I check the mountaineering section first. Often it doesn’t change between my yearly visits. I find a copy of Scrambles Amongst the Alps, sixth edition, hardcover. Sixth edition is 1936. The book had been in print 65 years at that point. This edition has a dust cover (tattered) and the six foldout maps. Since my only copy of this is cheap paperback, it’s a no-brainer to pick it up. The story culminates in Edward Whymper’s tragic first ascent of the Matterhorn, its last paragraph remains among the truest observations ever made about climbing, oft-quoted and easily found, if you’re interested.
In the “new” introduction, added to the original by Whymper in 1900, he observes: “The pleasure they [these scrambles] cannot be transferred to others. The ablest pens have failed, and I think, must always fail, to give a true idea of the grandeur of the Alps.”
I wander around, aimless. John King holds over a million books on its four floors, an abandoned glove factory in its previous incarnation. A clerk sporting a black leather jacket adorned with patches and messages which I can’t casually inspect well enough to actually read, asks if he can help me. I ask if he has any Wittgenstein, realizing immediately that I had meant Benjamin. He strides ahead vigorously toward the Wittgenstein, as if to demonstrate that, of course, Wittgenstein is always at one’s fingertips.
“We have Zettel,” he announces victoriously.
"You have Zettel,” I parrot back, as in disbelief. I have never heard of Zettel, but try not to betray this suddenly embarrassing fact.
“Yes,” he says, “Zettel” and he takes it from the shelf and thrusts it into my hands in one quick motion.
I cannot hide my admiration for a person who in a building holding one million books knows the exact location of Zettel.
Zettel contaiuns the collected fragments found in a “box-file” after Wittgenstein’s death. The text is in German on the left pages, translated to English on the right. I turn randomly to entry 160: “The way music speaks. Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”
I decide instantly to acquire Zettel.
“Do you have any Benjamin?” I remember to ask, remembering also to pronounce Benjamin correctly.
“No,” he says, “we cannot keep Benjamin in stock.” He pronounced Benjamin even more correctly than I had.
Somehow I find this a reason for hope, not just for the city of Detroit, but for the world in general. The market for Benjamin has never been stronger!
I wander about, pausing to inspect a copy of Unter dem Vulkan. I guess a have a strain of the German language running through my mind today, unbidden. Even though can’t read German I desire this for some reason, even though I have five copies of it in English. I exercise a smidgen of self control and pass.
Being in John K. King Books is one of my life’s greatest pleasures. You could go to Detroit for two days and spend half your time at the Detroit Institute of Arts and half the time in John King. Two of the richest days you could ever have. You should do it.