CHAPTER 1We came to book collecting because our birthdays fall eight days apart.When married people have birthdays that close together, a certain natural competitiveness develops. Or maybe it was just us. In any event, birthday week had degenerated into extravagant spending and a furious determination on the part of each to outdo the other that inevitably resulted in our squandering money that we could not afford on gifts the recipients didn’t particularly like but, because of the cost, could not admit to disliking until months, sometimes years, later.Finally, with the maturity that comes with advancing age, we decided to put a stop to the problem. As a result, four years ago something like the following conversation took place:“I want you to promise me that you won’t spend a lot of money on my birthday.”“Sure.”“Ohhh no. That’s what you said last year and look what happened.”“What do you mean? The nightgown wasn’t that expensive.”“Two hundred dollars is expensive when I only spent fifty.”“Nobody asked you to only spend fifty.”“You asked me to only spend fifty. You would have gotten upset if I spent more than fifty.”“Depends on what you got me.”“You never like what I get you.”“That’s why I didn’t want you to spend more than fifty.”“It’s not fair. You have it easy. You always go second.”“Look, you knew my birthday fell eight days before yours when you married me.”“Ten years and eight days.”“Very funny.”“Why don’t we just set a limit this year and stick to it for once?”“Sure.”“No, I mean it. Besides, it’s more creative. Unless you don’t want to be creative, of course.”“I can be as creative as you.”“Great. How about forty dollars?”“How about thirty?”“Twenty-five.”“Twenty.”“Fif … okay, twenty.”“Great.”“Remember, no cheating this year. If you cheat, you lose.”“Lose? What, are we competing?”Thus began the search for War and Peace.
If you want a book, the obvious place to begin is a bookstore. In Lenox, Massachusetts, where we had lived since abandoning Manhattan three years before, the local bookstore is called, conveniently enough, The Bookstore. The Bookstore (“Serving the community since last Tuesday”) is owned and occasionally operated by Matthew Tannenbaum, a shaggy dog of a man who considers it a bookseller’s responsibility to provide a convivial atmosphere for his customers.“Nancy, did you hear about the two cannibals who were eating a clown?” asked Matthew. “One of the cannibals stopped for a minute and turned to the other cannibal. ‘Do you taste something funny?’”“I liked the one about the near-sighted fireman better.”Matthew looked disappointed. “So did everyone.”Jo walked up to the desk. Although she is technically an employee, Jo is actually more of a spiritual figure, a cross between an aging hippie and a schoolmarm. She has long straight gray hair, pulled back, excellent posture, a low, throaty voice, and a serious, unflappable manner. She will occasionally clasp her hands in front of her while she is speaking.“Are you looking for anything in particular?” she asked.In addition to the usual best-sellers and major new releases, The Bookstore stocks a larger than normal selection of obscure poetry, alternative fiction, Judaica, women’s studies, Native American studies, African American studies, paranormal psychology, and organic vegetarian cookbooks. In the front, there is a rack of magazines for the intellectually serious, such as Granta, Mother Jones, and The Utne Reader. Next to the magazines, there is an extensive children’s section presided over by a huge, incredibly filthy stuffed bear that every child under the age of five sticks his mouth on.“I’m looking for War and Peace.”“Certainly.” Jo led the way to the paperback section at the extreme rear of the store, reached down to the bottom shelf, and produced a Penguin edition. It was so thick that it looked like a piece of a Duraflame.“No, no. We already have a paperback. I was hoping for a hardcover. It’s a birthday present for Larry.”“You’re getting Larry War and Peace for his birthday?” interjected Matthew, who had tagged along behind us. “What’s the matter? Things aren’t going well at home?”“No. We made this … we decided … forget it.”“Ah.” Jo nodded sagely. “Let’s check Books in Print then.” She went back to the desk and pulled a big brown volume down from the shelf. “There’s a Modern Library edition for twenty-five dollars,” she said, running her finger down a column on the Tolstoy page. “We could order it for you.”