We had several people this year who came around with a book clutched to their chest, gripping it as if someone would snatch it from their hands if they let up for a second.
YOU understand, don’t you? A lot of them don’t. It’s THE book. It’s that book you’ve been looking for for years. The one you need to fill that gap in your collection. Oh, you could download the text somewhere, or buy one of those new print-on-demand paperbacks, but it’s not the SAME. It’s your Holy Grail, and you’ve had a long search, turning over every book in a box at a garage sale, and crawling under tables at book fairs in case it fell underneath.
There are only two rules for a Grail book.
1. It must actually be available. Gutenberg Bibles do not make good Holy Grails: they’re too expensive and too well documented. Nor is a one-of-a-kind manuscript, even if you’re the only one who wants it. No, it’s that copy of My Favorite Grasshoppers by Edgar Softe, published in an edition of 1,000 copies in 1954, or that copy of A House for Elizabeth with the same cover picture as the one you read in grade school.
2. You must find it YOURSELF. I knew a man who sought a book for twenty-five years only to have a friend mail him a copy. “My so-called friend” as he referred to the man ever after. I knew a woman whose sister found the book. Worse, she found TWO copies, and kept the better one for herself. No, the thrill of the hunt must culminate in the thrill of turning it up with your own hand, just behind that copy of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
Because, truth to tell, that’s the only thing that can make up for the fact that though you have the book, you no longer have a Holy Grail. It’s found. It’s on your shelf. It is not a thing of tantalizing mystery now. If you’ve caught the Grail hunger, you now need to think of a book even harder to find than that one.
A. Edward Newton, who said so many wise things about collecting books, once admitted that he had no more desire to complete his collection than he did to complete his life on earth. Because, if you don’t object to two literary allusions in one paragraph, it’s the same sad truth that Robert W. Service’s wealthy ex-prospector found out: that it wasn’t FINDING the gold that mattered to him nearly so much as the hunting for it.
Congratulations to everyone who came up with their Grail at the 2009 Book Fair. As for those of you who didn’t, well, good hunting in 2010.