Monday, April 23, 2012

Sending Boz Away

I bought mine, new, when I was working at Stacey's in San Francisco. In those far-off days, this was the sort of thing bookstores, the larger ones anyway, kept in stock. I remember mine was in a dusty white box when I bought it. Someone fetched it down for me from some dangerously narrow overstock-shelf, high off the sales floor. (I suppose there was some discreet little sign on the actual shelf in fiction, mentioning the Oxford Illustrated Dickens, complete in 21 volumes, "above.") I don't remember the price I paid. This would have been in the late Eighties, I should think, so I can't imagine the set cost me more than one hundred dollars, though it may have been at least that, at least had I paid full retail, without my employee discount. I don't remember if I asked for a ride home with the whole set, as I didn't drive back then, or if I took the books home, on the M Car, in bags, or one or two at a time, rather than fetching the whole thing home at once. Never was much for holding off, so I probably had to at least open the box and roll around in them as soon as I'd paid for them. Of that, I'm quite sure.

My dearest friend, R., collects the set in an earlier and more attractive iteration from the 1960s, I think. The dustjackets aren't that rather awful wine color, mixed with orange and green and so on. His are brighter and more variously colored. The boards on his books, as I remember them, are better too, less plain and homely. Still, my own set has served me very well, ugly as it is. True, the same squarish, squat format that makes these books so sturdy and portable also jostles the illustrations out of place; so that the scene in prose on page 138 may be illustrated three pages previous to that or ten pages after. There are other obvious imperfections in the reproduction of both pictures and type. Doesn't much matter. For the money, new or used, these are well made books. They will last.

To my knowledge, we never carried the set "new" in my time at the bookstore where I now work -- maybe, before my time, probably, in fact, but not since. I don't know that the set was even still available as late as 2003, when I moved to Seattle. I do know that by then some dealers were already asking silly prices for it used. The price seems to have settled, at least online, at around two hundred dollars in the passing decade or so, which seems high to me, but not unreasonably so. I've sold it for that. In fact, we've bought and sold the set, used, at the bookstore more than once, to customers other than me, I mean. I've bought it used, so to say, twice. When a coworker retired a few years ago, after some decades' service, the Dickens seemed just the thing. Man doesn't own a television, or a computer. Doesn't even keep a phone. A full compliment of Dickens constitutes, in its way, a home entertainment center, admittedly of a rather Victorian kind, but then the gentleman in question was a rather Victorian gent. The set was sitting right there at the Used Books desk -- too big to go upstairs into Fiction. Perfect. I marked the thing down to cost, basically, we all chipped in and bought it for the fellow's parting gift. He seemed pleased. After that, I remember selling the set to someone no older than I must have been when I bought mine. I remember giving the young fellow a banker's box with that set, so that he could get them home. Him, I didn't give a discount. and then most recently, sold this last set to come in to date -- the set in these pictures -- to myself, again, roughly at cost, back around October of last year. The idea was to buy the books, box them and send them off to replace the shockingly shabby collection of odd Dickens volumes on the shelf in my hometown public library.

When I was back there in September, I went into the library regularly, to check my email, etc. on the library's computers. Now and then, I would have to wait for a terminal to become available. Then I'd wander a little through the stacks, such as they were. It is a small town, my hometown, and far from well off, mostly. When I was a child, the library was housed in a very old building, with bare wooden floors that groaned under even the smallest step, and shelves, being of at least equal antiquity, were likewise swayed with years, if never really with any notable weight of books. The library now is new, brightly lit where the old was dim, clean when the old was dirty. Everything about the new library is essentially better. Everything, that is, but the books. The books are still bad; either bad in the sense of being not very good books, or in bad condition, or both. None in such bad shape, may I say, at least to my eyes, as the few sorry copies present of just a few books by Charles Dickens.

There's nothing in my experience of public libraries in recent years, libraries from Seattle to Southern California, and from Wisconsin to Wyoming, to suggest that this disgraceful state of things was in any way unique to my hometown. In a beautiful new library building very near where we live, I found just one or two books by Austen on the shelf, and those were sorry things; nothing by Gaskell, nothing by Eliot but Middlemarch in multiple grubby copies, and so on. Our own local branch is a charming old building, handsomely restored, with nothing in it. When I inquired there a few days after it reopened after repairs, I found that the answer to everything missing was that other books, good books, even great books were available mostly via "interlibrary loan." If the browser, like me, was not entirely clear on that concept, this is not unlike being issued a "voucher" for an overbooked flight, or offered a coupon for one's canceled entrée.

We could order you a copy of Great Expectations from elsewhere, perhaps one without detached covers...

... OR, would madame rather have one of these lovely -- available -- titles by the ever-popular LaVyrle Spencer?

Anyway, feeling most uncharacteristically civic-minded last September, I approached the desk in my hometown public library and offered to replace their disgraceful hodgepodge with a set of actual, readable Dickens. (No, really, I was nice, I swear.) Dickens bicentennial birthday was February of this year. I wanted there to be a set of his complete works in that library where someone might find them, someone like my younger self, perhaps a first time reader, or someone like my present self but without the means of having a set of his or her own. A good idea, did everyone agree? The answer was, yes, please. Smiles, skeptical smiles, but smiles all 'round.

True to my word, I came back to Seattle, and sent the set of Boz. The books I sent were unread, pristine copies all. I put each dustjacket in a new mylar-cover I bought. I packed them carefully and included a letter reminding the librarian of our conversation.

Well, some months later, having had nothing in the way of acknowledgement of my gift, yes, I finally could stand it no longer and I called to see if the books had arrived. They had. Thanks. Oh. Well, were they on the shelf in time for Boz's birthday? No. Not yet. Oh.

And that, my darlings, was that. I'm ashamed to say how often I've been to the hometown library's rather primitive website, in search of any listing for the books I sent. If the books are on the shelf now, I can't tell. They may be in the library's inventory by now, they may not. They may never have made it out of the box into which I packed 'em. They may, those lovely books, have been put out on the stoop for the mice to nest in. From the little I know of unsolicited library donations, even or perhaps specially those already discussed with a smiling staff, that set of the Oxford Illustrated Dickens may have been busted up, or put out for a yardsale.

Whatever their fate, it is long since out of my hands. I won't ask after them again. I can only hope those books, one way or another, have found new readers somewhere out there in the wide world.

"'Hope, you see, Wal'r,' said the Captain, sagely, 'Hope. It's that as animates you.'" Who am I to argue the wisdom of dear Captain Cuttle? Hope it was that animated me. Hope I still have, and librarians be damned.

No comments:

Post a Comment