Friday, November 21, 2008

An Eerie Coincidence: A True Tale of a Book

Coincidences happen quite a bit in life. But I just experienced one that gave me a couple of goose bumps. It has to do with a book, and the bookplate you see here adjacent to these words.

I’ve always collected books. In every city where I’ve worked and lived, I’ve found a good used bookstore in which I’ve spent many happy hours. I bought my first first edition with a TLS (typed letter signed, usually tucked inside the book) at a bookstore on Union Square in San Francisco. It was a very early book of short stories by Edna Ferber called Buttered Side Down and though it isn’t all that valuable to anybody but me I’ve always treasured it.

I also tend to collect friends who like books and two of my best friends in Florida have long been Thad and Polly Seymour, two really wonderful people whom I first met because we were neighbors.

Thad Seymour is also Dr. Thaddeus Seymour, the retired president of Rollins College, a former dean at Dartmouth. He and Polly and I have had lots of interesting discussions about books. Thad grew up in New York City in the 1930s within an interesting family. His father was a prominent lawyer who collected books and his mother was a chic lady who loved fine art and fine jewelry. I always imagined his New York family as very glamorous, strolling together down Manhattan’s avenues on the way to the family brownstone in Greenwich Village. So where is the eerie coincidence, you ask? Well stick with me and you'll see.

When I was doing research on early 20th century novelist Irving Bacheller and told Thad that Bacheller had belonged to the Century Club in New York, Thad told me he also belonged to the Century Club as his father had before him.

Anyway, back to my collection of books.

With the advent of the Internet, I have gradually come to realize that one does not have to collect shelves and shelves of books anymore. Books that are out of print and unavailable at your library are just a click away on Amazon or Abe Books. So, since I’m heading back to the San Francisco Bay Area after the first of the year, I’m doing a lot of sorting and boxing, and this week I went through my first editions with an eye to getting rid of at least a few.

A lot of these go back a number of years in my life and one’s taste changes as the years go by. For example, there was a time when I collected women writers. Now the gender thing isn’t as important to me. So when I came across a Dorothy Parker first edition, Laments for the Living, I paused for a minute trying to decide whether to keep it, sell it, or donate it to Polly Seymour's used bookstore at the local library. Ever since I read a biography of Parker and discovered what a sad life she had—alcoholism, horrible relationships with men—I’ve been feeling less inclined to collect her. Silly, I know. But there you are.

I opened this one to check the penciled notation inside which said “1st Edition, Out of Print” and showed the price of the book. I recalled that this book was a gift from someone I’d just as soon forget, and I almost tossed it in the pile of books I thought I might donate.

Then I looked over to the inside binding page and examined the bookplate there. It was a very good-looking one and showed an old English barrister wearing one of those funny Rumpole of the Bailey wigs floating above a book collection like a cross Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. The book plate also had engraved upon it: "Ex Libris Whitney North Seymour.”

I wondered if this man who had owned my book was related to my friend Thad? I knew Dorothy Parker was a New York writer and I knew the Seymours were New Yorkers, so it didn’t seem far-fetched. But I doubted it would be true.

I told Thad about it. He laughed.

The book had belonged to his father.

“The Century Club in New York owns the rights to that bookplate now,” he told me.

“Do you want the book back?” I asked. "It belonged to your father, after all."

“No, no. We took the ones we wanted and sold the rest. I’m happy you have it,” he smiled.

This book made its journey from a private library in New York, to my own private library via a third party who knew neither generation of Seymours. I had never heard of the Seymours until I came to Florida, long after I acquired the book. Now, as I'm getting ready to leave the state, it seems to me this connection actually reached out of the book and grabbed me by the wrist. Pretty strange, don’t you think? Certainly one of life’s eerie coincidences. I wonder if Dorothy Parker, who must sleep a troubled sleep, had anything to do with it?



To Ms. Robin Chapman,

The story of the book, the journey of the book, you referred has good material for a good short story. Why don't you try by adding some fiction? It could be like, say the book helped joining two old childhood friends who had parted painfully.

Naval Langa

Robin Chapman said...

Naval, I think that is a really good idea. But more than the coincidence, I would need an ironic twist to it. I'll have to ponder that.