If you consider yourself a hardened bibliophile (lover of books), then you should know you’ll have to go further than your nearest giant book superstore to find some of the more interesting stuff out there. These giant chain stores might look daunting and impressive, but in the larger scheme, they really contain only a small and quaint amount of books. For instance, most are only going to carry books by the western world (America and England in particular) but very little from the rest of the world. What books they do carry from Asia or the Middle-East are usually books that appeal to people who like to daydream about the beauty of exotic places. Also, the books you see right there on the shelf before you aren’t necessarily the finest books ever written, but what’s popular now (you know what I mean–vampires, adventures in shopping, snarky humor, and stories about vacations that solve mid-life crises).
To really find the best books out there means going out of your way. Used book stores are great places to find great books that aren’t popular now, as well as great books that have gone out of print only because other trends have taken over the market. The other place to regularly visit is the library. The important thing to remember is that the libraries need you as much as you need them (they probably need you moreso). They can’t expect to receive funding if no one checks out books. So go ahead and go to the library and check out everything you have even a tiny interest in.
Here’s a selection of rare, good books that I’ve found by thinking outside the box stores.
And So Flows History by Han Moo Sook. Although the title sounds like a soap opera, this is actually a quite good book. It’s a family chronicle following several generations of a Korean family through years of agricultural life to the hardship and bloodshed they experience during the revolution that literally split the country in two (the Demilitarized Zone that Clinton called the “scariest place on Earth.”) John Updike and Saul Bellow both went out of their way to meet her, so why doesn’t a publisher take the time to put out a new edition?
Scandal by Shusako Endo. This is a very unique book. The author was a devout catholic living in Japan, yet the book is about a man who inexplicably becomes entangled with the lewd forces of his culture. In short time, he has to chat with prostitutes and travel alone into the redlight district to clear his name. It was loosely adapted by Akira Kurosawa into a movie by the same name.
The Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan. The story’s similar to the Pygmalion myth (man creates art so beautiful he falls in love with it) and Freud’s obsession with men falling in love with statues. In this book, a down on his luck painter meets a young girl at night, paints her portrait, and then she disappears. Months pass and he finds her again, but now she’s aged several years. Some of it is a little corny, but overall it’s a well-written and wonderfully economical book (less than 150 pages). It was made into a good RKO picture with Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones. The book is out of print.
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick. This book presents for me a publishing paradox. It’s new; it’s by a famous author; it’s in print; it’s good; it’s hard to find. I couldn’t find it at any book store I went to and ended up getting it through Amazon. It’s an update of the Henry James book The Ambassadors set in the present (a process similar to Zadie Smith’s recent book On Beauty which updates Howard’s End).
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Farina. I’ve never seen this for sale in any popular book store. I just happened to luck out and find a cheap copy of it on the shelves of Goodwill. Richard Farina was many things–a folk singer, Bob Dylan’s peer, a husband to Mimi Farina (Joan Baez’s sister–Joan wrote a song about him called Sir Galahad), Thomas Pynchon’s closest friend (Pynchon dedicates Gravity’s Rainbow to him). He’s also the author of the zaniest book I’ve ever read, one that broke all the rules, even the conventions of grammar.
While we’re on the topic of books, I’d like to call your attention to my newest book A Rapturous Occasion, currently available in paperback and as an ebook for $1.50!