Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Newberry Library

The fair game

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

I have measured out my life with book sales. Not with bookstores, mind you, which have played an equally important but altogether different role in my dreams, but by the high school cafeterias or parish halls filled with books, donated by friends of the local library or church, that appear once a year and then vanish, like a treasure hoard conjured up in a fairy tale. Some of the most intense memories of my childhood revolve around the book sales once held at Faith Lutheran Church in my hometown of Castro Valley, California, where, on the last day, you could fill up a brown paper grocery bag for about five bucks. At the age of ten, amazingly, I actually had five dollars, which meant that I could get to the indispensable work of stocking my bedroom shelves with the tattered volumes that seem to fill everyone’s home library: the Stephen King and Michael Crichton paperbacks, the ten matching tombstones of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Mankind, the Reader’s Digest collections of household hints. Few of those books have survived the dozen times I’ve moved since then, but they served their purpose, like the seven tons of food and water that temporarily become a part of the body before passing on. But at least one find has remained with me for nearly two decades. One year, I found a complete set of the Great Books of the Western World, missing only the volumes for Darwin and Marx—which tells you a lot, I think, about the home in which they once resided. I literally sat on top of them until my parents could come to pick me up that day, and I still own them all, with the two forbidden authors restored. And I’m not kidding when I say that when I open one at random and inhale the scent of its pages, it transports me back at once to the happiest time in my life.

That book sale, obviously, wasn’t particularly exceptional, and similar ones are held each year in every town across America—which doesn’t make any of them any less precious. But ever since moving to the Chicago area, I’ve been lucky enough to live near the epicenter of three fantastic book events: the Printers Row Lit Fest, the Newberry Library Book Fair, and the Oak Park Book Fair. I missed the Lit Fest this year because I was out of town, but to make up for it, the Newberry and Oak Park book fairs took place on the very same weekend. As a result, I spent four consecutive days gorging on used books. It should have been wonderful, and it was, but it also forced me to confront a fact that still makes me a little uncomfortable: after three decades of buying, owning, and culling volumes for my own library, a book fair is bound to present diminishing returns, at least compared to the almost painful excitement that it afforded me when I was growing up. I’ve bought so many books over the years that most of the titles I see either leave me cold or generate a brief spark of nostalgia: I remember when I bought that one. When you’re twelve years old and don’t own many books, a copy of The Source or A Brief History of Time or a James Clavell doorstopper seems like a fantastic find, and maybe it is. Later, after you’ve been to a few more book fairs, you realize that they’re all glutted with copies of The Source and The Story of Mankind and, yes, even complete sets of the Great Books of the Western World. And in the meantime, your own shelves have become full to bursting, which means that for a new book to grab you, it has to squeeze through the eye of an increasingly tiny needle.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

These days, when I step into the Newberry Library Book Fair, I begin with a sense of limitless potential, as if I’ve arrived the book fair of my dreams. As I browse the tables over the next couple of hours, that feeling of uncut possibility dwindles into—well, not disillusionment, exactly, but a rational lowering of expectations. Before the book fair begins, it’s possible that it has all the weird, eccentric books that I need to fill out my collection, and that I’ll stumble across, say, a complete five-volume set of The Lisle Letters for less than fifty dollars. (This might seem absurdly optimistic, but remember, this is the same book fair where I found the sixteen volumes of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights last year for the same price. Miracles can and do happen.) It doesn’t take long for your fond wishes of what might be there to collide with the knowledge of what actually exists for the taking, much of which is great, but nearly all of which falls just a bit short of your hopes. It’s the equivalent of the kind of narrowing of possibility in writing fiction that Joan Didion describes to The Paris Review: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” In science, Thomas Henry Huxley called it “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” If you want to get really existential, you could say that it’s like the reduction of options in life, or politics, when the inconvenient truths insist on impinging themselves on the ideals you cherished when you weren’t limited by reality. When you’ve been a dedicated bibliophile for most of your life, every book fair turns into a picky exercise in the art of the possible.

