Getting On The Plane
UKSG puts on a fine conference

A Book Found Where I Least Expect It

I had an hour to kill at the airport before my flight home from Milwaukee.  The previous morning I had delivered the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Health Science Library Association, an expanded version of the talk I'd given a week earlier at the UKSG meeting in England.  I was pleased with the talk, and enjoyed spending time with the attendees, some of them people that I've known for decades, and some that I was meeting for the first time.  An added treat was that my mother had driven down from Appleton for the weekend, so she and I were able to spend some time together.  She came to see my presentation (the first time she's actually seen me in that role), as well as joining the group for lunch and the evening's banquet and entertainment.

I was feeling satisfied, but deeply weary.  I'd gotten back from London on Thursday evening, put in a full workday on Friday, and then I was back on a plane at 9:00 Saturday morning heading to Wisconsin.  I was prepared for the copyright lecture I'm going to give to a group of medical students this morning, so I wasn't thinking too much about that, but in two weeks I'll be participating with Andrew Booth in a debate in Durham about the value and applicability of Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, and I was planning on working on that during the flight home.

I wandered a bit aimlessly through the small terminal, just to see what was there.  I think I've only been to Mitchell field once or twice before.  It's fairly small, easy to get around.  At first I didn't pay a lot of attention to the bookstore that I saw out of the corner of my eye, assuming it was the standard airport bookstore, stocked with the latest bestsellers and not a whole lot else.   But getting closer I realized it was very different -- a branch of the venerable Renaissance Book Shop, whose main location downtown carries hundreds of thousands of items.

I was amazed when I went in and walked around.   Old wooden shelves, loosely categorized, stacks of books everywhere -- the very typical used bookstore vibe.  Not at all what one expects to come across in an airport.  I've been looking for a copy of Ellman's bio of Joyce for my mom, so I drifted over to the biography section.  No Ellman, but to my complete astonishment there was a copy of the first commercial printing of The Education of Henry Adams.

The book has appeared on a couple of lists as the best nonfiction book of the 20th century and when I first read it half a dozen years ago (in the Modern Library edition that Lynn acquired in college) I thought that judgment was pretty accurate.  He's an extremely funny and erudite writer, with a weary, self-deprecating tone that belies the tremendous insight and analysis he brings to the story of America trying to come to grips with the beginnings of the 20th century.   It is astonishing that a man who died in 1918 should have been able to describe how the century would unfold so accurately.

As with most of his work, Adams was dissatisfied with The Education... and felt that he hadn't really been able to pull it off as he had hoped.  He considered it unfinished and in 1906 had just 100 copies privately printed and distributed to friends and colleagues for comment.    Even so, by the time of his death, it had already become tremendously influential, and the Massachusetts Historical Society brought it out under the Riverside Press imprint of Houghton Mifflin only a few months after he died.  And it was a copy from that 1918 print run that I now held in my hands, standing in a used bookstore at General Mitchell field in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Of course, I bought it.  It's in excellent shape, the pages only very slightly yellowing and not at all fragile.  EBLIP was going to have to wait.  I went to my terminal, found a snack bar, ordered a glass of wine, and began to read.  By the time I got home, I'd finished close to 100 pages, and young Henry was in Rome, still searching for something that might give him education.


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