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(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Mark Schatzker

Ruminate this, Oprah: Pomposity sells books, too Add to ...

If you've never visited the Trinity College book sale, which is taking place as you read this, there's something you should know: It is this country's - and possibly this continent's - greatest celebration of the allegedly dead medium known as the printed word. There are some 50,000 books being hawked, ranging from a rare 1884 world atlas selling for $100 to vintage literary paperbacks - Eliot, Hemingway, Richler - selling for pocket change. Nowhere else will you find a table of secondhand theology books assembled by an actual theologian.

More to the point, nowhere else will you find so many good books selling for so cheap. The reason? In a word: Pomposity. Trinity College is a cloistered little wonderland of 19th-century affectation that is one part Hogwarts and two parts Oxford, a sanctuary of Victorian decorum that harkens to an era when people had better taste in books.

This is the college, after all, whose Windsor Club is devoted to the appreciation of fine scotch and cigars (they have a humidor) and where students recently reissued a crimson blazer with black piping - for men - that hadn't been worn in decades. This is a college that still enforces a dress code (collared shirt, jacket, tie, gown) at dinner and where, if you see a student reading Kant and wearing an ascot, you are not seeing a ghost. I am acquainted with one Trinity undergrad who, at the tender age of 22, drinks port, wears tweed, abhors denim, and reads Brideshead Revisited once a year.

Contrary to appearances, however, the college is not populated by actual entitled WASPs whose Orangemen forefathers squeezed great fortunes out of old Toronto. The place attracts some of the University of Toronto's most academically gifted students, who are said to be disproportionately diverse compared to the rest of campus. They just act like entitled WASPs.

There is a word for this category of behaviour: pretension. But before anyone goes knocking it, is pretension really all that bad? When you consider that typical campus coeds prefer to define themselves with facial tattoos or tweeting about random sexual encounters (prior to posting grainy cellphone-video footage to the internet), tweed and port seem almost subversive.

When it comes to secondhand-book sales, pretension is your friend. Consider the University College book sale, which was held last week. UC, as it's known on campus, has long been the liberal yin to Trinity's starched-collar yang, a haven for progressives and non-WASPy types that was at one point known as Jew C, for reasons you can probably figure out.

Now consider their book sale - specifically the food section, which featured painfully middle-class tomes of yesteryear such as Great Meals in Minutes, 125 Microwave Oven Recipes, and Chopstix. Is it possible to behold a cookbook like 125 Best Microwave Oven Recipes and not be transported to some Etobicoke bungalow circa 1988 filled with the aroma of 15-minute coq au vin being exhaled by the Amana RadarRange above the dishwasher?

The cooking section at the Trinity book sale offers a rosier, more dignified vision of post-campus domesticity. Five dollars got me M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating, a compendium of five gastronomical works by that legend of food writing. It came, accordingly, with a Pygmalion bookmark from the 2004 Shaw Festival, and on the inside cover I found the following inscription: "Dear Linden, I could not think of anyone who could make better use of this book. Sit back, relax, stir the martinis and enjoy! Lots of Love, Andrea."

(Linden, are you out there? Does Andrea know you ditched her book? Don't worry, I won't say a thing. P.S. Is the recipe for oyster gumbo any good?) This year, some kindly Trinity alumnus (alumna?) donated the second volume of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I nabbed it for $5. (For the record, I was into Julia Child back before it was trendy.) I also bought In the Highlands and Islands ($4) by John McPhee, whose prose I am basically addicted to.

I've never been what you would call a Brideshead Revisited guy. But every year I comb the offerings for Waugh's travel writing, which has always proven impossible to find.

Until yesterday, that is, when I found Remote People, Waugh in Abyssinia and Ninety-Two Days : A Journey in Guiana and Brazil, 1932, each of which was going for two bucks. The latter of the three features Waugh on the cover in some kind of Victorian explorer's get-up, pith helmet and all, that looks so flagrantly colonial that wearing it today on the streets of Toronto would probably get you dragged in front of one of those human-rights commissions.

I plan on reading it tonight. I think I'll put on my tweed hat - a gift, I swear - and pour myself a glass of port. Too bad I don't own an ascot.

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