This might seem like a lot of symbolic freight to place on such an innocent pleasure. But I’ve begun to realize that what I love about book fairs is their annual renewal of possibility, even if it only lasts for an hour or two. I’ve spoken frequently about the art of browsing, which is part luck, part skill, and all serendipity: it’s the one time in our adult lives when we’re most fully exposed to happy accidents. A book fair is browsing at its most intense: the collection of books before us is one that will never exist again, just as when we shuffle a deck of cards, we get an order that has never been seen before in all of human history. Playing the book fair game is a matter of sharp eyes, a relaxed but active brain, and an ability to spend hours on your feet, scanning a hodgepodge of titles. Not every book fair results in a moment of revelation, and although I’d love to wind up this post by saying that I was blindsided by a great find, that wasn’t the case this year. (The one that gave me the most happiness was a copy of Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder, which is one of those books that I always have at the back of my mind whenever I enter a bookstore, and which cost me all of three dollars at the Newberry.) But I still wouldn’t have missed it for anything. As John Gardner might have said, browsing is a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and at a time when I’m preoccupied with reading a narrow slice of books for my work, it’s good to have a reminder that the universe of ideas is so much greater than any one person can ever absorb. For thirty dollars, you can buy an entire liberal education, as long as you’re willing to look for it. And there’s always next year.

Written by nevalalee

August 1, 2016 at 8:58 am

The thousand and one footnotes

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Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Francis Burton

In recent years, whenever I’ve bought a movie on Blu-ray, it’s been with as much of an eye to the special features as to the quality of the film itself. The gold standard remains the special edition of The Lord of the Rings, which is practically a film school in a box, but when I look at my shelves, I see plenty of titles—ranging from The Lovely Bones to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—that I don’t think I’d own at all if it weren’t for their featurettes and supplements. These days, with sales of home media falling everywhere, bonus content is one proven way of convincing consumers to pay for a physical disc, and it appeals to our natural interest in commentaries, ephemera, and glimpses into the creative process. In some ways, you could see them as an updated version of the original bonus feature: the footnote. Footnotes and endnotes originally evolved to meet a utilitarian end, but as everyone from the compilers of the Talmud to Nicholson Baker have long since realized, they can provide peculiar pleasures of their own, a kind of parallel narrative to the main work that allows for asides and digressions that don’t fit within the primary argument. A long footnote is often more interesting than the text to which it refers, precisely because it feels so superfluous, and an entire industry has sprung up around copiously annotated editions of our favorite books, of which The Annotated Sherlock Holmes remains the undisputed champion.

I got to thinking about this after scoring a copy of what amounts to the most extraordinary collection of footnotes in the English language. It’s the sixteen-volume translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton of the Arabian Nights, or rather The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which I picked up for a song this weekend at the Newberry Library Book Fair in Chicago. I’ve coveted this set ever since I first saw it in the library at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and when I see it in my office now, I feel like pinching myself. Much of the book’s fascination emerges from the figure of Burton himself, an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. He was a British adventurer, soldier, spy, and explorer who spoke close to thirty languages; he was among the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, under constant threat of discovery and death; he searched, unsuccessfully, for the source of the Nile; he survived a spear through the face in Africa. His legend tends to obscure his real achievements, but as Jorge Luis Borges notes in his fine essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” it’s the legendary Burton who survives. (Burton was clearly an enormous influence on Borges, and you see echoes of him everywhere in the latter’s stories, particularly in his lists of arcane facts and exotica.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton

And while I’m not sure I’ll make it through all sixteen volumes, I have every intention of reading every single one of Burton’s notes, which have a well-deserved reputation for raciness. Burton notoriously embraced the sexual and scatological elements of the original stories, to the point where the set was originally published in a private limited edition designed to get around the obscenity laws of the time. And there’s little question that his readers saw the annotations as a major selling point. Burton’s challenge, as Borges puts it, was “to interest nineteenth-century British gentlemen in the written version of thirteenth-century oral Muslim tales.” And in order to appeal to “the respectable men of the West End, well equipped for disdain and erudition but not for belly laughs or terror,” he loaded up his work with special features:

The text’s marvels—undoubtedly adequate in Kordofan or Bulaq, where they were offered up as true—ran the risk of seeming rather threadbare in England…To keep his subscribers with him, Burton abounded in explanatory notes on “the manners and customs of Muslim men.”

