Friday, May 29, 2015

Post-Academic: You Must Change Your LIfe

In the spring of 2009, I was teaching a course on Fantasy and Science Fiction at West Virginia University, where I’d accepted a position as a “Teaching Assistant Professor” in 2007. I came to Morgantown in order to accompany my wife to WVU, where she’d taken a tenure-track position to teach folklore and serve as the liaison between the Department of English and the College of Education. Perhaps we should have refused to come, unless they offered me tenure (I had been a full professor at our previous school), but we were young (in our early forties) and I had just finished writing my third academic book, and we were sure it would all work out, even if we weren’t sure how.

First edition copy of Robinson's
Icehenge, a paperback original (1984)
In that particular term, I’d assigned Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant early novel, Icehenge (1984), one of the best novels I’ve ever read on the topic of history and memory. Across a span of several centuries, we follow the stories of three very different narrators: first, a reluctant Martian revolutionary who witnesses the clandestine (and apparently doomed) departure of humanity’s first starship; second, a frustrated academic Martian archeologist who literally mines the past to further his own anti-establishment political agenda, even while savoring and relying upon the benefits his position and connections within that establishment give him; and third, a young historian who argues—successfully—that the Plutonian Icehenge of the novel’s title is a hoax, and that the narrative of the first part of the novel may be as well. In thematizing the conflict between history as events-that-happened and history as stories-about-the-past, as it is complicated by the conscious and unconscious ways in which we tell (or are drawn to) stories that suit our personalities, beliefs, and opinions, the novel would suit a course in historiography as well as it suited my science fiction class.

For some reason, during that particular semester, I reacted especially strongly to the story of Hjalmar Nederland, the novel’s second narrator. Nederland, for those who have not read the book, is a train-wreck of a character, and he seems virtually incapable of having a successful human encounter: he is abrasive, self-absorbed, certain, and lost, all at the same time. He is also, of course, a professional success, coming off a recent term as chair of his department, just as his narrative begins, and about to engage upon the most important dig of his centuries-long career. I thank my lucky stars now, looking back on that semester, that I’ve never been a reader who primarily reads by identifying with characters: Nederland is no one anyone would wish to identify with. And yet….
For Nederland, the search for the truth of the past gets unavoidably caught up in his search for a sense of self, for self-knowledge. And even as abrasive as he is, Nederland’s thirst for self-understanding renders him attractive and sympathetic. Perhaps this response is even strengthened, for a reader like me, since at various moments in the story, he quotes snippets of poetry, often completely unattributed in Robinson’s novel. To read this section of the novel, therefore, is to engage in a kind of literary archeology, though the tracing of Nederland’s influences has become far easier since the novel’s publication by the searchability of the internet. But in the sense that the narrative demands that we recognize or search out Nederland’s quotations, the book encourages a kind of identification, as we too, become textual researchers and archeologists, sifting through various textual strata.
Having wondered myself whether my own scholarship as a medievalist might be built upon a similar quest for self-knowledge, I was struck, as I reread Icehenge back in 2009, when I came across Nederland’s blunt statement towards the end of his story that “You must change your life,” Given Nederland’s penchant for quotation, I typed the phrase into Google, and sure enough, I found that it was from the last line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s stunning sonnet, “Archaïscher Torso Apollos”: “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”
A different archaic torso: this one is Pan,
from the Brooks art museum, in Memphis.
Now, my German is only just good enough for a brief phrase like that, so—as with Hjalmar Nederland—the phrase resonated far more powerfully for me in English. You must change your life. Difficult as it is, Rilke’s poem comes to this conclusion from a consideration of an isolated fragment from the past—an ancient sculpted torso of Apollo. But the link between the description of the sculpture and the perception that one must change one’s life is left to the reader to determine. What’s more, in German, Rilke’s speaking voice addresses us in the second person singular, the intimate mode. But does the poem say that changing one’s life is a necessity, or that no one else can change your life for you? You must do the work, if you wish your life to change.
Both messages hit me with a kind of irresistible force back during those days of 2009: you must change your life; you must change your life. Teaching four classes a term was—for me at least—growing increasingly intolerable, though I certainly know many teachers for whom such a workload is an ongoing part of their lives: they have my sincerest and deepest admiration. But for myself, I knew that I would need to change my life, somehow. But I knew, too, that no one would do it for me: in only two years at WVU, it had become clear that there was no will in the department or college to change my lot. I felt as if once I had accepted a non-tenure track position, I was forever defined at WVU by that position, and could not expect to rise above it. As Marlow puts it in Heart of Darkness, “I had become unsound,” and I felt essentially invisible within the university’s institutional structure. Unlike Hjalmar Nederland, I couldn’t pull strings at the very highest level, and I was never one for making waves.
In 2010, I started my business in earnest, and in 2012 I left WVU to pursue it full time. I am pleased to be able to say, that, at the age of 48, I was still able to change my life.

I tell this story here because this space, this blog, I hope will become a place where I can explore the past—my past, the past twenty or so years in academia, and also (in my own small way) in the rare book world—both in a conscious effort to continue to find ways to change my life and (like Hjalmar Nederland once again) because the life I’ve led has been shaped in so many ways, and on so many different levels—personally, academically, and even financially—by books and by poems. Return again, Dear Reader, if you wish.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hunger Games

I was out shopping over the holiday weekend, and was able to put together a set of the Hunger Games trilogy in first printing copies. I've had The Hunger Games a couple of times before, but it's a pretty tricky book to find; the other two books are much easier to get hold of. But I pretty much always look at all of them to see if they are first printings.

