Let’s assume, just for the sake of bloggery, that you are as far behind in your Christmas shopping as I am, and are looking for ideas. And let’s further assume that you somehow failed to attend the Dredge Party last week, and thus lost out on a chance to buy a set of Dennis Rodman paper dolls or a candy dish in the shape of a Hershey’s Kiss.
Well, Uncle Blogsy is ready to ride to the rescue. I have just read a handsome collection of short stories which has something for just about every taste. It has lots of pictures and a few good laughs. Your favorite stories may not be the same as mine but, after all, with 125 to choose from, there’s plenty for everybody.
The book is, of course, The Newberry 125 Stories From Our Collection. (Newberry Library, 2012, $45). It is the catalogue of the exhibition which now has just three weeks to run, but it will provide food for thought at least until we get around to our Sesquicentennial Exhibition in 2037. It considers the 125 objects in the exhibition and tells the story of each: not just what it is and why it’s interesting, but where it came from and why the Newberry has it.
They did come from a variety of sources, from book sales which made national news to one item that was found inside the binding of another book entirely. There’s a photo album, things from old scrapbooks, somebody’s guest book, and a portable drinking cup. There’s also Shakespeare’s First Folio, and a book once believed to have come from the landmark-producing press of Gutenberg.
The book tries to answer some of the questions which may occur to you as you leaf through. Why do we have that collection of baseball cards? (They belonged to baseball fan and Studs Lonigan author James T. Farrell.) What makes a paperback book from 1759 such a headliner? (It’s a first edition of Voltaire’s Candide.) Why do we care about that sketch of a night in armor set out in a notebook? (Well, A. Conan Doyle drew it as part of the notes for what some people consider his best non-Sherlock work.)
As a publication of a famous research institution, it also points up a number of questions that so far have no answers. Who immortalized his ex by scribbling her name in the margin of the First Folio? What, exactly, did the person who put that devotional print inside the lid of the wooden box have in mind? Who dropped the can of whale meat last time it was on exhibit, so that it was been quietly rotting in a corner of the Moby Dick collection? (Sorry; that’s not actually in the book or in the exhibit. That’s a previously untold story, just to keep up Uncle Blogsy’s reputation for investigative journalism.) Was Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary able to find the pasta machine Jefferson asked for? (Any good book of stories leaves you wishing for more, of course. I am less interested in the pasta machine than in the vase shaped like a duck Jefferson was also looking for. It gives me a new understanding of his multi-faceted intellect: a vase shaped like a duck. What…never mind; we must move along. Christmas is coming.)
The very last story in the book—one page discussing how the exhibition and book were made—is heroic enough to deserve motion picture adaptation. In fact, the whole production, from its discussion of the prizes to be found in old business archives to the coverage of the Bughouse Square Debates held in July during another minor event—is as much a treasure trove as the library it represents. If you have the cash, don’t buy just the book: look into the movie rights.
Oh, and in case you didn’t know this, it is NOT called a catalogue because the stuff inside is for sale. You cannot buy Pavlova’s slippers nor that lovely copy of Hamlet. But I do know where you can get a deal on a candy dish shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss.