For most of the past 36 hours I have been cataloging our library that was. I was surprised at how much thirst I had for books.
Books have always been important to me. Having lots of books was important to me when I was a kid. In the house where I grew up, each of our closets had a set of shelves on the end. I had a private contest that no one else knew about to have the fullest shelves of books of anyone in the house. I have no idea if I won that unknown contest but I did have a lot of books.
We were pretty poor so most of our furniture was gathered up in junk stores. My mom cleaned, re-glued, refinished, reupholstered and in one case–which she swore to be the only case she would ever do it–even cained a chair. While she was picking through looking for furniture I was hunkered down in the back of the store that had the inevitable stash of generally uninteresting books searching through for the unexpected book that I knew would be there if I just kept looking.
Most of the time I could get 3 books for ten cents. Sometimes if I was lucky I could 5 books for ten cents. I remember one store where the books were in what had been the front plate-glass window area for display when the store had seen better days. Before my time, it must have been a department store that closed in the post-WW II prosperity when people moved from dusty rural towns to the beckoning lights of the cities and the new concept of suburbs where everyone could have two kids, a house and a car in the garage.
During my time, the store was dusty and news papers hung pealing off the windows where someone had tried to keep others from looking in, I suppose when the store was empty. Underneath where the paper had pealed off and was hanging mid-air awaiting its next encounter with gravity, were boxes with books neatly tumbled into them. I loved to go through those books best of all. The inventory changed frequently and I knew if I looked there I would find something deliciously unexpected. I don’t remember the name of the proprietor or even what he looked like but he liked books and he liked that I liked books. He would watch me pile the books that had potential on my left where they awaited my final scrutiny determining who would go with me and who would stay behind under the curling, brittle newspaper. I must have been 8 or 10 since I was reading adult books but I suppose he enjoyed seeing a child glued to the ground carefully shopping for the best books for the money.
I still value the same criteria I did then. A book needs to first have an interesting look. It does not need to be fancy or colorful but it needs to be organized in a pleasing way. It should have balance and symmetry. The words on the cover should be arranged in a thoughtful way in a solid font appropriate to the time in which the book was published. The paper should be well cut, even if it is old and has age fractures. The back piece and the spine of the book should be snug. All of this is before I open the book.
When I open the book I greatly value a front color plate, especially if it has a covering of tissue paper to keep it safe from harm. These days we are so used to everything being in color we have lost the appreciation for the effort it was to bind a color plate into a book that was manually typeset in black ink. If that color plate is beautiful, I am in love with the book.
Of course, the words. The words on the page. That is the heart and soul of the book but for a cover, being the container for a heart and a soul is pretty important business.
I want to know about the people in relationship to the book. If it a used book, I want to know about the previous owners. I look for book plates or signatures inside the front cover indicating who owned the book. If I am very lucky the book has an inscription and a date. Old dates set my heart to singing. If the inscription is interesting or better, loving, it brings a heady moment of connection to the previous owner. Finally, I carefully go through the pages looking for margin notes that might tell me about the person or persons who owned this book in the past. If I see any pages turned down I am immediately distressed because you should not turn the pages down when a book is your friend.
So, these last two days, I have had a chance to think about our books and how much they were our friends. We thought hard about what books might be of particular monetary value and I spent hours and hours tracking down information on them. As with our other things, we had photographs to work with. If you knew what you were looking at you could go far trying to figure out exactly which edition of that book we owned.
One set of books set butterflies loose in my stomach. We either had the $45 version or the $14,000 version. Of course, it was somewhere in between but we were still amazed that books we bought for tens of dollars are now on the used and rare book market for hundreds of dollars. We never did tap out $1000 on any one book but there is a copy of one of my old books listed for $995. I have no idea if you were looking for a copy why you would pay $995 for it when you could find two copies at $495. I could not imagine any of those prices. I thought it was too expensive when it came out at $25 in 1996.
Just before the fire I had discovered 5 new copies of that book. I was going to try to figure out if the prices are ones set by scarcity or by willingness to pay. I was hoping that someone was going to be willing to pay because I could buy a kitchen table from those books. I can still see the stack of them sitting there all white and red, their covers shiny and interesting.
Over the years we consistently have about 2,000 books in our house. Sometimes the number swells to 2,500 or more. At that point I march in and announce that we are having a book culling. No one need cull anything that they care about or even have a feeling that it belongs with us but anything else goes off to a new life somewhere else. I sit on the floor pulling books off the shelves, dusting and digging to see what is behind the books we have stacked 4 layers deep on the bookshelves. Rarely do I find a book I don’t remember we had but sometimes I find a book in a place I did not remember it should have been. Our books are organized by type and subtype like the Dewey Decimal system so if you know about what you are looking for you can find it if you keep looking in the right area for the topic.
Life can be like that, if you stand in the right place and you know what you are looking for you will most likely find it. But, like the used books that I bought as a child, finding something unexpected where you knew it would be is the best of all.