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:
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.
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.