|Home||My Photos||My Fiction||My Dolls Houses|
For as long as he could remember, once he started reading Blair Sandburg had been more interested in non-fiction books than fictional ones.
Not that he disliked fiction, exactly. Blessed - or, he sometimes thought, cursed - with an exceptionally retentive memory, he could remember having enjoyed the stories his mother read to him when he was small. But...
He could read before he was five, and although most of the few books available to him were very simple fiction - his local library seemed to have the peculiar idea that until they were at least ten, few children were able to read anything but mindless stories written in the simplest of text, or would want to read anything but mindless stories written in the simplest of text - he had managed to find a few factual ones, although with wording so simple that although (as he realized a few years later) the facts presented were basically correct, they were also misleadingly inaccurate in their generalization.
When he was nine, and at school in Edinburgh, a weekly 'reading hour' in the school library was included as part of the curriculum. He hoped that this would at least give him access to some decent books, but once again he found that what was available was fiction; however, his teacher had realized how advanced his reading was for his age, and allowed him access to the books that were meant for older children.
Although his preferred reading was - and he guessed always would be - non-fiction and these books were still fiction (adults, he thought, STILL seemed to have it firmly fixed in their minds that for children 'reading for pleasure' meant reading fiction) they were more interesting than the ones meant for nine-year-olds, and he found a few authors, and one in particular, whose work he positively enjoyed.
But a few months later they moved on and, he quickly discovered, moved back to the expectation that he would enjoy the mindless 'adventure' fiction in which children, usually disbelieved by the adults in their lives, made discoveries, solved crimes, and generally behaved in a way that even his mother Naomi, whose ideas of bringing up a child were remarkably flexible, would have found precocious, to say nothing of unlikely. She encouraged him to think for himself, she encouraged him to be independent, but she still expected him to behave in a manner consistent with his age.
When he was thirteen, with some time to waste one afternoon, he wandered into a second hand bookstore, and there he found, bought, and then to Naomi's horror actually kept (rather than selling it back once he had read it) Burton's Sentinels of Paraguay. Even just looking through it in the shop, he found himself drawn to anthropology. And yet... there was something about the book that triggered a memory, and he finally realized that his interest in anthropology had actually started four years earlier, with a series of books he had encountered when he was nine.
The memory drove him to the public library in Milan, where Naomi was visiting a cousin, and which was of no help whatsoever. The library did not carry the translated works of foreign authors - at least, not of writers who had been dead for some sixty years, no matter how popular these books might have been when the man was alive.
A few months later Naomi's wanderlust took her back towards America. However, Blair's hopes of finding the books he was looking for, once he was back in an English-speaking country, were dashed - not even an American library was carrying the books of a British author who had been dead for so long. The books - at least some of them - were still in print, even in America - a quick check of the local bookstore proved that - but with the peripatetic lifestyle Naomi favored, it was not practical to buy books. He had made room in his pack for the one book - The Sentinels of Paraguay - and knew that Naomi, although she encouraged his love of reading, didn't understand, would never understand, why he insisted on keeping and carrying this one big, heavy, years-out-of-print and therefore years-out-of-date book around with him. Indeed, she had several times suggested that there would be more recent books on the subject available in libraries, but she hadn't insisted because it was, after all, non-fiction. But to buy and keep another book, especially fiction, even one that wasn't available from any library, might be enough to exhaust her patience, see her deciding that he was damaging his karma by keeping possessions that were, in her eyes, non-essential luxuries, weighing himself down with material goods, and forcing him to dispose of that one book that, somehow, he knew was important - would be important - to him.
Naomi did read - but she had no interest in re-reading anything, although she accepted that a non-fiction book that was being used as part of an academic study would have to be read more than once. But that was study - not reading for enjoyment, although she knew that Blair did enjoy studious reading. But a novel? Read it once, you knew what was in it, you knew how the plot developed - there was nothing more to discover.
She couldn't even equate rereading a book with revisiting somewhere, although there were some places, some retreats, some communes, that she visited regularly. If pushed to justify the revisit, she would insist that there were always some new people there, and that a chance word in an evening discussion could lead that discussion in a totally new direction.
