Book hunting in the land of Jefferson

Photo by Matt Kozlowski
Photo by Matt Kozlowski


A few weeks back I received, from out of the blue, an email from the Association for Documentary Editing (ADE). This isn’t, I should point out, a professional organization for cinematographers who specialize in the kind of movies shown at the Silverdocs festival of the American Film Institute. In fact, the ADE represents those learned folk who oversee great scholarly editions of, for instance, the papers of George Washington, the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the archives of Willa Cather.

Why were they emailing me?

It turns out that every two years the ADE awards the Boydston Prize for the best review or essay, “the primary focus of which is the editing of a volume of works or documents.” This year’s winner turned to be—well, aw shucks—me. The award committee really, really liked a long essay-review I’d written—for The New York Review of Books—comparing two annotated editions of The Wind in the Willows.

Need I say that I was incredibly chuffed (to use a British verb I’m fond of)? As Harriet Simon, editor of the John Dewey papers, generously said, the piece I wrote “gives the strengths of each edition but also points out such pitfalls as misreadings, misprinted citations, oversights, and bemoans the lack of critical attention to the book’s inner structure, especially its leitmotifs and verbal repetitions.”

When asked if I would come to the ADE’s annual convention to receive the award at the Friday night banquet, I immediately agreed. Happily, this only meant a two-and-a-half-hour drive to one of my favorite cities—Charlottesville, Virginia.

I arrived there at 2 P.M. on a Thursday, checked into a Budget Inn, and immediately set off for the city’s downtown pedestrian mall. Lined with shops and restaurants, packed with tourists searching for souvenirs or dinner and local teens just hanging out, it’s one of Cville’s main attractions. It is also the location for three used-bookstores, with two others not far away. All the shops are worth checking out, and two are especially strong in older science fiction and mysteries, but I beelined for the biggest, just off the mall on 4th St: Daedalus Books.

Three hours later I emerged, without buying anything.

To my surprise, the store closed at five, long before I had completed my systematic inspection of its labyrinthine fiction-rich basement. So I simply deposited a box of my selections at the front desk and promised to return the next morning. As I left, I asked if any of the other bookshops might still be open? Yes. Read It Again Sam didn’t close till eight.

So I passed another couple of hours there, and bought three books: The Other Passenger, by John Keir Cross, a 1946 collection of fantasy stories in a near-fine dust jacket; a Folio Society volume entitled Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, compiled by Joanna Richardson; and Nightmare: The Birth of Horror, by Christopher Frayling. This last, based on four BBC televsion programs, was written by a casual friend of mine. Years ago I reviewed Frayling’s terrific biography of filmmaker Sergio Leone, then later invited him to address the Baker Street Irregulars, which eventually made him a member. It’s a lovely picture book, with excellent chapters on Frankenstein, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

That evening I got back to my motel around 8:30, quickly washed my face, and then hurried across the street to an Italian eatery, where I devoured nearly all of a small deluxe pizza. Along with a cold beer. Why not? It had been a very good day.

Friday was even better. That morning I stopped at the Virginia Book Company, which was going out of business, and found on its half-emptied shelves a beautiful copy of A Desert Drama, the American title given to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Tragedy of the Korosko. In this eerily contemporary novel, Middle Eastern terrorists kidnap a group of western tourists, intending to sell the younger women, including a recent American college graduate, into slavery and execute the men—unless they all convert to Islam. Will they? Can they? Sir Arthur works the suspense—and the melodrama—for all its worth.

Once I got back to Daedalus I bought the previous day’s books, along with a few more items unearthed that morning. One was a copy of a school novel called Decent Fellows, by an old Etonian named John Heygate, now remembered, if at all, for being the co-respondent in the shattering breakup of Evelyn Waugh’s first marriage. (Waugh said: “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live.”) Then it was off to Heartwood, a used-book store located near the University of Virginia campus. I bought more books there—including a so-so first American edition of H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet, which I later realized I already owned (albeit in an even more dilapidated condition). By this time, though, I found myself feeling increasingly guilty, seeing that it was the middle of the afternoon and I was really supposed to be at the Omni Hotel to listen in on some of the ADE panels.

I sauntered into the hotel’s lobby with perfect timing: one panel had just let out, people were standing around chatting over coffee and cake, and I was soon saying hello to Harriet Simon, who quickly introduced me to a half dozen of her colleagues. I caught the last panel of the afternoon—focusing on a governmental report on the needs of scholarly editors—and then had time to freshen up before the cocktail party and banquet.

At dinner I found myself seated with the officers of the ADE and several people who worked at either Monticello, the University of Virginia Press, or a special institute devoted to the Thomas Jefferson papers. Charlottesville is, of course, ever and always Mr. Jefferson’s town. Over conversation I discovered that one of my tablemates collected 19th-century “Boy’s Books,” in particular those series featuring the adventurous Rover Boys, Gunboat Boys, and similar daring youths. I couldn’t have asked for better company or conversation.

Halfway through the evening’s ceremonies I was presented with my plaque, as well as a small honorarium. When the banquet was over, many of my new friends were off to enjoy a nightcap at the hotel bar. But, alas, I couldn’t join them. My eldest son was arriving from Colorado that night, and the Dirda family was leaving for two days at the beach. So, just as a violent thunderstorm hit, I drove out of Charlottesville, got lost, asked for directions, and gradually made my way to Washington, where the Beltway was backed up due to either an accident or construction, convincing a certain frustrated Boydston Prize-winner to drive off into mysterious northern Virginia at 1 A.M., get completely lost again, plaintively beg for directions at a 7-Eleven, and then gradually make his way back to Silver Spring, Maryland, center of civilization. If ever there was a driver who needed a GPS system, I am that driver.

On my little excursion, I obviously spent more money on books than I should have. ’T’was ever thus. But, hey, I was on “vacation,” away from my family and surrounded by bookstores I didn’t get to visit very often, so really, what else could I have done? Besides, my honorarium from the Boydston Prize almost exactly covered my book purchases. In fact, I came out ahead by a few dollars. Best of all, I’d met some fascinating people, learned a lot more about scholarly editing, and came home with a standing invitation to a private tour of Monticello.


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Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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