Friday, December 2, 2011

the madeleine joy of book collecting, and the problem of unreconstructed racism and sexism

my elderly dog had an accident last week and peed on the floor. this was not the first time and i found we were out of paper towels to clean it up - so i reached into the recycling bin and grabbed a week's worth of newspapers (thank god for the saturday globe and mail) and hey presto! it was all gone. TRY AND DO THAT WITH YOUR INTERNET!!!

what i'm trying to say is there are certain things that just don't do the same job virtually. for example: collecting books. i have and love a kobo, but who would treasure a collection of ebooks? how can you artfully display gigabytes in your living room? you're certainly not going to get a happy rush of childhood nostalgia when you find a missing e-volume lurking in a dark corner of

hence my article in this month's Atlantic Books Today on book collectors. i spoke with three ardent collectors about their jewels and that prousian joy of madeleine moments of discovery. also, i have a new baby niece called madeleine, and it was a good chance to sneak her name into the magazine. (i also got her full name into metro canada with this article following two fictitious home buyers.)

this being halifax, a few weeks after i interviewed my second subject - erica - i ran into her at the atlantic cirque HQ in burnside. i'm writing the scripted sections of the cirque's upcoming 10th anniversary show Decade and erica has a starring role as a juggler and aerial artist.

By Jon Tattrie
Walking into Nate Crawford’s home is like entering a finely curated personal museum. Star Trek figurines guard the foyer and a record collection starring Blue Note jazz classics fills a bookshelf by the entrance. The living room is decorated with a phonograph and old photographs. 

It’s here the executive director of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia shows off his Tintins. He opens one of the magazine-sized books to reveal a vintage 1980s plate with a child’s “Nate” printed neatly.

“This is why I started collecting,” he says. “This was in the house when I grew up.”

The classic comic books were created by the Belgian artist Georges Remi (aka Herge) and follow the adventures of the red-haired boy reporter, his alcoholic terrier Snowy and an assorted motley crew on adventures around the world.

Crawford’s collection began when his mother bought him one on a family trip to Saint John. It became a custom and he continued buying them as an adult. The books are like family photos, trailing clouds of childhood glory. The balance of the matching set adds an aesthetic appeal.

Crawford hunts for the 23 volumes issued between the 1930s and 1970s. 21 are widely available and he is missing five. He’s not a white-gloved collector – he stores them in a stack on the bookshelf and leafs through them to point out the sumptuous illustrations. Herge famously travelled to China, the U.S. and South America to create highly realistic scenes, into which he inserted Tintin and his adventures.

“It’s Indiana Jones, but he’s this androgynous kid with a dog,” Crawford says.

He could finish most of his collection online in an afternoon, but prefers to let luck do the work. That approach recently completed his collection of Arak, Son of Thunder, a two-decade mission that recently culminated with a random visit to a Gottingen Street shop while killing time.

Erica Penton’s collections of The Bobbsey Twins and Cherry Ames started before she was even born, when her pregnant mother bought some for her. Mother and daughter continued to collect them at garage sales throughout her itinerant childhood in a military family. 

A particular garage sale prize, purchased for $0.95, is a 1913 edition of The Bobbsey Twins at Snow Lodge. The range of years the books were issued over means they changed size and style several times, so the collection is not uniform. Like the racial stereotypes of Tintin, Penton’s books look lovely on the outside but contain badly dated sexist content that means she wouldn’t encourage any child of hers to read them.

Penton, who recently graduated with her masters in library science and works at the Halifax bookstore Woozles, displays the books in her living room just above her Harry Potters. Picking one up is like savouring Proust’s madeleine cakes, a sensual experience sending one back to childhood.

She has about 60, or around 90 per cent of each collection, and the missing editions are like memories scattered in bookstores and yard sales around the world; Penton loves happening upon another crumb.

“I really enjoy the serendipity of coming across them at a flea market or in a garage sale or used bookstore. 
I would much prefer to find them that way than just ordering them off Amazon,” she explains.

“I love going into antique stores and there’s a surly, grumpy person in the corner looking at me like, ‘Who are you? You don’t look like our typical customer.’ But as soon as I say, ‘Do you have any Cherry Ames books,’ their face lights up.”

Ruby Cusack is the queen of collectors. The family room of her Saint John home throbs with more than 12,000 books. Her massive library started with an early passion for Anne of Green Gables, and the retired teacher’s deep love of books remains rooted in childhood. The 74-year-old grew up in a time when the evening’s entertainment was recounting family stories.

“I love the small village histories that they probably only printed 100 copies of. They’re the memories of people who tell what it was like in their day,” she says. Sussex and Vicinity by Grace Aiton and Reflections: The Story of Hampton by David Keirstead are two of her favourites.

Cusack writes a genealogy column for the Telegraph-Journal and many of her books also work as reference tools. “The books that I love the most are my Saint John city directories,” she says.

She got her first directory from her husband. Dating from 1894, they provide census-like information on the city’s residents. She now has about 50.

“My dream as a child was to have lots of books. Not paperback novels, but true stories of New Brunswick. I don't know when this book collecting got out of hand as I searched through bookstores, yard sales and gladly accepted gifts of books from friends, etc, but somehow it did.  I just could not resist buying a book,” she says.

Having run out of storage space, she’s is selling off some of her collection at “The time has come, although sometimes there is a tear in my eye, to bid farewell to this collection of books that over the years have become my treasured friends,” she says.

The problem of organizing such vast collections vexes many a bibliophile, but it’s a problem Tracey Stone has solved. The Halifax woman’s 3,000-strong collection of science fiction books sits double deep on four floor-to-ceiling shelves in her personal library.

With books being republished, often with new titles or as part of collections, she was finding it hard to know if she had a copy already. She started to keep track with a spread sheet, but went online in recent years.

“My books are catalogued in because it helps me from buying duplicates,” she says.
“It was mainly for insurance purposes, because I thought the insurance company would never have believed me when I said I had X number of books.”

The only down side is that it also recommends delightful new books, so her collection grows by the week.
Stone’s organizational skills should come as no surprise – she works in the Halifax Public Library.              

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