“What does it look like?”“It looks like a book,” said Matthew. “What were you expecting?”“Well, we don’t have War and Peace in the store at the moment,” Jo went on, “but we do have David Copperfield, if you want to get a sense of what a Modern Library book is like.”She walked across the store and plucked a small, unimpressive book from a shelf. It was flimsily bound with thin paper leaves. The print was small. It did not seem a big step up from the paperback.“I don’t think so.”“Of course.” Jo nodded and consulted Books in Print again. “Here’s another hardcover. It’s a two-volume set for forty dollars.”“What does it look like? Does it look like a birthday present?”“If you wrapped it, it would look like a birthday present,” said Matthew.“I mean, does it have pictures and larger type?”“I don’t know,” Jo said. “I haven’t seen it.”“What do you want War and Peace for anyway?” Matthew asked. “Why don’t you get Larry a real classic like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus?”“I don’t think so. Besides, Larry likes war. You should have seen him cooing over the battle maps in the Civil War book. I told him, ‘If you like battles so much, read War and Peace. It has great battles.’ But all we have is this old beat-up paperback and he said, ‘The print is too small,’ and I said, ‘What did we get you those reading glasses for then?’ and he said, ‘Just because I got them doesn’t mean I like to use them.’ So I thought, if I got him a nice copy of War and Peace as a birthday present, something in hardcover with big print, he’d have to read it, and then he would have this great experience. Besides, then I’d win the bet.”“Bet?” asked Matthew. “What bet?”“Nothing. It’s a good birthday present. As long as it doesn’t cost more than twenty dollars … or not a lot more anyway.”Jo thought for a moment. “Have you tried ‘Books’?” she asked.“‘Books’?”“It’s a used-book store in Egremont,” she explained. “I’ll call for you and see if they have a copy.”“A used book?” Buying a used book sounded worse than buying a paperback. “Used book” evoked images of smudged and dogeared copies of college texts, Beginning Chemistry or some such, the relevant passages of each chapter underlined in somebody else’s yellow marker.But Jo was already on the phone to Books. Luckily, they didn’t have a copy of War and Peace either.
Where to try next? There wasn’t any point in visiting any of the other new-book stores in the area. Everyone uses the same Books in Print.No, not a new book. And not a used one. That didn’t seem to leave much. And then, with almost staggering naivete, the thought of those books that they run at the beginning of Masterpiece Theater came to mind. Those looked nice. Maybe something like that. But where did one find books like those?The Yellow Pages, of course. And there it was, right after “Book Dealers—Retail,” a heretofore undiscovered category: “Book Dealers—Used & Rare.” Keep it simple. Perhaps one of the listings that seemed to be just a person’s name. Here was one in Alford.On the third ring, a man picked up.“Hello?” he said.“Hi. My name is Nancy Goldstone. I wonder if you could help me. I’m looking for a nice hardcover edition of War and Peace.”“What kind of edition?” the man asked.“What do you mean, what kind of edition?”“Well, do you want it in Russian?”Russian? “No. Of course not. It’s for a birthday present.”“Well, then, do you want the first American edition? The first English edition? The first French edition?”“No. I just want a nice hardcover in English with some pictures and large type.”“You want a used book,” the man said coldly. He said the word “used” as though it had an odor attached to it.“Don’t you sell used books?”“No. I am an antiquarian-book dealer.”“Aren’t they the same thing?”“No.”“But I tried a used-book store and they didn’t have it.”“Try the Strand,” the man said, and hung up.The Strand, on Fourth Avenue and Eleventh Street in New York City, is perhaps the largest and most well-known used-book store in the country. It has as much floor space as an aircraft hangar and, as its advertising states, “over one million books.”From Lenox to lower Manhattan is a long-distance phone call, but it seemed worth the expense. Someone at the Strand answered the phone on the third ring, listened politely to the query, said, “Could you please hold for a moment?” and then never came back.
