by Jim Simpson
On a recent trip to Books Again in Decatur, I picked up a 1964 hardcover copy of Albert Camus’ novel The Fall. I’ve always admired Camus, but admit to reading only one novel (The Stranger, as a college Freshman) and a few of his essays. I really should read more, and The Fall looks intriguing, especially since the copy I bought has a Honolulu Book Shops label on the inside back cover.
Having never been to Hawaii, I’ve always thought of it as a lush tropical paradise where nothing ever goes wrong and everyone lives in a state of ambulatory bliss. But, like any scrap of land where human beings congregate, I’m sure Hawaii has its share of troubles -- Steve McGarrett would likely concur.
It was the inscription on the title page that really caught my eye: “Much Aloha!”, a drawing of an evergreen tree and “66” (perhaps a Christmas tree, the book given as a gift in 1966) signed, simply, “G.” Again, like most found objects in books, this makes me wonder: Was the book shipped to the States as a gift or given from one Hawaiian resident to another? Was it actually a Christmas tree or some secret family icon? Why read Camus in paradise? Then again, why not? I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s wonderful novel Hotel Honolulu with its unnamed main character -- a “writer in retreat” -- toting around a copy of Anna Karenina to keep people at bay, and describing Hawaii as “paradise with heavy traffic.”
The more I thought about it -- with Books Again’s feline mascot Eric rubbing my ankles -- everything made sense. Camus’ main character in the novel sits in an Amsterdam bar called Mexico City telling a stranger about his fall from grace in the gritty paradise of Paris, so it is only fitting that this copy of the novel has its origins in a bookstore in the lush Hawaiian paradise. Anyway, I can’t wait to dive into this book, following the narrator around and around in the Dantean concentric circles of Amsterdam.
Over at Atlanta Vintage Books I picked up a U.S. first edition (Harcourt, Brace, 1944) of Virginia Woolf’s short story collection, A Haunted House, published posthumously with a forward by her husband Leonard. This collection includes stories originally published in a previous collection, Monday or Tuesday, along with unpublished stories and those appearing in magazines between 1921 - 1944. The title story features a man and wife, long dead, a “ghostly couple,” floating through their former house, peering at the current inhabitants while seeking their own lost joys contained in and around the house.
Since the book was printed a year before the end of World War II, the copyright page tells us this is “A Wartime Book,” assuring us that “Books are weapons in the war of ideas. This complete edition is produced in full compliance with the government’s regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials.” Hats off to you, Greatest Generation.
Tucked within the pages was a scrap of paper from either a newspaper or a magazine, and judging by the ghostly stain on the page beneath, it had been there since 1944. On one side is a partial advertisement for a fountain pen (“Waterman’s famous 14Kt. gold … the pen you give in ‘44 may write … Tokyo -- keep the log of an Admiral's... scribe a General’s dictation ...”), and on the other is a quote from eighth century Chinese philosopher Li Po, expressing his thoughts on the artist’s unique gift at seeing “beyond the narrow reality of the moment into the breadth of eternity.” Woolf certainly did this in much of her best work. Sadly, though, maybe she saw too much.
BIO: Fiction writer and music reviewer Jim Simpson is a regular contributor to the blog with his "Stories Within the Story" where he ruminates on the bookish flotsam of others that he has discovered in his literary hunting and gathering at local bookstores and antique shops. As Simpson writes, "it's for those of you who enjoy discovering that rare used book on a dusty local shelf, where the surprise 'found objects' inside are sometimes just as interesting as the book itself." (If you have any stories you wish to share, contact the blog or post them in comments.)