The result was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a deluxe box set with a commentary track and a fat disc of supplements, and I suspect that many of the set’s original purchasers, like me, were more interested in Burton’s special features—with their vast repository of sexual, ethnographical, and anecdotal material—than in the stories themselves.

As Borges concludes: “At fifty, a man has accumulated affections, ironies, obscenities, and copious anecdotes; Burton unburdened himself of them in his notes.” And boy, did he ever. Among the translation’s unique characteristics is an entire index devoted to the footnotes alone—presumably as a convenience to readers who just wanted to get to the good parts—and browsing through it feels like a trip to a bazaar of indescribable, vaguely dirty riches. (A few of the entires, chosen at random, include: “Female depravity going hand in hand with perversity of taste,” “Hymeneal blood resembles that of pigeon-poult,” and “Women, peculiar waddle of.”) Borges rightly observes that Burton’s commentary “is encyclopedic and seditious and of an interest that increases in inverse proportion to its necessity,” which is true of all footnotes, but especially here. A brief reference in one story to contraception, for instance, inspires two long paragraphs on the history of the condom, complete with prices and advice on usage, and the appendix includes what was then the longest discussion of homosexuality ever to appear in English. A lot of the material seems to have been chosen for its appeal to the idealized male reader of the time, in a sort of anticipation of the articles in Playboy, and as calculated as it all feels, it certainly works. It’s the richest collection of bonus features ever published, and thanks to Burton’s legacy, it comes across as even more. As Borges says, it’s like listening to a commentary track recorded by Sinbad the Sailor himself.

Scatter my ashes at the Newberry Library

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

“I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library,” Borges writes, and I’d happily agree, with one small revision. To me, heaven is a library book sale, despite the fact that the library itself seems to offer a better deal, at least at first glance. In any decent library, the books are organized in a way that allows you to quickly find the one you want, and even if a copy isn’t available at that particular branch, it’s often just an interlibrary loan away. Libraries are kind of miracle, and like all good miracles, we tend to take them for granted. People these days love to enthuse about having all of the world’s information available at their fingertips, but really, that’s been the case for a long time: the only difference is that the library imposes transaction costs—the journey to the nearest branch, the search through the card catalog or computer system, the retrieval of the book, and the location of the page you need—that are probably beneficial in the long run. This isn’t to dispute the wonders of Google book search, which has transformed my life as well. But information has greater value when uncovered as part of a more considered process, and the net result is that we aren’t any more informed now than when we had to rely on more old-fashioned methods.

Yet if I had the choice between spending eternity in a library or at the Newberry Library Book Fair, which just concluded here in Chicago, I’d choose the latter without hesitation. A library book sale takes the contents of a well-stocked library—the Newberry event offers upward of 100,000 volumes each year—and jumbles them just enough to make the search more interesting. Ideally, the books have been arranged in rough categories, with a big table devoted to each one, but in practice, the classifications can be a little arbitrary. (Having just volunteered for an afternoon of sorting at this coming weekend’s book fair in Oak Park, I’m all the more aware of how many tricky judgment calls, and human error, go into which book ends up where.) As a result, looking for any one book or author means that you need to poke your nose everywhere. If I want a book on Napoleon, say, it might be in Biography, History, or Military History, and Will Durant’s The Age of Napoleon is likely to be over in Reference. Even if I’m pretty sure that a particular book will be on one table and nowhere else, it’s still a crapshoot, both because the books are haphazardly arranged and because there’s no guarantee the one I want will be there at all.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

