Derry, Northern Ireland

Derry, Northern Ireland
A book I'm working on is set in this town.

Monday, November 12, 2012

My new opening for A65

Here we go...Adam begins telling the story...

My name is Adam Verlain, and books are my life.

Bloody hell...that’s no way to start the story. Sounds more like I'm joining a twelve-step program, and I’m not an addict. Except to various antiquarian volumes of paper and sheepskin bound into leather and vellum. And incunabula. And fine bindings by Sangorski or Nonsuch that encompass aged copies of great works. And type-pressed editions, some simple and meaningless to anyone but their keeper, some so amazingly beautiful. And Dickens or Fielding in wrappers...and illuminated manuscripts...and...and...

All right...perhaps I am addicted. But it’s not dangerous...unless you think skipping a few lunches and having your shoes mended instead of purchasing new ones are harmful to health and well-being. All so you'll have enough coin to buy that slightly worn but still good copy of Burke’s “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” that you just saw at a shop in Chelsea.

Some would answer that in the affirmative. But then, they aren't book people. Nor do they work as an archivist or cataloguer or researcher or whatever word you wish to use at a small but well-thought of university in London.

Well...I am, and I do, and therefore, I ramble. Such is my way, and I’d have it no other. Especially since one of my colleagues told me I rather look like I belong in that gentle, cloistered, antiquarian world. What were her words? “Tallish enough. Trim without being taut. Open features that are pleasant but always seem ready to pose a question. That’s a rather ordinary haircut, and I have to wonder -- have you even reached the age of thirty, yet? And please tell me those are prescription glasses and not just just magnifiers you bought at a pharmacy.”

Pharmacy. I’m far-sighted so only need them for reading...though I did notice the last time I purchased some, I had to bump up from +1.75 to +2.00. As for thirty, that’s 16 months off, still. Dunno why it matters, any. It’s nothing but a number on an artificial scale meant to cause untold misery to men and extreme agita in women, for some reason, as though ranting and raving about it would make any difference once way or the other. Sometimes understanding the meanings of mankind is beyond impossible.

Oh, I should mention -- that was Elizabeth Chamlin speaking, a fellow archivist who’s well-formed in every way that counts, and who was giving me a wary eye on her first though she were trying to decide if I was worth paying attention to instead of merely being the lad in the cubicle next to hers who finds excuses to talk with her. I think she decided I wasn’t, but not having a firm answer means I still bring her tea, whether she asks for it or not, and offer her a biscuit. When I can afford them. And which she turns down only half the time. Hope springs eternal, don’t you know?

We work together along with another archivist named Bill, from whom you will never get his family moniker; he trusts no one. Not even me, and I actually shared dinner with him once. He loves soups. Hot. Cold. Spicy. Sweet. Made from things that don't even work in Haggis. Any soup you can imagine that can be cooked in a two gallon pot. His specialty is books of exploration, adventure, discovery of South America and the Pacific realm. There are centuries worth of it. I haven't had the nerve to ask him if he's read much about cannibals of the South Seas; I refuse to give in to my suspicion he might overly enjoy the tales of Sweeney Todd.

There’s also Hakim Jappour, who’s been archiving books for three months longer than have I, and who thinks he knows every aspect of it that needs be known. If you doubt it, just ask him; he’ll tell you. He will also tell you he is very good-looking and should have been a star in Bollywood, but he grew up in Newcastle-on-Tyne and is often unintelligible, something a Bollywood star cannot be. He is deep into the realm of the Empire upon which the sun never set, along with Middle-Eastern philosophy and religions. Perfect match-up.

The head of our department is Vincent Gurney, who’s been with the University since its founding in 1612. I exaggerate, but not by much; he seems that old and that arch in manner. He either has one suit he wears all the time or three identical suits he swaps between while the others are at the dry cleaners. But he has a wealth of knowledge about any book that’s passed through the University’s archives, and what little he does not know for a fact, he knows where the facts are.

Last but not least is Jeremy Blackstone, who’s half scally-boy, half-Cockney, and full-on filled with his own sense of worth. Which has some basis in fact, I suppose; I’ve seen both Bill and Elizabeth casting him sly glances. And I must admit, what he can do with photography and PhotoShop is phenomenal; on more than one occasion his eye has caught manipulations in a snapshot we’d been sent of a book someone “had just discovered in the attic of their great-grandfather and was offering for sale.” Usually at an exorbitant price. There's a lot of forgery going on, these days, and he's helped the University protect a number of smaller book dealers who might have been taken in by such a trick.

That's a service we offer, you know -- the verification and archiving of books, incunabula, and manuscripts up to the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Elizabeth is fully cognoscente of both Nineteenth and Twentieth Century works, but we have little need for the latter time period. The University's own collection begins in 1257 and extends through 1898, nothing earlier or later, and supposedly happy at that...though I do think there are members of the board who'd happily kill to bring in our own copy of the Magna Carta.

As for myself, I have no real limit to my abilities when it comes to ancient books. I suppose my sharpest focus is on the development of literature and philosophy. The fact is, I’m never happier than when tracking down the history behind a particular volume of “Le Morte d’Artur” or gleaning the true worth of a “Vanity Fair” whose parts had been set into a Bayntun binding, yellow wrappers and advertisements included.

We do have a wonderful collection here, and we're in the process of bringing in more to build on it while selling off other items no longer fitting in with our chosen oeuvre. Every week, there'd be a cart overflowing with fresh arrivals waiting by the double doors that open to a narrow hallway that leads to the small offices of Hakim and Vincent. I'd pick one out, return it to my cubicle, and count not only the illustrations in it but also the number of pages, inspect for wormholes, verify the condition of the binding and whether or not it is contemporary to the book, check the substance of the boards, and then dive into the University’s research library, all of which was accessible via our server.

Then there’d be our basement filled with auction records to peruse, along with catalogues of the various antiquarian book dealers throughout the UK, Europe, and America. Articles accessed via ILAB or the ABAA or ABE-dot-com. And if that didn’t satisfy my need for information, there were the critiques and histories and biographies of well-known collectors to scan through. I could easily spend a week getting the exact right information together to write the provenance of a wonderfully obscure volume.

My home life wasn't much different, really, living in a single flat in Ruislip, two blocks from the tube. Warm in winter, cool enough in summer, close to a small park with trails to walk and benches to sit on and read. I catch the tube at 8:05 Monday through Friday, swap lines at Finchley Road, hops off a few stops later, walk a block to my building and am deep into my latest work by nine. Lunch at 12:30. Home on the 5:14. Cook a light meal and read. I'm halfway through a list of classics I've promised to know. My current tome? Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White". Suffice to say, he is neither as technically clever as Agatha Christie nor as astute as Conan Doyle, but moments do stand out, so far.

So there was my existence, all neat and in perfect order, laid out for the rest of my life. But then one day it all came to a crashing halt and my world spun into chaos. All because I was asked to hop over to Los Angeles and pick up a book.

And that is when I popped down the rabbit hole.

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