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ON FLASHING, OR, THINGS FOUND IN BOOKS

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Number 87.


One day, about forty years ago, sorting a purchased library, I was flashing the pages of a book while studying it to ascertain its value, and a stamp fell out. A dull brownish-black thing, with the picture of Queen Victoria and a price of one pence. Could that be a penny black, I wondered? Not really believing I could be that lucky, I phoned my friend Marty Ahvenus up the street at the Village Bookstore who knew stamps, having been a stamp collector when he was a kid.

"I just found a penny black in a book," I stated with great excitement.

"Don't be silly Dave. There's no way it is. Remember, they issued penny stamps for fifty or so years after the first one. It's like books, only the first edition gets more valuable."

I should have known, it's always something like that, I thought. But, ever the incorrigible optimist, I took it up the street to show him anyway.

"Well," said Marty, examining it. "It is a Penny Black. It's real."

"Wow, I'm rich!" I exclaimed. "What's it worth?" I asked, already spending the windfall in my mind.

"About ten dollars," said Marty, bursting my balloon.

"Ten dollars!" I roared in disbelief, reverting instantly to my normal penury. "Ten dollars? For the first stamp ever? If you get the first book, a Gutenberg Bible, you'd have a million bucks (now it would be ten million or more) and the first stamp ever is only worth ten dollars?"

I left in disgust and put the stamp back in another book, and promptly forgot which one. So, its still there for some other reader to find someday when, presumably, it will be worth about $15.00.

That ended my stamp-collecting career.

But it at least taught me to watch for what people leave in books - and they do leave many things in them. And with my still-missing penny black it also taught me how unwise it is to leave things in books, especially if you have lots of books. Now, whenever I flash a book in a newly purchased library, if find any scrap, I know that the owner was often one of the sorts who used books that way and I flash every book in the lot. It's astonishing what one finds. Pressed leaves and flowers in nineteenth-century books are very common, but since they are mostly maple leaves and because after forty-five years I have yet to encounter a leaf collector and because they invariably stain the leaves of the book I throw them out. As a born collector I am a hoarder and I still feel a twinge of guilt at throwing out anything that has lasted a hundred years or more, no matter that it's worthless. Why do we have the effrontery to destroy the past just because it seems worthless?

For years I took Robert Fulford's review copies for credit and found that he had the habit of many incessant readers, who start too many books, of using bookmarks, which he often left in the books he didn't finish. Fulford, not ever having driven (it has always astonished me the number of book people who refuse to drive and even refuse to learn), often used subway and bus transfers as markers. But just as often he used one or two-dollar bills instead. When this happened, I would phone him to tell him his book credit and inform him that I was not returning his money, a penalty for his carelessness - or maybe for the sin of not finishing the book. (Personally, I no longer consider not finishing a book a sin; there are too many books and we're too old - now I give them a couple of chapters - if they haven't captured me by then, too bad.) In the intervening years I've found lots of things in books. I have several framed examples of the currency of the Confederate States of America and I also have framed several German banknotes - one, whose denomination, 100,000 Deutschmarks, proved to be from 1923, when inflation was so bad that it would have bought a loaf of bread, but only if you bought it in the morning on the day it was issued. They must have printed new German denominations every day because they're still common enough to be worth little. Still, finding these bills was exciting, as are all such discoveries until later research deflates our futile dreams.

Letters are also often found, usually unfinished, perhaps tucked into the book to complete later and forgotten, or perhaps because the motive to write disappeared by changing events. These are often sad pathetic love letters or fiercely accusative detailed accounts of betrayal, pages and pages, leaving one to wonder if they had simply given up or if they had set the letter aside while they accumulated more bitter accusations. And then there are pictures, of course. Sometimes pornography clipped from magazines but mostly photographs, the edges often curled from repeated handling, leaving us to wonder what obsession caused the person to keep it. The most common are of couples in every sort of weird distorted sexual position, mostly the ubiquitous Polaroids taken in the secrecy of the bedroom and not needing development at the drugstore. People know they should destroy such things, but they can't quite bring themselves to do so, as though not having the reminder would cost them the memory.

So they put it in a book to be discovered later by some stranger like me. Strangely because they are always anonymous, they arouse curiosity but not the embarrassment which might occur if you knew the participants.

But wonderful things have been found in books, from Poe's Tamerlane (then $150,000.00 - now half a million or more) to important broadsides like the Declaration of Independence.

Broadsides, being single pages, are natural things to put in a book for safekeeping' and sometimes that safekeeping in a book is the only reason that some of those printed documents have survived. Just this week I found a large folded, printed obituary from around the 1830s on a man who, born in the States, moved to Canada, where he died. I will research it and I will be very surprised if I find that any institution anywhere has a copy. Because he was merely an ordinary man this broadside, even if unrecorded, will not be worth more than a couple of hundred dollars or so, but when I'm done I will sell it easily due to its almost certain uniqueness.

But, strangely, I have seldom found real money in a book, although I've heard many stories of dealers and collectors who have.

One of the only times I did find current money it happened under very distasteful circumstances.

I had a call from a man who wanted to sell his deceased mother's library. When I arrived at the house, a unprepossessing bungalow in a working class area, I found waiting for me a vulgar caricature of a man, in his early forties, in checked bell-bottom trousers, a shiny white belt and white shoes and an open-necked shirt with a pendant hanging on his exposed graying chest - what a friend in those days (the seventies) called "full Nanaimo." He told me he was a lawyer and all I could think was that I'd hate to have him defending me in court. What was most distasteful was the man's blatant greed and his complete indifference to his mother's library.

The library filled the entire basement recreation room, all neatly shelved and it was a wonderful example of what can be accomplished by one person with passion and dedication.

Of eastern European extraction her interest - obviously a life-long one - was the record of the peregrination of races and ethnic migrations from ancient times through to the 20th century, starting in the Middle East and India and thrusting into Europe. It was a stunning library entirely made up of scholarly books, few of them worth more than fifty or a hundred dollars, but as a reference source extremely valuable. I was stunned by its range, but mostly by what it told me about his mother. Her passion and her relentless search for -- subject matter was easily apparent to a professional. The man's indifference was obvious. He casually mentioned that she had written two books on the subject, but he didn't know where they were - he'd mislaid them somewhere.

"But they'd be very valuable," I said. "Anyone who spent a lifetime studying this subject would have an encyclopaedic knowledge. Those manuscripts would be very valuable."

"How much would they be worth?" he asked, his eyes announcing his greed.

"It's not money value, it's the scholarly importance," I explained. The light went out; he lost interest.

Then, when I made my offer, offering as I always do the highest price I can pay, he ruthlessly tried to up the ante. I could only pay more by giving away my profit, but the library was so wonderful I did, paying him way more than I should have. Everything about the man aroused my distaste and contempt but especially his greedy dismissal of his mother's life work. He had no interest in what had obviously consumed her for her entire life; indeed, he obviously hadn't even any comprehension what it meant. Later, pricing the books, $200.00 in bills fell out of a book. I knew what it was; it was his mother's secret stash of cash for emergencies (my mother's secret stash was always pinned behind a curtain).

I had no moral problem about returning it to him. Not only did it not amount to what I overpaid him, I believed he didn't deserve to get it back because of his indifference to his mother's life passion. I believed I deserved to have it because I, not him, understood and sympathized with that passion.

Thirty-five years later I still feel that way.



-David Mason

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