a mastodon. The captain of the Cinmar, Thurston Shawn, took careful note of the exact position of the find, which would have been at sea level during the “last glacial maximum,” about twenty-three thousand years ago. That would be roughly ten thousand years earlier than the traditional date given for the arrival of humans in North America across the Bering Strait. Even odder, the “laurel leaf biface” design was typical of tool-making in Spain at the time and quite different from the earliest tool-making style of Native North Americans, called “Clovis” after the site in New Mexico where the first thirteen-thousand-year-old spear point was found in the 1920s. Interpreting this awkward artifact is the task of this beautifully illustrated book, which, after another few decades of controversy, may change what schoolkids learn about the first arrival of humans in the New World. The authors’ many personal asides about their careers and colleagues simultaneously relieve and illuminate the rigors of the argument.

The Memoirs of Kingsley Amis, out of print but available online, may suit someone on your gift list. Amis, a writer who was slow to learn how to make use of his very considerable ill temper, is well-known for his midlife about-face from schoolboy leftism to conservatism, roughly in the way of a man cutting loose after a lifetime of trying to be good. Mild political noises can occasionally be heard in the Memoirs, but what Amis really detests is any cheap willingness to let the fraudulent pass as real—in literary reputations, for example. Amis writes about people he knew, with special emphasis on the ones he liked and admired—the poet Philip Larkin, the comedian Terry Thomas, the historian of the Great Terror Robert Conquest, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the literary biographer Peter Quennell, the Hungarian dissident Tibor Szamuely, among many others. Sir John Betjeman, a favorite, won Amis’s heart when he said of the excellent dry martinis served in London’s Tate Gallery Restaurant: “I don’t think one is really quite enough, do you?”

Betjeman’s end was difficult. He had Parkinson’s disease. Amis went and read poems to him—things like Sir Henry Newbolt’s “The Nightjar.” I didn’t know the poem but liked it when I found it online. And I didn’t know Betjeman either, so on Amis’s recommendation I hunted up one of his books, Slick but Not Streamlined, with an introduction by W. H. Auden. Out of print, but available online for twelve bucks, delivered to my door. How can you beat that? My sister Chica would have loved to find that under the tree, but she’s dead now. I’ll have to think of somebody else.

Published in the December 6, 2013 issue: 
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Thomas Powers, a former Commonweal columnist, is the author of ten books and is currently working on a memoir of his father, who was born in Kentucky and went to school in Illinois, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, California, and Texas before he was eighteen.

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