Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Quail Hunting With Voltaire Across the Dust Bowl of the Sahara While Squealing Like a Pig...

 ...Is, unfortunately, not the title of my forthcoming book. But if it were, I'd damn sure read it. Wouldn't you?

Actually, it's just a summation of a few finds from my most recent thriftshop book score, which include (but not limited to) a brand-new copy Timothy Egan's incomparably good "The Worst Hard Time" an old copy of Tom Huggler's classic "Quail Hunting in America", an anthology of my very favorite rapier-witted, gloriously freethinking and unmercilessly brilliant old French fart Voltaire, a hardback copy of William Langewiesche's "Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert" and a tragically! tragically! dustjacket-less first-printing, first-edition of  "Deliverance" by, of course, that most complex, contradictory poet-hellraiser Mr. James Dickey.

Total cost for these books, plus a sackful of others? Four bucks. Suck on that, Amazon and Barnes & Noble...

Egan's book is required reading for anyone interested in Dust Bowl and plains history, ranking right up there with historian Donald Worster's work. Huggler's book on quail hunting, while dated now (is there an updated edition?), remains by default the standard text on chasing the king of birds. I already had a copy, but this one's in better condition. For fifty cents, why not, right?

I'm both elated that I found a first edition of Dickey's first novel, and bummed that it didn't have the dust jacket. Oh, well. Even with dust jacket, it wasn't worth too much, anyway, and this nekkid copy will go on my first-edition shelf just fine. Dickey was certainly an interesting guy (I've got a copy of Henry Hart's massive Dickey biography, I just haven't read it yet) and perhaps no other author has had to endure to such a degree as Dickey the movie version of his work (and specifically, one scene) so utterly overshadowing and negatively co-opting the original. Talk about total pop culture distillation. To virtually everyone, "Deliverance" IS "squeal like a pig." Nothing more, which is a shame. It's a damn good book.

I've already started reading William Langewiesche's "Sahara Unveiled" (an old book, published back in '96 when he was still a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly) because Langewiesche is just a brilliant observer and writer.

There are a lot of big-name longform magazine writers out there who get fawned over by adoring fanboys, myopic New York editors and the ridiculously self-congratulatory journalism awards industry, and far be it from me - as a lowly reader - to criticize, but I just don't get what's so special about a lot of them. Derivative, formulaic and interchangeable are a few words that come to mind. I know there are editors out there who would emphatically disagree, but I'm of the opinion that if you gave any reasonably competent writer the budget and time necessary to produce a deeply-reported, ten or fifteen thousand-word magazine feature, they'd give you a reasonably competent final product. That does not mean they are the second coming of Gay Talese or George Plimpton. It's craft, people, not voodoo.

But Langewiesche? There's a touch of the voodoo to his writing, that intangible observational and descriptive quality to how he translates what he observes into what we read that separates truly great writers from the merely competent yeoman pikers of the world. I'm about fifty pages into "Sahara Unveiled" and so far it's fantastic. Total cost? Yep, fiddy cents, the seemingly universal thriftshop hardback book price.

One of these days, damn it, I'm going to stumble across the find of a lifetime (Poe's Tamerlane? Salinger's Rye?) and I'm quite sure that whatever priceless literary gem it turns out to be, it will have a big Day-Glo orange fifty-cent price tag sticker permanently attached to it.     

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