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 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...

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About the Author

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.