Thursday, June 9, 2016

What a Book Can Do

The Greater St. Louis Book Fair has been held annually since 1950. It’s the granddaddy of all the book fairs in St. Louis, “the big one,” the one every book lover, collector, and dealer looks forward to. Dealers, in fact, come from all over the world for this one, four days usually at the end of April.

The reason for the fair’s popularity is straightforward. St. Louis was once a very wealthy city, and a considerable portion of that wealth was poured into culture and education. And both private and public libraries.

The 1957 edition
I attended the book fair every year for about 15 years, the last time in the late 1990s. I’d always go on opening night, which involved a reasonable entry fee; after that no fee was charged. I’d go an hour or two early (like all the other fanatics), find the closest place I could to park (usually two to three blocks away), and wait in line until the tent opened. For years the fair was held in the parking lot of a department store in the central suburb of Clayton (also the county seat for St. Louis County); more recently it’s been at a shopping mall in Des Peres, about four miles west of where I live.

My browsing interests generally fell into two areas – books about speeches, and literature.

The fair always furnished unintended events and entertainment. We’re talking serious book fanatics here, and people thought nothing of browsing through other customers’ boxes, swiping a volume form someone’s hand, elbowing people out of the way to get a better position, and stepping on toes (literally). Once a confrontation almost came to blows.

No book, no matter how valuable I thought it, was worth a fist fight.

The 1963 edition - the one I had in 1968-69
One tear, as I was looking through the literature table, I recognized a book called England in Literature, published by Scott Foresman. It was a fairly standard textbook in high schools in the 1960s. In fact, it was my textbook for my senior English class.

I loved that book. I loved that class. The teacher was about 60, loved literature, and loved it so much she had forsaken her original degree in physics, gone back to college, and gotten a second degree in English. She was a legend at our all-boys public high school, having taught English there for virtually her entire career.

Seeing that old textbook on the literature table, I had to buy it. For a book in excellent condition, it was all of $1. It turned out that this particular book had seen service for seven years at Kirkwood High School in the school district where I live in St. Louis. The students’ names are written in the textbook record inside the front cover. It might explain the book’s condition that six of the seven names are those of girls.

It was first published in 1957; my textbook in 1968-69, which was staring at me on the book sale table, was published in 1963. The covers changed over the years, and by the 1980s, different editors were assembling it and the contents had somewhat changed.

This was the book that introduced me to Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, Gulliver’s Travels, and Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. This was where I read In Memoriam by Tennyson. Here was Milton and Pepys, and the Romantic poets in fairly good depth. Here was Kipling, Hardy, Stevenson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here’s where I was introduced to T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men and was so enthralled then I went out and bought Four Quartets. This is where I first found the World War I poets like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen.

The 1989 edition
This was the book on my desk as I had to stand and recite the dagger speech from Macbeth (we were required to memorize a soliloquy from Shakespeare; “You are not educated until you can recite a Shakespeare soliloquy,” our teacher said). This book stayed close-at-hand while we spent six weeks in general world literature and I absorbed Don Quixote.

And this was the book that convinced me to take English literature instead of American literature for my college English requirement. It was me and all the English majors. They were there because they had to be. I was there because I wanted to be.

So, yes, I put down my buck and bought England in Literature. Nobody tried to grab it form my hands or wanted to fight over it.

I still read from it. It’s filled with wonderful poems, stories, plays, excerpts, biographies and histories. For all of a dollar, I walked with the resurrection of youth, of memories I’d forgotten, and a remembrance of my favorite class in high school.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Susan said...

What a wonderful find. It makes me want to go out and find an English lit textbook!