When he was sixteen Blair went to Rainier and instantly forgot about reading fiction. For the first time he was not only being encouraged to read non-fiction, non-fiction was required reading. Immersed in his studies, he had no time for reading fiction.
After he got his Masters, however, Blair paused in his almost frantic obsession with learning. He was introspective enough to realize how tired he was, and why. Although there had been the summer breaks, he had taken jobs, when his - yes, his need to learn had led him to treating even the most casual work as a potential career. He had still been amassing knowledge. It was time for him to relax for a few weeks, even a few months, and do something undemanding.
He thought about it, and decided to have a year's sabbatical before returning to Rainier and beginning to work towards a doctorate.
He didn't, however, want to have a year of doing nothing. Certainly he could have joined Naomi and travelled with her - now that he was nineteen, he would be able to go with her to some of the retreats that banned children; she had gone to one or two when he was younger, but only when she found a friend willing to look after him for the time she was away. Naomi had enough money that she didn't have to work - he had never asked her where it came from - and had given him an allowance which, he knew, would continue until he began to earn a permanent wage, so he could have afforded to take a year-long holiday.
However, he knew himself well enough to be aware that after a few days of doing virtually nothing he would be bored - more than bored - and that his best bet would be to find a completely undemanding job, one that would fill his days without demanding too much of his mind. And working in a library or bookshop would surely do that.
In some ways he would have preferred a library - easy, he thought, to slip a book out for a day or two, read it and slip it back onto the shelf - but he had no training and he suspected that even the staff manning the desks, checking books in and out, would have had some training. So it would have to be a bookshop.
He got a job in Albert's Book Center, five days a week, Sunday (when the shop was shut anyway) and Wednesday off. He would have preferred his two days off to be together, but it was only for a year - and it was only for a year; Albert's daughter Dawn, who normally worked in the shop, had just given birth to her first child, Albert's first grandchild, and mother and grandfather both felt that she should take a year to look after the child before returning to work. (Dawn's husband wasn't quite so sure that losing his wife's paycheck for a year was such a good idea, but had to admit that much of it would have had to go to pay for child care, had Dawn gone straight back to work - even working for her father, it wouldn't have been practical for her to take a baby to work with her.)
Albert's Book Center (affectionately known as ABC) had a fairly large 'used books' section, and Albert (whose official first name was actually Halbert, his mother's maiden name, but he had dropped the 'H' years previously) made it clear that he would have no objection if his employee borrowed some of them to read, on the understanding that if he damaged them he would pay for them. Blair had no problem agreeing to that; books were too valuable to damage.
Although the shop was quite busy much of the time, there were quiet spells - first thing in the morning tended to be quiet. Afternoons and evenings were, on the whole, busy.
Albert manned the till and dealt with buying books; both used and new. His assistant kept the shop tidy, the shelves filled and the books in order - it was surprising how often someone took a book meaning to buy it, carried on browsing, saw another book, took it off the shelf, decided to buy it instead and put the first one back where the second had been. So at some point every day Blair had to check the shelves for misplaced books. He couldn't, though, help but wonder at the mentality of people who didn't take the unwanted book back to where they'd got it.
He kept an eye on the used books. Quite apart from Albert's quiet permission, that was where he was most likely to find something from years previously that he might want to reread. And, indeed, he did find one or two, though not many. Of course, he had stopped reading fiction when he was sixteen, and before that he had long been... well, condemned to reading books aimed at his age group, not his reading or interest level. Some of the books he wanted to reread were in the shop, new, but it was only the used ones he could access.
And then, one Tuesday a little more than half way through Blair's year employed there, a man went into the shop. His grandfather had died a few weeks previously, he said. He was the sole heir. He was clearing out his grandfather's things, in preparation for selling the house, which he didn't need. His grandfather had owned quite a big library, mostly fiction but with a fair amount of non-fiction too. He was reluctant to throw out books and wondered if Albert would be interested in having a look at them - they were all in good condition - and taking any that he thought he could sell. Albert jumped at the chance.
