The Old Bookseller, or
How Can We Best Age in the Trade?

by Craig Stark

22 June 2013

Part II: Mental Fitness

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A month or so ago I was at a sale liquidating the estate of a recently deceased, eightysomething widow. There were books in every room, thousands of them overall, and surprisingly, most of them were relatively new. Topics were varied, but there was an especially strong emphasis on spiritual development with, happily, many occult titles present. There were also dozens of relatively new Great Courses DVD's on diverse topics - and generally, it was obvious that some serious learning was going on even as this lady reached the end. It struck me that her life must have been a pretty close manifestation of something proposed by Mahatma Gandhi:

"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

Recently I recall reading that the average age of booksellers was something around 60, also that the average length of time spent in the trade was less than 10 years. Not young, by most standards, and not overly experienced either. And yet there are few trades that make the demands on knowledge that bookselling does. What this suggests is that booksellers need to follow Gandhi's advice with, as a noted radio talk show host puts it, gazelle intensity: For most of us, there isn't an unlimited amount of time left to be a bookseller, and there is so very much to learn.

Consequently, mental fitness, as we age, is huge. And perhaps memory loss is the first thing that comes to mind in this context. Booksellers with good memories have a decided advantage over those who do not, that is, assuming they exercise them by persistent study and application. For years here I have emphasized the importance of dedicated study, the kind of activity that happens independently of your day-to-day bookselling activities. No doubt much is learned passively via the bookselling process itself, but much more can be learned by active study. And should be if this is to be more than a hobby. Unfortunately, memory is often one of the early things to head south as we grow older. But does it have to be? Are there perhaps mental exercises we can do, games we can play, etc., to keep our minds sharp for bookselling?

Here are a few things I do, and again, these are just examples of what has worked well for me, realizing that preferences are idiosyncratic and alternative possibilities seemingly endless:

The TV show Jeopardy is as good a place to start as any. It forces me to reach back into my memory, reinforcing it as I do. It also tests my ability to rearrange scrambled letters into something meaningful, make word associations and more. And it doesn't hurt that author and book topics come up often, as do historical topics, which play strongly into bookselling. Watching a show like this is a relaxing thing to do at the end of a day's work, and just look at how sharp it's kept a now seventysomething Alex Trebek.

Solving crossword puzzles is another good memory exercise, perhaps even better than Jeopardy, and New York Times puzzles are especially good. Difficult puzzles can challenge our memories, and if you can't get a word from a clue at the outset, letters are added to the blank squares as the puzzle solving progresses, usually in steps, giving us multiple opportunities to visualize the entire word. This mental process reminds me of edition identification whereby various issue points are observed, one by one, until there is a final determination of what you have.

Bookselling also places a premium on instant or near instant recognition of books, especially at competitive sales, whether it's recognizing the absence or presence of value by way of what I call flashpoints. It's all well and good to know many flashpoints, but the longer it takes to apply them, the less useful they are. How can you speed this?

For several years now, just before sitting down to write, I've been playing a ca. 1989 game called Tetris. This is the mean, lean original version, released before unending bells and whistles were added, making it distracting and far too bloated for me. What it forces you to do is visualize how differently shaped, quickly descending blocks, if turned and moved left or right with keystrokes, might fit into seamless lines that disappear at the bottom and award you points - and these points can be used to measure the acuity of the mental activity itself. The game accelerates as you accumulate points and soon demands that you make near instant decisions on how to turn a block and where to move it. Also, off to the right side, there's a preview window containing the next block. It's possible to focus squarely on the screen and just make out the preview block so as to have a moment to ponder where to put it before it plunges into view on the main screen. This activity almost mimics that of standing before, say, a wall of books and quickly picking out what's important, sometimes spotting things out of the corner of one's eye.

Doubtless there are many more games, puzzles, etc., that will support mental activity, but if you aren't doing anything now to stay sharp, it might not hurt to take a look at the various mental efforts you make in bookselling and investigate recreational activities that require similar, more intense efforts.

Just as it is with physical fitness, diet and/or dietary supplements can support mental fitness. Again, antioxidants reputedly help the cause by fighting free radicals that cause neuron damage. And since the brain is about 60% fat, consuming good quality fats, like those found in cold water fish, some oils and a few other foods, can be very beneficial to brain health.

But I'd like to share a personal anecdote about a specific "brain" food I discovered recently - coconut oil. Years ago coconut oil was a dietary outcast, still is to some. Not only was its caloric content 100% fat, the argument went, but 58% of that fat was saturated. And we all knew (or thought we knew) that saturated fat was a killer. There was, in fact, a notorious mid-century study of coconut oil that all but established that this product would clog our arteries and send us to early graves. Funny thing, though, hydrogenated coconut oil was used in the study, and that made all the difference. More recently it's been established that pure, refined, cold pressed (non-hydrogenated) coconut oil actually improves lipid profiles, especially by increasing the amount of good (HDL) cholesterol.

Some time ago I came across a series of YouTube interviews featuring Dr. Mary Newport and her husband Steve. Steve has Alzheimer's, and the disease had progressed significantly when Dr. Newport stumbled upon coconut oil as a potential treatment. It held promise because of its significant percentage of medium chain triglycerides, which the liver converts primarily into ketones as opposed to storing as fat - and, by the way, are largely missing from the most commonly consumed oils on the market today. Ketones, in turn, act upon the brain and, to make a long story short, have slowed the progress of her husband's disease and restored some of the functionality he had lost. You'll need about an hour to watch the entire interview, but it's an hour well spent.

For those of us who don't have Alzheimer's - well, I need to keep this about me because so far the evidence of it benefiting others is largely anecdotal, though Dr. Richard L. Veech is conducting important and promising ketone research as we speak. Early last year I began to experience occasional episodes of what I'll call, for lack of a better term, brain fog, in which my cognitive functions were clearly not at their best. This is not good for a bookseller, of course, and, recalling the Dr. Newport interview, I decided to take a closer look at coconut oil as a possible remedy. Turns out there were no shortage of positive reviews and testimonials for this product as a treatment for brain fog as well as dementia, and it was shortly thereafter that I started a 2-tablespoon daily regimen.

Bingo. Within hours of taking this for the first time I noticed a significant boost of energy - ketones will produce this effect - and in the week that followed it was very clear that my cognitive functions had grown considerably sharper. No brain fog episodes since. None. I remember thinking after writing the recent Gone With the Wind Author Report that, because of the unusual complexity of the book's publishing history, I would likely have had some difficulty getting this done in a timely manner previous to taking coconut oil. So watch out. I may be dangerous now.

By the way, if you watch the interview, you'll hear Dr. Newport talk about MCT oil. This is manufactured from coconut oil and essentially consists of the medium chain triglyceride portion of it, that is, it's a more concentrated form of the very thing that most helps brain function. I haven't tried any yet, but it's on the way.

And don't forget - when all else fails in mental fitness, there is always this:

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