Isidore Emeka Uzoatu surfs his mounting barn of used books.
On the 23rd of August, 1993 the ineluctable permanence of change saw me shift domicile from good, old
Lagos to old, good . En route, I opted to move without a read. It could not have been on account of the excess luggage it’d have engendered. The trunk of my now-late cousin’s car in which I made the flight was well empty. You see, I have over time cultivated a belief – that wherever one ventures had ample capacity to provide one what one would read. And this at little or no cost – literally. Onitsha
Unless you are one of those justifiably allergic to used books for some proven and dubious reasons. For instance, some argue they are veritable sources for diseases – though some do come clean and new, some of them come dirty and jaded. Yet some others abstain from them for moral reasons, claiming that most of it are either stolen or obtained by trickery.
Any which way, though, they do come as cheap as anything else second-hand if one would not mind. Displayed on street corners, house frontages, mobile carts, on top of sewers and generally anywhere the vendor would not have to bother about stall fees much, they follow us wherever we veer.
This lingering belief of mine was rendered most valid one sun-drenched day on the streets of
. I had ventured that far – if you must know – following pulls from the very strings that made my afore-mentioned change of abode inevitable. Or, to start the chain reaction at the head of the stream, for the selfsame reason I had indeed bothered to leave my village for a distant school in the first place. Kumasi, Ghana
Anyway, here I was in the
heartland on the day in question, forlorn to say the least. With nothing to read in between hardcore business interactions with outright strangers, my idle mind had only a few choices left – if you know what I mean. However, the last discussion over the next day, I had to make my way through a kind of subway between two walkways. Lo and behold, it was a veritable market for second-hand wares from Ashanti Europe. While the multitude attracted by the contents of a just-arrived trunk milled around the bric-a-brac it bared, I espied some glossy books in the mix. A closer look for curiosity’s sake and I left the sale cite with a brand-new tokunbo copy of Jim Crace’s novel Six. Set in the City of it proved more than a suitable companion for the rest of the trip. Kisses
Talk about serendipity!
Why the jugglery? Well, it was the successful fishing out of the above novel from my now overstuffed bookcase that the idea of this piece came dawning. The array of books it now housed lent further credence to a nagging suspicion that a guy may slowly have acquired some bug akin to an obsessive-compulsive disorder where the buying of used books is concerned. Only this case around, the books are not entirely worthless – their ages notwithstanding.
Ordinarily, the source for a good read in a town as mercantilist as
should have given course for concern. Forget the Market Literature revolution that happened here before the Nigerian Civil War(1967-70). Those racy tales of “high life, useful advice and mad English” – like Kurt Thomez’ compilation described them – may have been unable to assuage the advanced thirst of my ultra-parched literary taste. If anything, they would have served as veritable side attractions like early African teams used to at the FIFA World Cup prior to Italia Novanta. Anyway, they have died a natural death like the slave trade with the Industrial Revolution. The printers and publishers behind the exploit left penniless following the war took the line of least resistance – bootlegging. Onitsha
Nevertheless, it was near the Main Market where those pamphlets ruled supreme that I bought the first book of my sojourn. After acclimatizing with the town’s unique propensities, I immediately caught that a guy did not need to make out time for book shopping. So in between a run and another I was attracted as always by a street side display of books on hard ground. Mostly school texts, I espied a queer one that seen the passage of many a sunny season, its title almost undecipherable from its cover. That was how I became the happy owner of Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader – “a (1972) collection of far-out fable, trustworthy lore and hot dope tales from Rolling Stone Magazine’s most lovable columnists”. If anything the odd compilation served to open my eyes anew to the magical powers of poetry with these epigamic lines in the poem #122 by Gary Von Tersch on page 101 of the avant-garde book:
I feel all tangled
in the shoelaces
of the night…
The pertinent poetic baptism, however, did not take place till I ventured the post office far. With mail to claim I arrived the uptown edifice to behold a line of book vendors each promising a change of stock every other day. I passed my doubts to the owner of the most prominent array in the pack, but not after I had acquired a priceless jewel from his exhibits. Modern Poetry from Africa edited by Gerald More and Ulli Beier was published in 1963 by Penguin. The 1965 reprint that I bought half eaten up by worms and roaches still had its pages and letters intact. Subsequent visits did yield some other poetry collections. Longman’s A Pageant of Longer Poems always came handy when writer’s block called for some breath of fresh letters written way back in time. Often just a browse down John Keats’ Ode To a Nightingale embedded between its covers often busted the blocks by the end of the second canto:
O, for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
The New Oxford Book of Light Verse chosen and edited by Kingsley Amis with its “unstrained scansions” did also come handy at times. The 1978 sequel to The Oxford Book of Light Verse edited by W.H. Auden in 1938 being heavy with lightness. Of course also numbered here is Horn of My Love, Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek’s 1974 interpretation of the poetry of the Acoli of Northern Uganda. Engaged in part to debunk the likes of his compatriot Taban Lo Liyong who thought literature grew only in books, it proved the veritable eye opener of its intention.