He arranged to visit the house that evening after he closed the shop, and asked Blair if he wanted to go along, to help him pack any books he might decide to take (if in fact he didn't just decide to take the lot). He knew that Blair, as a student, might very well find something of interest among the non-fiction books, as well as having contacts at Rainier who might be interested in them; just because a non-fiction book was old didn't automatically mean the facts in it were worthless. Even if new discoveries in the field had been made, knowing what the older beliefs were could be of value to a student.
Carl Mansfield sat at the small desk in one corner of what had been his grandfather's library, making himself available should Albert have any questions. An artist, he spent the time quietly sketching the two men who were studying the books his mother's father had acquired over seventy years - a collection started when he was barely teenaged, and still being added to a few weeks earlier, just before he had the heart attack that killed him. Grandfather Jefferson had never, to his grandson's knowledge, parted with a book he had bought.
Mansfield suspected that some of the oldest books, the books Grandfather had bought as a young teen, would be of little or no resale value, but if Albert took even half of the books, paying him even just fifty cents a book, it would be a few hundred dollars - a nice little bonus to add to what he hoped to get later in the week when an antique dealer was coming in to look at the pictures and ornaments in the house, many of which grandfather had inherited from his parents. Those were things he knew could be valuable, unlike books which, while interesting enough, were, he believed, of no value once they were out of print. He had been telling the truth when he said he was reluctant to throw out a book - but he was quietly resigned to recycling a lot of them.
Albert and his young assistant had started in different parts of the room, with Albert looking at the fiction and the young man - whose name Mansfield didn't know - looking at the non-fiction, of which there was a surprising amount, considering that old man Jefferson had never been a scholar. He had been good at running a business, good at amassing money, but he had never been any sort of scholar. From time to time one or other took a book from its shelf and checked inside it, putting it carefully back in its place.
Eventually the two met and exchanged some quiet words, and then changed places, with Albert looking at the roughly 25% that were non-fiction and his assistant at the fiction, though it was clear to Mansfield that the young man was far less interested in the fiction - his check of it was far more superficial than his study of the non-fiction - while Albert had appeared to be more interested in the fiction than the non-fiction.
Of course, it was possible that this second 'check' was more to confirm what each had decided upon in the first one.
They met again, and again exchanged a few words. Albert nodded agreement to something his companion said. The young man went to the door, took a cell phone from the backpack he had left sitting there, crossed to the corner of the room furthest from Mansfield and dialled.
He spoke quietly into the phone, and Mansfield found it impossible to overhear what the youngster was saying. Albert, meanwhile, was pecking at a calculator.
His first call finished, the assistant made another before he crossed back to Albert, nodding as he went. Again they exchanged a few words - Mansfield thought he heard the name Bolam - then Albert joined Mansfield, who put his sketch face down on the desk as Albert neared him.
"Some of the books have very little resale value," Albert said.
"I suspected that," Mansfield said. "I can always recycle them."
"No, no, sir, I'm prepared to take everything. Second hand books being sold for one or two dollars - it's amazing how fast they sell, especially when they're in good condition. At that kind of price, some of the older fiction here might well be bought by a grandfather to give his grandson an idea of the kind of books that were popular for children when he was young, and even genuinely believing that the books he had enjoyed back then would be equally enjoyed by his grandson. He could even be right - look how many of the books written in the first quarter of the century are still in print today, with nobody realizing just how long ago they were written. I'll give you three thousand dollars for the lot."
"That's quite a generous offer," Mansfield said. "Thank you." Privately he was high-fiving himself - this was far more than he'd expected.
"I'll have to make arrangements to get everything boxed up and taken to my store," Albert went on, "but I'd hope to get everything cleared by the end of the week, if that's all right?"
"I'll need to be here to let whoever does the work in and out."
"Of course." He glanced at his assistant. "Blair, can you get some help organized for Thursday, and maybe Friday?"
"Yes, I'm sure I can."
