Category Archives: Books

“Largest and Strangest”: John K. King Books

John K. King Used & Rare Books, Detroit

“Did you know one of America’s best used bookstores is in Detroit?”

I can honestly say I didn’t–not until my friend clued me in. I knew Detroit had a fantastic art museum, incredible Greek food, and a thriving underground music scene. But the best used book store? That distinction had somehow passed me by.

“Best” is in the eye of the beholder, of course. In this case, the beholder was Salon Magazine, and what they actually wrote was this:

Standing defiantly amid one of Detroit’s many surreal, post-apocalyptic ruin-scapes is a place that has to be experienced to be believed: John King Books. Converted from an abandoned 1940s glove factory, John King is a five-story wooden maze stuffed stairwells-to-ceilings with used and rare books — one of the largest and strangest collections in North America.

Having now seen John K. King for myself, I know that no single post can do it justice. It really is a maze–so much so that one of the first things the employees do when you walk through the door is hand you a map. The stacks are organized, but only roughly, with sections as specific as 50’s-era middle grade boys’ chapter books and as general as…well…

Jesus, John K. King Used & Rare Books, Detroit

Honestly, though, the haphazard organization of the store’s estimated one million books is part of the fun. You never know what you’re going to find around the next corner. Will it be vintage adventure books with snicker-worthy titles…?

The Wailing Octopus, John K. King Used & Rare Books, Detroit

Hee hee.

Teeny Gay, John K. King Used & Rare Books, Detroit

HAR HAR

A Matter of Spunk, John K. King Used & Rare Books, Detroit

*spit take*

Or perhaps something a bit more on the naughty side…?

Guide New Edge, John K. King Used & Rare Books, Detroit

I don’t know what “techno-erotic paganism” is, but I assume it’s naughty.

“Something for everyone” is such a dull platitude, but it rings true in this case. I myself walked away with a book of 501 Japanese verbs (thrill a minute!) and a spectacularly trashy novel called The Pleasure Palace, which I’ll review in a week or two.

In the meantime, here are some more pictures:

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Back Bay Books: The 2015 Boston Book Festival

BBF

This post is the very definition of “long-overdue”–the 2015 BBF took place on October 24th, which scientific sources inform me was three and a half weeks ago. Never mind. I’m in grad school, so it’s a minor miracle when I’m able to post at all.

I went to the Boston Book Festival chiefly to get a feel for the small-press literary scene in Massachusetts. To that end, I bought a fat stack of local literary journals. Behold!

haul

Whether owning said journals will lead to future publishing success is anyone’s guess. When I lived in Michigan, I wound up publishing pieces with outfits based in Albany and Canada, so, you know. There’s not really a correlation between where you live and which periodicals accept you.

Anywho, here’s some other stuff I saw: Continue reading

Let Sleeping Gods Lie: The Forbidden Necronomicon

(Recently, I was asked to create a faux blog for my Writing for Media Professionals course. Because the resulting “site,” Libris Obscuriis tonally similar to my author blog, I’ve decided to reproduce three of its “posts” here. It’s a shame to let content go to waste, after all!)

That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.”
Abdul Alhazred, the Necronomicon

The Necronomicon is no doubt the most famous grimoire ever to have existed. Penned in 738 A.D. by a Yemeni cultist, the book is said to contain magic spells, forbidden knowledge, and a system for summoning ancient gods known collectively as the Old Ones. Though heavily suppressed from its inception, the Necronomicon spread through underground channels. It was translated into Greek in 950, into Latin in 1228, and into English by Elizabethan magician John Dee in the early seventeenth century. Its dark influence is subtle but inescapable, even today.

The Necronomicon, H.P. Lovecraft

Except not really. As entertaining as it is to believe that such a book might exist, the Necronomicon remains stubbornly fictional. The concept of a cursed manuscript that drives its readers insane originated with author H.P. Lovecraft and his cronies, who began mentioning the Necronomicon in their work around 1922. Contemporary horror writers and directors have continued the tradition—references to the Necronomicon have popped up in Friday the 13th, the Evil Dead, and even Archie Comics.

Even Harvard University has gotten in on the fun. According to Lovecraft, Harvard’s Widener Library is one of only five institutions worldwide to house a copy of the dread tome (the others being the British Museum, the Biblioteque nationale de France, the University of Buenos Aires, and the fictional Miskatonic University). If you poke around on the Widener website, you’ll find several listings for the book. None of them are the genuine article, of course.

Where Do I Find It?

Unreadable: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

(Recently, I was asked to create a faux blog for my Writing for Media Professionals course. Because the resulting “site,” Libris Obscuriis tonally similar to my author blog, I’ve decided to reproduce three of its “posts” here. It’s a shame to let content go to waste, after all!)

In 1912, Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich bought a manuscript. It was 240 pages long, contained hundreds of full-color illustrations, and seemed just the sort of dusty tome that would appeal to Voynich’s antiquarian clientele. There was just one problem: Voynich couldn’t read it.

He showed it to some professional academics. They couldn’t read it either.

