Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Passion for Books

I love books. I have surrounded myself with books all my life. I love the feel of them. I love the way they look on a bookshelf. I love all the information that they hold. And I love the quiet dignity they give to our otherwise ramshackle house. I have so many books that over the past few years, I have taken to selling off a few of them ( I haunt used book stores; wait for Friends of the Library sell-offs; ferret out yard sales; all in the hopes of finding some special treasure or unique volume. For me, the thrill is in the hunt.

A couple of years ago I found a first edition of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden which I bought for 50 cents at a yard sale and sold for $200. Another time I picked up the original two-volume set of Ullyses S. Grant’s autobiography which is worth close to $400. I got it for a buck. Then there was the first edition copy of Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me which was published just weeks before his untimely death on a motorcycle. After paying 25 cents for it, I reluctantly sold it last year for $200.

Of course, for every success story like these there are dozens and dozens of mediocre finds; piles of Readers Digest condensations, romance novels, born-again Christian books, and old sets of encyclopedias. But for me, it is worth diving through the dreck if I can find just one worthwhile title. Whether I end up selling it or not is almost immaterial. I am determined to keep an eclectic and esoteric inventory that I can be proud of.

What brought this subject to mind is the increasing number of book hunters I am seeing now at yard sales who are relying on hand held computers that scan the books’ ISBN numbers and give an immediate value. I watch as these people pick up title after title, barely looking at it, and quickly scan the number on the back. They show no interest in what is inside the book; spend no time mulling over subject or author. Just a quick scan and it either goes in the bag or back on the table. It is a fast and soulless operation.

For these book hunters, the search is simply for the money. There is no passion involved. No curiosity beyond the book’s worth. Profit or not, I could never collect books in this manner. Fortunately, from my standpoint, there is very little competition involved. Most of the books I look for were published long before the advent of ISBN numbers. And I pride myself on having a degree of knowledge in my own mind as to what is of value and what is not. Often I may buy a book simply for its esthetics or content with no intention whatever of selling it.

I may spend a lot more time sifting through the piles of pages then these merciless scanners do, but I get so much more satisfaction out of it. Almost a calming reassurance that there is still value beyond money in the printed page, and it is something tangible and beautiful and for the ages. I will always treasure the tattered copy of Desert Solitaire that I bought 35 years ago when I was a ranger at Canyonlands. There are more stories for me in that one little book than on many a library shelf.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In the Time of Telstar

Whenever I listen to the classic instrumental Telstar, it immediately fills me with a sense of time and place that is truly unique. Released in August, 1962, just five weeks after the successful launch of the communications satellite for which it was named, it became the first single by a British band to reach number 1 on the US pop charts. Recorded by the London Tornadoes and produced by the troubled genius Joe Meek, Telstar blasted out of the radio like nothing we’d ever heard before.

And it was music made for its time. President Kennedy was in office and at the height of his popularity. The civil rights movement was gaining ground. The Free Speech Movement was catching fire on the west coast. And the United States space program was moving ahead rapidly. It seemed like a time of unbridled optimism. And you can hear it in the music.

Telstar’s unique sound is literally uplifting with its weird space sounds, rolling synthesizer, and that great male chorus backup on the final turn. Not only that. It was over three minutes long which was a real anomaly for Top 40 radio. Listened to today, the music is rather poignant considering all that happened in its immediate aftermath....the loss of a president, escalation in Vietnam, more assassinations and riots ahead. Even Telstar’s creator Joe Meek ended up killing himself in 1967. In all of that, the initial joy of Telstar was lost. But those of you who are old enough to remember can listen to it now and still feel that unmitigated hope and joy that we seemed to be on the brink of back in 1962.

I can’t think of another musical piece that captures an era’s fleeting moment as well.