Chalk, salamanders, and sauropods at The Last Bookstore

January 5, 2018

Vicki and London and I were in downtown Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding on Dec. 30, and afterward we visited The Last Bookstore. Embarrassingly, even though I’m LA-adjacent, I had not been before. I believe the mounted woolly mammoth visible in the far corner was one of the last ones to be shot in the LA Basin.

The Last Bookstore is an awesome place, with two floors of new and used books, records, comics, and related esoterica. Made me nostalgic for Logos in downtown Santa Cruz, which sadly closed shop this past summer.

The visit was a momentous occasion for me. Although my book with Mark Hallett has been out for almost a year and a half now, and many copies have passed through my hands at book signings, I’d never run into one out in the wild.

I quickly and quietly did a guerilla signing, and left the book on the shelf. And I intend to keep doing them, as often as I run into unsigned copies. As a public service message, if you ever find a copy of the book out in the world that looks like it’s been signed by me, it’s probably legit (send me a pic or post in the comments if you have doubts). Since I’m inflicting these on an unsuspecting public, if you get stuck with a signed copy but would prefer otherwise, let me know and I’ll swap a fresh book for your vandalized one.

I also did okay finding books for myself. I got two: On a Piece of Chalk, by Thomas Henry Huxley, and The Anatomy of the Salamander, by Eric T.B. Francis.

On a Piece of Chalk is a legendary bit of natural history. In 1868, T.H. Huxley gave a public lecture with that title to the working folk of Norwich, during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. A piece of chalk was both his physical tool and his subject, which he used to illustrate, literally and figuratively, the evidence for uniformitarian stratigraphy and biological evolution. Huxley’s talk has been printed twice: later in 1868 by Macmillan’s Magazine of London, and in a nice hardback in 1967 by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. I found a copy of the latter for five bucks, which I note is the going rate for used copies on Amazon. But I can’t actually find any evidence that my copy has been used. It appears to be utterly pristine, and I suspect it may be New Old Stock.

If you don’t own a copy of this wonderful book, you should drop what you’re doing, acquire one, and read it. If you’re reading this blog, you probably know Huxley’s punchline. But the way Huxley draws the reader in, illustrates his points with clear and compelling examples, and builds his argument steadily outward, from a piece of chalk to the vertiginous spectacle of deep time, is masterful in both concept and execution.

I know less about the salamander anatomy book, but I snagged it anyway. It’s a reprint of an original 1934 text, published in 2002 by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. Reproduction quality is excellent, especially of the numerous and minutely detailed plates. I picked up the book for two reasons: one, because I’m getting progressively more interested in the peripheral nervous systems of nonhuman tetrapods, and two, because I have a peculiar fetish for good illustrations of the recurrent largyneal nerve, especially in short-necked animals (for example). I did not come away disappointed.

The moral of the story? Stay alert for good natural history writing. I find that older natural history books turn up in used bookstores pretty regularly, and it’s possible to grow your library inexpensively if you are patient. And support your local bookstore, while it’s still there to support.

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2 Responses to “Chalk, salamanders, and sauropods at The Last Bookstore”

  1. Allen Hazen Says:

    Don’t know when I’m likely to be in LA, but just in case… what’s the address? Good bookstores are (increasingly) hard to find!

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    453 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90013. Website is here.


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