Albert returned his attention to Mansfield. "Blair here will be in charge of packing the books, and he should be able to get everything boxed up and away on Thursday. He'll be here before 9 am. If he can't finish on Thursday, he'll see to the last of it on Friday morning."
Albert pulled out a check book. "I'll give you the money for the books now. Who do I make out the check to?"
Albert wrote out the check, signed it and handed it over.
Mansfield grabbed a sheet of paper and scribbled a quick receipt. "I imagine you'll need this for tallying up your accounts?"
"For a purchase this big, yes, it's desirable. Thank you. It's been a pleasure doing business with you, sir."
Once they were back in Albert's car, the older man said, "I gather you saw something there that you would like for yourself?"
Blair grinned. "You noticed, huh?"
"I saw you... well, lingering over one or two books."
"Yes," Blair said. "It's an amazing collection... and quite eclectic. I get the feeling that Mr. Mansfield's grandfather was interested in a lot of different subjects."
Albert nodded his agreement as he started the car. "I've cleared out a few private 'libraries' over the years," he said, "and mostly they lean on one kind of book; historical novels, or thrillers, or science fiction... This one is unusual because of the range of subject matter it covers, including the non-fiction. So - I wasn't surprised that you found some of the non-fiction interesting, but what was particularly interesting you among the novels?"
"I know that some of them are still in print, but a student isn't exactly rich," Blair said. "So the secondhand price is more what I can afford. There's a set of books by Edgar Wallace - I read the first two or three of them years ago, when I was about nine. There's no two ways about it, by today's standards they're terribly racist but they do reflect the general attitude of the time they were written."
"Ah - Sanders of the River and its sequels?"
"Yes. You know I'm a grad student. My subject is anthropology, and - well - those books are at least part of what drew me to the subject. I really want to read them again - at least the first two or three - to see what I think of them now, roughly ten years later, and with what I've studied to give me a factual perspective."
"Take them - the full set if you want. No, I don't want any money from you for them - call it your payment for helping me check out those books tonight. Same with the non-fiction - take any you want. Call it a bonus for your good work. Now, I suspect you'll be telling some of your student friends about them?"
"I was thinking more about the Rainier library," Blair said. "Stella, the head librarian at Rainier, would definitely like the chance to check out what you got. And of course Dr. Bolam in the English Department is very interested in some of the older books for juveniles. It'll show the students there the changing face of popular fiction for that age group." He grinned. "I doubt you'll have many left for grandfathers to buy cheap for their grandsons."
Albert grinned back. "I won't charge Rainier that much for them, just enough to show some profit," he said, "but I wasn't about to tell Mansfield that I'll be offering some to Rainier. He'd instantly assume that because they were going to a university, I'd be putting a thousand percent mark up on them. As it is - with one or two exceptions, as many as your Dr. Bolam wants at $2 each - and even that is a big mark up on what I gave Mansfield for them. The non-fiction - I'd say $5 to $10 a book there because a lot are relatively modern. What I paid him sounded a lot - at a guess he didn't expect me to take everything, and he certainly didn't expect to get as much as I paid him - but I'm going to make quite a good profit from the books there. Some of the older fiction, even the juvenile stuff, is worth a lot. I don't deal in expensive second hand books, but I know them when I see them, and I have a friend who's a specialist dealer. He'll give me a good price for them, and still make a good profit himself."
"I could see that Mansfield didn't think that old books would be worth that much," Blair said. "He had one or two ornaments on his desk, and it seemed to me that he thought they'd be worth quite a bit. But I'm not so sure; granted I didn't get a chance to look at them properly, but I'm pretty sure at least one of the ones I saw is a 'made for the tourist market' replica, maybe fifty or sixty years old, rather than a genuine antique - worth a few hundred rather than a few thousand dollars."
"I wouldn't have thought antique pottery came into your anthropology studies," Albert commented.
