The shift to e-books is underway, and it will make our reading lives easier in many ways. But it will also bring losses – especially over time, as books age. A new book can easily be replaced by an e-book, but used books accumulate traces of their travels in a way that e-texts can’t easily mimic or replace. Every paper book has two histories: the story of the published work it contains, and its own story as a small enduring object, passed from one set of hands to another, or forgotten for decades on a shelf. The fun thing about living in the historical moment when the ages of print and electronic text overlap is that when you find a curious or obscure used book, you can Google it. I am usually amazed at what turns up when I do this.
Here’s a book with two interesting histories:
Lev [Leo] Tolstoy. Resurrection. Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow. Undated.
Condition: Good; some wear on the spine; pages are yellowing.
Acquired: Ottawa thrift shop, early 1990s.
The Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing House produced state-sanctioned Soviet books for dissemination outside the USSR. Most of its output was propaganda – the works of Stalin and Lenin, for example – but in the interest of promoting Russian culture abroad, it also put out beautifully designed and illustrated volumes of fiction and poetry, like this one:
An aristocrat and religious mystic, Leo Tolstoy might seem like an odd choice for a state-run Soviet press. Nonetheless, since he was Russia’s best-known author, and had a deep reverence for the nation’s peasants, the state was eager to co-opt him. Resurrection’s emphasis on the corruption and decadence of the pre-revolutionary ruling class probably made it particularly attractive to the Soviets.
So much for Resurrection’s history. This copy has a story of its own. Here’s the flyleaf:
To sum up: this book was printed in the USSR, brought to New Zealand during the height of the Cold War by a diplomat and possible spy, given by him to J.H. Stone, and then either passed on to someone else or brought by Stone to Ottawa, where it was donated to the now-defunct Ottawa Neighbourhood Services Thrift Shop, where I found it on a shelf. Confession: I haven’t actually read it, yet. I wonder if any of its previous owners did.
This translation of Resurrection is available as a free e-book: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1938