[Editor's Note: Douglas Perry reads from his book The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired "Chicago" at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 17, at Powell's City of Books. Click here for more information.
I will start my week of blogging here at Powell's with a painful topic: the need, every year or so, to cull my book collection.
I never do this by choice. The simple fact of the matter is that my house is not getting any bigger, but I keep buying books. So now and again, either some of the books have to go or I do.
Let me be clear right up front: This is not the lead-in to my Oprah-like e-reader epiphany. I don't own an e-reader. If you're into your Nook or Kindle or iPad, that's great. Whatever works for you. But for me, physical books carry meaning that isn't transferable to a gadget. My packed bookshelves enliven my home and order my cluttered mind. The tactile pleasure I get from turning pages and rubbing my finger across an embossed dust jacket would have kept Freud busy. And then there are the memories of where I was and who I was with when I plucked a particular volume off a shelf in a musty old used bookshop and decided to take it home with me.
For that last reason in particular, I suffer much angst whenever I release a book back into the wild. And yet recently I let one go without a qualm — The Used Book Lover's Guide to the Midwest, which provides a comprehensive listing of used bookshops in the region, circa 1995. I picked it up a couple years after moving to Chicago and immediately put it through its paces.
I used to trawl used bookshops quite often. After graduating from college, I moved to Chicago to start my journalism career. I got to know the city by climbing on the El every weekend and then hoofing it around a new neighborhood. Whether I was in Ukrainian Village or Rogers Park or Hyde Park, I always knew I'd be able to find an acceptable coffee shop or diner. The prize was finding a good used bookshop. And in the 1990s, there were a large number of them. Within a few months of moving into my tiny studio apartment in Lake View, I could stick a mental pin in almost every one. The Used Book Lover's Guide helped me find new places further out than the El went.
A lot of people go to a favorite bookstore — myself included — for the warmth of the place and the serendipity of stumbling upon a great book they'd never heard of before. That's why I believe physical stores will survive even after we've all been implanted with microchips that are connected 24/7 with the Google cloud. But there was another reason that I obsessively visited used bookshops back in those long-gone Chicago days: I had a list of desired out-of-print books in my head.
Maybe I'm weird, but I've found there are few feelings of triumph and good fortune to match coming across an elusive, long-sought book. I found my first edition of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men deep in the bowels of Bookman's Alley in Evanston, Ill. I unearthed a perfectly preserved copy of Kenneth Tynan's He That Plays the King at a tiny shop just off Charing Cross Road (of course!) in London.
That experience ceased for me about 10 years ago, thanks to used-bookshop aggregation sites and online megastores. I can now find a copy of He That Plays the King any day of the week — week after week, month after month, year after year. There's no reason to save for a trip to Merry Old England anymore. This is great for many reasons. I happily jump on the Internet whenever I must have a particular book, new or out of print — and that happens quite often.
At the same time, though, I do miss having that list in my head. I do miss the thrill of the chase. As wonderful as cyber-bibliophilism can be, something seems somehow wrong with a world in which I no longer have any need for The Used Book Lover's Guide to the Midwest.