Book Power Made Easy

by Craig Stark

#12, 16 February 2004

The Case for Flashpoints

Currently, there are about 29,000,000 million books and printed materials in the Library of Congress (LC) give or take a few million. Assuming that 2,000 books, placed end to end, would extend about a mile, this comes to 14,500 miles of books - a distance that would take you well over halfway around the world. What's more, LC by no means maintains a complete collection of everything ever printed. Far from it. For one thing, only half of its collection is in languages other than English, so it's safe to assume that far more foreign titles are not present in the collection than are. Doubtless a complete collection would get us entirely around the world several times.

Based on books that have passed through your hands as a seller, collector and/or reader, how far could you travel on your book know-how? A mile? 10 miles? 10 miles of books = 20,000. That's a lot to know - considerably more, I'd say, than average - but when we put this next to a trip around the world (about 25,000 miles), it looks like zip. Of course, we all know that nobody can know it all, but from this perspective, my gosh, 10 miles out of a possible 25,000 is .004%! And you thought you were knowledgeable about books?!

Well, surprise, you probably are, and to a much greater extent than these figures would ever suggest. When you come home from sales, research what you've purchased, you're probably more or less pleased at how well you've done. Many experienced booksellers I know (myself included) get things right, buy books worth reselling, over 50% of the time, some of us well over that amount. But how can this be? Have we traveled around the world, placing each book we have come to know, stepping-stone-wise, in front of us? Not even close.

We talk a lot about the value of knowledge at BookThink, and there's no doubt that the more knowledge you have about books, the better. But the nature of knowledge is such that some of it expands in our minds, becomes far more than it initially was, and some doesn't. The more expansive knowledge you're able to acquire, the smarter you'll be - and the faster you'll be smarter - and if you focus on the acquisition of expansive knowledge, invest more time in this than the acquisition of its more constrictive counterpart, you can literally leap frog over others who may have been selling or collecting books for years longer.

An example may help clarify things. When I was in college, the single most valuable course I took - by far - was something that you probably won't even find in most college curricula today. Also, oddly, it had nothing at all to do with courses that were in my so-called field. It was called "English Words from Latin and Greek Elements."

Essentially, it was a course in vocabulary building, but there was a twist. Instead of memorizing definitions of words we didn't know, we memorized Latin and Greek elements. These elements weren't necessarily Latin and Greek words as such but were most often derivatives which had found their way into English words and retained, to a large extent, their original meaning.

For example, if you didn't know what the English word transgress meant but did know something about the Latin elements contained in the word, there was a good chance that, in the context of what you were reading, you could puzzle out the meaning. In this case the element trans means across, and the element gress means step. Literally, then, transgress would translate to step across.

Well, step across what? If you were reading the Bible and came across "Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the Lord, that ye cannot prosper?" you'd instantly see that transgress means to step across the boundary of righteousness. The denotation of stepping across, that is, also includes the concept of sin or wrongdoing. What makes your knowledge of trans and gress powerful is that 100's of other English words have these same elements. If you know what trans means, you're halfway home with transmogrify. If you know what gress means, the same with egress, ingress, etc. Other examples abound.

I don't recall how many elements we memorized in that class. Maybe several hundred. But this small amount of knowledge expanded in my mind to include - with almost no effort at all - untold thousands of English words I either hadn't previously known the meanings of or had imperfectly understood until then. It was amazing to wake up months later with a hugely expanded vocabulary.

If you're wondering what this has to do with bookselling, think about how powerful a similar expansive system might be for identifying potentially resalable books. If it was possible to memorize a few hundred - or better, a few thousand - elements of books, elements that would help give you an indication of value for hundreds of thousands of books you had never seen before, wouldn't this be the answer to your prayers? Well, exchange the words flashpoints for Latin and Greek elements and books for English words, and you're there.

What are flashpoints? They're the Seven League Boots of bookselling. They'll get you around the world of book knowledge in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take.

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