I have to admit to having a certain amusement in finding and selling these books, since Collins's District 12 is set somewhere unspecified in coal-producing Appalachia. Of course, I can't help but imagine that it is West Virginia that's intended.

And even more, when we went out to the Preston County Buckwheat Festival a couple of years ago, it was great to see that one of the 4H kids out there had raised a goat for a project and named it Katniss.  So now whenever I think of The Hunger Games, I think of Katniss the goat.

And that's what I'll be thinking of when these books sell.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New Acquisitions: Lobby Cards

Pearl Sindelar, Guy Coombs, and Dorothy Kelly, ca. 1912
One of the great things about having a business selling both books and antiques is that there's not really anything old I can't buy and at least try to sell, if it catches my eye. It's good to have a focus, I suspect, but it's good, too, to be able to gather things that make me happy. And it's fun to share them, as well.

So recently, I came a cross a big stack of forty or fifty lobby cards from the 1920s, including a few headshot-posters from around 1912. I am pretty accustomed to seeing lobby cards from the 1940s and 50s and 60s at antique malls and stores, but these are earlier than the ones I usually see, and they give a kind of fun view of how movies were marketed and promoted in the silent era. And it was a useful reminder that the history of Hollywood movies is indeed over a century old, now.

A Cafe in Cairo
Of course, these movies were generally shown in black and white (some early movies were augmented by hand-coloring on the projected film stock, but I don't think any of the ones discussed here were). But the lobby cards themselves are marvelously colorful, and of course they all date from before the Hays production code, so they can occasionally be just the tiniest bit risque. In the card advertising A Cafe in Cairo, Priscilla Dean is giving the pith-helmeted fellow a look that seems to leave him perplexed, or worse.

Rosemary, glancing through these, noted how conventionalized the pose was in which the woman leans her head far back as if to both invite and resist the possibility of a kiss. In the last example, from the lobby card for Thy Name is Woman, the soldier seems uncertain about whether a kiss upon the very point of her chin is even worth the effort.

Leaning back a little.

A little farther back.

Anyhow, the whole batch was quite fun to sort through, a reminder that you don't need to know everything about something when you buy it: in fact, you can't know everything about everything. Sometimes it's all about buying what you like, and learning about it afterwords.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Gulliver's Travels BLB

While I love to sell a rare book for several thousand dollars--a sale like that really improves the general cash flow, for one thing--my regular stock in trade is books in the twenty to fifty dollar range. It's just a heck of a lot easier for me to find a book I can make money on at that price range, and it doesn't involve quite so much cash flowing out.
1939 Gulliver's Travels BLB

But even in the twenty to fifty dollar range one can sometimes find books that qualify, in one sense or another, as "rare." I'll take the pictured "Big Little Book" of Gulliver's Travels that I recently came across as an example. 

These Big Little Books (BLBs: the label is used for a whole category of books, not only the ones that originally were published under that brand name) were a staple of childhood reading for whole generations of Americans who grew up from the 1930s to the 1970s. Because their usual format includes text on one page and a cartoon-style drawing or photograph on the facing page, they probably should be understood as illustrated books, but they are often collected today alongside comics, because of the drawing style, the frequent association with films and animated cartoons, and the cross-over of many characters from daily or Sunday comics strips. This version of Gulliver's Travels, for example, retells the story of an animated Paramount Pictures cartoon, rather than that of Swift's satire--indeed, Swift's name appears nowhere in or on the book, I think.

Because they are collected alongside comics, BLBs are listed and priced in the Overstreet comics price guides. When I brought the box of BLBs that I recently purchased home, I looked them all up in my 2005 Overstreet, the thirty-fifth edition. In the lowest collectible grade (2.0 out of a possible 10, in Overstreet's grading terms), this book was priced at 20.00--twice the price of the most generic and uninteresting BLBs.

When I looked it up in my Overstreet 41, from 2011, the same book in the same condition was priced at 50.00, and described as "Rare."

Classic BLB format: text with facing page comics-style artwork.
Now the thing about price guides is that they are guides, and often very rough guides at that. I doubt, frankly, that I'll be able to get fifty bucks for this book. Indeed, I've heard it said that 90% of the books in the Overstreet guide are over-valued there, and some old comics I've sold at auction have only brought one-quarter of the guide price. But sometime between 2005 and 2011, this book was identified as being somewhat scarce, even Rare, in comparison to the average BLB, and regardless of the estimated value, that fact is interesting in its own right. 

Only time will tell, I suppose, just how rare or common this book actually is: but for now, it's a reminder that there's always new knowledge in the market, and always interesting books to find and to find out about.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A (new old) tintype

While I like to think of myself as a bookseller, the truth is more complicated: this is Chancery Hill Books and Antiques, after all, and I've been selling antiques other than books for almost all my life (at least occasionally and irregularly), while I've only been selling books even semi-seriously for a little over a decade.

So I often find myself buying things other than books, and one of the things I found recently was this little tintype, part of a small batch I bought pretty much just to get this one.  Tintypes, which really democratized photography after the more complicated and expensive Daguerreotype and Ambrotype processes began to get popular, usually date anywhere from the 1860s to the 1910s; this one is probably from the late 1800s.

I wanted this one, of course, because it's a fine example of the classic "Hidden Mother" photograph that has been recently written about in various places on the web, as in this case of this article from the Guardian.

This poor little kid still looks a little blurry: even having his mother holding him (or her?) couldn't really keep him still, even though he looks half asleep.