This can lead to moments of frustration, especially when you’re positive that a certain book has to be on this table somewhere, just out of sight. (A year ago, I found Volume II of George Saintsbury’s A History of Criticism and Literary Taste and spent many minutes searching in vain for Volumes I and III. This year, I found Volumes I and II, but not III. And I fully expect the entire set to be waiting there for me when I go back twelve months from now.) It can also lead to a heady combination of excitement and regret, especially as the time to leave draws near. I spent three hours at the Newberry sale on Friday, and as the clock ticked closer to my scheduled departure, I experienced a feeling that a lot of browsers must know: the conviction that there’s got to be one more book here that I’ve always wanted but haven’t seen, and I only have ten minutes left to make the rounds one more time. In a perfect world, you’d be able to browse forever, and even if you ended up going over the same tables again and again, you’d find that you’ve been subtly changed in the meanwhile. I often see the same books at the Newberry from year to year, and sometimes I’ll discover that one I’d passed over twice before suddenly speaks to me now. And at three dollars or so, it’s worth taking the risk.

That’s the real joy of browsing: not only do you find the books that you never knew you wanted, but you sometimes discover that you’re no longer the person—or more than the person—you always thought you were. I’ve been shaped in profound ways by chance discoveries at book sales that never would have occurred if I’d simply followed the Dewey Decimal System to the titles I had in mind. And it’s a little reassuring to find that no matter how many books I’ve bought or read, there are always serendipitous discoveries to be made. (This year, my big find was an original edition of The Times Atlas of World History, which I picked up for only five dollars. It was first published in 1975, so it isn’t entirely up to date, but that still leaves nine thousand useful years, or 99.6% of all recorded history, which strikes me as a pretty good percentage.) So if I end up with any kind of choice in the matter, I’ve decided that this is where I want to spend eternity. The Newberry, like all beautiful old libraries, is already crowded with ghosts, and if I end up haunting the tables one day, I hope you’ll give me a wave. And if I seem too busy to wave back, it’s only because I’m still looking for Volume III.

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2014 at 9:44 am

Zen and the art of browsing

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

Over the weekend, like an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force, two events in my life abruptly collided: 1.) I absolutely, unquestionably ran out of shelf space at home. 2.) The Newberry Library in Chicago held its annual book fair. For the uninitiated, the latter may not seem all that earthshaking, but as I’ve said here before, it’s the ultimate fulfillment of every library or church book sale I’ve ever attended, with six huge rooms packed with tables covered with beautiful books of every price, age, and description. As a confirmed book addict, it’s the closest thing to heaven on earth I’ve found, and I look forward to it every year like a kid waiting for Christmas. Yet after several years of collecting books in Chicago—and a few decades of obsessive book hoarding before that—I’ve reached a point where I can no longer unquestioningly grab every volume that catches my eye. I need to be selective. And although this may seem to go against the whole book fair experience, I found, instead, that it enriches it. Acquiring books is no longer the goal: the real attraction is that perfect hour or two of browsing itself.

First, an observation. When I was growing up, my attitude toward buying and accumulating books was very different. For reading material, I was effectively limited to the books I had at home, the stacks in my school and local library, and the inventory of my few neighborhood bookstores. This third category was a circle that slowly expanded, as I began to venture farther afield to bigger and more eclectic bookshops, but it was still far from a limitless selection. As a result, whenever I saw a book that I thought I might like to read one day, I’d pick it up, as long as it was reasonably priced. Nowadays, things have changed. I have access to the Oak Park and Chicago library systems, which have just about every book imaginable, and if I decide I want my own copy, thanks to the huge online inventories of Amazon, Better World Books, and elsewhere, I can usually get it within a week. This has led to an unexpected but inevitable shift in my thinking: I no longer need to own books that I can easily obtain elsewhere. The world is now one huge bookstore, and I’ve started to think of my own library less as a finite collection than as the conveniently available subset of every book on the planet.

