Of course, what’s lacking in today’s publishing world is humility, moderation. Book advertising is all exclamation points and capital letters. This Is The Next Twilight! This Book Is Unique Because There’s No Other Book Like It! Buy This Book Or Your Life Is A Total Loss!
It wasn’t always thus, mustard macaroon. This week brought the Book Fair a wonderful title from 1907, the first copy I have ever seen of Webster’s Adequate Dictionary. One is attracted at once by the small brown cover with its title in small type, and one sees what we have lost.
The book spoils things inside a bit by explaining: “The most cursory examination of this work will demonstrate the singular and unapproached excellence of its defnitions.” For a book with a more retiring attitude, it is necessary to turn to Lin Yueh-hwa’s “The Golden Wing”, a study of Chinese familial relations published by the Oxford University Press in 1947. Anyway, it says so on the title page and on the copyright page, where it notes “First Published in 1947”.
But this is the Oxford University Press, gingerbread goulash. A small note has been affixed to the next page, wherein, using small but authoritative type, we are informed “Due to production delays, this book was not published until 1948.” Do you see today’s publishers coming out with instant retractions that way?
I hope you can tell from these two examples that it has been another Smurf week. (I hope it’s a Smurf week. PLEASE don’t let it be a Smurf month.) When the Smurfs come marching in, you don’t know what may come in for the Book Fair’s consideration.
A nice gentleman who has been sending me a complete run of Scientific American, issue by issue as he finds them around the house, sent me three Christmas gift bags (one has what I think is last year’s egg nog spilled on it) and three small boxes of what appear to be unused greeting cards. We happen to sell unused greeting cards, in case you hadn’t noticed, but, um, he kind of spoiled it by including not one single envelope. These things happen only in our Smurf Singalong Periods.
I cannot count the man who showed up to make a delivery wearing, with no sign whatever that this was unorthodox, a fine bowler hat. He was delivering something for somebody else. Pity. I bet his book collection is interesting.
That leatherbound New Testament from 1870 had a note inside saying that the owner’s grandson did not believe this to be an authentic inscription by Charles Dickens. But I looked it up anyhow. I suppose the fact that they bought the book six months after the death of Charles Dickens AND that the quotation is from his will might have tipped them off.
We had the estates of two genealogists, each mixing genealogy with novels and flyers on Newberry operating hours. (I didn’t realize the reading rooms were still open until 9:30 P.M. when I started working the Book Fair. That was only…well, it was several years ago.) Much of their genealogical libraries went upstairs to be checked against the collection, but that three-ring binder filled with late Victorian family photos—all unlabeled—isn’t ESPECIALLY useful to researchers. It’s mine, all mine. In fact it may well be mine twenty years hence, because I can’t think of a reason for anyone to buy it.
The other collection had other genealogical works, some of them packed in boxes, some of them not packed at all. I kind of figured, when I saw the handle of a shopping bag at the bottom of one box, that the books had been packed in bags which broke. I wanted to use the box, so I reached for that stray handle, learning in the process that life is not meant to be simple. Not during Smurf Week.
It was not a handle at all, boys and girls, but a braided lock of somebody’s hair. Locks of hair have come in to the Book Fair before, but always tucked into family Bibles or books of romantic poetry. A lock of hair all by itself is a spookier thing, Frango fricassee. I haven’t quite decided what to do with it, but I MAY tuck it into that New Testament with a note saying “Not Charles Dickens’s hair, either.”
It would be perfectly in keeping with Smurf Week.