Tuesday, November 27, 2012
The Odyssey of a Book
This past weekend I read Ellery Queen’s The Player on the Other Side. Published in 1963 it was one of the last works of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, who wrote under the Queen nom de plume, and while interesting, is probably not as good as the earlier works that made their name. But it’s not the written book I want to discuss today.
What I found myself thinking about after I finished it was the physical book itself — the copy in my hands. I had bought it at Logos used bookstore in Santa Cruz probably a year ago, brought it home and put it on the shelf for later reading. It was a hardcover book-club edition of the original Random House printing, which sold used for $3 — probably about what it cost new nearly a half-century ago.
It still had the original dust jacket, only slightly frayed, and when I removed the dust jacket to read the book (as I always do with a hardcover copy), I saw the thing that got my imagination going.
From Indiana to California
On the inside front cover of the book, hidden by the dust-jacket flap when I looked at it in the bookstore, was one of those return address labels that used to be commonplace back when people actually used the mail. It said:
For some reason the first thing I noticed was the absence of a ZIP code on the address label. That’s not surprising, given that ZIP codes were introduced in the year the book was published and quite a few people had a lot of those return address labels to use up. Still, it dated the book as having come from a simpler, more innocent time.
On the heels of that observation, there was the obvious question of what the M in the owner’s name stood for. Michael or Mark? Mary or Myrtle? No clue whatsoever as to even the gender of the owner.
Hitting the computer, I Googled the address and found that 7934 Delmar Avenue is a three-bedroom one-bath home in the Chicago suburb of Hammond and is currently valued at $80,000. No owner’s name was shown, but odds are no Francises have lived there in a long time.
The Really Intriguing Question
Finally, the really big question: How did the book get, in nearly pristine condition, from there to here? I’d like to think that it first was taken aboard the Orient Express, with a secret code slipped in between pages 136 and 137, and that some spy risked his or her life to get it back to America. The more likely and prosaic explanation is that It was passed down a couple of generations and that some latter-day Francis, who wound up in California, finally sold it to the used bookstore.
The book was in such good condition that it’s possible I may have been the first person to read it since it was mailed to Indiana. Which raises another point. One of the reasons for writing a book is that it conveys a form of immortality. Long after an author dies, even a forgotten book can, through yard sales and used bookstores, find its way into the hands of someone who reads it, as I did, and in so doing, brings the author alive again for a few hours.
I can only hope that 48 years hence, someone comes across a copy of my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, at a yard sale or on a family bookshelf, opens it, and starts reading. Wherever I may be at that moment, I’ll smile if I can.