Buy The Book
Bibliophilia Meets Automotive Lust
Have you noticed lately that even chain bookstores in suburban shopping malls have a pretty fair selection of automotive books and magazines? Walk in the front door. Bypass the checkout counter, dodge the regional author doing a book signing, skirt the children's reading circle and inhale but don't linger at the caf with its steaming lattes, crumbling biscotti and hissing cappuccino machine, and head straight for the magazine racks. Someplace, probably between the racks of soft-core porn that doubles as men's health and fitness magazines and the section devoted to computer geeks and digital photography, will be a whole group of magazines devoted to cars, trucks and motorcycles.
Magazines For Every Reason
It wasn't that long ago that the average magazine rack at the average bookstore would contain two or maybe three magazines dealing with cars. For the automotive enthusiast they were nearly as barren as an airport newsstand. But things have changed. There are now more than a half dozen serious general interest automotive magazines, a dozen more viable special interest car magazines (our beloved european car included), six or seven really good magazines from Europe and about 200 magazines devoted entirely to NASCAR. Okay, I am exaggerating a bit: There may only be five or six good magazines from Europe. If we ignore the weekly exploits of Jeff, Tony, Rusty, Kurt, Ricky, Little E, Sterling, Ward and Jimmy, we who love cars are still left with a pretty good choice of reading material.
My own preferences run to classic and sports cars, but really there is something for everyone. Hot rods, street rods, rice rockets, oval track, Formula One, old bikes, new bikes, crotch rockets, pickup trucks, SUVs, are all covered by magazines published by somebody somewhere. Large-breasted, scantily clad women seem popular on the covers in certain magazine demographics, while exotic Italian sports cars or supercharged Mustangs dominate others. It has always surprised me how many marque-specific magazines there are. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, MG, Land Rover, Triumph, Volkswagen, Ferrari and Porsche are all covered by more than one title on the better and more complete magazine racks. It is amazing how much time you can spend standing in front of a sea of brightly colored magazines, leafing through the pages of classified ads at the back of British classic car magazines. Some magazines have begun shrink wrapping their newsstand issues-an obvious attempt to get you to buy the thing before you read it-putting a real limitation on the joys of reading while standing in front of the racks.
Eventually, I will decide which one I want between three or four magazines. I have my favorites, but I am a sucker for any new title that is just starting out. I can't tell you the number of Volume 1, Issue 1 copies I have of magazines that never made it to Volume 1, Issue 2. Carefully, I replace the ones I won't be buying and just as carefully I find the stack of european car issues and move them to the front row. Hey, it can't hurt, right? Besides, I want to make sure your friends can find it easily when you tell them about that story that you read. Anyway, tucking my $5 or $6 or $7 magazine under my arm, I head off in search of the car book section.
If you can think of it, somebody has probably written a book about it. The surprise maybe isn't so much how many car books have been written, but that so many publishers think they can sell them. The wonderful result is that a book has been written about probably every car ever built, no matter how obscure. What's more, the rich tapestry of automotive and racing history has resulted in more books than ever about the most interesting events and people of the 20th century. If you can wade your way through the NASCAR section, there are an incredible number of gems to be found, describing the history of the Monaco Grand Prix, detailing the MG competition workshop in the 1950s, or recalling the pre-war racing history of the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows. If you are a fan of a particular old car, pickup or motorcycle, there will probably be a guide on how to find, buy and restore the object of your dreams. I may not be able to afford a 1950s Aston Martin right now, but I can afford an Aston Martin Buyer's Guide and dream of the possibilities. There usually aren't as many people hanging about reading the car books as there are in front of the magazine racks, and a quick once-over will usually help me find anything new that I haven't seen yet. Sometimes my eyes have to pass over a book on three or four separate occasions before my brain registers that it is something that would make a nice addition to my ever-expanding automotive library.
As well-stocked in automotive titles as the chain bookstores have become, the real bonanza is still found in used bookstores. Car books are never big sellers by the standards of the book industry and after a brief life often end up on discount shelves and eventually in used book bins. For you and me, this is the best thing that can possibly happen. For a quarter the cost of buying new, you can build an automotive library with genuine classics such as Mark Donohue's "Unfair Advantage," G.N. Georgano's "Encyclopedia of the Motorcar" or Ken Purdy's "The Kings of the Road." There is something entirely satisfying about sitting on a grimy tile floor in front of shelf after shelf of musty and dusty car books, trying to decide how many books you can get for $20. The Internet has of course improved the lot of the used book buyer, making it cleaner if nothing else. To me, however, there is still something about leafing through yellowed pages and hefting a book before making a final purchase decision (that makes the whole process more satisfying).
In 1999, Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and department chair at Duke University wrote a book called "The Book on the Bookshelf" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, ISDN 0-375-40649-2). Professor Petroski describes the evolution of the bookshelf from the earliest pre-Guttenberg days through the most modern library storage and retrieval methods. This book strikes a chord with me because, although car books are much easier to store than actual cars, they still are heavy and take up plenty of space. Over the years I have seen a lot of serious automotive bibliophiles store their books in innovative ways. I have seen whole basements-climate controlled and with industrial shelving-dedicated to the storage and easy retrieval of magazines, books and repair manuals. I have seen at least one person who tried to scan everything into his computer, eliminating the need for the actual books and storage shelves. It didn't work, because although the information was there, the enjoyment was lost in the process.
In my own case, I have a row of wooden bookshelves of various heights and from various manufacturers whose shelves sag slightly under the weight of my many automotive volumes. I do have the shelves organized, after a fashion, although the casual observer might not agree. There are shelves for individual car marques, placed roughly alphabetically. There are shelves for rally books, shelves for racing, shelves for automotive technology, a shelf or two for books on restoring antique and classics, a special shelf in a low bookcase for biographies and books that have special meaning or ones that were written by friends and acquaintances. There are a couple of shelves across the bottom that are reserved for oversized books that just don't fit anywhere else.
I used to keep magazines and car part catalogs on the shelves, too, but the number of books has crowded them out and pushed them into boxes that are stored on metal shelves in the garage. This is not an optimum solution as it is hard to get at them if I want to read a story about vintage Wartburgs or to find a car part number for the head gasket of a two-stroke Saab 96.
Sorry to say, I have also recently started throwing away back issues of magazines. I have tried to give them away, but nobody seems to want seven non-consecutive issues of "Classic and Sportscar" from 1986, so more often than not, they are going into the recycling bin. You can't save everything, I guess, but I keep wondering as the magazines head off to the dump how long it will be before I will need some obscure fact held in their oft-read pages.
One Thing Leads To Another
The joy of having so many car books doesn't come from sitting down to read them one by one. Often, one book chosen for research into a certain topic will lead you into two or three others as you cross-reference and recheck the details. Invariably, at least in my case, this will lead to a whole other bit of arcane information and soon several hours have gone by (been wasted?), delving into trivia that only a true automotive fanatic would appreciate. It is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, even if it does reduce one's overall productivity to ridiculously low levels. Sure, I could use the Internet to do this same sort of study, but it has been my experience that people who find information for their Web sites usually are pretty superficial, using only the most obvious sources and references to create their database. If you want the whole story, more than just the tip of the iceberg and deeper than the generally accepted story, you need to have a pretty comprehensive library of old and new books and magazines. Anyway, that's the excuse I use whenever I head to the bookstore and aim straight for the magazine racks. After all, it's just a part of the job.