That left Clarence.Clarence was Clarence Wolf, who lived with his wife, Ruth, in a two-bedroom high-rise apartment just off Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, featuring huge picture windows that provided a spectacular view of Lincoln Park, downtown Chicago, and Lake Michigan. The apartment was filled with beautiful antiques, lovely paintings, and, most significantly, books. Hundreds of books. Clarence had been collecting books for over sixty years.Clarence was ninety-three.Age, however, had not slowed him a whit. He was intelligent, articulate, and erudite. He read Intellectual magazine. Clarence loved to talk about books. Clarence loved to talk about Churchill. He loved to talk about marriage and the railroads. However, in a family that thought nothing of engaging in minutely detailed discussions of their golf game, hole by hole, stroke by stroke, no one really listened.“Hello, Nancy,” he said when Ruth called him to the telephone. “This is Clarence Wolf. How’s my granddaughter?”The quest was explained.“War and Peace? Wonderful, Nancy. Wonderful. Couldn’t be better,” he said. “You know, War and Peace is on Professor Robert Maynard Hutchins list of the ten greatest books of all time. I have the article in the Chicago Tribune right here. ‘Professor Hutchins List of the Ten Greatest Books of All Time to Serve as Cornerstone for American Role in World Government.’ He lists Plato, Aristotle, Homer, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Tolstoy—that’s the one you’re interested in, War and Peace—Pascal, Shakespeare, and Thucydides. I don’t know what the date is on this—it doesn’t say—but it was when we were interested in world government. Must be at least twenty-five years ago. But it’s a very good list. I don’t want to bore you, but I was just reading Churchill this morning, you know, some people think it is all right to go out and play golf every morning, and I don’t want to criticize, I don’t have any argument with golf, but to me, there’s nothing finer than getting dressed in a nice suit in the morning, you know, Dr. Samuel Johnson said that clothes make the man, and I’m not sure but I think he’s right, that’s why I wear a suit every morning, and I know I’ve said this a thousand times, but some people think it’s all right to wear shorts or not to shower before sitting down to breakfast and I’m not saying they’re wrong, but, I know you’ll appreciate this, Nancy, there’s nothing more wonderful than getting up in the morning and getting clean and putting on a dress shirt a silk tie, a well-made suit and then sitting down to a nice breakfast, not too much, just some coffee and orange juice and buttered toast, perhaps an egg, and then, afterward, sitting down with Winston Churchill, and as you know, I make notes on what I want to read every morning, and I hope I’m not boring you with this, Nancy, but when I make the notes it makes me feel like I’m having a conversation with Churchill. Now let me see, you wanted to know where to obtain a copy of War and Peace …”“Yes. Do you know where I might find one? I was hoping to get a nice copy.”“A nice copy,” he repeated, turning it over in his head. “Well, you could try Maggs Brothers. They’re very fine book dealers in London. Very fine. They carry only the very best works. I bought one of my first books from Maggs. That was in … I remember how wonderful it was to get their first catalogue. I’ve been getting their catalogue for a number of years now. I bought my Alice in Wonderland from them. Beautiful book. Not a first, but an early edition, very finely bound. If you write to Maggs, tell them that Clarence Wolf recommended you and I’m sure they’ll send you a catalogue.”It was lovely of him to take the time but London seemed a little far.“Well, all right. Thank you, Clarence. Let me look into that. I’ll talk to you again soon.”Within forty-five seconds, the phone rang.“Hello?”“Hello, Nancy, it’s Clarence Wolf.”“Why, hello, Clarence. Is something—”“I thought of something else. If Maggs doesn’t have it, you might try William Reese. I have one of their catalogues right here. I can mail it to you, if you’d like.”“Does it have War and Peace?”“No, no, I don’t think so, but it’s a wonderful catalogue. You know, you’re going to find that this is a marvelous adventure you’ve started on. You’ll forgive my going on like this, but the accumulation of a library is a wonderful occupation. I’ve devoted much of my life to this pleasure of mine. I read an hour or so every day. There is no substitute for great books. My books are like having some of the greatest minds in history in my home with me. I can pick up Shakespeare or Churchill or Dickens anytime I want.”“Well, thank you, Clarence, I’ll look into it.”“Shall I send you the William Reese catalogue?”“Sure. Thank you.”A minute later the phone rang again.“Hello?”“Hello, Nancy. This is Clarence Wolf.”“Hello, Clarence.”“I thought of something else. If you’re going to do this, you should do a little reading. If I were you, I’d pick up The Amenities of Book-Collecting by A. Edward Newton.”“Thank you, Clarence. I will.”“I hope I didn’t talk too much. And don’t hesitate to call me if you need any more advice.” He paused. “I’m also interested in fine wines, you know.”
