Even a winter-fancying polar bear (or perhaps arctic fox? I’ve had my nose licked by the latter and only been silently, systematically terrorized by the former, so maybe we’ll go with “arctic fox”) such as myself could hardly have complained about the gorgeous summer day that unfurled today in observance of the Boston Public Library’s June book sale: high white clouds, air that stayed comfortably on the warm side of hot, fluffy white eider filling the air and yet not provoking allergies.
So I kissed my furry little babies good-bye and made my way to the single specific place I love more than any other on Earth: the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the old building designed by Charles Follen McKim of the legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White and built in 1895 (of its half-dead conjoined parasitic twin, the Johnson building, I try to say as little as possible – I keep hoping I’ll wake up some morning and learn the whole thing was a bad dream). Over the last seven years, I’ve gradually taken into my private home life all the actual functions of the BPL; my new-release books come in the mail, my computer rests on top of a sleeping basset hound, and the combination of my personal library and the Internet proves sufficient for all the research I ever need to do these days. And yet I find reasons to go there, virtually every day. I’ve been to every single one of the world’s great libraries; I’ve had the privilege of using two dozen of them; but of all the big libraries, I love the BPL most of all (and as far as little libraries go, well, there’s one that I love more than any other – for one particular white-haired old reason).
And the normal joy of going to the BPL was only increased by a nice big book sale! I walked in the front door, past the statue of Handsome Harry Vane, to the foot of the marble stairs – and then I turned left (not a momentous thing in itself, of course, but I’m old enough that it felt strange! For a long time, a long time ago, the BPL had a regular book-sale you reached by turning right at the foot of those ornate stairs – but right is now a cute little restaurant full young patrons on laptops, deaf to the deal-hunting ghosts still lingering around them) and went downstairs to the book sale.
It was crowded, and as a long-time friend of the library, that pleased me. The books were laid out on tables and shelves, all ridiculously cheap, all a bit ramshackle, with BPL staff happily bustling around re-filling and re-stocking. I noticed an encouraging number of young people (and a splendid absence of those loathsome dealer-creatures tapping the ISBNs of every book into the online-pricing app on their cell phones)(because all us book-lovers are just suckers who don’t realize the gold mine we’re sitting on). At one point soon after I got there, a clerk called out that in order to move along their stock, every book in the room was half-price.
(A note to the young women of Boston: if you’re at a big library book sale with your handsome, muscular boyfriend and the two of you hear that all the books are now half-price and he grunts and says, “Huh – guess they must not be very good, huh, babe?” – break up with him. Don’t even wait out the day to do it. Just use him to lug your books back to your apartment, and then break up with him. You’ll thank me later)
And I found books! The easiest, fastest catch was the entire run of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels (minus only The Yellow Admiral, but hey – that gives me something to look for when I’m out and about on Monday, doesn’t it?), perfect to replace the uneven and incomplete accumulation of those wonderful books that I currently own, and getting all of them for less than $10 is a bargain not even my beloved Brattle Bookshop could equal.
I also found a couple of gay-fiction novels I used to own: Metes and Bounds by Jay Quinn and Under the Big Sky by S. Bryan Gonzales, the former about gay beach bums and the latter about gay rodeo riders. While I was thumbing through them, I was struck again by what curiosities they seem now, at least in the Western world: homosexuality enjoys greater public acceptance than it ever has, gay marriage is being legalized in one American state after another, and even the terrifying plague haunting so many of these novels is now a manageable health condition rather than a gruesome death sentence. When I first read these two novels, something like a gay “world” still existed, parallel to and persecuted by the straight world – and there’s no more fruitful seed-bed for fiction than parallel worlds. But now, in 2014? I’m not sure “gay fiction” is even possible anymore, or that there’d be a point to it if it were. I’ll be curious to see what the next ten years does to what remains of the sub-genre.
Anyway, I’m a sucker for UK-paperbacks, so when I saw one of Richard Holmes’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough, I snatched it up – a lovely-looking paperback that will now form the modern-research counterweight to my copy of the enormous, thunderingly good Marlborough biography by his even-more-famous kinsman, Winston Churchill.
Less, um, elevated was my choice of Wilbur Smith’s trashy ancient Egypt novel River God, which I found in a nice clean trade paperback. Aside from those two gay novels, this was my only book sale purchase today that stands a good chance of being a book-sale donation some time soon.
Not so the last two finds! The first of these was Christopher Clark’s 2012 book The Sleepwalkers, about the various complex factors that marched all of Europe into the First World War. I duly requested an advance copy from Harper as soon as I found out about the book, and as usual I heard nothing back from them. Then I duly repeated my request once the book’s publication was imminent – and again, I never heard anything back from them. And since I’ve made a small mental note not to add to the financial bottom line of publishers who ignore me, I skipped buying the thing even once it was right under my nose in bookstores. But such scruples don’t extend to library book sales, and there’s an extra irony to the fact that the copy I found is in fact an advance copy – so somebody out there had his book-request not only answered by fulfilled. Must be nice. Still, I’m eager to read the book.
And then there’s the jewel of my book-sale acquisitions this time around: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, a hyper-detailed and utterly engrossing masterpiece of reading history by Jonathan Rose. It came out in 2001, and since in 2001 I had no expectations of getting publisher copies of anything, I simply bought it like plain folks and was blown away by the easy, compendious scholarship on every page, tracking microscopic social trends I’d have thought there was no way to track. I can’t count the number of times in the last ten years when I’ve reached for this book in order to consult it – only to find that my original copy had disappeared during some house-move or Brattle-sale or puppy-rampage or misguided lending. Needless to say, I’ll try to be more mindful of this copy, since random chance threw it in my path.
And that was it – not because there weren’t more goodies I might have wanted to snap up, but because the tote bag I brought with me was full, and so was my skimpy little shoulder bag. So I left the library (I’ll visit it again on Monday, I told myself), rode the subway back to the house, opened the front door, and I stood there smiling as a fat little sleeper slowly woke herself up to greet me. Every book-sale should have such an ending – and there’s a cool, beautiful night unfolding now that’s just perfect for reading!