I know it’s still “Please Don’t Bring Me Books” Month, but I am busy treading the delicate line between the piles of books and the people who want to know “Why are there so many piles of books?” It’s a traditional August event.
Some of the books coming in are also traditional: four copies of The DaVinci Code so far. Others are nice changes of pace: this collection of medical reports from the 1770s. Some are strange and unexpected–TWO copies of the same tiny book of essays by Benjamin Franklin from 1839? And still others are strange and expected: the inscriptions in the books are forever old and forever new.
“Congratulations on starting middle school!” is not unusual, for example. But in a book on the rhyme and meter of classic Latin poetry? Which middle school was that?
Nothing wrong with “Best Wishes On Your Wedding Day!” Except that the book is a massive tome on how to market a nursing home. Maybe you had to be there.
There is a nice book of poetry in which three successive owners have written their names: Dorothy Larsen, Doralee Larsen, and Dorothea Larsen. Was it passed from niece to niece? Sister to sister? The handwriting seems to come from three successive generations, though. And why would the newest generation give the book away? Her name didn’t start with D, so she felt she couldn’t keep the book?
By far the most interesting book writing I’ve had lately is from the collection of a longtime Newberry Seminar instructor, who seems also to have been a college professor on the side. His books are underlined and annotated to a fare-thee-well. Sometimes, he had so much to say that he scribbled in two or three copies of the same book.
But his notes give such a picture of the man: to go through a book is essentially to sit through a lecture. “Oho!” he cries in the margin, next to four lines heavily underscored. “Here is the key to the problem!” “This is the LAST thing he needs!” he notes, at a particular turn of the plot.
“How would YOU like to have been a member of the Pickwick Club?” he demands, on the titlepage of a Dickens paperback. “He makes it all sound so JOLLY.” Our commentator was no blind fan on the nineteenth century: “If you were MALE, and WHITE, this would work!” he proclaims in another novel.
One trade paperback is an account by Sir Kenneth Clark, one of the most important art critics of the twentieth century, of the life of John Ruskin, one of the most important art critics of the nineteenth century. All along the sides of the pages, our reader takes the side of the modern critic. “Way to go, K.C.!” shouts his pen, and “You tell him, Sir K.!”
There are three annotated copies of Death of a Salesman, two of Amadeus, more books by and about Matthew Arnold than I’ve seen gathered in one spot before, and even a marked-up copy of Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce. (He was not a snob about literature, certainly, though maybe I should read his notes in Le Divorce before I say so.)
It’s a man’s life’s work, all inbetween the lines. If I had all the time in the world–which I don’t, because her comes another carload of art books–I’d sit down and see what he had to say about Hamlet that required three copies to carry it all. I may yet sit down and read his Tristram Shandy, one of the most un-underlinable books I can think of, unless it’s this Richard Brautigan over here.
Or I may just sit and wonder whether he started as the sort of kid who would have gotten a book on the meter of classical poetry on entering middle school.