Sleuthing the Books: An Autumn Adventure
Updated: Mar 18
My husband and I can never resist a sign that says “library book sale.” On an autumn afternoon filled with brilliant colors and summer-like temperatures, we followed the sign, wondering what books we might find this time.
Peter and I walked into a small library in Burlington, Washington. Recently built, it is graced with high ceilings and sunlight streaming in through large windows. We had a good feeling as we headed to the book sale area. After the volunteers greeted us, we began browsing the books spread out on the tables.
I had a list in my head of authors I would like to find. I quickly scanned the first table—nothing there of interest. I moved on to the second table, and the list was forgotten. Among the hardback fiction books with glossy covers, I found volumes that looked very old.
My husband was looking at some books nearby, and I called him over to see. We were amazed at what was available. Here on the table were vintage books from an era of sewn bindings and covers with gold-leaf titles.
As I picked up book after book, handling them gently, I found copyright dates of 1866-1914. Who had bought them when they were new?
As I carefully gathered an armful of books, I planned to find out more about their histories when we went home. Here is what I found out:
A Dickens of a Prize:
The oldest book I purchased at the library sale is Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. The edition was published in 1866 by Chapman & Hall. The charming address is given on the green cover: 193 Piccadilly, London.
The book I bought is not very valuable in terms of money, since it is a lone volume II (and is not in very good condition). But it was fascinating to examine the book. Although the binding has come loose, it shows the old thread and the meticulous way the pages were sewn together.
I found a name written on the flyleaf. Not Dickens, but the hand-written name of a long-ago purchaser, William Daniel, and the date, 1868. Perhaps he bought it at a used-book stall in London on an autumn day?
Somehow the volume found its way from England to a small town in Washington almost a century and a half later.
Will the Real Winston Churchill Please Stand Up?
An old game show on television used to feature two impostors sitting in a row with the “real” person. A dramatic story was told at the beginning of the program. The celebrity panel then asked questions to try to determine who was the actual person of the story, and who was faking their answers. At the end, the host always asked dramatically, “Will the real 'name of person' please stand up?” The contestants would bob up and down, pretending to rise, until the real one finally stood tall.
I thought of the show when I spotted a book by Winston Churchill on the table. There was only one problem: I had never heard of this book, Richard Carvel. The book's theme didn't seem quite right to be written by the future Prime Minister of England, and yet, who else would be called Winston Churchill?
Looking up Richard Carvel later, I found that there were two men named Winston Churchill, and both of them were "real." The other Winston Churchill was an American novelist. To my surprise, I also found that he was much more famous in the early days than the British statesman.
The future "Lion of Britain" was the one to use an additional name to differentiate himself from the more well-known American. Even when the British Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he continued to use Winston Spencer Churchill or Winston S. Churchill for his “writing” name, as he promised years earlier.
The American author replied in an equally witty way:
Mr. Winston Churchill appreciates the courtesy of Mr. Winston Churchill in adopting the name of ‘Winston Spencer Churchill’ in his books, articles, etc. Mr. Winston Churchill makes haste to add that, had he possessed any other names, he would certainly have adopted one of them.
The One that Got Away
Since I especially enjoy classic children’s books, I loved seeing the beautiful cover of this old-timer, Randy’s Summer by Amy Brooks. The author wrote a series of girls’ books in the early 1900s.
Although the cover was lovely, I put it down because the pages inside were crumbling. After moving on, I thought better of my decision and went back.
It was gone. Someone else had picked it up before I could get there. She added it to her pile, and I had that feeling of regret. Yet, the "usurper" looked like someone who would enjoy and cherish the book, or so I tried to reassure myself.
I took another glance at the title, wanting to find out more later. I found that Randy’s Summer is available on Kindle for free.
At the library book sale, I’d held a book from the early 1900s in my hands. Now I’m holding the same words displayed in a digital e-reader. We certainly live in interesting times for reading.
Crossing the Bar
I did hold onto a slim green volume of poetry published in 1914. It is part of the Riverside Literature Series and has a stamp showing that it was the property of Lakewood Public Schools. The title is Tennyson’s Enoch Arden and Other Poems.
I bought the book because it is in excellent condition (the schoolchildren treated it well), and also in honor of L. M. Montgomery. She often quoted Tennyson in her "Anne" series, but I didn't know then the special connection I would find in the book I brought home.
I think one of the most moving scenes in L.M. Montgomery’s writing begins in Chapter 35 of Anne’s House of Dreams. She is talking with Captain Jim, a elderly lighthouse keeper and a great friend:
Captain Jim: "I heard you reading a piece of poetry one day last winter--one of Tennyson's pieces. I'd sorter like to hear it again, if you could recite it for me."
Softly and clearly, while the seawind blew in on them, Anne repeated the beautiful lines of Tennyson's wonderful swan song—"Crossing the Bar." The old captain kept time gently with his sinewy hand.
"Yes, yes, Mistress Blythe," he said, when she had finished, "that's it, that's it. He wasn't a sailor, you tell me--I dunno how he could have put an old sailor's feelings into words like that, if he wasn't one. He didn't want any `sadness o' farewells' and neither do I, Mistress Blythe—for all will be well with me and mine beyant the bar."
On the very last page of my 1914 volume of poetry, I found Crossing the Bar.
It was worth spending an hour or two indoors on a gorgeous autumn day to explore these wonderful books from the past.