I buy most of my books in used bookstores or on the internet because the books that interest me usually are out of print. One day after knocking off Albert Bigelow Paine’s four-volume biography of Mark Twain, I decided to take a whack at Alexander Pope’s translation of the "Iliad." I found a cheap, undated copy at my favorite used-book site, www.vialibri.com. When it arrived, inscribed on the title page in faded brown ink were the words “Presented to Albert B. Paine by his Mother, Marcy C. Paine, Dec. 25, 1879.”
Paine was 18 at the time. He would gain what passes for literary immortality in 1914, with his authorized biography of Mark Twain, which Twain dictated to him from bed.
Moving on through our literary backlands, I found a copy of William Allen White’s “In Our Town” online, for $5. White, editor of the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for his scathing editorials against the Ku Klux Klan.
“In Our Town” (1906) is a loosely connected book of short stories about a small town, which predated Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” by 13 years, and most likely served as a model for it. The volume I received in the mail, a first edition, was signed in blue ink by White, to “Mr. and Mrs. W.R. Stubbs, Dec. 25, ‘96.” Walter Roscoe Stubbs was governor of Kansas at the time. I thought that was a pretty good deal for 5 bucks.
I found the third book in a dumpster outside the Riverside, California, Public Library, which was throwing out books that apparently had outlived their time, not having been checked out for years.
Near the top of the heap I spied another first edition, “Immigration Crossroads” (1927), by Constantine Panunzio. This is an excellent history of U.S. immigration policies, including “the contributions immigrants have made to the United States, the changes in the attitude of the people of this country toward immigration, certain aspects of a possible constructive immigration policy and the international phase of the migration movement and of our restriction policy.” (From Panunzio’s foreword.) (See too.)
At the time, I was toiling over my own book on U.S. immigration prisons, “Other People’s Blood.” Panunzio’s book, rescued from the trash, was enlightening. It was the one he gave to his wife, inscribed: “Lenore — Though we should never reach it, we stretch for the star, my dear, and at each milestone we pause to drink in new vigor and forgetting all the toil that has been, go on …. 7/11/27, Constantine Panunzio.”
Tucked inside the book was a yellowed newspaper clipping of his obituary, from August 1964.
The fourth book is the most curious of all, a first (English) edition of Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov’s novel “The Gardener from Ochakov” (2013). Kurkov, 61, of Kyiv, now “internally displaced,” is regarded as Ukraine’s greatest living novelist — though he’s far from popular in the Kremlin. All four of his books I’ve read so far illustrate his contempt for Vladimir Putin, even before Putin expanded his wars upon humanity by invading Crimea in 2014.
After polishing off “Death and the Penguin,” which I heartily recommend, I ordered up three more books on the internet. All arrived in brand-new, unread condition, though they dated back as far as 2008.
Here is the strangest thing: Inscribed on the title page of “The Gardener from Ochakov,” in black ink, in English, are the words: “To (a man’s name) and (a woman’s name) with the very best wishes from Ukraine! A Kurkov, 10.08.13.”
Curious that though this book arrived in mint condition, it had been signed nearly nine years ago. Obviously, Mr. X and Ms. Y never received it, and I am not going to name them here. (Putin will kill anyone at any time.)
Now, I am not a collector of first editions. I buy books to read them, not to adore them. But I’ve set these books on a special shelf by my bed because they remind me — in this age when it’s so easy to assume that writing comes from the internet, and if you can’t find it there, you can always get the Wikipedia version of it — that books come from human beings, and are written for human beings.
Sometimes — more often than you might think — a book is written for one specific human being, known to the author. And without that human touch, I don’t see what the point of writing a book is anyway.
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