Jonathan Come Lately—An Introduction
The first used book I can remember buying was a collection of jokes by Henny Youngman called Take This Book, Please, a reference to Youngman’s trademark quip, “Take my wife, please,” the formulaic line for many later oh-isn’t-my-wife-the-worst comedians. I bought it from Acorn Books, a used bookstore in Grandview, Ohio, where my father used to live. I spent a lot of time there over the years. I think the Youngman book appealed to me not because of the efficacy of its humor (Youngman’s brand of comedy elicited few laughs from my adolescent self) but rather for its form. It was a book I wouldn’t have to read cover to cover, in order; instead, I could flip open to any page and digest short little bits. It was, I now realize, a resource.
I don’t know what it was that initially drew me to books, but whatever it was Acorn Books amplified it and, most importantly, specified it. Yes, I wanted to know what was in these volumes, as if they contained within them secrets to the universe or magic spells reserved for the literarily initiated. But I also just wanted to be around all these books. It wasn’t merely the content; it was also the container. The aisles of Acorn Books, a relatively small establishment, represented an aesthetic I’ve been chasing ever since: rooms with wall-to-wall books. My current apartment resembles a used bookstore almost more than it does an ordinary living space. I own 21 bookshelves, all stuffed to the edges, and numerous piles of books besides. I am a book collector, a book hound, a bibliophile, an obsessive.
I’m also a critic, and this vocation has justified the increasing volume of volumes overtaking my apartment like overeducated vines, Ivy League ivies. The word I always use is resource. Reviewing books is a capricious enterprise, inasmuch as I’m never certain which books or authors I’ll be writing about in a given month, so my library serves as research materials. I can’t tell you how many times a book that has languished on my shelves for years unread suddenly becomes an invaluable resource to an essay or review. In this way, my books have been transformed from a hobby undergirding my passion to a vital component of my career. Criticism is the art; books are the materials. They are my life’s work.
In my itinerant existence—from Columbus to Las Vegas to Boston to Oxford to Wilmington and back again, with numerous side quests throughout—I’ve haunted used bookstores, thrift shops, little free libraries, garage sales, my friend’s homes, the fucking sidewalk, for books. I’ve been to City Lights and Shakespeare & Company and the Strand, but also every tiny, hidden spot in nearly every city I’ve visited. On my last trip to New York, I hit up six different stores (it was one of those 25,000-step days). If I stay with you in your city, the first thing I’ll ask is about the local bookeries (don’t disappoint me).
As I’ve jostled from shelf to shelf amassing this increasingly unwieldy collection, there have been a great number of books that I’ve never had the chance to write about, books that will probably never serve as a resource for anything, books that fascinate me for their own sake, books that are just so fucking weird that I had to buy them even though I knew they were of dubious utility. Oftentimes, they are books that I simply missed for whatever reason, that I later stumble on, read, and want to expound upon. Some are books I can’t believe were ever published; others are books I can’t believe aren’t considered classics. And occasionally I wind up with old or first or rare editions of a book that I love and just want to gush over the discovery.
Mostly I’ve contented myself with the occasional essay for a publication that allows for such pieces or with boring my uninterested friends and family, but now Tasteful Rude has given me the wonderful opportunity to finally focus my attention not on new books coming out right now but anything and everything that tickles my fancy from my extensive and eclectic personal library. “Jonathan Come Lately” has been a dream of mine for many years, a monthly column detailing the choicest selections from my book-obsessed life. I plan to write about a vast variety of genres—from novels to biographies to comic books—and hope to feature as many eras as possible, though as the older an edition is the more expensive it tends to be and thus I don’t often buy many pre-20th-century books (except, of course, in reissued form), so the titles will mostly come from the past hundred or so years, at least at first. Because not only has “Jonathan Come Lately” given me reason to write about the books I already own, it has also inspired me to travel around to tiny hamlets and far-flung locales specifically for this column.
Just as much as I want to celebrate the beautiful oddities of literature, I want also to extol the joys of used bookstores, to include as often as I can (my memory of some my purchases from years previous may be a little muddy) the names of these establishments, their locations and, if applicable, their stories. These shops have provided me with vital nourishment, loyal companionship, and vivifying engagement. In whatever manner I’m able, I hope to return a semblance of their favors.
I no longer have that Henny Youngman book, but I still remember some of the jokes. The one that has recurred in my head the most over the years is this one: “A self-taught man usually has a poor teacher and a worse student.” I’m not an historian or an academic, just a lover of books. I do not pretend to literary expertise, but rather the passion of a critic. I have no pretense to teach, only to celebrate. My selections are completely idiosyncratic and capricious, so if some of them don’t seem obscure or revelatory or varied enough to you, please excuse me: I had a really awful teacher.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.