A few weeks ago, I noticed a friend of mine talking about Philip Roth. I’ve never read any Roth before, though I was certainly aware of his acclaim. I made a mental note: read some Roth. Then a couple weeks later I saw another friend talking about the author. Clearly I needed to get on this writer sooner rather than later; all signs pointed in that direction. I started looking up lists of his books, getting an idea of where to start. There were other books already on my plate, but I could bump those back a spot or two to make room for Philip Roth. The plan was formulating and now I just needed to pick up copies of some of his books. That’s when a most serendipitous event occurred.
I live in a condominium, and every day when I take my dog (pictured right) out for walks, I pass through the back entry, which contains all the building’s recycling boxes. People use the area as a dumping ground for recycling, and it’s filled with old furniture and other odds and ends from their apartments. Usually, when somebody puts an old side-table or a tube TV there, the item gets taken within an hour. I don’t often indulge in that sort of thing, mostly because I don’t need extra clutter. My exception is books. There will sometimes be a box of books left for recycling, probably from somebody moving, or just clearing space. From time to time, something worthwhile catches my eye, like a copy of Moby-Dick or Anna Karenina, and I’ll scoop it up. But last weekend I hit the jackpot: A stack of Phil Roth books greeted me as I walked through with the pup. I had to have them, and right then, before anyone else might. I stuffed a box with the books I wanted and went right back up to my apartment, forgetting to take the dog out. He probably hated me.
Eight Philip Roth books had sat there, serenely, just waiting to be taken by some young reader. I was that reader. I was all prepped and everything! Most of the books weren’t exactly the “essential Roth.” No Portnoy’s Complaint, or American Pastoral, but there were copies of Goodbye, Columbus and The Ghost Writer. I took all eight. I’ve already begun reading Goodbye, Columbus, which so far is hilarious and charming and beautifully written.
It wasn’t just Roth, though. There were other books in that box. All in all, probably about 50 or 60 books waited to be grabbed up. Most of them weren’t exactly high literature. A few Dan Brown novels, some Grisham. Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore was among them, so I took that. There was a copy of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which I’ve read once before, but gladly took anyway. The other big get was the stack of Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve only ever read Slaughterhouse-Five, an all-time favourite, so taking those was a no-brainer.
One of my favourite things about these new acquisitions is that they’re mostly quite old. That copy of Goodbye, Columbus was printed in ‘68, and the cover is beautiful. The Vonnegut books were mostly printed in the ’80s. Many of the books have very cool, unique covers, the kind of artwork you wouldn’t see on a modern printing. There’s something refreshing in that, as well as in the smell of those old pages. The colour, too. They’ve aged, and darkened a little, taking on that slightly brown hue that paper does. As an avid Kindle and iPad reader, I’d sort of forgotten the pure pleasure that comes from opening up a physical book, and especially a used one, in which you can feel its history of readership with every flip of the page.
Finding those books reminded me of a similar case a few years back. I’d just started getting into vinyl records, having fixed up my dad’s old record player and speaker set. I was driving through a mall parking lot and saw a stack of boxes next to a dumpster, with records strewn around them. I pulled up closer and saw the boxes were full of records. Someone else had obviously picked through the offerings, but they left a lot of great stuff. Beatles records, Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens. Classics. I took the lot of them. In fact, to this day the bulk of my collection (which isn’t huge by any means) is still comprised mostly of those foundational records I found next to a dumpster by a mall north of Toronto.
I know there are people who drive around on trash days, hunting for amazing objects left by the side of the road. I see the appeal, though it’s not something I would ever do myself. Too much hassle, really. Also, I’m not so enamoured by “objects.” Culture, though. That’s my sweet spot. An abandoned pile of books? I can’t pass that up. I don’t even read enough to justify taking them all, but the thought of leaving them there doesn’t sit right with me. And sometimes, on those special occasions, the right book ends up in the trash at the right time right when you’re walking by, like somebody had placed it there just for you. I don’t know who left those Philip Roth books there, though it was probably an elderly Jewish man or woman, given where I live. I’d love to thank them. They likely have no idea who I am, nor had an inkling of who might take the books anyway, but I’m sure they expected someone would. It hadn’t really occurred to me before, but leaving a book by the trash is a pretty beautiful way to pass along the culture.
Corey Atad is a Staff Writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.