David Bruce: Books Anecdotes

While in France, William Donaldson bought a pornographic novel and started reading it in public, first taking the precaution of putting a different book jacket on the novel. The book jacket was for a compilation of essays against the A-bomb, including essays by Bertrand Russell, Philip Toynbee, and other intellectuals. Peter Ustinov happened to be walking by, and seeing the book jacket, he asked Mr. Donaldson if he could look at the book. Mr. Donaldson readily gave him permission and handed the book to him. Mr. Ustinov read one filthy paragraph, and then looked at the book jacket. Then he read another filthy paragraph and again looked at the book jacket. Finally, speechless for once in his life, he handed the book to Mr. Donaldson and exited.

When Carl Linnaeus, the father of scientific classification and naming, got his degree as a doctor of medicine, two people wanted him to be a guest living in their home. One person was Dr. Johannes Burman, who needed help writing a book; another was George Clifford, who was often ill and wanted a doctor living in his home. Dr. Burman had asked Dr. Linnaeus first, and so Dr. Linnaeus was living in his home and helping him with his book. One day Dr. Burman visited Mr. Clifford and admired one of Mr. Clifford’s books. Mr. Clifford told Dr. Berman, “I happen to have two copies. I will give you one if you will let me have Linnaeus.” Dr. Burman agreed, and he traded away Dr. Linnaeus for a book.

The ancient city of Alexandria had an excellent and important library composed of papyrus scrolls. Whenever ships entered the harbor, they were searched for books that could be copied and added to the library. King Ptolemy I even gave the city of Athens 15 talents in gold—a HUGE sum of money—as a deposit so he could borrow the city’s collection of plays. The deal was that the gold would be returned after the Alexandrian librarians had copied the manuscripts and safely returned them. However, King Ptolemy I decided to keep the original manuscripts and gave the city of Athens the copies, thus forfeiting the 15 talents in gold.

When children’s book author Barbara Park—creator of Junie B. Jones—was in high school, her mother worked as a secretary in Barbara’s high school library. This worked in Barbara’s favor one day when she realized that she had forgotten to read a book she had to write a report about. Barbara went to the high school librarian and asked for help. Since the librarian knew both Barbara and Barbara’s mother, the librarian gave Barbara enough information about the book that Barbara was able to write a book report that got a passing grade.

Independent bookstore owner (and essayist) Paul Constant is aware of this fact: “Books tend to attract freaks.” He is aware of repulsive freaks, as when an old man returned a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf because it was “defective”: the introduction had been written by a Jew. On the other hand, some freaks can be charming. Mr. Constant once witnessed a young woman on a bus who was so engrossed in reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot that she didn’t even notice when right in front of her a fistfight started.

Jane Cummings and George Clarke lived in the house of the parents of poet E.E. Cummings; they were E.E.’s aunt and uncle. Frequently, Jane would read aloud novels such as Treasure Island or The Old Curiosity Shop to the family in the evening. One volume about the Tower of London, where important political prisoners were imprisoned—and sometimes tortured, murdered, or executed—was especially popular with George. After they had eaten dinner, he would request, “Jane, let’s have some ruddy gore!”

Kyle Zimmer is the president of First Book, an organization that gives books to young children who could not otherwise be able to own books. Many of the children are very appreciative of the books they receive. One young child bounced around from one homeless shelter to another, but the one possession that the child fought to keep was a book he had been given by First Book. In addition, Mr. Zimmer once gave a book to a child who smiled, then said, “This is my big chance!”

Ursula K. Le Guin had heard about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but she resisted reading it because of what she regarded as the Saturday Review’s “fulsome” reviews of the series of novels. Finally, she took out The Fellowship of the Ring from the Emory University library. She started reading it, and the next day she hurried back to the library, “in terrible fear” that the other volumes of the trilogy had been checked out. They hadn’t, and she read constantly for the next few days.

When she was a 16-year-old teenager growing up in New Jersey, rocker Patty Smith craved poetry. A bus depot she knew about had a collection of used books—mostly pulp fiction. However, among the dross was a volume of poems by Rimbaud titled Illuminations. Lacking money, she stole the book—then replaced that volume with a book she owned but didn’t want. Ms. Smith says about the Rimbaud book, “I was never sorry that I nicked it.”

A rabbi in Poland once wrote a little book, although many other rabbis wrote big books. Asked why his book was so little, the rabbi explained that the people he served worked hard, long hours, and they were tired at the end of the day. If he had written a big book, many people would read a page or two, then go to sleep. But since he had written a little book of distilled wisdom, the people were much more likely to actually read all of it.

Like so many of us, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho owned too many books. He put them on shelves, and when he returned home one day, he discovered that the shelves had collapsed. Reflecting that if he had been home he might have crushed to death by the books and shelves, he decided to greatly reduce the number of books he owned—to 400, which he says is still a high number if he intends to reread all those books.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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