The Bookman's Promise A Cliff Janeway Novel
By John Dunning
Scribner Copyright © 2004 John Dunning
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-7432-4992-5
The man said, "Welcome to Book Beat
, Mr. Janeway" and this was how it began.
We were sitting in a Boston studio before the entire invisible listening audience of National Public Radio. I was here against my better judgment, and my first words into the microphone, "Just don't call me an expert on anything," staked out the conditions under which I had become such an unlikely guest. Saying it now into the microphone had a calming effect, but the man's polite laugh again left me exposed on both flanks. Not only was I an expert, his laugh implied, I was a modest one. His opening remarks deepened my discomfort.
"Tonight we are departing from our usual talk about current books. As many of you know, our guest was to have been Allen Gleason, author of the surprising literary bestseller, Roses for Adessa. Unfortunately, Mr. Gleason suffered a heart attack last week in New York, and I know all of you join me in wishing him a speedy recovery.
"In his absence we are lucky to have Mr. Cliff Janeway, who came to Boston just this week to buy a very special book. And I should add that this is a show, despite its spontaneous scheduling, that I have long wanted to do. As fascinating as the world of new books can often be, the world of older books, of valuable first editions and treasures recently out of print, has a growing charm for many of our listeners. Mr. Janeway, I wonder if you would answer a basic question before we dive deeper into this world. What makes a valuable book valuable?"
This was how it began: with a simple, innocent question and a few quick answers. We talked for a while about things I love best, and the man was so good that we soon seemed like two old bookscouts hunkered down together after a friendly hunt. I talked of supply and demand, of classics and genres and modern first editions: why certain first editions by Edgar Rice Burroughs are worth more than most Mark Twains, and how crazy the hunt can get. I told him about the world I now lived in, and it was easy to avoid the world I'd come from. This was a book show, not a police lineup, and I was an antiquarian bookseller, not a cop.
"I understand you live in Denver, Colorado."
"When I'm hiding out from the law, that's where I hide."
Again the polite laugh. "You say you're no expert, but you were featured this week in a very bookish article in The Boston Globe."
"That guy had nothing better to do. He's a book freak and the paper was having what they call a slow news day."
"The two of you met at a book auction, I believe. Tell us about that."
"I had come here to buy a book. We got to talking and the next thing I knew, I was being interviewed."
"What book did you come to buy?"
"Pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca by Richard Burton."
"The explorer, not the actor."
We shared a knowing laugh, then he said, "What is it about this book that made you fly all the way from Denver to buy it? And to pay - how much was it? - if you don't mind my asking ..."
Auction prices were public knowledge, so there was no use being coy. I said, "Twenty-nine thousand five hundred," and gave up whatever modesty I might have had. Only an expert pays that much money for a book. Or a fool.
I might have told him that there were probably dozens of dealers in the United States whose knowledge of Burton ran deeper than mine. I could have said yes, I had studied Burton intensely for two months, but two months in the book trade or in any scholarly pursuit is no time at all. I should have explained that I had bought the book with Indian money, but then I'd need to explain that concept and the rest of the hour would have been shot talking about me.
Instead I talked about Burton, master linguist, soldier, towering figure of nineteenth-century letters and adventure. I watched the clock as I talked and I gave him the shortest-possible version of Burton's incredible life. I couldn't begin to touch even the high spots in the time we had left.
"You've brought this book with you tonight."
We let the audience imagine it as I noisily unwrapped the three volumes in front of the microphone. My host got up from his side of the table and came around to look while I gave the audience a brief description of the books, with emphasis on the original blue cloth binding lettered in brilliant gilt and their unbelievably pristine condition.
The man said, "They look almost new."
"Yeah," I said lovingly.
"I understand there's something special about them, other than their unusual freshness."
I opened volume one and he sighed. "Aaahh, it's signed by the author. Would you read that for us, please?"
"'To Charles Warren,'" I read: "'A grand companion and the best kind of friend. Our worlds are far apart and we may never see each other again, but the time we shared will be treasured forever. Richard F. Burton.' It's dated January 15, 1861."
"Any idea who this Warren fellow was?"
"Not a clue. He's not mentioned in any of the Burton biographies."
"You would agree, though, that that's an unusually intimate inscription."
I did agree, but I was no expert. The man said, "So we have a mystery here as well as a valuable book," and it all began then. Its roots went back to another time, when Richard Francis Burton met his greatest admirer and then set off on a secret journey, deep into the troubled American South. Because of that trip a friend of mine died. An old woman found peace, a good man lost everything, and I rediscovered myself on my continuing journey across the timeless, infinite world of books.
Excerpted from The Bookman's Promise by John Dunning Copyright © 2004 by John Dunning. Excerpted by permission.
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