Books, bountiful and rare
So, a little over a week ago, we ordered Chinese food. My fortune read thusly:
In case you can’t read that terrible photo, it says, “Something interesting will happen soon at work.” Or, on the French side of the fortune, “Il se produira bientôt au travail quelque chose d’intéressant.”
Now, “interesting” is a weak, sickly and slippery word, so this fortune struck nervousness into my heart. A little bit. As Mindy says to Homer, “Desserts aren’t always right.” (It’s in the episode with Michelle Pfeiffer guest starring, for those who can’t quite remember the line.)
The next day at work, I got a mysterious email message from a new college librarian I’d never met before, saying there was a gift he wanted to give me that he’d had for a few years, and now that we were colleagues, he thought he should give it to me, sorry if this sounds creepy, etc.
The thorough LinkedIn background check I performed revealed only an affinity for books, and for rare books in particular, so I quickly assented to a meeting, despite feeling at the mercy of a fortune cookie.
It turned out I was gifted with the best surprise I’ve had in a long time: a copy of Henry J. Morgan’s 1903 illustrated biographical dictionary Types of Canadian Women. Volume 1.
Nearly six years ago, my book Types of Canadian Women—Volume 2—was published. It’s a mock biographical dictionary in poems and poetic prose, inspired, you guessed it, by Morgan’s Volume 1. I talked about the source material in the publishers’ bumpf, and in some interviews at the time. Morgan’s book says a Volume 2 was in the works, but, having never found trace of one, I thought I’d just have to write it.
I’d been in Winnipeg for about a year when Types came out. But our mysterious new librarian, Matthew Handscombe, was still in Toronto, where I’d written all but the last few drafts of the book–partly on Toronto Island at the fantastic Gibraltar Point centre, partly in a second-floor apartment in a Victorian brick oven in Parkdale, with no air-conditioning, one summer on a Canada Council grant.
Matthew was operating a tiny bookshop specializing in fine press books. My publisher, Gaspereau Press, does some pretty fine printing, so Matthew had no doubt seen my book in the catalogue, probably read one of the interviews, and may have been familiar with my earlier Gaspereau release, Spine, which contained, among other things, poems about fine printing. Somehow, my reference to Morgan’s Volume 1 stuck in his brain.
I used to consult Volume 1 in the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, as part of my work as a researcher on Canadian history books and book proposals. The Robarts had a circulating copy, and while I was aware of a few copies on offer from book dealers, even after I’d fallen for the book and decided to write Volume 2, acquiring my own copy—which dealers listed for around $300—had never become a priority.
Still with me? Let’s get back to Matthew Handscombe, who, somewhere in the depths of his brain, catalogued this detail about my interest in this book.
(Wait, I have to digress again to say how much I like librarians. There’s Wendy, with whom I hung out during my M.A. in Ottawa, and now works at Memorial University Newfoundland; my sister Christine who works at the library in the Law Courts in Edmonton and is finishing her MLS on the side; Brian in the cubicle opposite mine who teaches in the library tech program–Hi Brian!; his colleague Tabitha whose CanLit class I once bombarded with my collection of obscure–duh–Canadian poetry chapbooks. I used to think librarianship was my lost calling, but then remembered that I promised myself, after paying off my student loans, never to go to university again. In short–go visit your library.)
Matthew’s father, Richard Handscombe, taught linguistics and children’s literature at York University (scroll down the linked page for bio), and was an avid book collector. Though significant parts of his collection were donated to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the U of T—particularly a collection of over a thousand items by and about John Cowper Powys and his brothers—when Richard died, Matthew was left with a massive number of books to find homes for. Thirteen thousand, I think, was the number he told me (he’ll correct me if I’m wrong. Right?).
Types of Canadian Women was not, alas, lurking in the collection. But slowly, as Matthew and his family donated or sold books, he started to acquire things from the dealers, essentially doing part of the transaction in trade, with the intention of gifting specific books to individuals. It was at Greenfield Books here in Winnipeg that Matthew saw Types of Canadian Women and acquired it, somehow remembering that I, a writer he’d never met, had wanted it. It never occurred to him that I was also living in Winnipeg, until he noticed that I was a colleague at Red River College, where he’s only recently arrived.
Matthew styled the gift as a present from his father. I never met Richard Handscombe, and Matthew had never met me when he picked up this book and put it aside. I ran back to my office to get Matthew a copy of my little Volume 2, as an inadequate thank-you.
This post has gone on too long, and there is much I still want to research and write about: how books end up in rare book collections (my books are all in the Fisher, I can only assume by virtue of being Canadian small press books); more about Matthew’s father and his collection; how all this talk of book collecting reminds me of my father-in-law, Martin Levin, and his house filled with books; how Morgan’s Volume 1 will read to me now, years after I left my project behind on the poetry circuit; and how none of this would happen in a world where books are infinitely reproducible.