That's a bargain all right, but a bargain ain't a bargain unless it's something you need

I mentioned previously the great deal I got on the hardcover Lord of the Rings set. Lately I've been thinking about other really good deals I've had in acquiring books, and I thought I'd share a few.

The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson - free. This book was a gift from my "boyfriend" in the 7th grade. I put "boyfriend" in quotation marks because, although we were friends, I didn't really like him as a boyfriend, but we went steady for a couple of weeks anyway because of peer pressure. Part of the reason we broke up was because he was such a liar. Also, he moved away. Anyhow, knowing how much I enjoyed reading, at one point in our short relationship he gave me a paperback copy of The Black Arrow.

I think this book was my first exposure to RLS's fiction (other than maybe watching a black & white film of Treasure Island), and my enjoyment at reading it is one of the reasons I like him so well. So, inside the cover of this book, someone had written "This book belongs to Jim F." Only, my friend's name was Paul (the names have been changed to protect me). I wondered momentarily where Paul had got it from, but I didn't ask questions. I took a pen and, underneath the previous inscription, wrote "Not anymore".

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (aka By the Great Horn Spoon!), by Newbery-award-winning author Sid Fleischman - 60¢. This is the first book I ever bought for myself. I was in sixth grade, and our teacher, Mrs Poppenhager, passed out one of those book order forms like Scholastic and Arrow Books do now, and I took it home and discussed it with my mom, who gave me permission (and probably the money) to order the book.

The book is really called By the Great Horn Spoon!, a much apter name, if you ask me, but it had recently been made into a Disney film, and they changed the title (and the name of the main character), and the copy I bought was a movie tie-in paperback reprint. For sheer entertainment value and lasting life influence, it's probably the best 60¢ I ever spent.

By the Great Horn Spoon! is about the adventures of an orphan boy named Jack Flagg who runs away from Boston with Praiseworthy (aka "Griffin" in the Disney film), who is Jack's aunt's butler. They head for the gold fields of California in 1849 in order to restore the family fortune so that Jack's aunt and two younger sisters won't have to be penniless.

The book immediately became one of my favorites ever (a set that is approaching 100 in number). Not only that, it exerted a great influence on my life, as books were wont to do back in those days. After reading Fleischman's book, I developed a passion for the California Gold Rush era and was somewhat more than mildly obsessed with the idea of becoming a Forty-niner. It didn't matter to me that I was about 115 years too late; the constraints of reality were no match for my imagination.

Our family would occasionally take little trips up to Gold Country, especially to the town of Columbia. Our parents bought us rock candy and sarsaparilla and little pokes (tiny drawstring bags, for those of you unfamiliar with gold miner lingo) of bubble gum pieces made to look like gold nuggets. After chewing all my gum, I saved the poke. It came in handy because once, while we were going through some field or walking by the side of some road or traipsing through some dry riverbed or something like that, I knelt down and picked up a handful of dirt and then, letting it escape ever so slowly, gently blew on the falling debris so that the dust and bits of plant matter were blown away and the heavier stuff (tiny rocks and the like) landed in the palm of my other hand. This was a trick I had learned from reading By the Great Horn Spoon! And I actually found a little tiny flake of gold that day, or so I believed. I put it in the poke and kept it safe in my pocket.

A day or so later, while we were at our cousins' house, I stepped on a nail protruding from a board and was taken by my mom to a nearby doctor for a tetanus shot. The doctor, who was a friendly, teasing sort, asked if I had any money to pay for the office visit. I thought about the gold in my pocket. I thought about how much I really, really wanted it. Then I thought about how much trouble I'd been, getting stabbed in the foot through my own carelessness, and how I ought to do my part. So I told him I had some gold I could pay him with. I showed him the little flake. He laughed at me. (And I wonder sometimes why I don't like talking to strangers.) Anyway, my mom paid the bill.

A few years ago, I tried to buy a first printing of By the Great Horn Spoon! - not with my little gold flake, which I lost many years ago. At the time, there were none available, so I got a 2nd printing. I just looked up the title again, and someone is presently selling a first for $50, but I think I'm happy for now with my 2nd printing. Incidentally, that 60¢ paperback is currently selling for $6 to $8.

Madam, Will You Talk?, by Mary Stewart - $100. Sometimes I go to book fairs. They're like comic book conventions, only with no comics, just books. And no one dresses like a freak. Once, back in 1993, I happened by one of the stalls at one of those fairs, and saw, in a little glass case, a copy of Madam, Will You Talk? I was very excited. Could it be a genuine first printing? Because it's a pretty scarce book to find in that state. First printings of an author's first book are generally on the small side. So usually, if you see a copy of Madam, Will You Talk?, it's a book club edition or a later printing masquerading as a first. Anyway, I asked the owner if I could look at the book, if I could hold it in my hands. He let me. I checked it out: yes, it was a first printing, a real true first printing. But I didn't have $100, which was what he was asking for it. I reluctantly walked away.

But I went home with a new goal: to save up the money and to hope the book would be there at the next book fair, which was six months later. So, six months later, I went back to the book fair, back to the same booth . . . and the book was not there!

Do not weep for me. If you can believe it, I didn't spend (all of) that $100 and I went back to the next fair, another six months later, and there it was again. So I bought it. It was the most I'd ever spent to date on a book. But I'm very glad to have it.

I looked it up on line today and there's somebody selling one for $345. There's also someone selling one for $95, but, for reasons I won't go into here, I'm not so sure it's a first printing. (I think one of these days I'll write a little monograph on how to identify a Mary Stewart first printing.)

Of course, the book I have is not really a first printing. It's a first American printing. Mary Stewart is British, and since her books were published in the UK before they were here, the UK edition is the real first printing. I don't have one of those. There's a copy currently selling for $636. I think I'll wait.

Why Mary Stewart? you may ask. Isn't she just another one of those gothic romance writers? No, she is not. She is sui generis, and someone who helped form my ideas about the nature of duty and love and doing what is right.

Of course, you don't need to spend $100 or more on a first printing to be influenced by an author. Sixty cents gets you the same message.

1 comment:

adrien & eric said...

Oh, books. We loves them. I remember you reading Bullwhip Griffin to us when we were younger. It made me excited about gold rushing too. And then we went to Sutter's Fort. Fun. Maybe those were unrelated events. Hmm.

See you on Thursday!!