The August 2014 Boston Public Library Book Sale!
My last experience with the every-other-month Boston Public Library books sale was so pleasing – not just the sight of lots of enthusiastic young people eagerly browsing the books but also a near-complete paperback set of Patrick O’Brian’s magnificent series of Aubrey/Maturin novels – that I hardly hesitated this morning to make the short trip through Boston’s choking, swampish humidity to the dear old McKim building. I didn’t go to the same location inside, alas: the book sale has been moved from its spacious quarters downstairs to the third-floor Charlotte Cushman Room (under the gorgeous, recently-restored Sargent murals). So I climbed the stairs I’ve climbed so many innumerable times, revolving in my head the dimensions of the Charlotte Cushman Room in my mind’s eye, trying to figure out how the library’s sale could possibly fit in its much smaller confines.
The answer? Horribly. The BPL’s staff did everything they could with the space they had, but even so, the city’s book-lovers seeking bargains were packed into the hot, humid room like sardines in a can, and simply browsing the shelves I found myself saying “pardon me” more times in one hour than Richard Nixon did on the phone with Gerry Ford.
And this time around, I found no finds comparable to that Aubrey/Maturin set (there was just such a set, this time of Bernard Cornwall’s “Sharpe” series, but that series has never really grabbed me – I was hoping for the whole run of “Flashman” books, or perhaps the Cairo Trilogy, but no such luck), but even so, I easily managed to fill the crook of my arm with goodies:
Tricked and Trapped, two mass-market fantasy novels by the delightful Kevin Hearne, both from 2012 and starring his himbo action hero, two-thousand-year-old Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, who has modern-day adventures in sorcery and sexual innuendo much in the nature of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.” These “Iron Druid” books are extremely enjoyable candy-reading, and their general tone is captured well in the dying advice O’Sullivan’s father imparts to his sun millennia ago: “A man’s supposed to shit himself after he dies, son, not before. Try to remember that, lad, so that when your time comes, you won’t make a right girly mess of it. Now fuck off an go play in the bog.”
Also fiendishly enjoyable but far more elegant is Rose Macaulay’s 1935 collection of spirited little squibs, collected into one of those little miscellaneous nonfiction titles I always seek in order to give as sure-fired gifts. Personal Pleasures features little meditations on bed (both “Getting Into It” and “Not Getting Out of It”), armchairs, flattery, fire engines, shopping, traveling, and of course reading. This collection includes perfect little classics like “Christmas Morning” and “Booksellers’ Catalogues,” and it’s always a joy to find, in large part for the delicious anticipation of finding some new recipient for it. Every reader should have a copy of this book – but then, every reader should have all of Rose Macaulay’s books. That she’s only known in pretentious hip-lit circles for the first line of one novel of hers is an intellectual scandal.
Almost lost amidst the trade paperbacks was Alan Hollinghurst’s 1998 novel The Spell, but its setting hardly matters, since this book is always just about being lost, sandwiched as it is (along with the not-quite-as-good The Folding Star) between this author’s meteoric debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, and his incredibly good two latest novels, The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child. I’ve had copies of The Spell a handful of times over the years and always managed either to lose them or give them away, so it’s always a pleasure to find a copy in some narrow crack of of some book-sale. There’s always at least a few gay themes running through Hollinghurst’s novels, but The Spell is the last of his novels that’s specifically about being gay, and all four of its main characters are the perfect Hollinghurst combination of archetype and individual. I’ll probably re-read the book tonight, and this time, I think I’ll keep it; young gay men can, after all, find their way to the local library just like plain folks.
The Spell has an arresting cover in its Penguin US paperback, and it was an equally-arresting cover that caught my eye for the Modern Library edition of Rudyard Kipling’s grotesquely overpraised 1901 novel Kim, which shows a young man silhouetted by blazing sunlight in an ornate doorway. It was just a bonus that I found this volume had an Introduction by Pankaj Mishra, who at least pays the book the compliment of warning readers that it’s not a particularly happy reading experience:
To read the novel now is to notice the melancholy wisdom that accompanies the native boy’s journey through a broad and open road to the narrow duties of the white man’s world: how the deeper Buddhist idea of the illusion of the self, of time and space, makes bearable for him the anguish of abandoning his childhood.