"Depends on its source," Blair said. "Yes, most of what I've studied is tribal culture, but we spent part of one semester doing ancient civilizations - it was a comparison kind of thing, to show how cultures can grow over time and then - well, hit a peak then dwindle. Like the Aztec or the Maya - their cultures hit a high, they did well for a while, and then climate change hit - or the Spaniards arrived - and the culture was pretty well lost. Every powerful nation throughout history has peaked and then eventually faded to be replaced by a different one. Some lasted for centuries. You never think of Africa - apart from Egypt - having had much in the way of 'civilization', but there are some pretty impressive ruins in some places - Zimbabwe, for example. That area had a pretty impressive history for some six hundred years until first the Portuguese and then the Dutch arrived." He broke off. "Sorry, sometimes I get carried away."
Albert chuckled. "It's good to see a young man like you getting so enthusiastic about learning, about things you've learned. What do you mean to do, eventually?"
"I haven't quite decided. I do mean to go back to Rainier and go for a PhD in anthropology, but after that? I don't really want to teach - "
"I think you'd be good at teaching."
"There's a big difference between being good at something and actually wanting to do it. When I think of the attitude of some of the students in my classes... Several of our classes were taken by TAs, and one of them actually quit, left Rainier, he was so disillusioned by the attitude of a couple of football jocks - they were only interested in football, didn't see any point in the academic subjects they had to take; they wanted a career as professional football players, maybe going on to coach or even manage a team once their playing days were over. And there was one girl - intelligent enough and hard-working enough to get quite good grades, but basically what she was looking for was a husband, and we all knew it. She got one, too, though not in the class she was in. She quit Rainier halfway through her sophomore year, and the last I heard she was a stay-at-home trophy-type wife, accompanying her husband on business trips, and basically bored out of her skull with nothing to do."
"Be careful what you wish for, huh?"
Blair nodded, then went on. "I think... One of my professors at Rainier... Dr. Stoddard was only there one year, teaching. He'd been on an expedition to Borneo, and was writing a book about it as well as papers for at least two anthropology journals. Well, really he was writing two books; one was a straightforward travel book, the other, using a pen name, was an adventure story aimed for the fiction market. I wouldn't mind doing something like that."
Albert stopped the car outside the apartment block where Blair lived.
"I'll come in tomorrow," Blair said, "because if I'm packing up books at Mansfield's on Thursday I won't be in that day."
"You don't have to," Albert said. "After all, you'll still be doing a job for me on Thursday. How many assistants do you think you'll get?"
"Three should be enough, and I know the ones I mean to ask first."
"All right. I trust you to make sure they don't waste time. Somehow, though, I don't think you'd offer the job to anyone who would drag his feet to get a second day's work. Offer them $5 an hour."
"That's pretty generous for a day's very casual work," Blair said. "But I'll tell them that it's a one-day deal; if we need to go into a second day, it'll be $1 an hour for Friday."
"Come to the shop at 8 on Thursday morning; I'll have a van for you and enough storage boxes for a dozen trips. With luck that'll be enough; if it isn't, I can give you more. Put the books you think can go to Rainier into one load, and the ones you want for yourself into a box on their own, marked - oh, S for 'special'. Your helpers don't need to know it's S for Sandburg."
"I'll arrange for them to be there for 9. If I'm there at - say - half past eight, I can pack that box myself and they won't know what's in it, as well as sort out at least some of the ones for Rainier."
Blair contacted three of his acquaintances at Rainier who would, he knew, be glad of the income and not likely to waste time in the hope of earning more. He met them at the house on Thursday - Mansfield was there, and remained sitting at his desk again, clearly not quite trusting these strangers not to help themselves to things other than the books Albert had bought.
Well, Blair thought, if he wants to waste his time... And so he started off by putting his selected books into one box, sealing it, marking it with the S Albert had suggested, then turning his attention to the books Dr. Bolam was likely to want. He might, he knew, pack some that Albert planned to offer to his specialist friend, but he was also sure that Albert would check through the boxes to make sure that none of the valuable ones were included in what was sent to Rainier. He could leave Alan, Toby and Mick to pack the non-fiction.
They arrived just before nine, and promptly started work.