The Amenities of Book-Collecting turned out to be a small, decrepit volume sitting at the very back of the nonfiction stacks in the Lenox library. Only seven other people had ever checked it out. The most recent was twenty years ago. The first was in 1940.First published in 1918, The Amenities of Book-Collecting was a wildly popular work that had at least eight to ten printings over fifteen years. Book collecting was all the rage back then and Newton rode the crest. While full of interesting information, Amenities seemed to lack current relevance. It spoke of Shelley, Keats, Lamb, and Oscar Wilde as “modern” authors. The prices of books were reported with great care—but they were the prices of 1918. Newton wrote loving and detailed descriptions of bookshops and booksellers who had been dead for fifty years.Not just the subject matter was dated. The following is typical of Newton’s prose:
If you would know the delight of book collecting, begin with something else, I care not what. Book collecting has all the advantages of other hobbies without their drawbacks. The pleasure of acquisition is common to all—that’s where the sport lies; but the strain of the possession of books is almost nothing: a tight, dry closet will serve to house them, if need be.It is not so with flowers. They are a constant care. Someone once wrote a poem about “old books and fresh flowers.” It lilted along very nicely; but I remark that books stay old, indeed get older, and flowers do not stay fresh: a little too much rain, a little too much sun, and it is over.
There was no mention whatever of War and Peace.
A few days later, a parcel arrived in the mail from Clarence and Ruth. It contained two book catalogues and a scrawled letter from Clarence containing a list of other books that he thought would be useful to someone who intended to become a book collector. The biography of somebody called Rosenbach headed the list.One of the catalogues was from William Reese and the other was from Maggs Brothers, the two book dealers he had mentioned on the telephone. The Maggs Brothers catalogue was larger. It had a glossy cover and was filled with illustrations. It was dated 1993 and numbered 1157.Each item in the Maggs catalogue was described in detail and annotated with as much as a page of explanatory notes. It was, in itself, an interesting read. There was a two-volume, privately printed, 1726 edition of Gulliver’s Travels, signed photographs of Queen Victoria, works by Shaw, E. M. Forster, and T. S. Eliot and a 1755 Samuel Johnson Dictionary of the English Language. Perhaps the most unusual item was a document signed by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile (of the Christopher Columbus Ferdinand and Isabella), in which they are making arrangements for their daughter Juana to sail to Flanders to rejoin her husband, Philip the Fair. Maggs added the following:
A document of historic interest. The tragic Princess Juana was the heiress to the thrones of both her parents after the deaths of her brother and elder sister. A sullen, rather plain girl, she was married in 1496 to the very handsome Philip the Fair, who was governing Flanders for his father, the Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I. She fell passionately in love with her husband, who was completely indifferent to her, and her grief and despair drove her into actual insanity after a few years. After 1502 she was generally known as Juana la Loca—Juana the Mad. She returned to Flanders in the Spring of 1504 after a lengthy visit to her parents; the elaborate preparations are indicated in the present document. Shortly after her return she physically attacked her husband’s mistress in the presence of the whole court and the foreign ambassadors and cut off her hair. Philip, beside himself with rage, publicly cursed and repudiated her. The scandal reverberated throughout Europe, making Isabella ill from grief and shame. Unhappiness over her daughter probably accelerated Isabella’s death in November, 1504, nine months after the date of this document. Juana inherited the throne of Castile, with her father Ferdinand as regent because of her insanity. There were frequent disputes between Ferdinand and his son-in-law Philip, and Philip’s early death in 1506 gave rise to rumours that Ferdinand had had him poisoned. The son of the tragic marriage of Juana and Philip became the brilliant Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V.
Lucky for Columbus that he left when he did.Fascinating stuff, but Maggs was going to be no help in finding a twenty-dollar copy of War and Peace, or a twenty-dollar anything for that matter, except perhaps the catalogue itself. There didn’t seem to be anything in the Maggs catalogue that didn’t end in either two or three zeroes and their prices were in pounds. The Ferdinand and Isabella document, for example, was listed at £2,400.