The author's library

As a result, when I do buy books these days, they tend to be books I don’t think I’ll be able to easily find anywhere else, at least not at that particular price point. In practice, this means that I concentrate on the old, the musty, and the out of print. It leaves me with a personal library that grows more eccentric by the day, not because my tastes are all that far out of the mainstream, but because the books I tend to hoard are the ones that nobody else has heard of. I can always grab a copy of Lean In or The Signal and the Noise, but I may never find The Story Life of Napoleon—an enticing volume from 1914 that I unearthed at this year’s book fair—ever again, at least not for the two dollars I paid for it. If I come across a book while browsing, however interesting, that I think I might be able to find elsewhere without too much trouble, that’s actually a point against it. What I really want is either an amazing book that I didn’t know existed or one that I’ve wanted for a long time while holding out for the right price. In short, I’m looking for books that will make me say “Wow!” out loud.

And although those moments don’t come very often, when they do, they make everything else worth it. The upshot is that I spent five hours this weekend at the Newberry Library and emerged with a total of seven books, which works out to more than forty minutes of browsing for each purchase. (For the curious, the highlights were A Certain World by W.H. Auden and Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the latter of which I picked up for an unbelievable ten dollars.) That may seem like a lot of time, but really, the point isn’t the book itself—it’s the forty minutes. Once you commit to only picking up the rare, the exceptional, or the fabulous, you find that browsing turns into a kind of Zen state punctuated by rare but intense moments of enlightenment. You’re no longer there to acquire more books, except in a purely nominal way: you’re there because it’s good to be around books themselves, side by side with hundreds of other browsers who feel the same way. For a few hours, you’re in that perfect place. And if you do end up with a handful of treasures to take home, it’s less for the books themselves than for the memories of happiness they preserve.

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

The Book of Dreams

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Not surprisingly, I went back to the Newberry Library Book Fair. In fact, I went back three times, determined, for whatever reason, to squeeze every last drop out of this particular sale. Along with the finds I mentioned last week, I emerged with a copy of the original edition of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, its pages still uncut, famous as the primary source for T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land; John Canemaker’s Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists; Jack Woodford’s amazing book Plotting, about which I hope to have a great deal to say later on; wonderfully musty books on The Art of Play Production and Everybody’s Theatre, the last of which turns out to involve puppets; my two missing volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation; Technique in Fiction by the editors of The Kenyon Review; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development; Leslie A. Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel; and studies of two of literature’s great magicians, T.H. White and Alexander Pope. Total cost? Something like thirty dollars.

But my real prize was a book, or rather a set of books, that I’ve wanted for a long time. I first saw them in a box under a table at the book fair on Thursday, but I held back until Sunday, when I knew everything would be half price. In fact, there were three different editions on sale, one in twenty-nine small volumes, one in soft leather covers, one in sixteen big tomes. When I came back yesterday to claim my haul, the first two sets were gone, but the third was still there, in two enormous boxes. I lugged them over to the squirreling area and managed, with some help, to get them downstairs to the cashier and loading dock. A few minutes later, they were in the trunk of my car. And now they’re on my bookshelves, although it took a bit of rearranging to find room for them all. They’re big, cumbersome, not especially convenient to read—almost too heavy for the average reader’s lap—but to my eyes, they’re beautiful, even awe-inspiring. They’re the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Regular readers will know how much this encyclopedia means to me, but even I was unprepared for the level of rapture that followed. I spent at least three or four hours yesterday just turning the pages, marveling at the riches on display. This edition, which is generally considered to be the greatest encyclopedia of all time, was first published in 1911, with supplementary volumes bringing it up to date through 1922, and what I’ve found is that the gain in accuracy in more recent versions isn’t nearly as meaningful as the loss of material. This edition of the Britannica isn’t so much a reference book as a Borgesian universal library, an attempt to get everything in. The article on “Horses,” for instance, spends sixteen dense pages on their anatomy, history, and management, only to conclude with the sentence: “Overhead hay-racks are unnatural and are liable to drop seeds into a horse’s eye.” Every article of any length is crammed with opinion, common sense, prejudice, and personality. It’s the best book I’ve ever seen.