As they packed they took the boxes out to the van. When it was full, Toby joined Blair when he drove back to ABC, where they unloaded, then went back. Alan and Mick had packed a lot of boxes in their absence; they loaded these onto the van, carried on packing, then with the van full Blair ferried the next lot back to the shop, where he and Toby unloaded...
They finished boxing all the books just after 4 pm, and all three accompanied Blair back to the shop.
"You've worked hard," Albert said as he gave each student $50. "Yes, you deserve the extra."
"Thank you," Alan, their accepted leader, said. "Er - do you need help to empty the boxes? We're glad of the extra money, but you've paid us for nearly three hours more than we worked - and that's a job that still needs to be done. It wouldn't take long - "
"No, but thank you for the offer," Albert said. "The books are easier stored if they're still boxed up. I'll be taking my time to go through what's there. But any time I need extra help, I'll bear you three in mind. Some of the non-fiction books will be going to Rainier, once your librarian there has had a chance to check through them - so there could easily be an hour or two of work for you after that getting the books she takes to Rainier. I don't suppose she has the funds to pay you for any work you do, but if she doesn't, I will."
"That's good of you, sir," Alan said.
"Always glad to help youngsters who are willing to work hard," Albert said, and he and Blair waved them away.
"Did you check if there are any valuable books among the ones I've taken?" Blair asked once the three students had gone.
"No, but even if there are, remember I didn't pay that much for them. And judging by the weight of the box, you didn't take as many as you could have done."
"I didn't want to take advantage," Blair admitted. "I took the whole set of Sanders books and ten of the non-fiction, but I'm more than willing to pay - "
"Bonus, my boy, bonus," Albert said. "Now take your books and off you go. I'll see you tomorrow morning."
When he got home, Blair prepared a quick meal, ate it, washed the dishes and settled down to read the first book in the series - Sanders of the River.
He was reading it now as an adult, an adult who had some insight into tribal African life in the early years of the twentieth century - but he was also well aware that, as he had told Albert, the book depicted the attitudes of the period in which it was written and as such was a surprisingly valuable source of information for an anthropologist.
He had wondered if the books would hold up, or if he would find that the years since he first read them would - well, not exactly spoil them for him, but leave him a little disappointed, and he was very happy to find that he was enjoying this first book in the series almost as much as he remembered enjoying it when he was nine. He nodded as he registered the casual assumption that the natives needed the firm hand of a white man to keep them... well, civilized - and yet the character of Sanders was in many ways far from racist.
He found himself mulling over that.
He was enjoying his sabbatical. He had been finding working at ABC surprisingly satisfying, and he could now understand what had drawn Albert - who, Blair had come to realize, was more highly educated than he had originally assumed - into the business of buying and selling books. What had drawn him to open part of his shop for the sale of second hand books. All other things being equal, Blair had been feeling that he would be happy continuing to work for Albert. But now, rereading this book that had first drawn him towards anthropology, he was beginning to think like a scholar again. He realized he was mentally drafting out chapters for a paper on changing attitudes, basing a lot of it on these books by Edgar Wallace. At the same time, he would have to base his paper on more than the works of one writer... Rider Haggard came to his mind. King Solomon's Mines... Hmmm... possibly not. That one was far from racist. Rudyard Kipling? There might be something there... though 'You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din' came into his mind. Hmmm. Mark Twain? Fennimore Cooper? He could see some solid reading in his immdediate future.
Perhaps a paper on writers whose attitude was less racist than that expressed by the standards of their time?
Well, he had plenty of time to think about it. He could draft out some ideas over the next five months, maybe try to develop some of them, then when he went back to Rainier, discuss them with whoever was his adviser and then see where that led him. It might even be possible to get two papers, one on the changing face of racism, one on writers in the past who didn't seem to be racist despite the generally-held views of their era.
He got up, searched for - and found - a notebook and pencil, and scribbled down what he had mentally listed. Then he settled back to carry on reading, picking up the pencil from time to time to scribble down another idea.
He was in his element, fully over his mental exhaustion, and happy to start thinking about his next scholastic project.