Tales Among the Banana Boxes

As mentioned before, not all the stories I get in are confined to those pages between the covers. I thought I’d toss three of them into the air and see if any fly north for the summer.

One More Association Copy Story: I had a couple of estates arrive: nothing huge, but in each case the library of someone who liked books. One of the former owners was from out in the burbs, one just a few blocks from the Newberry. One man’s collection included his college textbooks and outside reading, including his faded copy of The Student’s Milton, a standard text for its day, when Milton was more common on the campus. Inside, he had written his name, the name of his dorm, the name of his college (Northwestern) and the semester, Spring, 1940.

The book was just another copy of the Student’s Milton (I get a couple of copies every year) until I took a box from the other estate, and pulled out THAT man’s copy of The Student’s Milton. Same faded cover, same bulk of pages, same sort of inscription: his name, his dorm (the same one), his college (that same one), and the semester, Spring, 1942.

Did they know each other at all, at all, with that two year gap? Was it different for the kid to be studying Milton after Pearl Harbor than it was for the kid before the bombing? And was it the young men, or something in their professor, that led them to hang onto their copies of Milton for over sixty years? And did it mean anything at all, at all, that both should show up at the Newberry on the same day?

But it wouldn’t have made a dime’s worth of difference in the price to type out my pondering and paste it on the books, so I priced ‘em and put ‘em in a box.

You Know These People: We get estates sometimes where the deceased obviously wasn’t quite ready to go yet. Several years ago, we had a collection of LPs and cassettes that had never been taken from their shrinkwrap. “He knew he was dying,” his sister told me, “But he kept buying these. Maybe he thought as long as there was music he hadn’t heard yet, he couldn’t die.”

Just that sort of library came in this week: boxes and boxes of shiny books, beautiful unopened, unread books. And they’re just the kind my most fevered customers like: history, biography, literature, books about books, and, above all, trivia books. There were strange but true stories about the presidents, strange but true stories about the Civil War, strange but true stories about pigs, stranger but true stories about television: what I call “salted peanut books”. You sit down to read one two-page story and then move on and when you look at the clock, an hour has gone by because one two-page story about dogs led to another.

“He was always ordering books he thought were interesting,” a friend of his told me. “He thought he’d find the time.”

I have no comment on that, particularly. It was his life as long as he had it, and if he wanted to fill it with books, surely he did not need my permission, or yours. I wouldn’t have remarked on it at all except for that twenty-ninth box of books. That’s where I found—pristine and unopened—three books on speed reading.

And If That Isn’t Sad Enough: She was a NICE person. I’m sure of it. She had read and re-read these pages. “They’re reports my literature professor wrote for us,” she said. “I thought somebody might like them.”

“If he wrote them for handing out, and didn’t just photocopy things from other books,” I said, “I’m sure it’s material someone will read.”

She nodded. “I didn’t want to just throw them away.”

“Understandable.”

She reached down to the box. “Can I have all the three-ring binders back?”

She was a NICE person. I’m sure of it. And the authorities will never find the body under that pile of binders. 

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