Mother’s Day “Rare” Book Treasure

Serendipity! One week after I posted the review of a book about the rare book world, Book Thieves, Rare Books, and Obsession, I wandered through the San Francisco Public Library’s Spring Book Sale, a vast assortment of over 250,000 books separated into 70+ categories and filling up 50,000 sq. ft. of tables at the Ft. Mason Center on San Francisco Bay. The books are sourced from estates, general donations, businesses, and cast-offs from any number of libraries.

Here’s a pic from the night’s scene:


We’re talking BOOKS!!!

The spring sale is actually half the size of the fall “Big Book Sale” where over 500,000 books will be stuffed into the same amount of space. 

Back to serendipity: After spending a couple of hours digging through the children’s book tables, I meandered over to the writing section, thinking I’d find a couple of books about writing for kids. No luck.


The spine of a little hardcover still in its dust jacket caught my eye. It’s called Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood, six essays originally delivered as The Empson Lectures at Cambridge and then published by the Cambridge University Press.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.44.45 AM

I opened the cover and found a postcard of the sunken garden at Kensington Palace between the board and front end paper.


The card’s inscription read:


“Happy Mother’s Day! Love, Jean.”

Chills. This book most likely came from an estate.

Chills. Mother’s Day is upon us.

Chills. I was holding a symbol of the relationship between a mother and daughter.

I turned to the title page and there it was:


“For Mary Ellen—Best wishes, Margaret Atwood”

A signed first edition in near perfect condition that still bore the weight of the relationship between Mary Ellen and Jean.

Anyone else out there think I was meant to find this book?

The brief intro, titled “Into the labyrinth,” describes Atwood accepting the invitation to lecture on the topic of writers and writing only to find herself desperately seeking something original to say. After much research (of dead authors) and grilling of some tasty living novelists, Atwood ponders the entranceway into the writing journey (call it Heaven or Hell):

“Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light. This book is about that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.”

But the book is anything but dark.

Just twenty-five pages in (read while standing in the check-out line), I find it filled with wry (yes, downright funny) observations about Canadian literary culture and interesting insights into the work of writing.

The lectures are titled:

  • Orientation: Who do you think you are? (What is a writer, and how did I become one?)
  • Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double (Why there are always two)
  • Dedication: The Great God Pen (At whose alter should the writer worship?)
  • Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co (Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil’s book?)
  • Communion: Nobody to nobody (The eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between)
  • Descent: Negotiating with the dead (Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?)

Folks, this is not a “how-to” book. It’s a meditation on the act of writing and reading. And it’s a fabulous $3.00, signed first edition, early Mother’s Day present to myself!


Oddly enough, I just posted a piece about death and writing over on the Dogpatch Writers Collective.









28 thoughts on “Mother’s Day “Rare” Book Treasure

  1. FictionFan says:

    Wow! What a fabulous find! Especially given the title of the book. These kind of things always leave me wondering who the people were and what their story was…

  2. Lady Fancifull says:

    Oh gosh Jilanne, what an absolutely wonderful story. You, FF and me (and countless others no doubt, desperately wanting to know the story of the book. Kensington Palace Gardens to San Fran is a loooooonnnnnnngggggg journey

    A one in 250,000 chance for it to wing its way to you!

      • Lady Fancifull says:

        Hey Jilanne guess what (so predictable really!) I’ve just ordered that book. I tried to resist, I really did, but still. I’m hoping my third party seller, used, will yield an unexpected treasure or two, but maybe not as condition described ‘as new’ Unfortunately all the slightly less expensive options, with a slightly less pristine condition description, are either sellers from YOUR side of the pond (takes too long, want it NOW!) or from one UK supplier that I haven’t got that high a regard for, from a previous transaction, and clearly, it wasn’t just me as their percentage is a bit lower than others.

        WHY I should be so impatient is nonsense really, given the size of the TBR pile. Now if only the good souls at San Fran Public Library would invite me for an all expenses paid trip over for their autumn book sale i would happily happily be a volunteer sales person. Who knows, it might work out advantageous for them, financially, since a woman of such weak will might crumble at the sight of 500,000 used books, each potentially secret filled, and buy all of them!

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          Oh, I understand that itch completely. When it arrives on the wings of others’ suggestions, it absolutely must be scratched IMMEDIATELY.

          As for the book sale, should you be allowed to purchase as many books as you’d like, I’d fear that you (and your boxes of treasures) would exceed the weight limit of your housing code, end up in the basement, and be recorded for posterity in the Guinness Book of World records. Best to avoid that traumatic event, don’t you think?

          But please do let me know if your book arrives with any clues to its previous life.

  3. m lewis redford says:

    I thought serendipity had been marketed out of existence by niche and specialism – it is reassuring to find that it is still possible to find … still San Francisco is a long way away

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Ah yes, serendipity is alive and well and living in SF. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be the recipient of its kiss.

      If it’s anything like the “unexpected teleconnections in noctilucent clouds” that were just reported by NASA, I wouldn’t be surprised to find serendipity alive and well in your neck of the woods, either.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      My aunt, who had much more patience than I, used to comb through garage sales, estate sales, etc. to find treasures like this. I don’t, but I am willing to make an exception for the SFPL book sale.

  4. Mrs. P says:

    Wow…how awesome was that? Serendipity for sure! . Perfect for Mother’s Day! What a huge book sale. I am sure I would have needed a nap after looking through so many titles.

  5. Laurel Leigh says:

    What a wonderful story and an awesome find. I love the images of the inscriptions! It’s always so interesting to pick up used books that are signed, wondering why someone got rid of them or if from an estate as you observe here, how much history is written into the tiny inscription. Thanks for an inspiring read!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I had thought about going back later in the week to see what else I could find, but I decided against it. I already had my good luck. I’ll go back for the fall sale where the stacks of books are even more overwhelming.

      As for the “story,” I’m sure there’s something fermenting or fomenting in the back of my mind right now. 😀

      • Laurel Leigh says:

        As always, I know I will love getting to see what you write! I hope we always have actual books. I haven’t owned an actual record in years and often sigh about that, but it’s even harder to think about not actually having books around.

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