|A work by F. Hopkinson Smith|
Brian (the surgeon) suggested that an exercise bike might be beneficial, so we went to Sears where I spoke with a 20-year old salesman who said that, when he was fifteen, he had undergone one of the ten post painful surgeries (in terms of recovery). It was necessitated because his ribs were turning inward and would have killed him had he not had a metal plate inserted and spent a month flat on his back. Then I celebrated the good report by going to St. Vinnie’s and buying seven books. I rarely buy so many, but they had been moved from the rare book room into the main part of the store where I was able to get them for under $5 each and after that to Costco where, because I was using a cane and wearing a compression stocking, a woman who was anticipating a knee replacement approached me with many questions. But enough of all that, because I want to tell you about the seven old books I bought in the hope that, if you don’t already, you too might come to love old copies of old books.
(1) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970). I read this book twenty years ago, but was thinking just last week that I wanted to re-read it. The German edition appeared in January 1929, and my English edition was published in November of that same year. By its release, Little, Brown, and Company had put out seven editions (presumably, all in English) and fourteen printings. My copy is inscribed “Merry Christmas, 1929. From Mabel to Paul,” leaving me to wonder if Paul had fought in The War to End All Wars.
The store had two copies from the same printing. The other was sent to the States from war-torn Saigon, with the inscription, “Read to Understand.” The preface to the book reads: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war.” I’ve read those words twice since I got home, and I’ve cried twice. How is it that I ever entertained the stupid, stupid belief that war makes men when the truth is that it’s more likely to break them!? I suppose it was because my culture glorifies war, war, and more war, always in the name of peace, although I suppose it’s possible that testosterone also played a part.
(2) Harold Bell Wright (1872-1944) is best (and most infamously) known for The Calling of Dan Matthews, which is about a preacher who, like Wright himself, left the ministry to save his integrity. The book I bought today is Their Yesterdays from 1928. I first browsed this same color illustrated copy three months ago, but passed it up because it seemed too spiritual. I don’t believe in omens, yet I can’t say that finding the same copy of the same book meant nothing to me, and it’s also true that much of what he says resonates—for instance: “He had said to himself, ‘When I am twenty-one, I will be a man.’ He did not know then that twenty-one years—that indeed three times twenty-one years—cannot make a man.” I suppose it’s common for boys to pick an age at which to expect manhood. I remember that, at age seventeen, I saw a 19-year-old male mentioned in my local newspaper as “a man,” an concluded that my 19th birthday—at the latest—would be the day that I would wake up feeling different. When nothing happened, I advanced the magic number to twenty-one, and when it too failed, I looked pessimistically to thirty. At 68, I still feel like a minor fraud when I call myself a man, there being too much weight on the word for it to ever be achievable.
(3) The Workers East (1897) and (4) The Workers West (1898) were by a economist named Walter A Wyckoff (1865-1908). Wyckoff was so wealthy that his butler saw him off—in July, 1891, when he set out walking with old clothes upon his back and without a penny in his pocket. He traveled America for eighteen months, taking day laborer jobs as he went, and writing eloquently about his experiences. This was not a rich man’s lark, but a profound effort to understand the lives of the poorest of the laboring class. One of my two copies of the set is gloriously illustrated, and the set itself had at least two previous owners. The inscription identifying the first owner reads, “Here’s to this little world of ours, which is not growing worse to women, like you, who are doing their best to make it better. V.J. from Tom S. Dec 10,1910.” The second owner was Air Transport Local 1881, IAMAW, Burlingame, CA.” Because the U.S. postal service only instituted zip codes and two-letter state abbreviations in 1963, the second listed owner must have come along decades after the first, which makes sense given that air transport would have been unknown in 1910.
(5) A 1945 edition of Richard Wright’s 1937 book Black Boy. Wright (1908-1960) was from my part of Mississippi, but, because he was black, I only heard of him after moving to Oregon and happening upon his book Native Son at St. Vinnie’s. (I also discovered Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man at St. Vinnie’s and found grim humor in the fact that, given my hitherto complete ignorance of his existence, the title seemed to prove the book’s thesis.)
(6) The Guest, 1946, by Christopher LaFarge (1872-1944). I hadn’t heard of LaFarge, but was intrigued by the book club insert’s promise of a book about a sixty year old “spinster” who lost her grip on reality after her servants abandoned her during the approach of a hurricane.
(7) Light that Faileth (1891) by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). I’ve never read Kipling, but I have read Jack London, so when I learned that London was a major fan of Kipling, I decided to read him too. One period reviewer wrote that the book had, “a man-loving [surely a euphemism] and misogynistic undercurrent” and was, “…a metaphor for the failing gallantry of 19th-century man confronting the new woman.” My literary idol, Margaret Deland, was among those responsible for creating this subspecies, only to bemoan the fact that some members of her creation were behaving in ways that she considered coarse, if not trashy; that the exalted concept of ladyhood was being lost; and that men were starting to treat women with the same crudity with which they interacted among themselves. One-hundred years later, the word lady has been lost from our language, and the only time I hear the word gentlemen is on the evening news when a cop is referring to a criminal as such. For example; "After strangling Ms Smith, the gentlemen proceeded to kill her dog..." My copy of the book was owned by an Ada Johnson, and how I wish I could talk to her about it!
I want books that long dead eyes read, upon which long dead minds reflected, and into which long dead hands inscribed, because they allow me, in some small measure, to feel that I’m gazing into those eyes, discoursing with those minds, and touching those hands. They penetrate to my soul, and to hold them is to hold the sacred. New books are like new houses in that in that their faces are blank and their souls in infancy. Without them there would be no old books, and the factual ones are often superior, but I’m glad I have little need of them. No matter that new books cost ten times more, I would feel like I was slumming if I walked into a new book store.
As for the authors themselves—as opposed to individual copies of their works—many of the titles I buy are either unavailable new or they’ve been reprinted in paperback, xeroxed editions that I abhor. Without old books, my life would be impoverished. I would still have Mark Twain and Conan Doyle, but I wouldn’t have Margaret Deland and F. Hopkinson Smith, although both were famous during their lifetimes (Smith for his art as well as his books). It’s commonly believed that authors who deserve to remain famous will remain famous, but in my experience, authors are like clothing fashions, the difference being that clothing styles often come back around while, once they’re lost from memory, literary work are rarely rediscovered.