Ralph Gardner Jr: Hunting For Hawthorne

Jun 17, 2017

An acquisition at the Kinderhook, NY Memorial Library book sale
Credit Ralph Gardner, Jr.

A local library book sale isn’t the place you’d expect to go to learn you’re a has-been. But that’s what happened to me last weekend at the Kinderhook Memorial Library book sale in Kinderhook, New York.

If you’ll indulge me while I offer a little background regarding my history of book hunting. I probably need to go as far back as the 1960’s when my father, a book collector, started me collecting American first editions.

His purpose was less to turn me onto the majesty of literature than to get me into Yale. Assuming, correctly, that my high school transcript and SAT scores would be lackluster at best, he thought I might nonetheless intrigue Yale’s admissions office if I could claim to be America’s youngest bibliophile.

It didn’t work, of course. But in the meantime, I amassed a respectable collection of first editions acquired for a pittance – “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” an autographed first edition of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.

I also caught the collecting bug, which is the reason I look forward each spring to country book sales, Kinderhook’s in particular.

Over the years, I’ve managed to discover a few first editions there – from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and James Thurber and E.B. White’s “Is Sex Necessary?” I never got far enough into the volume to learn their conclusion.

That is, I managed to unearth a first edition or two until the library’s volunteers wised up and weeded them out to sell to collectors for a higher price, the proceeds going, of course, to support the library.

But it wasn’t first editions I was after as much as oddities, books that were beautifully printed, or those that had slipped through the existential cracks – probably not heard a peep about since they were published back in the Paleolithic.

Some of the books were being deacquisitioned by the library itself, apparently because nobody had borrowed them for decades. One of them had even been written by my father, “Horatio Alger; or The American Hero Era.”

It was a biography of the popular 19th Century author of such young adult novels as “Ragged Dick,” and “Timothy Crump’s Ward.”

I felt a familial obligation to buy and preserve it, even though I already own a couple of copies.

But I took particular pleasure in purchasing and poring through books whose spines I may have been the first to crack in decades. For example, “Will Rogers – Ambassador of Good Will. Prince of Wit and Wisdom,” by P.J. O’Brien. It was published in 1935, the year of Rogers’ death in an Alaskan plane crash.

I was also happy to acquire “Meet Calvin Coolidge; the Man Behind the Myth.” To be honest, I haven’t read it. I just like the title.

Other small gems I’ve snapped up over the years have included a 1908 tribute to Margaret Ogilvy by her son J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. There was also “Baedecker’s Switzerland” with detailed maps and foldout panoramas of the Swiss Alps. And, from the 1860’s, an illustrated self-instruction manual to phrenology, the study of the bumps on your head.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t come away from last Saturday’s Kinderhook Library book sale empty-handed. My purchases included a 700-page doorstop of a book – volume 1 of Mark Twain’s recently published autobiography.

I also took home a delightful reference book – “Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Titelman.

Do you know where the expressions “A rolling stone gathers no moss” or “Rome wasn’t built in a day” come from?

I didn’t either. But I do now.

However, among the fiction and non-fiction, the bios and history books, there was hardly an old, musty antique book for sale.

As I was paying for my purchases I brought this disturbing new development to the attention of Warren Applegate, a library volunteer. Mr. Applegate informed me that they no longer regularly stock old books because almost nobody buys them. Why go to the effort of lugging them out of storage when they’ll go right back in?

The volunteer invited me to peruse the classics and the near classics at a nearby storage room in the village. I followed him there and confess there was some interesting stuff.

But they had high price tags – and by high I mean more than the $2 they were charging for a hardcover and $1 for a paperback back at the book sale. But more to the point, Mr. Applegate had already discovered these gems, denying me the thrill of the hunt, the lust for buried treasure.

He suggested I become a friend of the library. That way I’d get invited to the Friday night party where members get first dibs on the books that go on sale to the public the next morning.

I admit it’s a moral failing that I didn’t join the library years ago. But part of the fun of the book chase is that you don’t enjoy an advantage over other book lovers. It’s like prospecting for gold, ones’ success a function of luck, savvy, and the undeniable impulse of avarice.

However, even more disturbing than my failure to add to my list of literary curiosities is the fact that many people these days are apparently only interested in shiny, new books. Part of the beauty of literature is that, no matter how ancient the covers, the words within remain as fresh as the day they were written if the author is worth his or her salt.

I’m thinking, for example, of a series of English sketches from 1863 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I bought the volume at a previous Kinderhook book sale. Some of the essays are based on his experience as the American consul in Liverpool during the 1850’s.

And to think – if I hadn’t acquired this lively, occasionally irreverent book I’d probably have known Hawthorne only as the author of that morbid classic, “The Scarlet Letter.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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