April 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Anything Can Be Anywhere

First off, the proper provenance for those words--that "anything can be anywhere"--is the Larry McMurtry novel, "Cadillac Jack" (which I regard as his most entertaining work), attributed there to the antiques and rare books scout Zack Jenks. I liked the line so much--and found it to be an axiom of the universal book hunt--that I used it as one of my epigraphs for "A Gentle Madness."

What occasions its use today is the discovery I made this week of a nine-volume work by one Robert Waln Jr., titled "Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence," published in Philadelphia in 1823 by J. Maxwell and R. W. Pomeroy. Each volume is bound in lovely marbled paper boards with calf-skin spines, and all are in remarkably fine condition. There is no foxing to speak of, no loose hinges, no missing plates, all of the steel engravings are present, with original tissues in place. Each volume bears the elegant signature of a prior owner, "Robt. Winthrop," who I hope, in time, to learn more about through further research.

In the meantime, I did due diligence on the title, running a quick ABE search, and coming up with a number of dealer quotes and descriptions for individual volumes, finding only one for the entire set, which leads me to believe this is an item of some scarcity. I'll obviously have to do more work on this baby, but what is fun about it right now--indeed, what prompts the writing of this entry--is the circumstance of its discovery.

It happened that a couple of days ago I was in a tizzy about locating my first-draft manuscript for "A Gentle Madness," this being part of an ongoing effort to put some order in my sprawling archive of research papers. My best recollection was that I had put the thing in a cardboard box and stored it in my bedroom closet, a walk-in affair that contains its share of objects that have nothing whatsoever to do with my wardrobe, including a bunch of nineteenth-century Harper's Weekly prints, my old Navy sword, some superannuated cameras that I don't have the heart to part with, altogether a pack rat's paradise. Well, it was in this closet where my wife, who was participating in the frenetic search, located the box with the manuscript, underneath which was another box, containing some books.

And the books? You guessed it--this splendid set, which I immediately recalled having bought some years ago on Cape Cod at Titcomb's Book Shop in East Sandwich, but misplaced, and forgot about entirely over time. Why I put them away back then in the closet remains a mystery to me, but there they were--and I am thrilled to welcome them back into the fold. Score another one for Zack Jenks. Anything, indeed, can be anywhere.