Monday, September 13, 2010


I have more mansions to show you, but it is book season now, and I am so delighted with my new acquisition that it cannot wait.

Somehow I got on the mailing list of the Antiquarian Book Fair, and every September I get a card that allows me to get in for $2. So I go. I see it less as a shopping excursion than as an outing to a hands-on museum. I go around and pick things up and say to myself, "I am holding a book signed by Clarence Darrow," and then I put it down and move to the next book and say to myself, "I am holding a book signed by Edward Gorey," and so on. I find this quite satisfying. I have to, because I can't afford to actually buy anything.

You would think I would be really into book collecting, but I am not. It is neat to have first editions of things, and fun to have things signed, and considering the quality of paperbacks these days, a nice hardcover of one of your favorite books is a pleasant thing to own, especially if it's illustrated. But I do not go out of my mind about it. The important thing is the text. Whether the book is signed or not, you really can't get closer to the author than to read the text, whatever form it's in. I still prefer printed books for many good reasons, but collectability isn't one of them. I have some nice copies of books, but more often I am attached to them because they were a gift from someone. If your house burns down, you are much better off that way. As Peter Wimsey says, "'You gave them to me and I loved them' is all right, but 'I loved them and you gave them to me' is irreparable."

Anyway, usually if I want something at the Antiquarian Book Fair, it's because it's a neat book and I've never seen it anywhere else. Half the good of these sorts of things is the random and surprising selection. For example, I did not know that Groucho Marx had written a book called, Many Happy Returns! An Unofficial Guide to Your Income Tax Problems by Groucho Marx, T.P., L.B. (Tax-Payer, Lower Brackets). That is a book I would buy because it is delightful and I might never have another chance to read it. But it was ludicrously expensive and, moreover, the introduction told me not to buy it because adding to Groucho Marx's income would push him into a higher tax bracket and then he would have to pay more taxes. Anyway, that's the kind of thing I'm tempted by. Usually.

This time, quite out of the blue, I got suckered in by a book I already own in Penguin format. Although I am not much of a book collector, I am susceptible to things that are well-designed or at least interestingly-designed. Shiny is a bonus. This one is all three: Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell.

I read it over Christmas, and it was unexpectedly hilarious and charming. This edition has an attractive cover and a terribly nice title page. And, best of all: color illustrations! It is my firm belief that more novels should be illustrated. This is perhaps the one thing that e-books have going for them: illustrations would be cheaper.

It is a sign of a good book when there's tissue paper in front of the title page. Oh, yes.

Possibly the best thing about this book is that it is worth practically nothing. I paid twelve dollars for it. I should not be throwing around twelve dollars like that, honestly, but it was so pretty! Anyway, it's worth so little that one does not have to be afraid to read it, which I would be with a book that was very rare and expensive. I think it is a rather good deal.

In case you are interested, an excerpt from Cranford:

"I saw Miss Matty nerving herself up for a confession; and at last out it came.  She owned that, ever since she had been a girl, she had dreaded being caught by her last leg, just as she was getting into bed, by some one concealed under it.  She said, when she was younger and more active, she used to take a flying leap from a distance, and so bring both her legs up safely into bed at once; but that this had always annoyed Deborah, who piqued herself upon getting into bed gracefully, and she had given it up in consequence.  But now the old terror would often come over her, especially since Miss Pole’s house had been attacked (we had got quite to believe in the fact of the attack having taken place), and yet it was very unpleasant to think of looking under a bed, and seeing a man concealed, with a great, fierce face staring out at you; so she had bethought herself of something - perhaps I had noticed that she had told Martha to buy her a penny ball, such as children play with - and now she rolled this ball under the bed every night: if it came out on the other side, well and good; if not she always took care to have her hand on the bell-rope, and meant to call out John and Harry, just as if she expected men-servants to answer her ring."

As a method of determining whether there is anyone nefarious under your bed, I think this is genius, and I wish I had thought of it when I was about five.

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