The Book Drop


From Aaron to Zyzak (and Back)

By Jon Michaud


The other day I found a first American edition of W.B. Yeats’s The Tower (published in 1928) in the sub-basement of the library. It says something about his career that Yeats had won the Nobel Prize before writing this book, which contains such greats as “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” I took it down from the shelf and marveled at how well-preserved it was. The paper was sturdy, the binding still tight. Gently leafing its pages I saw verses I had been forced to memorize as a schoolboy in Belfast:


The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.


Next to The Tower on the metal shelf was a first edition of Yeats’s The Wild Swans at Coole, originally published in 1919. They are beautiful books, with embossed designs on their covers. Together they are worth about a thousand dollars. (They are under lock and key now.) It was a delightful discovery, one of many we’ve made these past few months.


My spelunking in the sub-basement was made possible by the completion, earlier this summer, of a decade-long project to add the entire circulating library collection to the online catalog. Save for a few volumes that may have slipped through the net, every circulating book we have to lend is now searchable. The catalog starts with David Aaron’s 1990 thriller Agent of Influence. A novel about a Wall Street financier with dubious connections to Russia, it seems freshly relevant to our current political moment. The book at the very end of our shelves is Magdalena Zyzak’s The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, published in 2014. A fairy tale-like literary novel about a romantic swineherd set in an imaginary country in Eastern Euurope, it is as distant stylistically from Aaron’s as it is alphabetically.


Interns, who come to us from local library schools and M.F.A. programs, did most of the cataloging. Their tapping fingers added more than thirty thousand titles to the database over the years—linear feet of novels by Warwick Deeping, Ford Madox Ford, Margery Allingham, and many others. These previously unindexed books (most published before 1990) carry a sort of informal history with them—of the Center for Fiction, the Mercantile Library, and our members.


A surprising amount of ephemera came tumbling out of the books we cataloged. Readers it seems, will happily use a book as a repository for anything that can be slipped between its pages. There were bookmarks from long-dead bookstores (Books & Co., Gotham, Scribner’s, sniff-sniff). The abundance of receipts for dry-cleaning and groceries reminded me that before cell phones, books used to be necessary company on errands. I never left the house without one.


Stranger and more evocative were the photographs that had been secreted into our volumes. One that sticks in my mind is of a young boy in pajamas sitting at a boxy old computer circa 1997. A “Turbo Tax” packet rests nearby making me wonder if the kid is doing the family taxes. There are also postcards—of Hollywood, of the Witch House in Salem, of Winslow Homer doffing his straw boater. I saved a lot of these items. They have the aura of the uncanny about them and I couldn’t bring myself to put them into the recycling after they’d survived for years between boards.


We found one letter, with a 1928 postmark, mailed from the Madison Sq. Post Office to Lyon Mountain, NY (near Plattsburgh). The writer, a doctor, is relating gossip to his wife who is summering upstate with their children: “From Rose’s history + complaints, it is likely she is pregnant. A few more weeks would be necessary to confirm her pregnancy medically. She surely is psychically pregnant + her [illegible word] husband will soon realize it.”


Unsurprisingly, we also found a wide assortment of Mercantile Library slips, receipts, forms, and calendars.


The completion of the cataloging project has not only allowed me to go digging around in the sub-basement; it has allowed us to embark on another massive enterprise: surveying and cataloging the thousands of 19th century books from the collections of the Mercantile Library and the Philadelphia Athenaeum. These books, kept in climate-controlled storage for years, are a rich legacy and will be featured in our new Brooklyn location when it opens.


We are just dipping our toes into this deep pool of print but there are already some noticeable eccentricities in the ways that readers chose to mark their presence in these older volumes. In addition to the sorts of ephemera mentioned above, it appears that library users in the Merc’s first century felt entitled to write and even draw in the books they borrowed. On the last page of Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s 1857 novel, Ivors, a reader has observed, in pencil, “Why is it that perfect women like Susan are only heard of in novels?” Why indeed.


In a copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Lindsay’s Luck (1878), the endpapers have become a sort of blog comments section well ahead of its time.  The book contains the following hand-written remarks:




A dear love story

Most commonplace


You are very naughty to write in the books

All the same, x writes in the book too

What the Devil is that to you?


There will be much more to report on the 19th century collection as we get further into the project. For now, though, holding these old books makes me think again of “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats’s poem is a reckoning with mortality and obsolescence. Libraries are nothing if not monuments of “unageing intellect.” (Sometimes they are monuments of ageing intellect, too.) And our catalog is the means by which our collection will sing to readers of what is past, or passing, or to come. I hope you’ll be listening.








The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud. 


Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.


You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud