Friday, January 22, 2010

The Book That Bit Me

To a holiday gift and a haircut goes all the credit for my conversion from a lover of books who acquired them as regularly as groceries to a collector near the high end of the mania scale.

From the card still tucked inside, I know that in 1976 I was given a dog encyclopedia that I toured, for months, every few days, looking for new vistas to expand my view of my favorite species. I won't claim cause and effect, but I do recall that my routine with that book coincided with my having hair that often caught in my belt cut level with my chin, with bangs, and that my dog Po, a German shorthaired pointer, did not approve. He spent weeks tugging at my hair, while I slept, while I read to myself and to him, no doubt trying to restore me to his concept of my true self. In time he made peace with the new me, and I made both of us promises: no dramatic changes without preparing Po, and I had met a book I had to own as soon as possible.

In that dog encyclopedia I came across a reference to a 1906 publication whose title alone fascinated me. The book was cited as the source of some of the historical tidbits I'd been reading. I wanted more. I wanted that book! I wanted it within the hour! It was as dramatic as that haircut, and as decisive: my hair hasn't grown down to my waist and I haven't outgrown my need for certain books, or the patience to wait until I find them.

I looked for that book wherever books were sold. I searched dealer catalogs, I telephoned, I wrote, I asked that my request be kept on file. As the years passed, my yearning for the book grew. A trip to Washington, D.C., and two afternoons spent reading that book in The Library of Congress made me wonder if perhaps I should move to our nation's capital. I could read the book whenever the LOC would graciously place it before me in that splendid reading room of theirs.

Then I found a dealer with a copy. He promised to hold it for me. I mailed my check. The phone rang. Apologies so profuse, a voice so cracked that had it been a book's spine it would have been rushed to the binder, and I felt almost as sorry for the dealer as I did for myself. He had indeed placed the book on hold for me. Through some mischance, however, his partner had sold it to someone else. I learned a lesson that was to pay off years later when I became a dealer. A customer asks me to hold a book, and I hold it.

More years passed. I kept looking. I didn't move to Washington. Dog Lovers Bookshop was founded and the Internet became a new haven for the book crazed. With my developing book dealer skills and speedy keystrokes, I found another copy. It was in San Francisco, where the German shorthaired pointer who endured the early years of the search and my newly cropped hair had lived as a pup. The copy in his old hometown would be mine. I had visions of Po fetching it for me. The dealer promised to hold the book. I paid. The book arrived. It was January 28, 1998, a Wednesday. I remember unwrapping it, the book I'd wanted for 22 years, as my dachshund Rose wagged and watched and sniffed. The book was in condition even better than the dealer had described. Rose and I spent the evening with it, a good friend come home at last. It has a place of honor on a shelf of favorites.

The book was an even better read, and education, than those encyclopedia references suggested. It took a bite out of my ignorance and gave me new appetites. It is not a book about dogs, but dogs figure in it, and in ways that still send me off on other expeditions: how dogs have been viewed and treated throughout history interests me far more than the latest dog show results. And if I'd never read it, would I be able to discourse on the murder trial of a French sow or a writ served on Maine rats?

My elegant copy of The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E.P. Evans has also taught me that I can probably find any book I want.

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