Ex Libris: Taking in Book Orphans
By Steve Donoghue
I’ve been in what’s vaguely referred to as ‘the book business’ for a fairly long time. I’ve been a book reviewer, of course, but also a retail bookseller, a copy editor, an Arts & Entertainment writer, a Books section editor, and, as you see, a Books columnist.
But those are just the formal postings. There’ve been innumerable informal capacities. These informal capacities come with the territory once all your friends and acquaintances start to think of you as a “book person,” somebody who’s connected somehow with “the book business.” People would expect me to inspect their books when I came over for a visit (and to be clear, I was always happy to oblige – I’m an incurable book-snoop; I leave others to poke around the bathroom’s medicine cabinet – I’m far more eager to find out if your copy of the Shahnameh looks unread).
People would also come to me for book recommendations, and that, at least, was always a pure joy. I know this isn’t always true for book critics, and it certainly isn’t the way most people view critics. We’re far more often seen as killjoys than cheerleaders, and I admit there’s some truth to that.
But even so: they WANT to praise. They want to find those rare gems of craft or inspiration that deserve to be cried from the rooftops and pressed on every passerby. As a book reviewer, my first duty is to guard your time, attention, and money against every two-bit piece of published crapola that wants to waste those things, so yes, I do a fair amount of reproving. But I very much prefer finding books I can recommend.
And there’s one other thing that tends to happen often when you get the reputation for being a bookish person “in the book business,” or at least it tends to happen to me: people start giving me books.
I’m not talking about publishers who send review copies of their latest offerings. It’s true those things come free of charge, but each one of them is a baited line dangled in clear water in hopes of hooking the interest and landing a review. And I’m not talking about the innumerable books I’ve received as legitimate, acknowledged gifts for birthdays or Christmas (although done with the best of intentions, these always go wrong; better by far to give a credit slip at some good bookstore, but try telling people that).
No, I’m talking about squalling little orphans furtively deposited at the back door of the rectory by tearful (or grateful) parents who have decided that their babies will have a better chance for happiness if cast onto the mercy of a rude stream than if they stay neglected and underfed at home. People have – or come into possession of – a few shapeless sacks of books and eventually think, “Hey, Steve loves books, so maybe …”
This happened to me again just the other day, when an old friend had an emissary drop off a bag of random books at my front door. He couldn’t go through the bother of finding a Goodwill donation center, didn’t want to stand around waiting while the local used bookstore parsed resale values, and didn’t want to run the risk of having the local library outright refuse to take them. So he thought, “Hey, Steve loves books, so maybe …”
It was quite literally a mixed bag! There was “When a Stranger Loves Me,” a brightly-colored historical romance novel by Julianne McLean in which a desperate woman seduces an amnesiatic (but, naturally, dashing) man in hopes of having a child – but then ends up falling in love with the man, who in turn ends up being much more than he seemed at first. It’s the usual to-and-fro hijinks of the romance genre, but it looks fun enough.
A very different kind of fun – or maybe, shockingly, not so different – comes from another book in that bag, “The Power of the Sword” by Wilbur Smith, the second installment in his sprawling series of historical novels about the Courtney family and their adventures establishing their familial dynasty in the Africa Smith knew so well. This big second volume starts off still centering around the star of the first volume, family matriarch Certaine, but if memory serves, the main story very much centers around the rivalry between her two sons, which plays out against the backdrop of the Second World War.
Another book in that bag was also a generational saga, only much better known: “Cape Cod” by William Martin. This is the story of the intertwined destinies of the Bigelow and Hilyard families, from their rough crossing to the New World aboard the Mayflower to the long affairs of their descendents in that magical region of the Massachusetts coast known as Cape Cod. Martin follows these connected stories through all their twists and turns over centuries, and in the process the Cape comes alive even more than any of the actual human characters in the book do. I smiled when I saw this thick hardcover edition; I know this book has enchanted millions of readers who’ve never set foot on Cape Cod. I’ve spent countless days on the Cape, in every town and on every hill and beach, and the book very much enchanted me when I first read it.
Likewise enchanting but in a very different way was another book in that bag: “Theodore Rex” by Edmund Morris, who won a whole shelf of awards for his earlier book “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” “Theodore Rex” tells the never-a-dull-moment story of the unexpected presidency of TR, from his sudden rise to the office upon the assassination of President McKinley to his bittersweet departure from it one-and-a-half terms later, having indelibly changed the office of President along the way.
A mixed bag, like I said, left on the rectory stairs. But all good, worthy books. I’ll give them a home.