There’s an old New Yorker cartoon that features two well-dressed figures in a well-stocked library where one turns to the other and says, “Those books represent the person I once aspired to be.”
To phrase the sentiment less depressingly, the books you own inevitably reveal something about your personality or your personal history. That’s partly why it’s so exciting to see the book-sorting that happens before the annual Friends of the Oak Park Public Library Book Fair.
The revelations begin with the boxes that start pouring into the cafeteria at Oak Park and River Forest High School a few weeks before the fair. Consider, for example, the first box that caught my eye one Friday: War and Peace, some Jane Austen, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Hamlet, but also Black Women: Race and Sex in America and Women’s Words, and next to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse I catch a glimpse of The Cheerios Play Book.
I don’t investigate the cereal series further, though, because something else has caught my eye: an 1870 edition of the works of Charles Dickens.
The book fair is supposed to be a gold mine for old books (I was told that this year’s silent auction will feature a first edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey), but I find a different sort of old text equally remarkable. Browsing the literature section, I spot a familiar Sherlock Holmes collection bound in beige. I have a copy at home, but its sole annotation is the address of a family on Gunderson from whom I bought the book. This Sherlock has another type of address: “For Harry, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed finding it for you. Mother.”
You’re more likely to find such inscriptions in poetry books, but wondering how the books then ended up here can be a gloomy exercise. In 1970, Rosanne gave Tom a book of love poetry with the note, “Love is like the wind-it extinguishes the small and kindles the great.” How then did this book find its way to the fair? Of course, there’s an off-chance that Tom never really liked the poetry-I suspect that may have been the case with a few books that were obviously meant as gifts, like the Hallmark-like anthology called “Love,” with its ready-made inscription “A gift for ____ and _____ from ____”.
But my favorite title-page note is one from the Oak Park Public Library, which donated some of its own old, damaged, or too-numerous books to the fair. The title page for The Triumph of Love is stamped “Cancelled.” A copy of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre is a close second. Its inscription reads, “A present to myself-good luck!”
Because the books are all previously owned, there are stories in them in addition to those included when they were published. Find something for a friend-or yourself-and write on the title page: to [you], from [me], August 2006. The book fair is Friday, Aug. 4, from 6-10 p.m. (admission $5) and Saturday, Aug. 5 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (free admission).