Far more enjoyable to read – though even more tragic in effect – is the next book I got, Peter Burcard’s 1965 book about Robert Gould Shaw, the handsome, charismatic 25-year-old who led the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers to its death under the batteries of Fort Wagner outside Charlestown in 1863. Burchard (who was, like Hearne, a hell of a likeable guy) tells the whole story of Shaw’s short life, from his boyhood on Staten Island to his meeting with Abraham Lincoln and his sight of battle in the Shenandoah – and tells it all with such lean and poetic prose that you won’t want to stop reading (I can make the same recommendation for Russell Duncan’s 1992 collection of Shaw’s letters, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, but I wasn’t lucky enough to find that at the BPL)(and, needless to say, my own original copy is long gone). Thousands of rude tourists tramp up Boston Common every steaming-hot summer to look at the magnificent bronze relief of Shaw and his regiment by Augustus Saint Gaudens; finding this wonderful little volume made me want to tramp up the Common again myself to look at the Shaw Memorial (I’ll do it on Monday on my way to the Atheneum, if that isn’t too unbearably Boston a combination).
By a neat coincidence, One Gallant Rush at the book sale led me next to Burke Wilkinson’s fantastic 1985 biography of Saint Gaudens, which I read and loved all those years ago and tremendously enjoyed. I’ve been a fan of Saint Gaudens for a very long time and consider him one of the greatest sculptors since the Italian Renaissance. I’ve marvelled at his statue of a standing, brooding Lincoln in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and I intentionally sought out his Hiawatha statue in Philadelphia, and many times, in bright daylight and warm, sad rain, I’ve stood in awe of his memorial statue to Clover Adams in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery. In all of those moments (and plenty of others; Saint Gaudens did lots of work in his career), I’ve found myself sharing the thought that Charles McKim (who designed the library in which I found Wilkinson’s book) had when he first learned that his old friend had died. He wandered into the Church of Saint Giles in Edinburgh and stood looking at Saint Gaudens’ bas-relief of Robert Louis Stevenson:
The pilgrimage there was the nearest I could come to him, but it was a comfort to me to be able to visit the church and to see his great work constantly surrounded by the public, who did not even known the name of the sculptor.
The gulf between him and the next best man in his art will long remain unfilled.
It was great to find The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens and thereby get another chance to read it, and I got a similar second chance with the next book, historian Alison Weir’s historical novel The Lady Elizabeth, which I read (and reviewed, of course, in my rollicking-good-fun “Year with the Tudors” for Open Letters) back in 2008 and liked quite a bit more than I’ve ever liked any of Weir’s nonfiction. I didn’t keep that original volume I read and reviewed, and that’s just as well, since the copy I found today was even more squarely in my sweet spot than that long-lost original, because it’s a UK paperback, and I have a weird little fascination with UK paperbacks. Their trade editions are bigger than the UK counterparts of the same titles, and because their print-runs are gigantically smaller, the thickness of their paper and binding can be commensurately greater – they have a marvellous heft that their Amerian counsins almost always lack. I not only don’t remember how I lost my original copy of The Lady Elizabeth but I also never mourned for the loss, whereas this paperback will go onto my permanent shelf of Tudor fiction (until it mysteriously disappears, that is).
The last goodie I took home from the BPL today was Nicholas Murray’s 1999 biography of 17th-century lyric poet Andrew Marvell, World Enough and Time, in which Murray does a first-rate job of not only analyzing Marvell’s writings but also of filling in the many, many details of Marvell’s life that skimmers of the Oxford Book of English Verse are likely not to know. In short, Murray gives us an intensely political life of Marvell, the Royalist sympathizer and satiric genius who was also an MP for Hull for a quarter of a century. I of course eagerly gobbled up Murray’s book fifteen years ago when it first arrived at the bookstore, and I enjoyed it enough to wish it were twice as long. Even so, it disappeared from my collection (in this case probably not mysteriously – it was probably lost in the fire of 2004 where I lost 99 percent of the biographies I then owned), so I’m glad to have it back.
I might have found other choice items (I particulary neglected the paperback romance section, alas), but after a bit less than an hour, the airless heat and closeness of the room finally got to me, so I wiped my brow, paid my pittance, and lugged my books back to the apartment, where I found two over-warm old dogs peacefully sleeping. I took them for a little stroll, then we all cuddled into my tiny book-filled little monk’s cell and basked in air conditioning for a couple of hours, where they slept soundly and I glommed over my new books.
The next BPL book-sale is the first weekend in October, when it might be a bit cooler and drier. I’ll certainly plan on being there – who’ll join me?