Back in the mid-2000s, I was on the road a lot for work. Flying in and out of Memphis to points unknown with a bag of books in addition to whatever else I needed for a road stand was, if nothing else, inconvenient. Fortunately, this was about the time the first e-readers were coming to market. They were a godsend – stowing hundreds of books in a space no bigger than a writing tablet. I was a fairly early adopter, though even the best “electronic ink” was never a full replacement for the look and heft of a proper book.
In the last decade, I’ve gotten considerably more settled. Not worrying about fitting things into a carryon bag or needing to box up hundreds (thousands?) of pounds of books every couple of years to move has allowed the collection to grow unchecked by considerations other than price. For the most part, that’s been a net good, save for one minor issue.
Those couple of years of fully embracing e-readers have left me with some gaps on the shelf – mostly series I started reading electronically, but then picked up in its traditional printed format later. I’d slowly add in some of the “missing” books when I’d find them lurking in some dusty shop, but progress was slow and unpredictable.
With the Great Plague still keeping me from ratting around used book shops, but the monthly budget line for books still being intact, it presented an opportunity. For the last few months, I’ve been focused on collecting up some of the print books missing from my collection, particularly two of my favorite historical fiction authors. I’m nearly there with Edward Rutherfurd, who writes huge, wonderful, wide-ranging, doorstops. Bernard Cornwell, the more prolific of the two, remains, at best, a very partial collection – though I’ve rounded out several of his series, as well.
It’s collecting Cornwell that sparked this post. The most recent addition, a middle book of his “Starbuck Chronicles,” arrived fresh from the UK last week. Tucked inside the front cover, was a handwritten note from the book’s original owner – Brigadier Charles Edward Wilkinson, CBE TD DL, High Sheriff of Derbyshire. It’s not finding Napoleon’s prayer book long forgotten in a Paris shop or a copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden in a portrait frame, but it’s a happy little reminder that these books have a history – even the ones somewhat derisively sneered at and labeled “hyper-moderns.”
Their value isn’t just in what I paid for them last month or what they’ll command at auction next week or six months from now. If all I’ve done in aggregating these “new books” is ensure that a hundred years from now one or two of these copies make it into a future collection at the hand of someone who treasures them, it’s been time and money well spent. In the long history of the written word, it’s mostly been the random people with shelves packed tight with text that ensured that what are now our most rare works survived. I like to imagine, in my own small way, that I’m part of that unbroken tradition.