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The Mast-Head: Prophetic Pile

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 12:21

I am of two minds about confessing my near-addiction to the give-away pile next door to the Star office at the East Hampton Library. First of all, I don’t want any more competition for the obscure, older nonfiction books I prefer, but, really, the accumulation there is too good not to share.

Here is how it works: People clearing house or just getting their shelves in order swing by the library’s parking lot door with bags and boxes. If the team of Gail Parker and Debbie Walter are around, they get a first crack, setting aside anything they think might be sold to benefit the library on Amazon. I looked on Tuesday morning; you could order Howard Stern’s autobiography for $4.90 or “Homemade for Hamsters” for $9, shipping extra.

Last July, Dennis Fabiszak, the library director, told one of the student reporters in our summer journalism program that the Amazon experiment had raised enough money to make the library’s old-fashioned in-person book fairs superfluous. During 2018, for example, income from used books was just over 10 times greater than overdue fines and about 9 times more than used books brought in 2012.

For me, though, it’s been both exciting and a bit of a curse. My office is slowly filling up with stalagmite-like piles, and I am running out of floor space. Some choice finds are a 1927 pocket guide to the West Indies, “Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome,” a 1901 plant- life textbook, and “A Mencken Chres­tomathy” by the legendary cur­mudgeon H.L. Mencken, who helpfully noted in the preface that a chrestomathy is a selection of passages. The preface ends with “I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.”

Mencken was the wit who prophesied, “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” So I expect that when I get around to actually reading his chres­tomathy, it will be well worth the carpet space it has occupied under my window.

More or less at random, I opened the book to page 542 and to Mencken’s thoughts on the composer Richard Strauss, so I will leave you with this: “There are some moments in ‘Elektra’ when sounds come out of the orchestra that tug at the roots of the hair, sounds so unearthly that they suggest a caroling of dragons or bierfisch. . . . Once, when I heard this passage played at a concert, a woman sitting beside me rolled over like a log, and had to be hauled out by the ushers.”

What a find.

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