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July 09, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

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Owning the Sierra Nevada

The Short History of a Long Infatuation

Brent Harold

Kinnacum Press: 144 pp.,

$12.95 paper

IN 1968, Brent Harold, along with nine friends, bought 20 acres near Donner Pass, in the Sierra Nevada. All 10 were unmarried academics living south of San Francisco, expatriates from the East. Buying the land was a commitment to their friendship, but also to their youth and to Jack Kerouac's Wild West -- an edgy West, the West of metaphor. Buying a "piece of the mythic terrain" outside the "context of marriage or business, merely to celebrate friendship, was in its own way a typical moment in that utopian era."

Harold went back East to teach English at Brown University, but the Sierra land had taken hold of his imagination: "[T]he transcendent environment felt like the home this easterner never had in the East.... I was always slightly amazed to be there, as if I really belonged to the other, messier world." In the 38 years he has owned the land, Harold has spent no more than three to four months on it, but its importance in his life looms large. In the first years, he visited it for a few days each summer. ("We pored over the country," he writes, "like a sacred text.") "Owning the Sierra Nevada" is more than a meditation on what he calls "the romance of place." It's a simple little book about decades of yearning.

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The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

A Memoir, a History

Lewis Buzbee

Graywolf Press: 180 pp., $17

LEWIS BUZBEE has spent his life in bookstores. Still, each time he enters one, he feels the same excitement he felt as a child. As promised in its subtitle, "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" is equal parts history and memoir. Buzbee describes his various bookstore jobs -- at Upstart Crow in San Jose, at Printers Inc. in Palo Alto -- and his seven-year career as a publisher's sales rep.

"A bookstore is for hanging out," he writes. "Imagine going into a department store, trying on a new jacket, and walking around in it for half an hour, maybe coming back the following Wednesday to try it on again, with no real intention of buying it." Buzbee takes us from the back rooms filled with bookstore clutter to the book stalls run by itinerant hawkers in the first millennium; from the coffeehouses of Berkeley to the library of Alexandria, where books were made of papyrus; from the hotel rooms of book salesmen to the stores run by unscrupulous booksellers in the Enlightenment.

His is the world of independent booksellers, but he does not see the chain stores as "evil corporate ogres" (at least, he admits parenthetically, "not yet"). Each year in the U.S., 150,000 titles are published, he reports; that's 410 a day, plenty for all kinds of bookstores. Buzbee breaks down the average $25 hardcover price tag and explores the future of POD (print on demand) books and their effect on bookstore sales. In the end, the true beauty of the bookstore, for Buzbee, lies not just in the community it creates but also in what Elias Canetti called the sheer joy of "being alone among others."

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Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

Robert Musil, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman

Archipelago Books: 200 pp.,

$15 paper

THIS little book, originally published in Zurich in 1936, six years before Musil's death, is full of what the author called "the passionate energy of the idea." It is a collection of small stories and observations, like Musil's effort to feel what flies feel when stuck on flypaper: "Here they stand all stiffly erect ... like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, the way you stand on a sharp edge)." Or the beautiful piece titled "Clearhearing," in which he describes his feverishly heightened hearing as he listens to his lover in the next room getting ready to join him in bed. And there is the essay "The Man Without Character," containing the seeds of the poet-philosopher's great opus, "The Man Without Qualities." This is as essential, as close to the bone, as the written word can get: "Light doesn't shine on this and that, but spills out over everything as from an accidentally overturned bucket."

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