It takes a while to get used to the Eleventh Edition. There are very few conventional cross-references, so for those of us who have been spoiled by hyperlinks, finding a particular piece of information can be something of a treasure hunt, especially if you refuse to use the index. (For example, I had a hard time finding an entry on the modern Olympic Games: there wasn’t one under “Olympiad” or “Olympia” or “Games, Classical,” and I nearly gave up entirely before finding a column or two under “Athletic Sports.”) But then, this isn’t really an encyclopedia for casual reference—although I expect that it will become my first stop for information on any major subject from now on—but a book for dreaming. And while all this material is available online, the best way to experience it is as a long, deep dive, preferably in a comfortable armchair. Each volume casts an uncanny spell, as you find yourself going from “Dante” to “Dragon” to “Drama” to “Dredging,” with a stop for “Dream” somewhere along the way. I’m off to take another dive now. If I don’t come up again, you’ll know where to find me.

Return to the Newberry Library

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If you’re a certain kind of book lover in Chicago, the high point of any year, even more than the Printers Row Lit Fest, is the Newberry Library Book Fair. As I mentioned in my post last year, this book fair represents the apotheosis of the kind of library book sale I constantly dreamed about as a kid: more than 120,000 books, most only a few dollars, arranged in one of the most beautiful libraries imaginable. (For those who don’t know it firsthand, this is the library memorably featured in The Time Traveler’s Wife.) I’ve been looking forward to this event all year, and even managed to rework my writing schedule this week so that I had a free day on Thursday, when the library doors opened. You’d think that with all this buildup, the fair couldn’t possibly live up to expectations—but if anything, it’s even better than I imagined.

Oddly enough, I’ve found myself becoming more restrained in the books I buy. Last year, I observed that I had to hold myself back because of my upcoming move, and wrote: “Next year, I won’t have any such restrictions.” Yet I’ve been pickier than usual this year, picking up and putting back several books—including Architecture Without Architects, Everyman’s Talmud, and the charming paperback Star Trek Lives!, with its early discussion of fanfic—that I would have happily added to the pile in the past. What happened? Maybe it’s a newfound frugality; maybe it’s a sense that while I currently have ample shelf space in my home library, it won’t last forever; and in a couple of cases, the books themselves were just a little too tattered to justify the purchase. I’ve also found that my reaction to a used book has become weirdly intuitive: I’ll carry a book for a while, then leave it, because it doesn’t quite fit with the others I’ve found so far.

In the end, I emerged with what I can only call a well-rounded portfolio of books. As always, the first day’s haul included a mixture of books that I’ve wanted to check out for a while and the usual happy accidents. The first category included a five-volume slipcased paperback edition of Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James; a similar two-volume edition of Toynbee’s abridged Study of History; and D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, which I nearly bought a few weeks ago, but found at Newberry for only a dollar. The serendipitous category includes Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry by Jacques Maritain, whom I quoted here not long ago; The Duality of Vision by Walter Sorell, a study of artists who have excelled in more than one creative field; a lovely book of photographs on The Zen Life; and The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before.

My favorite discovery is probably a 1955 edition of The Week-End Book, first published in London by the Nonesuch Press. All Things Considered did an amusing segment a few years ago on this volume, which is essentially designed as an all-purpose manual to be brought along by Londoners on their weekends in the country. As a result, it’s delightfully miscellaneous. It contains an excellent poetry anthology of more than two hundred pages; information on the plants and animals of the English countryside; a discussion of village and pub architecture; manuals of stargazing and birdwatching, complete with birdcalls transcribed for piano; and helpful, often tongue-in-check advice on cooking, etiquette, the law, first aid, and games. (The section on games begins: “Everyone knows Up-Jenkyns, but here are a few finer points…) In short, it’s the kind of lucky discovery that can enrich an entire lifetime, and which you can only make at a book fair like this. Is it any wonder I’m going back again tonight?

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