Tuesday, July 26, 2011

`He Couldn't Keep a Book He Loved'

The publisher of my first newspaper wasn’t much of a reader but when he discovered I was, he gave me a beat-up paperback copy of A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science. He told me, emphatically, it was a “good book.” A printer at another newspaper where I worked visited the Soviet Union with his wife, and as a souvenir brought me a volume of Tolstoy’s stories – in Russian, a language I don’t read.

When I worked as features writer and jazz critic for yet another newspaper, I would often see an editor who had retired from the same paper at local jazz clubs. He liked my work, said it reminded him of Joseph Mitchell’s, and gave me a battered copy of McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.

The informal tradition continues. My boss is the executrix of a friend’s estate. He was a professional photographer who collected books, one of which my boss gave me last week – an edition of Robert Burns’ poems published by Collins in 1962. The cover is a bright red tartan. The book is thick with post-it notes scrawled with the previous owner’s annotations, most of them illegible. On my shelves, it’s my most conspicuous book.

I’ve always enjoyed giving away books, especially those I value, to likely appreciative readers. Most of mine were previously owned. I like thinking of myself as a book’s steward or caretaker, not its owner, or at least not for long, and try to imagine each volume’s “genealogy,” its chain of stewardship, past and future.

As a writer for The New Yorker, John McNulty (1895-1956) specialized in what Harold Ross called “low life,” in particular the denizens of Third Avenue in Manhattan. My copy of The World of John McNulty, a Dolphin Books paperback from 1961, includes an “appreciation” by McNulty’s friend James Thurber, who writes:

“A few years before he died he gave me his precious copy of Mencken’s The American Language, saying, `This is the book I love the most.’ Mencken once spoke to me, in the Algonquin lobby, in praise of McNulty and his handling of the people and the parlance of Third Avenue, and I remember how McNulty’s face lighted up when I told him about it. He had a lot of favorite books, including the Oxford English Dictionary, which he read as if it were a novel, filled with wonders and suspense. There must be many of us who have books that McNulty once owned. `He couldn’t keep a book he loved,’ Faith McNulty [the writer’s widow, also a New Yorker writer] told me the other day. `He wasn’t happy until he had given it to some friend.’”

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