It was going to be an ordinary day, until my daughter, browsing through Craig’s list, cried “Eureka”! Well maybe not quite that, something more along the lines of drawling “That’s interesting,” which is pretty much the same as eureka, coming from her. It turns out that “interesting” referred to the offer of 197 Heritage Press books for $400. At two dollars each for books easily sold for $10 or more depending on condition, this was quite a find, especially for a collector preparing to open her own online book business. A perfect opportunity to gain stock -- except we live in TN and the books were in Chicago. Even if the seller were willing to ship them to us, the cost of postage on 197 books is simply too scary to think about. Betsy’s husband works incredibly long hours and makes last minute trips to other cities, so the possibility of a spur of the moment romantic second honeymoon to the fascinating city of Chicago was also out. I, however, wake up each morning practically begging for something interesting to happen, so the very next day Thelma and Louise, or maybe Hope and Crosby, cleaned out the trunk of the Corolla and headed up north. Steppenwolf would have been proud of us.
”Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way…”
(Born to be Wild)
Born to be wild or not, nine hours of construction on 1-40, construction on I-55, and, you guessed it, construction on I-57 makes for a long, not so exciting day. As much as we enjoy each others company, if we hadn't had the books to talk about -- which ones would be there, what kind of condition would they be in, how would she get the extra shelf space -- the nine hours would have seemed a whole lot longer. Thanks to our GPS we made it to the pick up point with some time to spare. There we found an angel of books waiting for us in her garage. The Garage, filled with books, “hundreds of books, thousands of books, millions and billions and…,” oh all right, it was just those 197 books, the ones that her co-workers had urged her to throw away. Instead they were neatly tucked in 19 boxes, each box numbered with a matching list of contents. We’d had visions of lugging all those books up narrow stairs from a dank, poorly lit basement, through the house out to the street -- one armload at a time. Instead, Sue had a cart to load the boxes on and helped us tote all nineteen to our car, thrilled that someone wanted her parents castoffs. That night we loaded the hotel’s luggage cart with some of the boxes, lined them up between our two beds, opened them and plunged in. What would we find? A Shropshire Lad, Nicholas Nickleby, The Compleat Angler, Homer’s Odyssey, The Tales of Hoffman, or William Tell?
In case you don’t know, (because I sure didn’t), Heritage Books released about 1000 titles between the 1930's -- 60’s. An imprint of George Macy Companies, they were reprints of the exclusive Limited Editions Club. The idea was to offer the same special volumes, though less luxurious, to people who couldn't afford to be one of the 1500 subscribers to the special editions. Each volume was treated as an individual release, its size, cover and shape chosen to suit that title. Tucked inside is an informative, sometimes amusing, pamphlet called The Sandglass, and every volume is fitted into a matching slipcase. One surprising feature of Heritage Press books are the illustrators. Imagine, Picasso's sketches interpret Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. Francisco Goya’s works illustrate a novel about him, This is the Hour. Norman Rockwell did Poor Richard: The Almanac, and the childrens classic The Wind in the Willows illustrator is, of course, the incomparable Author Rackham. Who else? Because of the illustrations you can't just pull out the books you recognize; you have to open every single one to see what's inside. You might find full page paintings, an occasional small woodcutting, or colorful border decorations on each page. Eager to look at our plunder, we loaded the hotel’s luggage cart with boxes of books, then lined them up in the aisle between our beds to easily share the wealth. We ooh’d and aah’d for some time until Betsy, exhausted from all the driving, fell asleep. I fondled Walden, dipped into Elegy, renewed my friendship with Paul Bunyan, and honestly goggled at the brilliantly colored, intricately Middle Eastern-style decorations on every other page of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam until, exhausted, I couldn't hold it upright any longer.
It's always faster driving home. I don't know if it's because the impatience created by anticipation is gone, or because I begin to recognize the landmarks while still hundreds of miles from home. This way to St. Louis; here's that lousy construction stopping traffic again; 22 miles to Lambert's, Home of the Throwed Rolls. Yep, we're almost home. (Yes, they really do throw the rolls to their customers, sometimes. Mostly it's a pig out on all the Southern food you want place to eat.) Eventually we turned into the driveway, greeted the dogs, and toted in boxes of books. The driver, not surprisingly, was exhausted. The passenger, me, was energized and ready to do something. We excavated a few more boxes, then Betsy picked up one of her old favorites, one of those books you've loved for years but somehow misplaced, and settled in to read. I pulled out books only to replace them. I carried stacks to the sofa, read a bit here and there, then carefully put them back into the correctly numbered box. Darn that book fairy lady! If she hadn't been so helpful I could be alphabetizing and recording each book, matching up the sets and noting the publication dates. Instead I was left with nothing to do but read. Betsy finished The Mysterious Island and eagerly began The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. No, not Ali Baba, though he and Hajji might be cousins I suppose. And don't assume, as I did, that Hajji Baba is a book only someone who double majored in History and Middle Eastern Studies would look forward to reading. It turns out to be a classic romantic comedy offering a true portrayal of Persia of that time. Watching her happily immersed in her second book, something dawned on me. Trying to take on 197 new books has created a type of reader’s overload in my brain, a dog pile of choices that makes it impossible for me to single anything out of the crowd. Walden Pond? Longfellow's poetry? The Brothers Karamazov? Something, please? My eyes glaze over just looking at the boxes. I've stopped peering inside them, stopped studying the six page list. Should I read an old favorite or something I've never heard of before? Maybe I'll pick the shortest one and read it really fast, and have it over with. I could pick a number or close my eyes and point, like people do when they want help from the Bible but have no idea how to find it. It's been almost a week since our drive to Chicago, and I'm still bookless, unable to find a way to force myself to make a choice. I haven't a clue how long this deadlock will go on, but if I ever manage to actually read anything, trust me, you'll be the first to know.
Read Well, Friend
"Hundreds of books" paraphrased from Millions of Cats, written by Wanda Gag.