Neither could the amateur cryptographers. Or the professional codebreakers.

Voynich Manuscript

When Voynich died in 1930, the mystery of his eponymous manuscript was still unsolved. To this day, no one knows what language the text is written in, or even how many distinct characters it consists of. The Voynich Manuscript has seduced and stymied generations of researchers, none of whom have been able to determine where it came from, what it’s about, or who on earth wrote it.

What We Know
Little is certain when it comes to the Voynich Manuscript. It appears to consist of six different sections covering herbs, astronomy, biology, cosmology, pharmaceutics, and recipes. None of the plants pictured are identifiable, and the biology illustrations are just a bunch of tiny naked women in bathtubs.

Carbon-dating indicates that the book was written in the early 1400’s, but even that’s tentative. The first known reference to the Voynich Manuscript is from 1666, while one of its previous owners stated that it was written by a Franciscan friar in the thirteenth century.

Where Do I Find It?

  • Title: Voynich Manuscript
  • Genre: Pharmacopoeia(?)
  • Location: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
    Yale University Library
    121 Wall Street
    New Haven, CT 06511
  • Hours: Closed for renovation until September 2016.

No Skin Off My Nose: The Unappetizing Narrative of the Life of James Allen

(Recently, I was asked to create a faux blog for my Writing for Media Professionals course. Because the resulting “site,” Libris Obscuriis tonally similar to my author blog, I’ve decided to reproduce three of its “posts” here. It’s a shame to let content go to waste, after all!)

In a room at the Boston Athaeneum, there is a locked box; and in that box, there is a book. Take the book out. Run your hands over its cover. See how pale it is. Feel how bumpy. Raise it to your nose and inhale the dust of two centuries. Imagine the author and his surroundings. Get drunk on nostalgia for a time and place you’ve never visited.

Now listen to me as I reveal the following: The book you’re holding is made of human skin.

Narrative of the Life of James Allen, bound in human skin.

You didn’t throw the book on the ground just now, did you? That was a bad idea. Pick it up. Dust it off. Stick it back in the box and hope nobody noticed. Narrative of the Life of James Allen is one of the rarest volumes in the Athaeneum’s collection.

Penned in 1837 by condemned highwayman James Allen, Narrative is both an autobiography and a confession. Allen, it seems, was a bit of a self-promoter. If he was going to be executed by the state, he was going to leave society something to remember him by—particularly one member of society, Mr. John A. Fenno.

It was Fenno who turned Allen in after Allen unsuccessfully tried to rob him. Allen didn’t nurse any hard feelings, though. He was impressed. So impressed, in fact, that he had a personalized copy of his opus sent to Fenno with his compliments—and three square feet of his skin.

Binding books in human skin wasn’t unheard of in those days. But a criminal requesting his skin be put to that purpose? That was something special.

Where Do I Find It?

  • Title: Narrative of the Life of James Allen
  • Genre: Autobiography
  • Location: Boston Athaeneum
    10 ½ Beacon Street
    Boston, MA 02108
  • Hours: Mon-Thurs 9 am – 8 pm
    Fri 9 am – 5:30 pm
    Sat 9 am – 4 pm
    Sun 12 pm – 4 pm

Forbidden Knowledge: The Necronomicon at Harvard

Harvard Yard

They’ve got some real sloppy security at Harvard University. I tried to visit the Widener Library this evening, and they wouldn’t let me in. Yet they had no problem admitting Wilbur Whateley.

Dean Stockwell, The Dunwich Horror

In fairness, he does look a lot more trustworthy than I do.

For years I’ve dreamed of visiting Harvard–not for its rarefied Ivy League atmosphere or its storied history, but for its card catalog. Harvard’s Widener Library, according to H.P. Lovecraft, is one of only five institutions possessing a copy of Abdul Alhazared’s The Necronomicon. Of the remaining four, three of them are in other countries and one of them is at Miskatonic University, which doesn’t exist. So Widener is really the only option for most enterprising students of forbidden lore.

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YA Wonderland: A Look Back at Our Adolescent Favorites

Young adult literature has enjoyed a surge in popularity recently–not so much among its target audience, which has always embraced it and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, as among people my age. Twenty, thirty, and even forty-somethings are big into YA. They eat it. They breathe it. They inject it into their eyeballs and snort it up their nostrils until it eats away at their septums.

If you’re wondering why YA is having a moment, you’ll have to seek answers somewhere else. I read young adult books occasionally, but I have no particular affinity for the genre. When people tell me that the YA landscape is full of rich characterization and savory plotting, I believe them. I do. I just haven’t come across many YA books that speak to me. A lot of them seem preoccupied with romantic entanglements, and I’m not a very romantic person. If a handsome, mysterious boy came tearing around a corner and told me to follow him if I wanted to live, I’d probably call the police.

That’s not to say I was never into YA. I read heaps of it in middle school. Only now, in my comparative old age, am I starting to realize just how loony most of it was.

Join me for a fond look back at some of the YA writers of yesteryear. Continue reading