One of the questions I am often asked by curious people—and I know people who are very curious indeed—is “What kind of books do you want at the Book Fair?”
I start with my usual reply, that we take everything except old high school textbooks and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, but some interrupt. “No, I mean what books would you REALLY like to see? If you could have anything you want, what books would you like people to bring you? That Gutenberg Bible you always talk about?”
Well, no. I mean, I wouldn’t mind having a Gutenberg Bible come in, but when I think of the fuss that would ensue, I wonder whether it would really be my first choice. The same goes for Tamerlane, by “A Bostonian”, considered by some to be the rarest gem in the world of American literature, and that one state of the first edition of Moby Dick the Newberry hasn’t got. It would be like winning the big Lottery jackpot: certainly, in the long run, worthwhile, but an awful disruption, too.
“So what WOULD you like to see?” they persist. “Books inscribed by your ex-lovers, all claiming that knowing you was the thing that set them on the road to fame?”
That would also be gratifying, but, really, a little less likely than the Gutenberg Bible. Most of those folks are somewhere where they aren’t allowed anything as sharp as a pencil
“Well, what?” they demand. One particularly elderly questioner folded her arms in front of herself and nodded her head sharply, assuming I was old enough to recognize an impersonation of Barbara Eden. “Tell me what you’d ask for, if you could have any books at all!”
That’s the problem, kumquat strudel. “Any books at all” is pretty close to my answer. Variety is what I like to sell, and it’s what I like to see come in. Getting those five boxes of First Edition Circle books, all signed by their authors, was fun, but a hundred boxes of them—however lucrative—would have been a real chore. Somebody brought us a smattering of superhero comic books last week: rather exciting, really, because we don’t get comic books often (graphic novels, yes—those are “in”—but not comic books.) AND because they came from the period when I was myself an active comic book collector. In fact, I own some of these very same comic books, having bought them under the very same illusion that they would be valuable one day. (There’s an easy way to tell if a comic book is valuable or not: if someone donates it to the Newberry, it’s almost certainly not.)
But five boxes of comic books would have gotten old right quick. I like to see collections of comic strips and newspaper cartoons, too. But how come most of you read nothing but Dilbert, the Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes? I love a mystery, but why not something besides Daniel Silva and Michael Connelley? (By the way, one of our volunteers is taking Donna Leon mysteries to a shut-in, so I’d like to see THOSE come in.) History books sell wonderfully at the Book Fair, and there’s one I need to complete one of my collections, but getting a hundred boxes al at once….
“What you’re saying,” said the genie-impersonator, “Is that you have a ridiculously short attention span, and what you really want to see come in is something entirely different from what came in yesterday.”
“I think you’ve got it,” I said. “It’s funny, but I was just thinking that if someone came in tomorrow and asked me questions, I hope it would be someone entirely unlike you.”
You tell people they’re right and they throw the kumquat strudel in your face. I’m going back to my old answer. When someone asks what I’d like to see come in, I’ll say, “Guess what I want to see go out.”