Friday, November 14, 2008

Book Connections

One of the many attributes of books are their function as routes of connection. Connection between distant partners in a one way conversation; connections across time; connections into imagined realities.

A minor aspect of this connectedness between readers through the medium of a book is the detritus of reading that attaches itself to a book. If you are an avid frequenter of used-book bookstores, as I am, you will know what I mean. Aside from the thrill of finding a book you had heard of but never seen, of finding a new author whom you are willing to try out when it only costs three or four dollars as opposed to twenty, of finding some magnum opus on some narrowly focused topic which appeals to you, there is also the occasional shiver of connection when there is some visible mark of the prior reader.

Sometimes this mark is an irritant. Fine books which someone has dog eared, or worse yet, highlighted or underscored are a particular disappointment. 'How could they?' Then there are the signs you come across that prompt you to try and imagine some vanished scene. This piece of buttered toast, these cracker crumbs, this splash of spaghetti sauce - just what were the circumstances that immortalized them in these pages?

More intriguingly are the signs and evidence of the prior owner as a person. Certainly if they have signed their name on the inside cover. Sometimes there is even a telephone number or address indicating that the book was so valued that they wanted it returned if they became separated from it. Occasionally the book is sufficiently old that the telephone number is simply a town name and a four digit number. Imagine what the environment was for this book when your phone number was only four digits.

Perhaps my first exposure to the thrill of connecting through books occurred when I was ten or twelve and in the first thralls of what was to turn into a lifelong fascination with Egyptology. We were in London for a few days, an interlude on the way from somewhere to somewhere. I spent the morning and early afternoon in the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum. Coming out of those wonderful hallways of imperial collecting, I crossed over the street to the line of bookstores that then faced the Museum, each specialising in some aspect of history. Making my way down the line, I came to one that focused on archaeology. Entering the doorway, the magical door, I came into a wonderful bookstore of floor to ceiling bookshelves, a bustling elderly lady behind the counter, the smell of musty old books and furniture wax, and the feeling that the people who were in there were the people that were meant to be there. The distant but real affiliation one feels for fellow bibliophiles.

At that time, I had a particular fascination for a British egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, who had conducted digs in Egypt and the Middle East from the 1880's through the 1930's. Asking at the counter whether they had any of his works, which I did not see on the shelves, the elderly gentlemen who appeared to run the store with his wife, said he thought he had some in the back. He disappeared for five or ten minutes and came back with four or five volumes of Petrie's works. What a find and in nice condition as well. From the 1890s, they positively emanated an aurora of ambassadorship for their era. I fortunately could just afford them and happily made my way back to our flat.

It was only there that I discovered that two of these books had been owned by E.A. Wallis Budge, a fellow Egyptologist and contemporary of Petrie. Budge had not only signed the books but there were occasional marginalia scattered throughout where he either agreed with or disputed some observation of Petrie's. I felt like I had suddenly come into possession of a truly magical thing, this book that had been held and handled and marked by another Egyptologist whom I had read of and admired. It felt as if I were casting myself back in time and reading through his eyes.

I am not sure I have, since that time, come across anything quite so evocative, but there have been plenty of minor items. Yellow faded newspaper reviews tucked into the back of the book where clearly someone has been taken by a review of a book, cut it out, and made their way to a bookstore to buy the book. Sometimes it is as small as some torn pieces of paper with little notes wedged in at some important passage; important to that long ago and often long passed reader. Occasionally there is money used as a bookmark - a twenty dollar bill is the highest denomination I have yet come across - Thank you long ago prior reader!

All of this is brought to mind by a book I have just finished. I have been sampling mystery writers from the early and mid twentieth century, particular authors that are gifted with capturing the essence and feel for a particular place and time. Raymond Chandler was a real pleasure but also Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout and others. I have also been enjoying Sjowall (Sweden), van de Wetering (Netherlands), and Mankell (Sweden again). And then there is Georges Simenon and his Maigret. Apart from rendering Paris of the 1930's - 1960's, there is the pleasure that Simenon was so prolific. As long as you enjoy the Maigret stories, there is always another new one to find - more than a hundred novels and short stories.

I picked up a copy of Simenon's Maigret and the Killer at Book Nook. It sat in a stack for a while till I recently pulled it out and began reading. As I did so a slender book mark fluttered to the floor. A Common Reader book mark. The book is not inscribed so I know not who the former owner was. But we apparently did have a point of connection beyond Maigret and the Killer.

A Common Reader was a wonderful little book catalogue company back in the 1980s through the early 2000s, run by Jim Mustich. Their catalogue was always a pleasure to read, independent of whether there were books you might wish to order. It was truly a reader's community of kindred spirits. The catalogue was of such quality that I know of many readers who saved them as they might a book. This was not just another piece of junk mail. They focused on the little known treasures and on customer service. For seven years, when my career took me overseas to Australia and the UK, A Common Reader was a link back to the US reading community and they heroically shipped large numbers of books to me in out of the way places. Like so many others, A Common Reader fell victim to the commercial tundra-like conditions that is the modern book business. They went out of business in 2006, leaving a mournful reading community with fond memories.

And bookmarks. We share that one additional connection, whoever had Maigret and the Killer before me. We both like Simenon and his Maigret books and apparently we were both Common Readers.

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