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Secondhand Wonderland: The World of the Used Book

Secondhand books and the emporiums they inhabit affect book lovers in different ways. In this four-part PopMatters special section, we step inside the world of secondhand books and demonstrate the diversity of the experiences it contains.

Edited by Nikki Tranter / Produced by Sarah Zupko

Stay tuned each Wednesday for the next four weeks as we unveil two new essays in this series.

"I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins. I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading pages someone long gone has called my attention to." So wrote Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, the definitive novel about the lure and grip of used books. Hanff knew the power of the musty book smell, the red-pen underlines, the bent-down pages that meant someone, somewhere marked that spot as the phone rang, the baby cried, or the clock ticked well past bedtime.

The secondhand book is more than merely a bargain for the book lover. It's a cross-cultural, inter-generational link between readers. A torch-race, of sorts, with batons passed in all directions, from the collector to the student, the casual reader to the obsessive.

Secondhand books and the emporiums they inhabit affect book lovers in different ways. The romantics love the inscriptions from Nancy to John, while collectors will peruse shelves for hours looking for works entirely untouched. Students love a cheap copy of Fall semester's Marquez text, while the book-addicted who spends every free weekend road-tripping to every Salvos store within reach will grab two copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude because three bucks is just such a good price.

In this PopMatters special feature section, eight writers -- each their own unique breed of book-lover -- step inside the world of secondhand books and demonstrate the diversity of the experiences it contains. Kirby Fields describes the small town store that went from temporary linger-spot to provider of his childhood education. Erika Nanes explains the careful process of date selection based on a man's handling of his used texts. Diane Leach praises those flyleaf inscriptions, Deanne Sole dissects the world of the St. Vincent de Paul charity store, Justin Dimos reveres the famed Caveat Emptor, while Rob Horning, David Pullar, and Ian Mathers take business-like approaches to the subject, breaking down the secondhand bookstore's fiscal concerns (among other things).

And, so, as we progress further into this age of computer correspondence, hypertext publishing, and the Amazon Kindle, those of us who agree so romantically and feverishly with Hanff that the secondhand book can be art, as valuable for its subject matter as its personal history, we need our used book dealers, our Book Barns, Salvo stores, and library sales. As technology looms about our precious paper and binding, we need more than ever our bargains and our gems, our diamonds buried in the clutter. Most of all, we need that sensation that we're rescuing something from forced obscurity, that the phrase "pre-loved" need not forever be attached to any one book, regardless of age or condition.

-- Nikki Tranter

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

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Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

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