Dispatch From The Institute For Things To Do With Books’ Field Agent
For some months now I have been on the search. Not for buried treasure, not for the elixir of life, not for untapped reserves of energy, no, but for something that at times is all three: a book. It has been a slow journey.
The book is The Rape of Europa, by Lynn H. Nicholas, and it is the comprehensive story of what happened to Europe’s art during the Second World War. I became aware of The Rape of Europa when I came across mention of it in an article I was reading: the book was cited for its description of the evacuation of the Louvre moments before the invasion of Paris by the Nazis. Imagine it: trucks loaded down with the treasures of France, convoying west out of the city in the pitch black, their headlights off to avoid detection, “The Raft of the Medusa,” that gigantic painting of people dying at sea, catching in the power lines. My attention was snagged, my cognitive faculties on fireworks mode: I needed this book.
So I did what I always do: I went to my neighbourhood’s used and independent bookstores and began the search. Those of us, like myself, who are used to the neat and orderly stacks of fiction at used book stores (or, if not neat and orderly, at least alphabetical) would be shocked to know what goes on in the history sections: aside from broad topics – American, the world wars, ancient, military – there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to how the books are shelved. I have so far spent many an afternoon standing in front of the WW II section, scanning the shelves over and over, always to no avail.
My initial forays yielding no results I soldiered on, widening my search radius, memories of past hunts fortifying my resolve. In particular, my greatest success story: my seasons-long quest for Denis Johnson’s short story collection Jesus’ Son. Having scoured the city I was about ready to give up, to cave in and order it from Abe Books, or – if even that failed – Amazon, when, walking with friends one Saturday afternoon we stopped to lock up a bike and I found myself in front of a bookstore I had never seen before. ‘Hold on a second,’ I said, and slipped inside, heading for fiction, heading for J. And there it was. I actually let out a squeal of joy. If I hadn’t found the book in this way, would I have loved it as much as I do? Would I have read it two and a half times, would it be a constant fixture in the towers on my nighttable, when not lent out ecstatically to friends? It’s an impossible question to answer, but I’d like to think not.
What can I say: I enjoy the hunt almost as much as the kill, that final moment where I glimpse the half of the title, three shelves above my head, hidden behind a stack of brightly coloured remainders, waiting all this time for me. Searching for a book gets the blood flowing, forces you to commune with your city, opens up the opportunity for countless conversations and discoveries; I am hooked. So far, I have yet to find The Rape of Europa. As always, other books have come my way, other excursions into the world of letters and bindings. But I remain vigilant. Though it may take a long while, though it may be far in my future, I am confident – confident as only a true bookstore rat could be – that I will eventually find out how they got the painting of that raft out of those power lines.
Field Agent K