Monday, April 21, 2014

A Tale of Six Books

Am I busy finishing A Tale of Two Cities? No--but I interrupt my literary slackitude to bring you a tale of six books. Seven books, actually, but only six of them mine, and none of them fiction, thank goodness. This is one of those rare stories in which real life imitates a novel.

Here goes:

During the Great Purge, I made a lot of choices, obviously, about what to pull from the shelves. Some choices were easy, some were hard, and some took serious nudging and emotional support from friends. In the end, multiple boxes of books and CDs went to the nonprofit "Friends of the Public Library," from where they will hopefully find their way into hands and hearts that will enjoy them anew.

One particular set of books was too special for such purging while simultaneously too good to simply gather dust on my shelf: Sir Donald Francis Tovey's Essays in Musical Analysis--cloth-bound hard-cover printings from the mid-1940s, in excellent condition, all six volumes. Tovey was a musical jack-of-all-trades--musicologist, pianist, composer, conductor, analyst, and editor. The Essays in Musical Analysis were collected from his insightful program notes for the Reid Orchestra at the University of Edinburgh. They're classics.

I had coveted these books when I was in grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1990s, but the copies I had seen in the local used books store was beyond my budget. I acquired my set when a fellow grad student bailed from the program; he sold me a ton of books, all of them highly desirable to music theory geeks, for a mere $200, including the Tovey set.

The books moved with me to my first teaching gig in Kansas, and then to my second gig at Duke in North Carolina. I followed my friend out of the discipline in 2003, and all of the other books eventually ended up in the hands of a later generation of grad students, but I kept the Tovey Essays through every baby-step purge. The Great Purge of 2014 was different: the books had to go, but were too special to just give away to strangers.

I offered to ship them to former classmates who had remained in academia. No one jumped at the offer; as one explained, "thanks Liz, but I don't need any more unread books on my shelf mocking me (as [our advisor] used to say)." Some voted for eBay, but I feared a buyer would split the set up. One friend agreed, urging "c'mon, Liz. Keep 'em. They're classics. Beautiful little time capsules (in more than one sense). Every time you sell a volume, a program annotator cries."

So I put the books aside on the roll-top desk in the living room. Two months later, I was cleaning off the desk (we clean in our house largely by moving piles of stuff from one location to another) and decided the time had finally come for them to move on.

I had heard about a relatively new used-books store downtown. I've never been there, because, as you know, either I dislike reading or I'm too busy slogging my way through A Tale of Two Cities to buy more books. Whatever. I went to the bookstore's website, saw that they were in a historic city-center building with pressed-tin ceilings, and thought that folks who appreciate old urban architecture and old books might understand the emotional investment I had in a Tovey set I had barely read but nonetheless still cherished; perhaps they would be interested in them.

I started drafting an angst-filled email inquiry and wanted to accurately describe the condition of the books. They were in excellent shape for 70-year-olds, but I recalled that they did have some markings inside the front covers. I opened one volume to confirm that, and saw the Ex Libris plate, dated 1948--itself an antique. All six books had the same plate and date. I didn't recognize the previous owner's name, but thought it might be of interest, so I googled it. The search engine returned a few links, with More Familiar Name often included. Additional googling followed, plus a closer inspection of the pencil scrawlings inside the covers, where I found More Familiar's name written in cursive.

More Familiar is a former colleague of mine at Duke.

The books had belonged to More Familiar's first wife, a scholar in the performance practice movement who died, too young, in 1974. She had been a teenager when she put her Ex Libris plates in the books. More Familiar had taught in Madison for a few years in the 1970s before coming to Duke.

I emailed More Familiar and asked if he'd like the books. He wrote back that he had consulted volume VII just the week before and was wishing he had kept the rest of the set. I hadn't even known there was a volume VII.

So there it ended: the Tovey collection that was too good to randomly give away, too good to split up, and too good to sit unread was happily reunited with More Familiar, 1000+ miles and 40 years after he and the books had parted ways.

1 comment:

Momz said...

Lovely story, despite how you feel about novels.