Poems of Black Africa edited by Wole Soyinka surfaced at the right time. Needing a corpus of African poetry to find titles to the various parts of my novel in progress, it could not have come handier. But more than that it ended gifting me the poem from which the very novel’s title was adapted.
The 1967 old school anthology West African Verse, chosen and annotated by Donatus Ibe Nwoga which I acquired one of its 15th impressions of 1982; Don’t Let Him Die the 1978 anthology of memorial poems for Chris Okigbo(1932-67) edited by Chinua Achebe and Dubem Okafor did the rest in their turns and a book was born.
However, the most dramatic of these chance encounters with second hand bound volumes have always been with novels. On a certain day I had arrived just for the fun of it. No sooner did I dig in with the other yet-uncounted members of the Onitsha Used-Book Club than I saw Jack Nicholson looking up at me with that mischievous smirk on his lips from the cover of the1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kessey. An all-time favourite of mine, I so cherished the book that I thought its multiple-award-winning film from which the shot donning this later Picador paperback edition of the classic a travesty. The mere sight of the book lost in the mass that lay at my foot reminded me of the last copy I had since lost to a fan of the film version. You see, the uncommitted do not know that some book owners valued their books – used or brand new – as others did their blue-chip stocks.
A chance passage across the express road from the
months later was to bring me to another ramshackle bookshop. Stuck between sellers of foodstuff and plastic vats, it was shear serendipity that veered my eyes to motley arrangement of books on hard ground. I had barely come to a full stop when my eyes again caught Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in which Ken Kessey’s progress was tracked ever since he declared himself the John Wayne of dope smokers. Hitherto I had only read bits and pieces of the Merry Pranksters from unauthorised sources. Niger Bridge
Another notable pick from here was The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. by George Steiner, a 1981 book I only read a review of – as well as the furore following its publication – in Time Magazine as an undergraduate. In no time I was running down the author’s astute defence of Hitler that had angered the worldwide Jewish community enough to burn some copies of the bestseller.
Return trips to the post office always reaped ample harvests. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road presented itself after the 9/11 debacle. I was not amused when a character in the book published in 1957 compared their retinue as they headed to
to Arabs going to bomb the city. It recalled a scene in the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner. The white father of Sidney Poitier’s would be wife in stating the reasons he thought the marriage wasn’t feasible asked his son-in-law what rank a product of such a marriage could ever attain in the United States of America. As frank as hell, he answered the position of Secretary of State. Which came to fruition with Collin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, save Obama upturns it in the 2008 elections! New York
So much for the power of a writer’s imagination and its transforming powers – heeded or unheeded. I was to pick up a clearly bootlegged copy of Chinua Achebe’s 1984 pamphlet The Trouble With Nigeria on yet another visit. The argument of the pamphlet was only becoming more prophetic then. Its length and breath ultimately attracting me to another slim volume that kept it company on the floor of their display: The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon. I could hardly wait to get home to refresh my mind with the shenanigans of men like Sir Galahad coasting lime in a park and Captain the Nigerian who insisted on his Benson and Hedges when his fellow hustlers made out with Woodbines!
Appositely, this brings me to latest member of my bookcase. Slim like the foregoing, unlike them I had never heard of it before the sultry afternoon it confronted my oculars from its obscure display spot of the day. Titled The Notebook and written in 1994 and published two years later by a certain Nicholas Sparks it left such an impression on me afterwards that I did not regret the gamble. Much like an earlier, thinner 1970 volume Love Story by Erich Segal had left in me. While the former handled love undeterred by Alzheimer’s, the love doves in the latter had to cope with leukaemia. I was introduced to the later by Raymond a school friend and I had demurred. At last – long after graduation – I braved the challenge but has set neither eye nor ear on Ray ever since.
But by far the happiest addendum to the two-tier wooden case is a copy of my own novel Vision Impossible seated in pole position at its apex. Regardless that I hear no applause after a roll of drums, here I am genuflecting like the lizard that fell from a height.
Anyway, I’m off to the post office – my bookcase sure wants some more genres…