The June 2015 Boston Public Library Book Sale!
Is there any more pleasant a thing to do on a cold, overclouded early summer morning than to attend a library book sale? For a bookworm, surely not – and so I ventured out one humid, bitter morning to the Boston Public Library Book Sale organized and run by the City-Wide Friends of the BPL and crammed into a third-floor room roughly the size of a water closet, where I was body-slammed, roller derby-style, as I filled a basket with books I most certainly don’t need.
The idea of such a sale – indoors, cramped, stuffy, combative – is to absent yourself from felicity awhile, until you get back to your private chamber, where you can unbag your books and explore them at leisure.
My own book-haul this time around was a varied thing! There were Regency romances – the modern kind put out by the wonderful folk at Harlequin. I scooped up a handful of them … in fact, I scooped a little too easily, discovering only once I was back among my own dogs that I’d bought two copies of the same title, Lady Folbrooke’s Delicious Deception by Christine Merrill (fortunately, I don’t lack for eager recipients for such doubles).
And of course library book sales are perfect opportunities to take chances on books you’ve never read. One example of that kind of book, this time, for me, was Jan Cohn’s 1980 biography of the mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, whose books, now out of print, are still so richly satisfying. Cohn’s brief book is based almost exclusively on primary sources, including, delightfully, Rinehart’s own autobiography:
“There is no truly honest autobiography,” Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote in the opening pages of her own autobiography, My Story, published in 1931. The truth about one’s own life is blurred and altered, she explained, through conscious acts of tact and unconscious defenses of memory. Beyond that, for a storyteller, for one whose gifts lay in the ability to shape human experience to fit the molds of fiction, the act of autobiography became in part an act of fiction-making. My Story is almost an autobiographical novel.
“Even in her eighties she radiated energy, vitality, power,” Cohn writes, “She was, recalls one who knew her in those years, a tycoon – a charming woman, but a tough woman, one who had made it in a man’s world.”
There’s no such central work for the subject of another BPL gamble of mine, Lisa Jardine’s 2004 biography of Robert Hooke, the great friend of Restoration architect Christopher Wren (about whom she’d written an earlier and quite excellent biography) – a fact she acknowledges right up front:
Biography is the art of giving shape and coherence to the life of an individual. Where the subject has a major achievement to his or her name, a life can be crafted as a ‘before’ and ‘after’ around that beacon moment. Where an individual has been prolific and varied in his endeavours and achieved a breathtaking amount, yet without leaving his lasting mark on history in the form of a single significant discovery, it is far harder to give him a place in history. Hence Hooke’s shadowy presence – a man without a defining great work to give his life shape.
But for me, by far the most attractive offering of any big book sale is a chance to re-discover things I’ve already read. I found a copy of L. Michael White’s 2004 From Jesus to Christianity, which I haven’t read since it first came out. And I found a copy of Tom Dolby’s earnest, awkward gay novel The Trouble Boy, likewise from 2004. I found a big paperback of James Ellroy’s brilliant, disturbing 2001 novel The Cold Six Thousand, which gave me a wistful little pang of a type I’ve grown accustomed to feeling in the last ten years: the pang of missed opportunities. This big paperback is an Advance Reader’s Copy, and turning it over in my hands and dipping into its staccato prose, I couldn’t help but think about how I’d have received such a copy in the mail back in 2001, if I’d been back in the book-reviewing game at the time.
And in terms of old, old favorites, I found the lovely white Oxford World’s Classics paperback of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, with a cover featuring A Prior Attachment, a detail from a painting by the great Victorian master Marcus Stone; I found the 1963 reprint of Mary McCarthy’s great little book Venice Observed; and best of all, I found the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition from 2006 (hence, just a smidge too early for either Stevereads or Open Letters Monthly to have afforded me the chance to cadge a free copy from the good folks at Penguin) of Richard Pevear’s very lively translation of The Three Musketeers, the find of the day for me – and the subject of an upcoming post of its own.
As usual, the Friends compensated with smiles and old-fashioned carney-barking for the drastic limitations of their new venue, although as I was lugging my tote bag of books away, I thought again that the BPL really ought to find a more generous space for this wonderful (and cash-generating) event. I mean, if that little room was so hot and close on the 6th of June, I can just imagine what it’ll be like on the 1st of August when the next sale happens – and when I go back, rain or shine.