I like browsing in second-hand bookshops. I realize that more and more. I haven’t been to a ‘regular’ bookshop in a long time. It’s not that I don’t like first-hand bookshops (if you can call them that). I do, but I realize I’m not all that interested in the latest hardbacks or paperbacks. When I do go in, it’s sometimes to browse. But I generally know what I want and I generally know the shop has it in stock. In second-hand shops I also like the fact that you’re pretty much on your own. The shelves are packed, and it’s up to you to go digging for, well, whatever you’re after or whatever catches your attention, whether a title, a book cover, a recommendation, an author’s name, an author’s photograph, you name it.
I try to do the tour of the local shops here in Brussels on a more or less regular basis, so as to see what new titles have come in. Some places have a high turnover, others less so. Inevitably, there are the books that move and then there are those that just don’t seem to be going anywhere fast. Of those, there are the ones which you suspect will be on the shelves for a long time yet, and there are the ones you wonder what they’re doing there in the first place.
I’ve been going to the Ixelles branch of the second-hand bookshop Pêle-Mêle since it opened a year or two ago. The last books I bought there were Jim Thompson’s The Transgressors and The Grifters – because, well, it’s Jim Thompson – and Ben Elton’s The First Casualty – because I’m compiling a list of books set in full or in part in Belgium (see my post a few months back). I also bought James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water and Philip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case, two pretty good books I was happy to move off the shelves and which I hope will remain on my shelves for a long time yet.
Jack Finney’s Time and Again has been on the shelf from the start, and every time I see it I’m tempted to buy it. But the thing is I have the exact same Scribner paperback edition so there’s no reason for me to get it for myself. I could get it for someone else but as I wrote it in my previous post I’m not really good at getting books for other people. At times I’m tempted to just buy it for another browser or to tell them to buy it. And maybe one day I will, because it’s a great book.
I don’t really know how well known Time and Again is or not. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it until recently, not that that means anything. I’d heard of the film (Invasion of) The Body Snatchers – which has been adapted for the big screen three times, in 1956, 1978 and 1993 – but I don’t think I knew they were based on a novel by Finney about an extraterrestrial invasion where the aliens take over humans and strip them of emotions. Perhaps if I did know I dismissed him as a science-fiction writer, which was a mistake, because even though Time and Again is a time-travel story, it’s a great novel tout court.
It’s the story of Si Morley, an illustrator in an advertising agency who gets hired to work on a secret project to travel back in time. No time machine here: all you have to do, so to speak, is to study the era you’re going to be travelling to and then through self-hypnosis you make the change from one era to another. To help him imagine the late nineteenth century, Morley reads books and studies the clothes of the day, for instance, but he also relies on photographs – it’s a novel with pictures, there are quite a lot of them reproduced in it – and it works really well. As a reader, just as you have to imagine the era in which the novel is set, just as looking at the photographs and sketches forces you as a reader to try to imagine the actual reality behind these black-and-white snapshots, to give them colour (as the book cover below illustrates). Finney’s writing is so enticing that he really does manage to give life to the landscape and characters he creates.
It’s also a book that seems to have aged well, and whose subject lends itself well to the passing of time: reading the novel today, in the 2010s, you’re at enough of a distance from 1970 (when the novel was published) to get a sense of the changes that have taken place between the 1960s and the late nineteenth century. As a a reader you get to travel back in time twice, once with Morley, once on your own, and it’s a journey that’s well worth taking.
So if ever you’re near the Ixelles branch of the Pêle-Mêle bookstore in Brussels, head to fiction section on the first floor and take Finney’s Time and Again off the shelf and bring it home with you.
! Update: as of 6 January 2014, Finney’s Time and Again is no longer on the shelf at Pêle-Mêle in Ixelles! I don’t know who bought it, but I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.