The search for War and Peace had by this time assumed the proportions of a holy quest. There was nothing to do but press on and take one last shot at the Yellow Pages. Back to “Book Dealers—Used & Rare,” where one used-book store all the way in Sheffield had paid for a slightly larger ad.“Do you have a nice hardcover edition of War and Peace?”“Let me see,” said the woman who answered the phone. “Can you hold a moment?”Uh-oh.But the woman was back on the line in a few seconds. “Yes,” she said.“You do?”“Yes.”“What does it look like?”“It’s a Heritage edition in very good condition.”“Does it have pictures?”“Illustrations, you mean? Yes. And the Maude translation as well.”“What’s the Maude translation?”“Louise and Aylmer Maude. They devoted their lives to translating Tolstoy’s works. They even went to Russia and spent an extended period visiting Tolstoy on his estate south of Moscow. Aylmer wrote a biography of Tolstoy as well. The Maude translation is considered definitive.”“Is the print small?”“Oh, no. It’s quite nice. It has maps of the major battles, fold-out color illustrations, and its own slipcase …”“How much is it?”“Ten dollars.”“I’ll take it.”“Will you be coming in, or shall I mail it to you?” asked the woman.
“Happy birthday!”“What is it?”“It’s your present. Under twen-ty dolll-lars.”Pause. Flurried unwrapping. “It’s War and Peace.”“I know. I got it for you.”“Uh—great. Thank you.”“The print’s not too small, is it?”“What do I care how big the print is?”“Oh, right. The illustrations are nice, too. And see? There are maps of the battlefields …”“Oh yeah? Let me see.” Pause. “This is about Napoléon’s attacking Russia, isn’t it?”“Among other things. It’s the Maude translation, too.”“What’s the Maude translation?”“Louise and Aylmer Maude. They spent their lives translating Tolstoy. They even went to Russia to visit him and wrote a biography. The Maude translation is considered definitive.”“All right, all right. Thanks a lot. I’ll read it.”
For the next three weeks, we talked about War and Peace.“Wow. Did you know that all the major figures that Tolstoy wrote about actually existed? This guy Kutuzov is unbelievable.”“Which one is Kutuzov?”“Which one is Kutuzov? He’s the general! The one who only had one eye! The one who saved the Russian army by retreating out of Moscow! I thought you said you read this book.”“I liked the parties.”“You didn’t read the battles at all?”“I kind of skimmed them.”“You’ve got no taste. Well, all the famous people at the parties were real, too.”“Like who?”“Oh, there was that actress and Madame de Staël … all the czar’s relatives … everybody but the main characters were real people.”“How did you find all this out?”“It’s in the notes. The notes are almost better than the book. Didn’t you read the notes either?”“There weren’t any notes in the paperback.”“You’re kidding. How could you enjoy the book without the notes?”“I liked the love story. I didn’t care if it was real.”“I can’t believe you. Remember when they went for the sleigh ride? How cold it was? You know what the notes said? It was thirty below! The nobility used to do that in Russia. Go sleigh riding at night when it was thirty below!”“Really.”“And did you know that before Borodino, the biggest battle in the whole campaign, Napoleon put off a strategy conference so that he could talk to the artist he had dragged along with him and check the progress on a portrait of his son that he had commissioned and then sat there and made minute corrections to what the guy had done while all his generals sat around with their thumbs up their ass?”“Fascinating.”“I can’t believe you never read this stuff. Did you know that Tolstoy based some of the worst characters in the book on members of his own family?”“I guess you really like the book then.”“Of cour … didn’t you like what I got you?”“Sure, honey. The bath brush was great.”Copyright © 1997 by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Lawrence Goldstone's first novel, Rights, won a New American Writing Award. He has written for the Advocate and teaches creative writing at New York University.
Nancy Goldstone has written articles for the New York Times, Washington Post Magazine, the Boston Herald, Lear's, the Boston Phoenix, and the New York Daily News, as well as several novels. The Goldstones live in Westport, Connecticut.