As I ripen into middle age, my shelves bulge with more books than I will ever read, and there’s no real need to buy any more of them.
But my neighbor, Zelda Long, who died recently, was a longtime volunteer for LSU’s Book Bazaar, and to honor her memory, I went to the bazaar last week and brought home a few bargains.
About the bazaar, you might already know. Each year, for three days, the Friends of the LSU Libraries opens up a large barn at the university and sells thousands of used books donated by local residents. Proceeds benefit the campus libraries. This year’s sale was dedicated to Long and another departed book sale volunteer, Patricia Boyet Millican.
With maturity, my back is no longer what it used to be, and that’s a helpful restraint when I attend book sales, since I limit my purchases to items that I can reasonably carry. Within minutes of entering the sale, my vertebrae began to strain under the weight of the volumes I’d collected: Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians,” Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat,” Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us,” Jim Bishop’s “A Day in the Life of President Kennedy” and three books by Virginia Woolf.
As I struggled with the books that sloshed in my arms like a litter of puppies, a volunteer offered me a cardboard box where I could stash my selections and nudge them down the aisle with my feet. Considering the glut of literature back at my house, I pared my choices to the Woolf books, which I’ve been enjoying in these last days of winter.
Leaving the book sale, I headed to the classroom where I teach writing twice a week to a small group of university freshmen. I later wondered if I should have ended class early and sent my students to the Book Bazaar to do their own shopping. Even the best writing instructor can’t teach a student all there is to know about shaping words into something useful. The rest of the learning comes in doing the writing itself — and in reading a lot of books, newspapers and magazines to see how master writers tackle their craft.
“When I was an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I attended classes with a moderate degree of diligence, but my most profitable hours came in the evenings when I’d put off doing my homework by wandering around the stacks of the Regenstein Library,” New York Times columnist David Brooks recently confessed. “I’d invariably make my way over to the section where the old periodicals were kept ... magazine browsing turned out to be my version of med school — the technical training I would need to do my job.”
Learning doesn’t stop for a writer. Opening up a random page from a collection of Woolf’s letters that I got at the book sale, I found her comparing Henry James’ writing to “the laborious striking of whole boxfuls of damp matches.” Woolf is a continuing instruction in the well-turned phrase.
My Book Bazaar purchases totaled seven bucks. That’s the cheapest tuition any student of writing will ever pay.