NB: Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 2
Some people seem to enjoy the business of hunting out books as much as they enjoy reading them. For those people, last Saturday, I posted the first part of this year's "Perambulatory Christmas Books" series, in which J. C., the author of the TLS's NB column, goes looking in London's secondhand bookshops for alternatives to the "so-called festive fare" of mainstream publishers. Apparently, it was appreciated – so here's the second instalment:
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series, “Back to Basics”, part II. We’ll go to any lengths to provide you with alternatives to the so-called festive fare put out by many mainstream publishers (Reading, My Arse, Can’t Be Arsed, How Not To Talk Like an Arse, etc). Our aim is to find a neglected work or curiosity by an established writer, for about £5, in one of London’s bountiful secondhand bookshops.
When word arrived of a shop previously unknown to us, My Back Pages in Balham, we were soon on the Northern Line, rocketing through Charing Cross, beneath the Thames, beyond Clapham’s verdant pastures. It helps to have innate or prior knowledge that you are entering My Back Pages, just a few paces from Balham Tube station, for no painted sign informs you of the fact. The shop is dreary on the outside (no bad thing), with mean pickings outdoors. Inside, however, everything is as it should be, which is to say muddled and confusing. A shelf labelled Fiction holds Beat poetry. New books are shelved with secondhand. An area given to Victorian literature takes one up hills of Dickens and down dales of Trollope, but not much further. Lovers of mountaineering, film and music will find the shop diverting. There is a bookcase devoted to that dubious territory, “Black literature”, and there we found a copy of a lesser-known work by James Baldwin, A Rap on Race (1971). It takes the form of a dialogue with Margaret Mead, author of Coming of Age in Samoa and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia. The encounter itself is of anthropological interest. The speakers in the conversation are both Americans, both fiercely intelligent – with nothing in common.
Mead is cool and inquisitorial, Baldwin heated and rhetorical. “If you tell me that James Earl Ray managed to blow Martin Luther King’s head off in Memphis and then swam all the way to London by himself, I’m sorry. It’s simply not to be considered.” Mead protests that he is talking like “an Old Testament person”. Baldwin corrects her: “Prophet”. He talks about slave traders as if they were his New York neighbours.
Mead: “I absolutely refuse racial guilt”.
Baldwin: “All I’m saying is that one is born carrying one’s history on one’s brow”.
There are humorous moments peculiar to the time, as when Baldwin refers to a new, educated generation of African Americans. “I am terribly tired of these middle-class darkies with Afro hairstyles and dashikis telling me what it means to be black.”
A Rap on Race carries its history on its brow. The cover of this solid 1972 US paperback, for which My Back Pages asked £4.50, quotes Alfred Kazin on Baldwin: “No one around practises the old-fashioned art of spellbinding with such force”. Mead would have rejoined that the force overwhelmed the spellbinder himself. With the loose change in our pocket we bought a 1967 Livre de Poche of Camus’s great novel (see above), purely for the pleasure of the cover.