Monday, March 15, 2010

Books that haunt me

We all have books that won’t leave us alone, but I like to think mine are extra unusual because they are so often Internet-proof.

One of my earliest memories is of my father placing in my four- or five-year-old hands a book that he told me was more than a hundred years old. I was awed that I was permitted to touch such an ancient artifact. It was a volume of poetry by Bret Harte, California’s answer to Mark Twain (though Twain excoriated him at pretty much every opportunity, and perhaps with reason). Though the spine was damaged, it was still a breathtaking volume, with a delicate butterfly painted on it in gold.

My dad bought it for ten cents.

He was a member of the Friends of the Hawthorne Library when we lived there, and was present for their first fund-raising book sale in 80 years. They cleared out the basements and had no idea what was in there, and as a Friend he was permitted to go in first, and pay very low prices. He filled most of a wall with four or five matched sets of classic literature, plus beloved little oddities like Winston Churchill’s histories … and he did it for pennies. The Harte remains his treasure. When his father died, the heirs argued over who would get the patriarch’s tools; when my father dies, I suspect the arguing will be slightly less acrimonious, but it will all be over his books. Perhaps he’ll have the foresight to write them into his will, though I imagine he doesn’t like to contemplate parting with them.

I suppose his reverence for books, for words on paper and whispers from long-dead voices, is why I begged for oak bookcases when I was twelve. I was wise to do so; they are all double-stacked now, and while they may topple in an earthquake and bury me under an avalanche of literature, the shelves themselves will not buckle in my lifetime. And while I treasure my paperbacks—I generally can’t afford hardcovers, or the space to store them—I haunt used bookstores and library book sales in a quest for the ghost of that butterfly.

Take, for example, The Rider of the Black Horse.

I found it a few months ago for a dollar at a library book sale (how’s that for inflation?). It was published in 1904, which makes it my first centenarian book. The cover shows a shadowy figure in what appears to be 18th-century clothing, galloping through woods on a spirited black steed. The title caught my attention, as I was working on Masked Rider scenes at the time, and I decided it was worth the gamble of a dollar to see if there was anything in there I could use. I have not yet found the time to read it, but it puzzles me mightily.

Its author, Everett T. Tomlinson, is practically absent from Google. Even though his work is apparently long out of copyright and Google Books should therefore be all over him, there are precious few references to him. Apparently he once wrote a couple of boys’ adventure books about the American Revolution. This may be one, or perhaps not. The title doesn’t show up anywhere online, or if it does, it’s lost in a thousand webpages devoted to John’s Revelation (the rider on the black horse was War). I’m pretty sure this book isn’t about the Apocalypse. Obviously someone valued this book—it was kept somewhere cool and dry and cared for over the course of a century. There is a tiny spot of what looks like white paint on the cover, yellowed with age, but the rest of the damage is sheer wear—glue dried up and disintegrating, shelf-wear on the spine and edges of the covers. There are no library marks, so I imagine it was part of someone’s collection—probably several someones, if it’s been around a hundred years. Who loved this book? Why? I hope to get some work out of the way soon and plumb the mystery.

As I type this, I have another, slightly less ancient, book sitting beside me. The spine is so faded that I can barely read the letters anymore, because they’re tarnished gold on dusty beige, but the front cover is still navy blue, and on it is a simple line-drawing in gilt of a mounted knight, with lance and shield, on a rearing charger. The book is called The Golden Knight, it was printed in 1936, and its author went by the name George Challis, though that was an alias. This author does show up on Google, as a pseudonym of the prolific pulp writer Frederick Schiller Faust, best known by yet another pen name—Max Brand. As Brand he was known for his unusually literary Westerns; he also went by George Owen Baxter, George Evans, David Manning, John Frederick, Peter Morland and Frederick Frost. He created Harrison Destry and Dr. Kildare, of all things. I fell in love with a short story of his, “Miniature,” as a child.

But when I look at this volume, it’s William J. Phillips that interests me.

William J. Phillips had a stamp that printed his name in Old English letters, and he stamped it in now-faded black ink both on the title page of The Golden Knight and on the inside front cover, on a bookplate that reads, “I enjoy sharing my books as I do my friends, asking only that you treat them well and see them safely home.” (My father has had bookplates printed with exactly that message; perhaps there was a similarity of temperament.) He once taped this book’s dust jacket in place, but the tape disintegrated, leaving only a few dark glue stains near the bookplate. There were no other books of Brand’s oeuvre on the “rare and unusual” table at the book sale that day, so I assume The Golden Knight was unique among Phillips’ collection, or at least those he donated. Again, there are no library marks, and no other marks of ownership, so it seems likely the book has had only a few private owners in its nearly 75-year life. Why did Phillips, or whoever, keep this book so long, treasure it so evidently, when it doesn’t even make most lists of Brand’s work? There doesn’t seem to be anybody who thinks The Golden Knight is very important, and yet William J. Phillips seems to have kept it for decades on a dry shelf in a sunny room, next to a book that was not part of a set (you can still see the neighboring book’s shadow where the back cover isn’t faded). How did it come to be on that table? I wonder if Phillips died recently, and someone wouldn’t or couldn’t manage to keep a book he loved.

Spider Robinson once wrote about a man who went around collecting the favorite books of great authors for a project he called “Immortality for Immortals.” He carefully analyzed each volume for traces of its owner’s DNA—stray hairs caught between the pages, flakes of skin that fell on well-loved passages—and planned to use it to clone the artists and intellectuals he thought most worthy of preservation. How much of William J. Phillips remains in The Golden Knight? How much of that unknown reader remains in The Rider of the Black Horse? What pieces of ourselves will we leave behind in the stories we love?

I don’t flatter myself that my stories will be counted among the great works produced by the English-speaking world, or that my first editions will become prized collector’s items. Much as I love writing and much as my work seems to speak to my readers, I’ve read enough Greek literature to be wary of hubris. But I like to think that someday, a hundred years from now, someone will clean out Grandma or Granddad’s library and find a well-loved book there with my name faded on the spine. It might be the only copy left in the world, and great-grandchildren who grew up with electronic readers may hesitate to turn the fragile pages. But I hope it will bear its smudged thumbprints with pride, and offer a welcoming home to the lingering traces of the readers who passed happy hours in my little world. And maybe, if I love God and am good, there will be a bookplate on the inside front cover, gladly offering to share this friend, asking only that you treat it well and see it safely home.

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